A Vindication of the Rights of Women – Essay Sample

A Vindication of the Rights of Women – Essay Sample

A Different “Enlightenment”: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Women


In the late eighteenth century, just as Western humanity was fully embracing the Age of Enlightenment and congratulating itself on its insight, Mary Wollstonecraft supplied the entire ideology with a crucial foundation it had been missing. Her  A Vindication of the Rights of Women of 1792  is essentially a long, thoughtful essay which virtually introduced to the world what would later take hold as feminism. The work was groundbreaking, daring, admired, and, most critically, powerfully influential.

It is typically thought that Wollstonecraft’s thinking on the subject was taken seriously because of her position as a gentlewoman of British society, one with the necessary credentials of good family and position to support her. The reality, in fact, is that her upbringing was not aristocratic; she was well-educated, but she had to work as a governess, one of the few kinds of work a woman of her day could respectably enter. Mary Wollstonecraft essentially lived her ideology, in that she forged her own identity as an independent, free-thinking woman in an age when, the Enlightenment notwithstanding, women were rarely taken seriously.

In a single, somewhat broad stroke, Wollstonecraft stopped the prominent men of the day in their tracks, even as they more intricately examined the philosophies and social politics of the Enlightenment. In all that advanced and evolving sensibility, the role of the woman had remained unchanged. Wollstonecraft, in setting out her ideas, created a gentle revolution, and one that would have as much global impact as the literal revolutions of France and the United States.

Contemporary Background

Reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women today is hardly a shocking experience. In the centuries since Wollstonecraft released her work, feminist ideologies have long since become ingrained in Western culture and consciousness. This factor itself, however, allows for a different perspective on her thinking, as well as a greater appreciation and awareness of the times in which she wrote.

For example, the modern reader is usually confused by an element strongly running through the book, that of Wollstonecraft’s blatant and orthodox Christianity. She frequently refers to the Creator, or God, as she often places her arguments within the context of God’s will, or design, for mankind. To modern eyes, this appears to be almost counter-feminist: “Appeals to God and virtue of the kind that dominate The Rights of Women are pretty much a “dead letter” to feminists now…Most studies…dismiss it as ideological baggage foisted on her by times” (Taylor 93). Clearly, Wollstonecraft was going along with the religious views of her day, and nothing more.

Such thinking, however, underestimates Wollstonecraft’s intelligence and unnecessarily separates faith from cultural ideology. The two need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, that Wollstonecraft fully subscribed to orthodox religious views reinforces the rational component of her work. For one thing, she does not refer to God in such a way as to argue that divine will is being thwarted by the male subjugation of women; that is not a crutch she wants or needs. For another, her only active point in employing Christian ethics is to appeal to the general spirit of the Enlightenment itself; that is, if God desires that humanity improve itself and seek finer sensibilities and better principles of morality, women must be within the scheme, and not extraneous to it.

Then, in terms of what was occurring around her, Wollstonecraft was radically rendering in non-fiction prose what had been long expressed by women in fiction, certainly in regard to female sexuality itself. Women of her day were writing fiction, and at alarming rates; hundreds of female authors produced novels between 1696 and 1796, which is an astounding number for the times, and through this outlet women were exploring how their own sexuality was objectified by men. Consequently, the female fiction of the period is extreme in terms of subjugation, romance, and elements of the taboo. Fiction was for these women, as it was for their readers, the avenue through which they could relate what desire and sex meant in their world and, as noted, it was typically somewhat extreme. Simply put, the women novelists of the era liberated the female body from male perceptions (Haggerty 5). They had to, in a very real sense, because there was no other remotely acceptable societal outlet in which a woman could even address sexuality.

Mary Wollstonecraft broke through the wall, in a manner of speaking. Her Vindication is by no means a tract out to encourage a free exercise of sexual desire, in either men or women; she was, after all, a lady of her time and not even the most radical social thinkers proposed such a thing. It was not, as well, her agenda. She delves into sexual relations primarily in terms of how they are an inevitable reflection of the social relations between genders. Wollstonecraft evolved her own thinking about female sexuality; in a sense, she had to, as the subject was inextricably linked to how men saw women, and consequently what men allowed women to do. In time, and as finding expression in her tract, she believed that sexual desire was a natural thing for a woman to experience. Her view on “unchastity”, for example, is that it involves two people, whereas chastity relies on one person, or the fidelity of a couple. This was nothing short of revolutionary thinking in a world, even in an “enlightened” one,  where an unmarried woman’s purity was seen as irrefutable evidence of good character (Todd 236).





The road to success is easy with a little help. Let's get your assignment out of the way.