The following is an essay I wrote for a British culture history course as a student at the University of Georgia:
In “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Mary Wollstonecraft presents a convincing argument for the right to education for women in 18th century England by stating that the cause of women’s less significant role in society is due to the perpetuating belief among British culture that women should only be focused on cultivating their own beauty in order to be alluring to men, rather than aspire to moral and intellectual accomplishments. Her solution to this issue is an education for both boys and girls that focuses on cultivating the necessary skills in children to mature into adults with the ability to think and reason and thus act morally and be capable of independence. She communicates this ideal of equal education while also acknowledging the physical superiority of men and making the distinction that although men may be born inherently stronger, both sexes are born with an equal capacity to develop the virtues of morality and intellect.
Wollstonecraft argues that the cause for women’s lack of agency is that they are taught as children that their self-worth is tied up solely in their physical beauty. In order to support this argument, she points to the opinions in the writings of Rousseau and Dr. Gregory regarding the relationship between women and education, as well as the message perpetuated through Moses’s poetical story. Accusing Rousseau and Dr. Gregory of contributing to the cause of women only being valued for their attractiveness, Wollstonecraft writes, “my objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.” She then extends her argument that women are culturally and historically taught that they are mentally inferior to men by recalling that the story of Moses in which Eve is literally one of Adam’s ribs, thus proving that, “man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to show that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke; because she as well as the brute creation, was created to do his pleasure.” By using specific references to these writings and stories in which women are portrayed as less intellectually capable than men, Wollstonecraft provides evidence to support her point that the cause of a woman’s less important role in society is not due to inherent inferiority, but a result of the perpetuation of the ideal that women should only work to attain beauty in order to satisfy the man.
In order to combat this long-held belief that women are only valuable in terms of their beauty, and to uplift them into higher social and political positions, Wollstonecraft states that each must be given an education that focuses on the attainment of individual virtue and reason. She writes, “By individual education, I mean—for the sense of the word is not precisely defined—such an attention to a child as will slowly sharpen the senses, form the temper, regulate the passions, as they begin to ferment, and set the understanding to work before the body arrives at maturity; so that the man may only have to proceed, not to begin, the important task of learning to think and reason,” concluding that the remedy for the equality of the sexes in terms of the virtuous abilities to think and reason lies within an education for all children, both male and female, that provides them with the necessary skills to be independent thinkers and thus contributing members of society. She believes that this cure would not only be beneficial to women, but to all of society because if young boys and girls are given the same education and opportunity to be critical thinkers, they will grown up to have more meaningful marriages based in mutual respect and friendship rather than ones in which the woman’s role is simply being alluring and physically pleasing.
Wollstonecraft advocates that the virtues of morality and intellect be equal among men and women, but makes it clear that a man’s physical abilities make him superior by nature. Acknowledging that men are by nature much larger and stronger than women, she writes, “The male pursues, the female yields—this is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. This physical superiority cannot be denied—and it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment.” Here, Wollstonecraft shows that she is willing to admit that the sexes are not intended to be totally equal in all human aspects and even accepts the man’s physical superiority as a just birthright, but continues to reiterate her point that in terms of the mind, women are born with the same capabilities to reason as are men and the attempts to sink females to an even lesser degree of human existence is an insult to their intelligence.
Wollstonecraft presents a well-organized argument for the moral and intellectual equality of the sexes. She begins by stating that the problem is an idea that has been perpetuated into the collective consciousness that women should only be concerned with making themselves attractive, thus deterring them from pursuing more ambitious roles in society. Next, she offers a solution by way of an education for all children that will develop every human being’s natural ability to think and reason and become independent. While articulating this issue and offering a solution for it, she herself exemplifies a woman’s ability to be rational and reasonable by admitting that physically it is obvious that men are superior to women, but that superiority does not extend to moral or intellectual capabilities. Overall, Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is a progressive take on the relationship between women and education in the late 18th century.