As one of the earliest feminist writers, Mary Wollstonecraft faced a daunting audience of critics ready to dispel her cry for the rights of women. Her powerful argument calling for equality in a society dominated by men was strong, and her ideas withstood a lot of criticism to become one of the most important feminist texts. Her argument was simple and illustrates a solution to the inequality in society. The foundation of this argument is the idea of education and how independent thought is necessary to live a virtuous and moral life.
In the present state of society, women are seen as inferior to men and held in a state of ignorance. The worst effect of this relationship is that women are not educated and allowed to think for themselves. Without the ability to reason, women cannot achieve virtue or morality and society as a whole suffers. If women were allowed to reason and think independently, both women and men would share the benefits. With this argument, Wollstonecraft makes a very strong case in favor of women’s rights. Wollstonecraft acknowledges a great inequality in society in which women are valued only as sexual beings and domestic servants.
She does not argue with the fact that men have more physically superior over women, rather she argues that men’s bodily strength is the “only solid basis on which the superiority over women can be built” (Wollstonecraft, 150). Wollstonecraft makes a logical and reasonable argument that any physical superiority a man demonstrates should not have an effect on the treatment of women. However, an inequality does exist because men use their inherited authority and tradition role to suppress women’s rights. According to Wollstonecraft, men primarily value women as sexual beings.
Men do not appreciate a women’s intellectual capacity or moral worth, but rather they only appreciate a women’s desirability. This is not a position women want to be in and “the reputation of chastity is prized by women” (Wollstonecraft, 272). Even though women value chastity, this is not a virtue society holds in high regard because “it is despised by men” (Wollstonecraft, 272) and men hold the power in society to suppress the will of women. Men have an inherited authority derived from their occupations such as politicians or businessmen in which they have more control over society than women.
Also, the traditional belief in society favors men because men have historically always been in a position of power. Men hold the power to influence the thoughts of society because they keep women ignorant by withholding a formal education and the chance to think independently. To Wollstonecraft, education is important because it leads to independent thought and independence itself. Without education, women are ignorant and unable to fight their standing in society. Wollstonecraft refers to this situation as a “slavery which chains the very soul of women, keeping her under the bondage of ignorance.
This line is important because it echoes the idea that women are forcefully denied the chance to better themselves through education. Also, the language Wollstonecraft uses, namely comparing women to slaves, shows Wollstonecraft’s ideas about any form of slavery, not just involving women. Because the main subject of Wollstonecraft’s argument is women’s rights, she does not go into great detail concerning other forms of slavery and only uses references such as these to communicate her universal disagreement with slavery.
The position men hold in society allows them to repress the education of women, and this is the source of inequality in society. If women were allowed to think independently the inequality would slowly disappear. Wollstonecraft greatly values education because it is necessary for a person to think independently. Without independent thought, Wollstonecraft further argues that a person cannot be a rational being or achieve reason. These end results of education are essential for liberty and freedom. The standard in society again favors men, because it is traditional for men to receive a formal education and formulate independent thought.
Women are only taught domestic chores in order to please men. To Wollstonecraft, “reason is the simple power of improvement” (Wollstonecraft, 167). Without education, a woman is unable to achieve reason and therefore she is unable to improve. Reason is “simple” because it should be universal and natural for both men and women. Also, reason is a “power” because it is so essential to freedom. If women were educated and achieved a state of reason, they would be able to live equally within society as men. The Vindications is in part a direct response to arguments from Burke and Rousseau that dispel the need for equality between men and women.
One point that Burke and Rousseau make to illustrate the inferiority of women involves the fact that female authors and political thinkers are incapable of original thought because women’s texts so closely mimic a male predecessor. Wollstonecraft does not dispute the fact that women have yet to take an extreme or totally unique view in literature. She does respond with a reason and a solution to this situation. Wollstonecraft argues that every author uses a preceding text and author on which to base and elaborate.
Because women have only recently begun to publish their thoughts, it follows that any model a woman could use would have to be written by a man. Wollstonecraft infers that each progressive work written by a woman will continually deviate from a male predecessor. Her argument follows the idea that as women receive a better education, they will be able to think independently and write works independent from men. Reason and independent thought are the foundations of virtue, which is why Wollstonecraft values the two liberties and argues that they are necessary for women.
To Wollstonecraft, virtue is a natural right that everyone deserves to realize. Because women are not cultivated to think independently, they are being denied the ability to live virtuously. Wollstonecraft epitomizes virtue as the ultimate sign of independence because it is only realized when a person is free to reason for himself or herself. She poses the question, “how can a being be virtuous who is not free? ” (Wollstonecraft, 284) Without the freedom to think independently, it is impossible for a man or woman to be virtuous.
Education an essential part of this equation, and the “most perfect educationis such an exercise in understanding as is best calculatedto enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent” (Wollstonecraft, 129). Realizing a state of virtue is the goal of every person and a proper education is the means of attaining virtue. Education is more than just repeating knowledge learned in school or another formal setting. The goal of education should be the development of the ability to think independently and reason. The need for an education to center around these ideas is because they are necessary for virtue.
Someone only educated in a school does not necessarily become a virtuous person because he or she is only capable of repeating learned knowledge. Wollstonecraft uses the military as an example of how an inadequate education hinders the acquirement of virtue. Although soldiers are taught and educated thoroughly on the rules and practices of war, they are not moral and virtuous people. Virtue is a universal right that every man and woman deserves to realize. Although her argument rarely touches on ideas of religion, Wollstonecraft argues “that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues” (Wollstonecraft, 127).
Education and reason allow a person to realize virtue, and virtue in turn leads to a greater sense of morality. Wollstonecraft refers to morality as an “immortal soul” (Wollstonecraft, 186) that is present in everyone. Because women are prevented from realizing virtue, their immortal souls are enslaved. The loss and repression of women’s virtue and morality results from their inability to think independently because of a lack of education caused by men’s desire to keep women as simple, sexual beings. This inequality must be undone if women are to live as virtuous and moral human beings as nature and Providence destined them to.
Men see an advantage in having women live in a state of repression because they are able to control women while having them serve as domestic slaves. But Wolstonecraft makes the case that society as a whole would benefit from the equal treatment of men and women. In their position as domestic caregivers, women are responsible for caring for children. If a woman were more virtuous and moral, she would serve as a better example for her children then if she were an ignorant slave. A cycle would begin where a moral mother through example would teach her children to live morally as well.
This would have a significant and positive effect on society. Wollstonecraft also makes the logical point that society would be better if everyone was moral. As long as women are denied virtue, only half of the population can live a moral life. Logically, allowing women to achieve virtue would benefit society because the entire population would live under the same standard of morality. Although it might be convenient for a man to marry a women who accepts her ignorance and serves him faithfully, it would be more beneficial for a wife to be able to think independently and live morally.
In the current situation, the man is the only option for earning income when a women is equally capable of earning income. Also, Wollstonecraft broadens the appeal of her argument because she effectively argues that it is a women’s God-given right to live virtuously and morally. Wollstonecraft reverts to logical questions and ideas to illustrate that society would be better with the entire population living a virtuous life. She questions the logic of a society where “one half of the human species is subject to prejudices that brutalize them only to sweeten the cup of man? Wollstonecraft, 282)
Wollstonecraft’s argument almost exclusively deals with the rights of women in an unequal society. However, she does make reference to the issue of slavery and makes it clear that any form of inequality is a crime against humanity. The issue of slavery and how poorly slaves are treated is common knowledge. Wollstonecraft tries to depict the situation of women as being equally offensive as a way to show the seriousness of women’s rights. She admits that slaves are treated horribly and compares the treatment of women to that of slaves.
Wollstonecraft’s point is that any situation in which people are being repressed as badly as slaves is horrible. In making this point, she communicates the idea that slaves should also be allowed to live a moral and independent life. Although The Vindications is a response to texts written by men arguing against the rights of women, Wollstonecraft’s ability to create a clear and logical argument ensured that her work would be bear considerable weight in society. Her ideas that virtue is a universal right that needs to be cultivated in men and women through education and reason is very clear and compelling.
She demonstrates the benefits men would also enjoy if women were to be treated equally. Wollstonecraft proves that she is more than a feminist simply expressing grief over the ill treatment of women. She establishes herself as an eloquent thinker with concrete ideas and solutions and this is why her text was well received upon publication. Although changes did not occur rapidly, the education of women continues to progress and develop, fostering a more equal society.