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Philosophy Then

A Vindication of A Vindication

Peter Adamson asks what Mary Wollstonecraft wanted.

Can you name a philosopher who gets us from the French Revolution to Frankenstein in one move? One valid answer would be Mary Wollstonecraft. She was born in 1759 and died in 1797, which means she had the chance to be inspired, and then crushingly disappointed, by the French Revolution.

Wollstonecraft wrote about the French political experiment in one of a number of treatises she produced on political topics. In fact her masterpiece, the pioneering work of feminist philosophy called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a kind of sequel to her earlier Vindication of the Rights of Men. That was published in 1790, with the more famous work on the rights of woman following two years later.

Wollstonecraft moved in exciting circles, meeting Samuel Johnson and Tom Paine, and joining her teacher Richard Price in attacking the famous conservative thinker Edmund Burke. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was aimed against Burke, and championed the cause of freedom also cherished by Price, an advocate of the American side in the War of Independence.

Wollstonecraft’s personal life was exciting too, but in a bad way. Wollstonecraft attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge after breaking off an affair with political radical Gilbert Imlay, whose faithful devotion to liberty was not matched by faithfulness to her. Further scandal surrounded another relationship, her marriage to the philosopher William Godwin. Wollstonecraft died in the same year they married, due to complications from childbirth. That child grew up to be Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

You’re more likely to have read Frankenstein than A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but I recommend both. The Vindication is not a terribly long work, but it packs a punch, being full of incisive argument, sarcasm, and wit. The aim of the treatise is more modest than you might expect, though. What Wollstonecraft mostly wants to establish is that girls, as well as boys, should receive a serious education; that they should in fact be educated together. After mulling the comparative merits of boarding schools and home schooling, Wollstonecraft concludes that the best solution is the day school, which will bring together boys and girls, both rich and poor, in a kind of home away from home.

Education is important to Wollstonecraft because it instills virtue and allows children to put their God-given powers of reasoning to best use. And I do mean ‘God-given’. Throughout the Vindication, Wollstonecraft emphasizes that it is through our power of reason that humans resemble God. This goes for all humans – women as well as men. And that’s the core of her argument. Since women too are human, they too have immortal souls capable of virtue and reason, so they must be educated. The alternative is inhuman subjection and slavery. She considers an objection that women will inevitably be abused by men, not because women deserve it, but because men are too weak to do otherwise. Her response is that this attitude is insulting not so much to men as to God: He created men, so they are bound to be capable of goodness if they put their mind to it.

Wollstonecraft knows she needs to convince not just other radicals, but the men who are actually in a position to change things. So she appeals to their interests. She argues forcefully that the welfare and virtue of men depends on that of women. Women who are raised to pursue nothing but romantic satisfaction and economic protection under the sheltering wing of a husband will degrade the men in their lives because of their lack of virtue and intellectual sophistication. As Wollstonecraft puts it, “the two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other”, and without equality, “the virtue of man will be worm-eaten by the insect whom he keeps under his feet.” Yet rather than proposing to subvert the values of her age, she contends that such traditional feminine virtues as modesty actually require education and intellectual development. The properly modest woman isn’t one who has been raised to catch an eligible man with her charms, but one who genuinely cares more for truth and goodness than for things of the body.

In some ways Wollstonecraft can seem surprisingly non-feminist by today’s standards. For instance, she agrees (although you have to wonder if she means it) that men are superior to women, and can even attain a higher degree of virtue. She also accepts that women have specific duties within the family that are not shared by men. But, as she says, “take away natural rights, and there is an end of duties.” On the other hand, Wollstonecraft, unlike some feminists today, thinks that women do not really differ in essential character from men. So even if men can outdo women in virtue, their excellence is of the same type as women, greater only in degree. She thus takes aim at other philosophers, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a thinker who is often associated with the ideas that animated the French Revolution. He praised virtue but saw woman as nothing but a helper or appendage of man. Wollstonecraft pours scorn on Rousseau’s idea that humans were at their best in an original state of nature, when woman was meekly subordinate to man and all was well. No, says Wollstonecraft: it is through education and social progress that the lot of mankind, and womankind, will advance. “Rousseau,” she says, “exerts himself to prove that all was right originally, a crowd of authors that all is now right, and I, that all will be right.” I leave it to you to decide whether her optimism was warranted.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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