Wollstonecraft, Mary

Assigned: Wollstonecraft, Mary. From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, from Chapter II. “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” (507-14). Also read the editors’ introduction (504-06).

From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

From Chapter II. The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed

1. On 507 (“To account for, and excuse…”), how does Mary Wollstonecraft get to the heart of the problem concerning women’s education up to her own time, the late eighteenth century? What kind of education were women usually given, and what was that education designed to do for them, or perhaps rather to them? Wollstonecraft also mentions an observation by Sir Francis Bacon on this page. How is the Elizabethan statesman’s remark foundational to her own argument about female education?

2. On 508-09 (“Children, I grant, should be innocent…”), on what basis does Wollstonecraft criticize John Milton’s construction of feminine qualities in Paradise Lost? How does she also continue her emphasis on the equal capacity to reason affirmed in both men and women from the previous page? Finally, what does Wollstonecraft have against private, one-on-one education for women or indeed for men?

3. On 509-10 (“Consequently, the most perfect education…”), how does Wollstonecraft describe the ideal education for both men and women? What should that education do for those who undertake it? Why, according to her, are so many women of her day reluctant to favor such a “perfect” (509) education for themselves? What benefits do they find in the inadequate educations they are actually receiving? Moreover, why does Wollstonecraft suspect that real changes in Europe’s educational systems must await political developments in favor of equality and liberty for all?

4. On 510-11 (“Many are the causes that…”), what shortcomings does Wollstonecraft observe in her fellow women, thanks to the less than ideal education they tend to receive? What point is driven home by her comparison of the relative merits of male soldiers and women? Why are soldiers, in spite of their supposedly shallow knowledge of things and love of mere gallantry, still considered superior to women?

5. On 511-13 (“I now principally allude to Rousseau…”), on what grounds does Wollstonecraft criticize the educational notions of the influential Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau? At bottom, what is her main “beef” with Rousseau’s precepts, with his expectations of how a woman ought to be educated and how behave? In addition, on 512, how does Wollstonecraft enlist logic as an effective rhetorical tool in advancing the cause of female education? In responding, consider the passage beginning, “If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality…” (512 bottom).

6. On 513 (“Probably the prevailing opinion…”), what does Wollstonecraft say about biblical patriarchy and its story about how God created Eve from one of Adam’s ribs? Furthermore, what concession does she make on this page with regard to the possibility of absolute equality between men and women? What rhetorical use does she go on to make of that seeming concession?

7. On 513-14 (“In what light this sally places…”), what attitude towards the primacy of romantic love in human affairs does Wollstonecraft advance, and what construction of the ideal marriage does she go on to suggest would be possible if her contemporaries could agree to provide education for all people rather than solely for men? What vision of marriage does she offer if this prescription is not followed?

8. General question: To what extent do you find that boys and girls, and later men and women, receive a similar education in today’s school systems in the United States (or wherever you live)? Are there still unequal opportunities and expectations, or have we achieved at least something close to parity? Explain. Finally, what do you suppose Mary Wollstonecraft, whose views we have studied in our selection from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, would think of the progress women have made in Great Britain, much of Europe and the United States since her time? What grounds for both celebration and dissatisfaction might she express?

9. General question: If you are familiar with the work of feminist author Simone de Beauvoir—see the excerpts from The Second Sex in our anthology (Leitch 1211-21)—what points of similarity can you find between Mary Wollstonecraft’s Enlightenment-Era argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and de Beauvoir’s modern existentialist argument about women’s status and hopes for a better future in a world mostly dominated by men? What basic logical “trick” do both authors, each in her own way, see men playing on women in order to keep them from achieving their true potential? How optimistic is each of these two feminist authors that things will improve to the extent they would like? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake