2. On the Perception of Woman
2.1. In the Perception of Society
2.2. From Wollstonecraft‘s Point of View
3. On the Relation between the Sexes
3.1. Man‘s Subjugation of Woman
3.2. Free Choice of Partners
4. On Female Emancipation
4.1. Reasons for Its Necessity
4.2. Ways of Realisation
4.3. Effects on Society
6.1. Primary Sources
6.2. Secondary Sources
„The fear of innovation, in this country, extends to every thing“ mourns Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 (254). At this time, women were thought to be inferior to men and did not have any legal rights. As a well-educated and very intelligent woman, Wollstonecraft could hardly bare to see her fellow women trudge through life not even noticing that they were suppressed by an unjust system of slave-like subjugation. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman therefore aimed at changing public perception of women and showing ways to improve women‘s rights in society.
In this paper I will try to point out the main arguments of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the way they are built upon one another. In Wollstonecraft‘s work there is no real distinction between the different points as they are interwoven in cultural and social life as well. For the reader nowadays, however, I thought it to be more convenient to first understand what the situation for women in Wollstonecraft‘s time was like and how, always according to Wollstonecraft‘s own description, they were perceived in society. Her own perception of woman will round up the first chapter of this paper.
The next point will deal with the relation between the sexes; mainly with the way women are suppressed by men and how this subjugation could be rendered more just.
This leads to the main point of the argument, which is the emancipation of women. In this chapter I will concentrate on the reasons for female emancipation, the means of its achievement and the effects it would have on society.
In the last chapter I will draw a conclusion which will bring the main arguments together, briefly deal with some of the consequences and compare Mary Wollstonecraft with other female writers of her time.
2. On the Perception of Woman
2.1. In Present Society
English society in Wollstonecraft‘s time was not only divided into different classes according to its members‘ financial, hereditary or work situation. There was also a cut through those classes themselves, a distinction that sliced society into two halves: One that was dominating and one that was dominated.
I am of course referring to the way women were suppressed in society: They were not legal subjects and when married, their husbands would take over all their civil rights from them. Women were also thought to be less intelligent than men and were supposed to rely on them because of the greater knowledge and wisdom of the latter. The degree of virtues a woman could achieve was thought to be lower than a man‘s as women supposedly did not have enough strength of mind to acquire virtue.
Women‘s social role was formulated as not having anything to do other than to please, to be „a sweeter companion to man“, as Rousseau put it (Wollstonecraft 97). To achieve this they did not have to be very well educated in any field other than polite manners and correct and charming outward appearance. Actually, the main virtues in a woman were supposed to be gentleness, docility and what Wollstonecraft disgustedly calls a „spaniel- like affection“ towards her husband (106). Women were supposed to develop even further the „fondness for dress“ (Wollstonecraft 99) which had supposedly been given to them already in a „pre-born state“ of the soul (Wollstonecraft 100).
Women were taught from early childhood onward that all they had to strive for was the protection of man and that all they needed in order to achieve this protection was cunning, a feebly developed sense of propriety, obedience and, of course, beauty.
All in all, women were perceived as being inferior to men in almost every way imaginable, as not being able to organise their lives on their own and being totally dependent on men. Consequently therefore, they were stripped off all the legal and social rights they would have been entitled to, had they have been able to take care of themselves.