Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women and Patriarchal Society

  By Ovidius, 23 April 2007; Revised
Contents »
In recent years, Mary Wollstonecraft has almost become a mother figure to modern Feminism. Her most famous piece, Vindication of the Rights of Women, has come to be considered the ‘first Communist manifesto’.1 It is, therefore, vital to investigate the historical context of the work, the theories it lays down and the effects it actually had on society. Wollstonecraft aims, through her rhetorical piece, to change the position of people like herself. Cora Kaplan explains how it was a ‘heroic mission to rescue women from a fate worse than death, which was, as she saw it, the malicious and simultaneous inscription of their sexuality and inferiority as innate, natural difference’.2 It is her attacks on this society that this essay is primarily concerned with, to consider the ways in which she attacks patriarchal society and to see how the work was received by the society it was levelled against. It should become clear that the work isn’t actually a great strike on patriarchal oppression, but propagates a theoretical utopia where women are more educated. Most of the Rights of Women is expressing ways in which women could improve themselves and how society would benefit from this. During this essay, I will also explore how successful the piece was, based on the critics and the legacy left after Mary’s death, obviously, expressing how the life of Mary affected the impact on patriarchal oppression and the on feminism as a whole.

Initially, however, it is vital to explore what exactly the state of women was at the time Rights of Women was published; to set the context of the piece and investigate patriarchal oppression in the late Eighteenth century. It is commonly believed that the social position of women was almost static through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This belief is easily toppled by the facts. Women’s position in society had, since perhaps the creation itself, has been pretty dire and certainly inferior to men. In the period prior to the enlightenment women were legally and socially inferior. One example of this is in crime: ‘a man convicted of murdering his wife would be hanged, but a woman convicted of murdering her husband would, by law, be burned alive.’3 They were also unequal in financial and property rights, leaving them, as John Stuart Mill could express as late as 1869 ‘the legal position of most women…[was] one of totally dependence on their husbands’.4 This was, as I expressed before, starting to change during the enlightenment. Women were gaining more rights; property became protected by law and attitudes to punishments changed. Women were also, though dependent on husbands, becoming more equal in marriage and, as L Stone argues, becoming companions and friends of their husbands. This was especially prevalent in the professional bourgeoisie where modern families were basically being developed.5 Female education was also changing in this period, with more bourgeois women being educated. Although traditionally, as Wollstonecraft experiences, they are generally taught artistic ventures, there were some schools starting to teach philosophy, history and languages.6 However, Miller does argue that ‘despite the period’s widespread acceptance of the inedibility and desirability of change, it resolutely clung onto what was believed to be a providentially ordered society structure based upon rank and due subordination.’7

It’s quite clear that Wollstonecraft’s world did have considerable oppression within it, even though there was some semblance of change. It was within this context that her attack on male dominance of society was based. Mary initiates her attack on patriarchal oppression in the first page of the introduction explaining how men have created books ‘considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers’ (Page 11).8 However, her approach to the attack on male dominance over women is quite unique. It is the tactics that she uses that I want to explain and show how effective they can be. She expresses how women are ‘legally prostituted,’ attacking marriage and the power men have through marriage (page 75). She attacks that women can only advance through marriage explaining how it’s ‘the only security of public freedom and universal happiness’ (page 18). She also argues heavily against the ‘socially constructed’ position of women, which has been forced upon them by men. This is possibly her strongest argument against male dominance which conforms to the ideas of what is natural and what has been created by man; similar to the ideas of Thomas Paine, Rousseau and ultimately Locke. The idea is that the subjugation of women is unnatural and obviously goes against rational, enlightened and more important moral society. Wollstonecraft also, in a slavery abolitionist fashion, compares the position of slaves to that of women. She expresses that woman 'has always been a slave or a despot’ and this is connected again connected to natural rights and the unnatural ranking of society. (Pages 175-185) There is also an argument for the subjugation of women due to the lustful desires of men and how for women to be free and become more rational, these desires must be controlled and contained.

However, its important realise, as Barbara Taylor explains, ‘the central preoccupation of the Vindication is not with the position of middle-class women as subordinate members of a newly ascendant class, nor even with the entire sex’s lack of legal, political or economic rights.’9 The certain theme is actually the way in which women place themselves in the situation and the effects of female education.

The main premise of the book is an attack on the way in which women are within society. Wollstonecraft uses this method of rhetoric to probably convince men of how women could be and suggest to them how much of an improvement change would be. As Susan Ferguson argues her harsh words are not simply directed at women; they are meant more as a lever of social criticism and, in fact, indict a whole society’.10 She explains that women are ‘weak artificial beings, raised above the common wants of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society.’(page 13). Wollstonecraft believes that female equality can be reached quite easily, through education. However, through a new type of education that forces them to become ‘more reasoned’ and allowed to study forms of education that allow them to form rational judgements. This must be followed with the resignation of ‘the arbitrary power of beauty’ (page 40) over men. To convince men of the importance of this she attacks ideas of chastity and the fears of adultery men have.

The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms… cannot have much effect on her husband. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and activate her dormant faculties or is it more rational to expect that she will try to please other men? (page 195)

Wollstonecraft believes that that if women are educated in enlightening activities that they will be able to use their free time in marriage to follow more virtuous activities like philosophy. Wollstonecraft makes many criticisms against the way women act in society, their use of beauty to court males and other general vanity. It is quite clear that these criticism, although they are levelled at women, are meant for men to read and see the advantages of creating an equal society. However, her idea is that by pursuing rational education that the concept of ‘romantic love’ will also be destroyed and marriage will become based on friendship and respect, similar to the changes that were already occurring at the time. This is seen as a more rational state of being for human kind. It is clear however, that the criticism were meant to convince men to drop the major parts of patriarchal oppression by showing it to be detrimental to their own interests and the interests of society as a whole. Barbara Taylor also believes that ‘it was impossible for women to speak as citizens without speaking against their womanhood’.11 G Kelly agrees and believes that she was looking for a balance to make it no seem so masculine in nature so that men didn’t immediately discount the piece, he calls it an ‘experiment in feminist writing’ and believes that in contemporary views it was somewhere between masculine and feminine.12

Considering that this book was levelled at male society I want now, to look at the reactions to the work amongst both men and women. How much effect did Wollstonecraft’s work have on Patriarchal oppression in this period? I will then attempt to explain why there wasn’t a tumultuous reaction and effective movement following the creation of Rights of Women. R.M Janes explains that the reviews of Wollstonecraft ‘were split along party lines’ and that Periodicals ‘sympathetic towards the rights of man and events in France approved the work’.13 It is quite clear that amongst her liberal friends and friends of Joseph Johnson, her publisher, had quite reasonable opinions of the work. G Kelly explains that ‘Liberal young men of the time were often more enthusiastic about the book then women readers’14 He is quite right to say this, the female reaction was very mixed, many educated women simply ignored the work. One example, cited by Barbara Taylor, is that of Hannah Cowley who writes: ‘will Miss Wolstonecraft [sic] forgive me…if I say that politics is unfeminine? I never in my life could attend to their discussion.’15 Yet, as we already established, this was a work directed primarily at men, however much it discusses women. One of the most insightful contemporary analyses of Rights of Women is within Critical Review. This argues against the piece on many levels, expressing that ‘Miss Wollstonecraft falls into the error which we noticed in our review of her first pamphlet, viz. vague inconclusive reasoning from imperfect ideas and want of a well digested plan’. It also fears the loss of ‘10000 useful domestic wives’ and the loss of interesting sensibilities of feminine women, through pursuit of purely rational ideals.16 However, the major reaction of this review was actually in agreement with Wollstonecraft’s main argument; female education.

If a Young Woman be led to examine a subject coolly, to compare different arguments, to estimate the different degrees of evidence which each subject admits of and to trace with some attention the evolutions of the human mind: above all, it indulges the habit of reflection, and is neither afraid nor ashamed to look at her own errors, and investigate their source, she will be a more pleasing companion, a better wife and mother, a more useful member of society.17

Although on first inspection this is clearly supportive of the Wollstonecraft’s work, it’s my opinion that this goes against the attack on phallocentric society because they want improvement in women for their own advantage, which perhaps defies the actual point the Wollstonecraft’s work. There was a general consensus for the reform of women’s education amongst the reviewers and thinkers of the time.18 It is quite obvious the work was well regarded after it was published; it was later translated into French and German. Barbara Taylor believes that ‘Wollstonecraft died a celebrity, the best know female political writer of her day’.19 It must also be said that the reason the reaction isn’t one of shock or outrage is because Wollstonecraft has plenty of contemporaries; ranging from Plato’s republic, to the work of writers like Mary Astell.20 Astell argued, in 1700, that ‘if all men are born free…how is it that all women are born slaves?’21 So the work is not exceptionally revolutionary in what it says, its merely the first time that a piece of work has been put together with feminist ideas as the main premise of the writing. It wasn’t until later that the more serious arguments against the work emerged, generally to do with later circumstances.

Janes explains that ‘Wollstonecraft’s reputation collapsed as a consequence of two separate events: the course of the revolution in France and the consequent repudiation of the vocabulary of revolution in England; and Godwin’s publication of his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women22 On top of the collapse of her reputation, was the premise of the work. It was mainly against ‘writers who represent sexist “prejudice” in society’. So it never aimed to strike Patriarchal society or to really attack the status quo. The only other realistic aim, for that period, is the improvement of education which was put off for nearly Eighty years. The reason it failed to move into a rational or liberal feminist movement was probably to do with her reputation. She had two illegitimate pregnancies, attempted to commit suicide twice (almost successfully) and generally failed to live up to her ideals. Within her letters to William Godwin for instance, we see a woman that shows vanity and passion, even though she argues that rationality would stop the passion for love. Is her love for Godwin based primarily on a platonic relationship? Then how did they manage to create a child out of marriage. One concerned writer expressed that her life ‘is totally inconsistent with the nature of a rational being’23. Explaining how the way she lived her life basically went against the principles she, herself, had laid down for women. Taylor expresses that ‘a fog of censure descended on her reputation that was not to disperse for almost a century’24. It is quite clear that her reputation was seriously detrimental to the plight of women and patriarchal oppression. However, M Walters does believe that ‘there was no possibility of a Women’s movement in Wollstonecraft’s time’ due to the women themselves.25

The Rights of Women was a vital piece of work for the Feminists, however it did not really provide a strike on phallocentric society until the immoral life of Wollstonecraft was ignored and the repression against revolutionary ideas had disappeared. It is quite clear that some of her ideas did have an effect on the society she lived in, but its unclear how much of an impact Godwin’s memoirs of her had on any progress she made. There is much more scope for study in this area, away from studying the biography of Wollstonecraft and her ideas, but looking more at the effect it had on individual readers at the time. The work itself was not created to strike Patriarchal oppression either; it was aimed at expressing criticisms at the oppression, but was based mainly on the effect of improved female education and a revolution in the manners of women. The ideas themselves were just one step in the movement against male dominance over society and that step would only be completed once female society became educated. It’s quite clear that her thoughts were revolutionary for her period and were more suited to the society of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, when Feminists would reintegrate Wollstonecraft’s work into their armoury.


Cracuin, A (ed). Mary Wollstonecraft: A vindication of the Rights of Women (2004)

Critical Review [N.S] 4 (1792)

Ferguson, S ‘The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft’ in Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol 32, no 3 (1999)

Gentleman’s Magazine 68 pt1 (1798)

Godwin W Godwin and Mary: letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft ed. R.M Wardle (1977)

Godwin W Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Women’ ed. R Holmes (2005)

Gubar, S ‘Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of “it takes One to Know One” in Feminist Studies, vol 20, no.3 (1994)

Janes, R.M ‘On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in Journal of the History of Ideas Vol 39, no 2 (1978)

Jump, H.D. Mary Wollstonecraft: Writer (1994)

Kelly G Revolutionary Feminism (1992)

Miller P, J. ‘Women’s Education, “Self Improvement” and Social Mobility. A Late Eighteenth century debate’ in British Journal of Education Studies 20

Mitchel, J and Oakley A (eds) The Rights and Wrongs of Women (1976)

Stone, L The Family, Sex and Marriage (1977)

Taylor B, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and the Wild Wish of Early Feminism’ in History Workshop Journal 33 (1992)

Taylor, B Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist imagination (2003)

Wollstonecraft, M A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (2003 – Penguin Classics Edition)


1 Jump, H.D. Mary Wollstonecraft: Writer (1994) page 67 and Taylor B, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and the Wild Wish of Early Feminism’ in History Workshop Journal 33 (1992) page 199

2 Kaplan, C. ‘Wollstonecraft and Sexuality’ in Cracuin, A (ed). Mary Wollstonecraft: A vindication of the Rights of Women (2004) page 76

3 Stone, L The Family, Sex and Marriage (1977) page 332

4 Quoted in ibid

5 ibid chapter 8

6 Miller P, J. ‘Women’s Education, “Self Improvement” and Social Mobility. A Late Eighteenth century debate’ in British Journal of Education Studies 20 pt 3 (1972) [passim]

7 ibid page 302

8 Wollstonecraft, M A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) – all quotes are taken from the 2004 Penguin Classics version of the text and page numbers will henceforth be put in brackets within the text.

9 Taylor ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and the Wild Wish of Early Feminism’ page 200

10 Ferguson, S ‘The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft’ in Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol 32, no 3 (1999) page 435

11 Taylor ‘Early Feminism’ page 206

12 Kelly G Revolutionary Feminism (1992) page 105

13 Janes, R.M ‘On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in Journal of the History of Ideas Vol 39, no 2 (1978) page 293

14 Kelly, G Revolutionary Feminism (1992) page 136

15 Taylor, B Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist imagination (2003) page 2716Johnson ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women: With strictures on political subjects’ Critical Review [N.S] 4(1792) page 393-39417ibid page 39218 Janes, ‘Reception of the Rights of Women’ page 297

19 Taylor Feminist imagination page 9

20 Jump, H,D Wollstonecraft page 6821 quoted in Taylor ‘Early Feminism’ page 205

22 Janes page 297

23 Phillettes ‘Letter about William Godwin’s Memoirs of the writer of Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in Gentleman’s Magazine 68 pt1 (1798)

24 Taylor Feminist imagination page 9

25 Walters, M ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Women: Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Simone de Beauvoir’ in Mitchel, J and Oakley A (eds) The Rights and Wrongs of Women (1976)