A Vindication of the Rights of WomanI will venture to assert, that all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity…branch out of one grand cause – want of chastity in men…

This intemperance, so prevalent, depraves the appetite to such a degree… that [the lustful prowler] refines on female softness. Something more soft than women is then sought for; till… [men] sigh for more than female languor.

To satisfy this genus of men, women are made systematically voluptuous, and though they may not carry their libertinism to the same height, yet this heartless intercourse with the sex, which they allow themselves, depraves both sexes, because the taste of men is vitiated; and women, of all classes, naturally square their behaviour to gratify the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power.

Mary Wollstonecraft is often credited with being the world’s first feminist. That may be something of an exaggeration, but her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is certainly renowned as the earliest, most powerful, most overtly feminist tract in the English language – despite having been written long before the word “feminism” was coined.

The dense wordy style of an eighteenth century political tract is easily enough to put off the majority of modern readers, but – for the brave or committed reader – this work more than repays the effort required. Indeed, what struck me is how much of what Wollstonecraft says in A Vindication resounds in the modern world.

Her argument (addressed primarily to the position of middle-class women) is that a lack of effective and appropriate education, and a distorted view of women’s purpose in life, have combined to render many or most women weak, foolish, vain, selfish, cunning and unfit for what Wollstonecraft sees as their peculiar (but not primary) duty – that of motherhood.

[Aside: much to my satisfaction, there are a number of pro-breastfeeding remarks in A Vindication, and Wollstonecraft repeatedly makes the point that beauty requirements and other foolish demands on women make them averse to breastfeeding with potentially disastrous consequences!]

She argues powerfully that society (by which she means, primarily, men – since they have all the education and the political and economic power) fails women in a number of ways.

For one thing, it makes them utterly dependent financially on men – fathers, husbands, brothers or other relatives. The effect is that for self-preservation women must adopt a subservient, self-abasing attitude to men. This degrades them twice: once in dignity; and then (which makes me think of Dickens’ Uriah Heep!) by forcing them to use cunning – those famous “womanly wiles” – to get what they want or need but cannot obtain for themselves.

Secondly, society assigns to women an obligation to please men, and to be pleasing to them. This springs in part from their aforementioned dependence on men, and is reinforced by the fact that precious little other outlet is given them for their emotions and ambitions. The consequence is that women, being admired far more for their persons than for their minds, expend all their care and effort on the former at the expense of the latter. They become vain, and bitchy, and obsessed with “beauty”, by which they mean weak delicate bodies decorated in whatever ornaments are currently in fashion.

More than all this, what women suffer is a total lack of any education worth the name. It is their want of a proper education which narrows their horizons and reinforces both their dependence on men and their inordinate concern for petty things such as their dress or (by outward show, if not in practice) maintenance of the one virtue that no woman must be without – chastity.

Such women as this, Wollstonecraft argues, inevitably become hopelessly caught up in “vice” – vanity and cupidity if nothing else – and will inevitably lack any real virtue such as genuine chastity, proper affection, loyalty or generosity, selfless friendship, or sound understanding. Moreover, such women as this will also invariably either neglect their children in favour of pursuing the “necessary” activity of continuing to please men by maintaining their beauty and other charms – or they will devote themseves excessively to their children but, because they lack both judgement and sound understanding, they will be unable to respond to their children properly and thus will risk spoiling either their health or their tempers, perhaps irremediably. In either case, such a woman as this will be unable to carry out her peculiar duty: to bring up children who are healthy, happy, well-behaved and suitably educated.

Wollstonecraft’s primary aims in A Vindication are twofold.

Firstly, she endeavours to sweep away the lingering idea – by making clear how nonsensical and self-contradictory it is – that Woman was made by God to be a plaything and propagator for Man, and that she has no true rationality or personhood of her own.

Secondy, she makes a strident plea for proper education for women.

If women were given a level playing field and still fell behind men, she says, it would be appropriate to charge them with inferiority. Unless and until that happens, she insists that no man can prove women inferior. But, she says, even if we believe that women are in some way less than men, they are still human beings, still rational creatures, and still (as she says) given an immortal soul which it is their sacred duty to expand and develop. It is wrong for women to be oppressed and prevented from meeting this sacred duty, merely because of an (unproved!) idea that women will or may not actually achieve their aim in the same degree as men. Indeed, if that were not argument enough, it should be remembered that failing to educate women properly will prevent them from meeting their secondary duty – that of mothering – because it renders them unfit for the job.

In short: Women are Human! and Education for All!

More than that, Wollstonecraft anticiaptes, by around two centuries, a surprising number of modern feminist ideas. Women as sex class? The beauty myth? Socially constructed gender roles? The seeds of all these ideas and more can be found in A Vindication. Wollstonecraft even suggests – although tentatively, aware of the response that she would get for it – that perhaps women might at some point have a legitimate claim to taking some part in the government of their country. So we can credit her with “Votes for Women!” too.