Published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had a daring thesis: women were “rational creatures” and ought to be treated as such. It’s hard to overstate the text’s importance within the history of feminist polemic. Although Wollstonecraft argued against the harsh restrictions 18th century society imposed on women, she also discussed many inequalities that persist to this day.
This is an astonishingly visionary work. Within the first chapter, she plainly states what will take others centuries to grasp: the only difference between the sexes is that men are, on average, physically stronger than women. Nowadays, any rational person knows that biological differences are important in terms of sporting and medical contexts, but they shouldn’t dictate the worth of either sex. It is a marvel to watch Wollstonecraft smash the misogynistic myth of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ decades before that atrocious book was written.
“her fury blasts out from the pages”
Writing, as well, decades before the term ‘feminism’ was coined, Wollstonecraft doesn’t have the nuanced language of 20th century gender theory, like, say, the words ‘female socialisation’ at her fingertips. Does it stop her from setting fire to the idea that femininity is innate? Hell no.
Without a doubt, my favourite part of A Vindication was when Wollstonecraft summed up the social construction of gender as a “gilt cage” that stunts the development of the female sex. Please, I pray, can she come back to haunt every modern advertising company for children’s toys, every modern parent, who believes the “puerile” idea that everyone born with a vagina has “naturally, that is from their birth, independent of education, a fondness for dolls, dressing and talking”.
Wollstonecraft’s fight against harmful stereotypes is greatly invigorating. Her voice is frank, her diction plain and her fury blasts out from the pages – especially when she tears apart contemporary and past writings on women. (Reading Wollstonecraft’s ridicule of Milton’s Paradise Lost is the only time I’ve ever been thankful I slogged through the poem.) I must admit, however, that her style can be difficult to read, as with many old books. With her talk of women’s God-given “duties”, the text might occasionally feel as if it is swaying into the realm of religious dogma, but Wollstonecraft argues against blind obedience and there is a feeling she wants you, as an educated reader, to question her as well as the status quo and decide for yourself what you think.
“the text is both sadly and powerfully relevant”
Furthermore, whilst Wollstonecraft’s vision is quite a middle class one – women of a “superior caste” should become female physicians, or study politics – it’s still brilliantly audacious for her time. A unmarried women happily earn her own living? Perish the thought! However, even if some women’s rights have been won in some places in the world since A Vindication was published, the text is both sadly and powerfully relevant.
Wollstonecraft feels compassion for prostitutes, but scorn for a systematic exploitation of women that still carries on today. She examines 18th century sexual double standards for men and women. Nowadays, boys are just boys if they sleep around, but girls are sluts.
Women, next time you see an impossibly beautiful airbrushed woman on a magazine, or feel pressurised to live up to a flawless, filtered Instagram model, take a leaf out of this book and remember: “male prejudice . . . deems beauty the perfection of woman”.
Every woman has worth, regardless.
Featured image courtesy of Laura Stanley.