The Canon: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects By Mary Wollstonecraft

October 15, 2009

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft articulated an idea that students now write about with (perhaps misjudged) ease: society constructs gender. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman discussed the many ways in which "females" are "made women of", recognising, for example, that the importance society placed on women's appearance was the real reason for what Jean-Jacques Rousseau described as their "natural" fondness for dress.

A Vindication was first published in February 1792, before Britain declared war on France. At the time, support for the French Revolution was widespread, and Edmund Burke's conservative, scaremongering Reflections on the Revolution in France seemed like a lone voice. Burke would come to seem prophetic with the advent of the Terror, but in 1790 his sensationalist and sexist account of Marie Antoinette and French lower-class women ("the vilest of women") encouraged Wollstonecraft to publish within six weeks A Vindication of the Rights of Men in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France.

By 1792, it was becoming apparent to Wollstonecraft that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man narrowly and exclusively concerned men. After the French National Assembly advocated an education in domestic duties for girls as best befitting their "delicate constitution", "peaceful inclinations" and "gentle occupations", Wollstonecraft was roused to publish her view that if women were this way, it was only because education and society had made them so.

She argued that women of the leisured upper classes were the most degraded. Over-refined by civilisation, they were compared by Wollstonecraft to the "hot-house plant" whose "strength and usefulness" had been "sacrificed to beauty". Instead, she exhorted women to acquire physical as well as mental strength, and encouraged them to eat more, to exercise more and to free themselves: "Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."

The notion of giving women political rights was so alien at the time that parodies were published, vindicating the rights of "Boys and Girls" and "Brutes". What would come next, the Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor argued - rights for "even the most contemptible clod of earth"?

Although A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was generally well received at the time, after her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft's husband William Godwin's frank account of her love affairs and suicide attempts damaged her reputation. Yet the fact that we now accept the notion of universal human and even some animal rights is testament to her courage and conviction.

These debates still rage, and not just in the academy. In a society obsessed with how people look, women more than men are judged on their personal appearance. With the advent of evolutionary psychology, claims have been made to justify some of the most offensive attitudes. By stressing the way people are educated, Wollstonecraft explained gender stereotypes, but also offered hope: if education can "make" us, it can also remake us. Indeed, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for all its gloominess about the way women are, puts educators front and centre. Our efforts can change society.

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