“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is an essay by Mary Wollstonecraft, written to urge women to ascend above their traditional gender roles in society through the utilization of education. Education is a right, not a privilege because it allows people to contribute to society and that is why Wollstonecraft stresses the importance of its existence in a woman’s life as a tool for higher purpose and societal progression. Her ideologies – combined with rising support behind the emerging feminist movement – were relevant and consequently impacted the lives of whoever encountered her writings. Through this passage, Wollstonecraft utilizes antithesis, rhetorical questions, and analogies to redefine “attractiveness” by emphasizing the importance of higher intellect rather than physical beauty.
Through antithesis, Wollstonecraft is able to highlight the strong contrast between a woman’s role in society with and without education. While women “have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny” (lines 205-207). The artificial graces are symbolic of the traditional “education” society has forced upon women. Educating women solely on home making skills and how to be a good wife essentially deprives them of their natural rights to an academic based education and instead fills them with skills that only serve to strengthen gender roles. Wollstonecraft emphasizes the “art of pleasing … [to only be] useful to a mistress; the chaste wife and serious mother should only consider her power to please as the polish of her virtues and the affection of her husband as one of the comforts that render her talk less difficult and her life happier” (line 133-136). Education at that point in time only served to prevent women from fulfilling their full potential and weakened their worth in society. The general public associated learning with masculinity and consequently refused to recognize the role a rudimentary academic education would play in helping a woman excel as a wife and a mother. Through the lack of education offered to women in society, their promise was hindered and they were forced to follow the straight and narrow paths set forth by society.
Wollstonecraft utilizes analogies to illustrate the temporal existence and futility of physical beauty. Women “just like the flowers …planted in too rich a soil …after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk” (line 15-17). Although society places immense value on beauty, it does not last forever, and as a result, once female appeal fades, so does their functionality in civilization. This lack of long lasting purpose and sense of usefulness comes from an inadequate system of education for women which only focuses on superficial aspects that will only keep them feeling fulfilled for a short period of time. A woman whose sole purpose is “to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day” (line 113-115). Through this analogy, Wollstonecraft denotes the momentary existence of physical beauty and its diminishing effect on a man who is witness to it on a daily basis. Constant objectification of feminine existence forced women themselves to denigrate their self worth down to their physical appearance and once again, conforming to demands set forth by their misogynistic environment. Since a woman’s physical appearance is temporary, their worth in a traditional and patriarchal society is also just as temporary.
Rhetorical questions were employed throughout the work to emphasize the frustration and disbelief Wollstonecraft had towards that lack of importance placed on educating women. Women were encouraged to hold their tongues and swallow their emotions, forcing most of them to question “why should not one woman acknowledge that she can take more exercise than another” (line 146-148)? Even after many years of progression and liberation in different aspects of life, the emancipation of women from the control of men was not an issue in anyone’s mind. Men literally controlled every aspect of a woman’s life during that time period and consequently forced them to turn their backs on common sense and truth in order to avoid making immodest gestures by saying what they felt. “To gain the affections of a virtuous man” affectation was seen as a necessity (line 162). Women accepted these kinds of degrading societal expectations because they were dependent on the men in their lives. In Wollstonecraft’s eyes it was outrageous that women did not understand that their lack of education kept them vulnerable and that society itself did not understand that educating women would only lead to improvement rather than hindrance. Wollstonecraft’s outrage towards the matter was obviously justified because even after all the progress she made in the name of feminism, women around the world are still being denied an education on a daily basis.
Through the use of antithesis, analogies, and rhetorical questions, Wollstonecraft was able to encourage women to question societal constraints that limited their contribution to the communities they were a part of. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” was written to highlight the prominence of gender roles and the negative impact it was having on society. Her work urged people to recognize that restricting a woman’s role in society by claiming that academic ventures were too “masculine” would ultimately be detrimental and counterproductive.