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A vindication of the rights of women is considered to be one of the best and earliest works of feminist philosophies written by British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The 18th century was characterized by educational and political theorists who never believed in educating women, and this work is a perfect response to such people. Wollstonecraft argues that women are important to a given nation, since they educate its children and are not just mere house wives, thereby ought to have an education proportionate with their position in the society. Women should not be viewed as objects to society and neither should they be treated as property to be traded in marriage, but should be treated like complete human beings deserving the same essential rights just as their male counterparts. This paper is going to discuss Wollstonecraft’s argument on how and why women are oppressed. The negative consequences that arise due to such treatment will be discussed as well.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft reacts to political and educational theorists of the eighteenth century who believed that women should not be given a chance in education. It comprises an attack on the general view of women education asserted by these theorists who regarded females as weak and artificial and incapable of reasoning efficiently. She strongly rejects the education in dependency championed by Rousseau. She argues that a woman ought to be intelligent in her own right. She must not assume that her husband will be intelligent. She affirms that this does not challenge the role a woman as mother, her career, or her role as a woman in the home. Moreover, “meek wives, in general,” are foolish mothers. According to Wollstonecraft, reason or rationality forms the basis of our human rights. It is through the exercise of reason that people become moral and political agents. She strongly opposes several notions by other authors that women are not rational beings and are simply slaves to their passions. She argues that it is up to these authors and people who believe in the above notion to prove it. She uses an example of how parents bring up their daughters to be docile and domesticated. According to her, if the girls were encouraged to develop their minds at a tender age, they would be seen as rational beings and hence there would be no reason at all for them not to be given the same chances as their boy counterparts with regard to education and training in general. Females could enter different professions and have excellent careers just the same as males. Wollstonecraft champions for the same type of education for both boys and girls. She goes a step further and proposes a radical idea that boys and girls should be educated together. The proposal of co-educational schooling was unpopular at the time and was regarded as nonsense by several educational and political theorists of that time. These theorists found it fashionable to assert that if women were exposed to education thereby not being docile, they would lose any power they possessed to their husbands. This notion made Wollstonecraft furious as she asserted that “this is the very point I aim at, I do not wish them to have power over men but over themselves”. She championed for co-educational day schools where lessons would be given by informal conversational methods characterized by lots of physical exercises both of which are organized and free. She painted a picture of an ideal family to her audience where young children are nourished by intelligent mothers rather than being sent to nurses and boarding schools. All family members irrespective of gender should be regarded as rational creatures and children just like any other people should be able to judge their parents.
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Central in her argument about the Rights of Women is that women get rational education so as to give them the chance to make a significant contribution to the society. From the start, she asserts that is a woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man; she would stop the development of knowledge and virtue. She argues that society would disintegrate if women are not educated. This is because mothers are the ones who start the long journey of education a person as they are primary educators of young children.
According to Wollstonecraft, the main arguments in the rights of women are based on education. She argues that women are oppressed by not being given the exclusive right to education (Deutsch 2005). In the 18th century, educational philosophers and book authors assumed that women were incapable of abstract or rational thinking. It was believed that women were too vulnerable to sensibility and too brittle to be able to have a clear thought. She asserts that she has “turned over various books written on the subject of education” and keenly “observed the conduct of parents and school management” and the results were depressing to her spirit (Wollstonecraft 112). There is a clear neglect regarding education of women, to whom she refers to as fellow creatures, and that has been the main basis of misery as they have been weakened and heartbroken by a range of such concurring causes coming from one rushed assumption. Because of such oppression and mistreatment, their minds are not in a healthy state depicted through their conduct and manners. Wollstonecraft affirms that one of the main causes of such thinking is the false system of education gathered from works written by authors who consider females to be women rather that human creatures like men and hence have been keen to make them appealing “mistresses rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers” (Wollstonecraft 112). Furthermore, these writers have altered the understanding of sex in such a way that contemporary women being exempted a little are only keen to instigate love, when in reality they ought to relish a bigger aspiration and command respect by their virtues and abilities. She asserts that the works written to improve women image should not be overlooked.
There have been works that have clearly stated that the “minds of women” are weakened by false refinement and some works by certain authors have had tendencies to have frivolous productions, in which women are treated as subordinate beings and not as part of the human species (Wollstonecraft 112). Females are regarded to be inferior to their male counterparts - this phenomenon that has been observed in the “physical” world. However, men still endeavor regard women as “mere alluring objects”. Women, being too “intoxicated by the adoration” given to them by men, fail to seek a strong interest in them. Women have been regarded to have vulnerable heart and “delicacy of sentiment and refinement of taste” - things that are “synonymous with epithets of weakness” and beings that are only objects of pity (Wollstonecraft 112). Men usually use pretty feminine phrases to soften women’s slavish dependence. In doing so, men are depicted to be looking down upon women whose weak elegancy of the mind, sweet docility of manners and exquisite sensibility are deemed to be sexual traits of the weaker vessel (Wollstonecraft 112). She argues that elegance is inferior to virtue, and thus the first object of creditable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, in spite of the distinction of sex and other secondary views, which should be brought to a simple touchstone (Wollstonecraft 112).
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Even though to the education of women has been given more attention in the recent years, women are still treated as frivolous sex and are ridiculed and pitied by authors who attempt to develop them by satire or instruction. It is thought that women spend most time of their early life in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments, where the strength of mind and body are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty and to the desire of establishing themselves through preparing for marriage, which is the only way women can prosper in the world (Wollstonecraft). This desire is thought to make them act as children in marriage and therefore they are weak and cannot be expected to govern a family with judgment. From the conduct of sex, women are regarded as insignificant objects of desire. What is more, women are taken out of their spheres of duties when men target them as objects of desire and make them look useless when their short-lived bloom of beauty is over. Women are also degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence.
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