In 1792, with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft fired a powerful early salvo in the battle for female emancipation from domesticity. She wrote her feminist polemic in response to 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, such as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did not extend their ideas of liberalism to women. She criticizes the injustice and inconsistency of such men calling for freedom yet still subjugating women. She also rejects the contemporary perception that women were less rational.
“Who made man the exclusive judge?” she demands. Women, she writes, might be weaker physically, but are just as capable of rational thought as men.
Wollstonecraft maintains that women remained inferior because they were kept in the domestic sphere, forced to be men’s “toys and playthings.” Society taught them that looks, male opinion, and marriage were more important than intellectual and personal fulfilment. Sculpted by a gender stereotype that their mothers reinforced, girls were brought up to exploit their looks in order to find a man who would support and protect them.
Wollstonecraft was the first feminist to describe “marriage for support” as a form of prostitution— a shocking assertion for the time. A lack of means often compelled women to marry. Degraded by their dependency on male approval, they effectively became men’s slaves. She felt that such a restricted life, limited by domestic trivia, could also wreak psychological damage.
To restore women’s dignity, Wollstonecraft recommends “a revolution in female manners.” She believed women and men should be educated equally, even suggesting a coeducational system. Women, she believed, should be in the public sphere and should be trained for work outside the home, in areas such as medicine, midwifery, and business. She urges an end to the social distinction between the sexes and calls for equal rights for women to enable them to take control of their lives.
Vindication was well received, particularly in intellectual circles. A hostile press, however, described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats” for both her book and her unorthodox lifestyle. The book was not reprinted until the mid-19th century, when it was admired by figures such as British suffragist Millicent Fawcett and American activist Lucretia Mott. Wollstonecraft’s advanced ideas would be echoed in the works of feminists from Barbara Bodichon to Simone de Beauvoir”
Sources: The Feminism Book (DK)