In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this essay in response to the philosophers of the 18th century that were of the opinion that women were not only inherently inferior to men, but also lacking in reason compared to them, and would thus not need any kind of rational education. She argues that women need to be educated in order to truly fulfill their role in society, and to become more than mere ornamentation for men.
Wollstonecraft is of course no feminist in the modern sense, and not only because after this book was published it would take another few decades until the first feminist movements established themselves, but because her concepts of equality between the sexes are tightly connected to ideas of a rather narrow kind of morality, and to leading a virtuous life as ordained by God. Nonetheless, she has a lot of very progressive ideas on fighting oppression, especially when it comes to the role of education as a catalyst for attaining equality, and this does not only pertain to the oppression of women, but to any unjust exercise of power.
Although this is a treatise in which the reasoning is generally presented concisely and rationally, it is obvious that it is a topic that is so close to her heart, and why wouldn’t it be, that she can’t hold off from occasionally and viciously skewering the arguments of the men she is arguing against. She calls them out for their “nonsense” and the perceived superiority they lord over women, and her pen is exceedingly sharp. It was especially hilarious to read how she attacked the works of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom she seems to have no regard at all, and, to be honest, with good reason. She also, however, has no time for the “genteel women” who did have opportunities to educate themselves at least, but who rather spent their time only on frivolous entertainment, and on being the perfect accessory for their husbands.
Aside from being amusing due to her unapologetic takedown of nonsensical philosophies, it is, however, also a depressing read because the first fifty pages or so, Wollstonecraft has to spend on arguing that women should indeed be included automatically if a philosophical argument or educational theory is presented on anything that does concern humanity in general and not only men specifically. The standard was man, and women were ignored at the best of times, or actively excluded at the worst. Then, 150 pages of rational arguments are spent on explaining that women deserve the same rights as men, which makes for over 200 pages almost exclusively on a topic that should have always been self-evident, but never was and still isn’t.
There are some other interesting sections on education in general, and how Wollstonecraft envisions a sort of comprehensive school for boys and girls, poor and rich, but there is not much space to expand on such ideas because the focus has to be elsewhere. Overall, this is certainly a pioneering work, and while some of the arguments or moralities may not apply anymore, it still has a lot to offer to any reader.
CBR12 Bingo: Green