A Vindication of the Rights of Women 1792

Possible Topics/Themes

Instructor Resources

Informal Writing

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851 Bodleian Museum
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851 Bodleian Museum
  1. What is our definition of virtue or goodness in today’s society? How does it compare with Wollstonecraft’s time?
  2. Can people become fully free is the society does not direct them toward freedom? Give an example.
  3. Wollstonecraft argues for equal educational rights for men and women. Is this enough, or should equality reach beyond education? Is this true justice?
  4. Wollstonecraft believes that it is immoral to “infantilize” women. Is there a difference between an immoral act and a criminal act?
  5. Below are the key terms/concepts from Wollstonecraft that we have been working with. Take a few minutes to write down notes next to each term. Include in your notes the key things you recall from reading and from class discussion.
    • Education
    • Virtue
    • Love and Marriage
    • Reason
    • Beauty

Close Reading/Discussion Questions

Chapter 2

1. Describe three consequences of not educating girls formally, according to Wollstonecraft:

2. Describe three consequences of educating girls formally, according to Wollstonecraft:

3. What are some consequences for men and women of a poor education?

4. What kind of education have you had, and what are some of its effects?

Wollstonecraft, Paraphrasing Chapter 2

A paraphrase involves restating complex ideas from a source in your own words. As a group, paraphrase the quotation that correspondents to your group number. Aim to condense the quotation and to explain the main ideas, not every sentence. You will share this paraphrase with the class in the Discussion Forums on Blackboard.


What the text says


What the passage expresses


How you would word differently

1. “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, OUTWARD obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives” (84, P 2).



2. “Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness. For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understanding, that stability of character which is the firmest ground to rest our future hopes upon, they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite” (85, P5).



3. “By individual education, I mean, for the sense of the word is not precisely defined, such an attention to a child as will slowly sharpen the senses, form the temper, regulate the passions, as they begin to ferment, and set the understanding to work before the body arrives at maturity; so that the man may only have to proceed, not to begin, the important task of learning to think and reason” (86, P9).



4. “Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (87, P11).



5. “To do every thing in an orderly manner, is a most important precept, which women, who, generally speaking, receive only a disorderly kind of education, seldom attend to with that degree of exactness that men, who from their infancy are broken into method, observe. This negligent kind of guesswork . . . prevents their generalizing matters of fact, so they do to-day, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday” (88, P15).



6. “As a proof that education gives this appearance of weakness to females, we may instance the example of military men, who are, like them, sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles. The consequences are similar; soldiers acquire a little superficial knowledge, snatched from the muddy current of conversation, and, from continually mixing with society, they gain, what is termed a knowledge of the world; and this acquaintance with manners and customs has frequently been confounded with a knowledge of the human heart” (88-9, P17).



7. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing” (90, P21).




Wollstonecraft Group Work

Examine your assigned passage for cause and effect elements, depending on the question. Close-read the selected passage carefully and return to the surrounding paragraphs in Chapter 2 of Wollstonecraft to draw out any other conclusions relevant to the point. **(P32) indicates paragraph 32.

1. Wollstonecraft explains that “The woman who has only been taught 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, when the summer is passed and gone. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties? or, is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men; and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover—and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives place to jealousy or vanity” (P 34). This statement points to the process of socialization that teaches women to focus on their beauty and external characteristics. Discuss with your group three effects of marriage that Wollstonecraft predicts will happen in marriage.

2. In the 18th century, virtue was defined as “A particular moral excellence; a special manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct” (OED). However, Wollstonecraft’s repeated references to virtue mean something more. She urges that “Women ought to endeavour to purify their hearts; but can they do so when their uncultivated understandings make them entirely dependent on their senses for employment and amusement, when no noble pursuit sets them above the little vanities of the day, or enables them to curb the wild emotions?” (P 39). Identify one other passage in the text that also addresses the idea of virtue. Why is Wollstonecraft’s definition of virtue important for transforming women from dependent creatures into valuable members of society?

3. Wollstonecraft is quite skeptical about love, stating baldly that there is a need to “restrain this tumultuous passion, and to prove that it should not be allowed to dethrone superior powers, to usurp the sceptre which the understanding should ever coolly wield” (P 32). What does she think are the consequences of teaching women to believe in the lofty powers of romantic love? Why does she say that “Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!” (P 39).

4. Wollstonecraft notes, “How women are to exist in that state where there is to be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, we are not told. For though moralists have agreed, that the tenor of life seems to prove that MAN is prepared by various circumstances for a future state, they constantly concur in advising WOMAN only to provide for the present. Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; and, disregarding the arbitrary economy of nature, one writer has declared that it is masculine for a woman to be melancholy. She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears, whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused” (P 56). From this quotation or nearby selections of Chapter 2, discuss why Wollstonecraft condemns marriage in her time.

5. In several passages in the text, Wollstonecraft attacks the idea that women should be encouraged to see beauty as their ultimate directive in life. Instead she encourages us to “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing. The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them” (P21). What are the effects of teaching women that this is their priority and value in life?

Formal Essay Assignments


We have read and thought about the concept of a discourse community. We have also seen work by several authors who engage with the idea of discourse communities (Douglass, Wollstonecraft, Amy Tan, Emily Henderson, and A. Ocasio-Cortez). 


For this assignment, pick an issue or problem that is important to one of your discourse communities. Then do the following:

  1. Write a speech or letter to someone (or a group) outside of your discourse community. In your speech or letter describe a problem and make it visible to someone outside your community. As you write, keep in mind your audience (who is reading and/or listening) may not know the impact this problem has on your community or that it even exists. Note: It should be clear from reading your piece what genre you are writing in and whom you are addressing. 
  2. To help you write your speech or letter, research the problem you have identified, its solutions, and what has already been done to address this issue. In addition to using the City Tech library’s online databases or the internet for your research, you may find it useful to interview people involved with the problem. An interview is not a requirement, but if you do choose to do one, it may be done over the phone/video chat, by email, or by text.  In all, incorporate two to three relevant sources in your speech or letter: make sure your sources are reliable and keep track of them. You will integrate this research into your speech or letter to help you develop your point. Remember: your piece is a speech or letter… you are not writing a research paper!

Here are the grading criteria for this project:


  • It is clear from your document whether you have written a letter or a speech; in other words, you use the conventions of letter-writing or speech-writing.
  • You use concrete and specific examples and details to illustrate the issue for your reader.
  • If appropriate, you include suggestions or solutions addressing the issue.


  • It is clear from your document whom you are addressing. 
  • Your tone, diction & writing style makes sense for this group.
  • Your letter or speech shows the audience the issue from your perspective. Your piece also aims to help them understand (and ultimately gain respect for) the issue you are addressing.


  • It is clear from your document, why you are addressing them.
  • You have an overall point.
  • You give a specific reason(s) as to why your audience should care about your issue.
  • Your piece is written and organized in a manner that makes your meaning clear, and you carefully choose your words and transitions. 
  • You properly cite any research included in your document (using MLA style).
  • You proofread carefully.
  • Your letter or speech is approximately 1000 words (2-3 pages, double-spaced).
  • You submit your assignment on time.

Below are the 4 choices for the in-class essay. Please select 1. For whatever essay you choose, you will need to provide textual evidence and analysis in each body paragraph. As a reminder, you are permitted one page of notes for the essay period. You are also permitted to use the book during the essay. You will have the entire class period to write your paper. Please be sure that your essay has an introduction with a thesis, body paragraphs and a conclusion.

  1. According to Mary Wollstonecraft, beauty defines who women were. What does she mean by this and why does she object? Use quotations to support your answers.

  2. According to Mary Wollstonecraft, what is essential to a good marriage? Discuss her perspective on love/ lust. Discuss the role of friendship in marriage.

  3. How and why did Mary Wollstonecraft value education for women? In your conclusion, discuss how women’s education/ education in general is different from today.

  4. Write an essay in which you discuss why and how Wollstonecraft’s definition of virtue is important for transforming women from dependent creatures into valuable members of society. In your conclusion, you may discuss whether her definition of virtue has relevance in today’s society.