Mary Wollstonecraft on Women’s Education

Mary Wollstonecraft

Found in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft appended a letter to Tallyrand to the beginning of her A Vindication of the Rights of Women that outlines the fundamentals of the arguments that follow in the text. In it, she provides clear reasons for her focus on the importance of women’s education.

Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built upon this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can women be expected to co-operate unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthens her reason till she comprehends her duty, and see in what manner is connected with her real good. If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman at present shuts her out from such investigations.

–Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women

An uneducated woman, Wollstonecraft argues, cannot be a fit companion for an educated man. Her ignorance will reduce the progress of human knowledge and virtue, and it will prevent her from understanding, and taking part in her own responsibility to be a virtuous person.

Further, If women are to teach their children to be good, moral, and patriotic citizens, they must be well educated. One cannot teach without an education. For Wollstonecraft, the education offered to women in her day, did nothing to prepare them for any of these duties. In fact, it often made them entirely unsuited to attempt to fulfill them at all.