Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly. The report suggested that girls should only be educated with boys until the age of eight. Thereafter, girls should only receive a domestic education. Wollstonecraft attacked this suggestion and the larger inequalities in women’s rights, including their education and social positions. Wollstonecraft argued that women had the right to be educated as men were educated. She called for women’s intellectual equality.
Wollstonecraft condemned Rousseau’s Emile as well as other educational books that saw men as intellectually superior to women. She suggested that men who defined women as weak and vain did not see that these “characteristics” were based on the failure of women’s education that had been outlined by men. Like other pedagogues, Wollstonecraft outlined methods for educating children. Wollstonecraft recognized that children’s characters were formed by the age of seven. Mothers needed to be educated properly so they could mold their children’s natures. Wollstonecraft did not advocate for complete independence for women. She did suggest that with intellectual equality, women would gain more political and economic equality.
Wollstonecraft developed a plan for national education. She argued against private education as this was for the elite alone and did not allow children to be around one another. She also argued against boarding schools as these had too many holiday interruptions. Day schools were the best option because they allowed children to go to school together and for longer periods. Wollstonecraft also advocated for state supported schools because she didn’t think education should be left to parents alone. She also emphasized the importance of letting children play, like Rousseau.
These ideas were revolutionary because Wollstonecraft argued that girls should be educated equally, alongside boys, not relative to them. She noted that “If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex….Nay, marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses” (177). At the age of nine, boys and girls dedicated to domestic employments or mechanical trades would go to other schools. All other boys and girls would remain in school together in the mornings. In the afternoons, boys and girls would be separated to learn specific trades according to their gender. Wollstonecraft suggested that educating boys and girls together would make the sexes more amenable to one another. Women should also be taught anatomy and medicine so they could attend to their children and husbands in efficient ways.
By the end of 1792, Wollstonecraft’s book had been published in Britain, Boston, Philadelphia, and France. Advocates of “Republican Motherhood” in the early America Republic used Wollstonecraft work to support the education of women. Others used Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseau’s Emile to attack Wollstonecraft and women’s education in general.