The 18th century British writer Mary Wollstonecraft‘s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional feminity have been significant in the development of feminism. Influenced by European Enlightenment, Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) questioned the socialising process in the subordination of women. Being one of the pioneers who radically deviated from the concept of femininity as natural/biological to the view of femininity as social, Wollstonecraft observed that the social norms, values, law and cultural practices demanded, imposed and recommended particular forms of behaviour from women; and not conforming to these norms resulted in their being treated as witches or monsters. Thus women consented to feminine roles and to their own subordination. She asserted that the “so called feminine attributes” such as love for fashion and jewellery, are indoctrinated by society, such that women come to assimilate these values in order to fit into the category of the “feminine”.
Written in response to a French report that argued that women should be given only domestic education, Rights of Woman attacks sexual double standards and posits that women should be given .an education commensurate with their position in the society. Attacking male thinkers like Rousseau who argued against women’s education, Wollstonecraft emphasized the social and communal benefits of educating women. Educated women would be better companions to their husbands and will be able to bring up children in a better way.Being empowered by reason and rationality would also help them from being susceptible to excessive emotions and sensibility.
Though Wollstonecraft was radical in seeking education as a means of “improving” the women’s conditions in society, she did not intend to overturn the gender hierarchies. However it is to be noted that Wollstonecraft laid the foundations of feminism, two centuries before a more vigorous and organised struggle for women’s social, cultural and political emancipation happened – an emancipation for which, education indeed was the springboard.