Mary Wollstonecraft’s Legacy through Public Education

In Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft makes an argument for an equal education of both women and men. Often celebrated as the first feminist, Wollstonecraft defines the link between a woman’s strength and overall maturity to the education they receive. More specifically, Wollstonecraft points out that reason is largely connected to the ability of using knowledge in applicable situations. Her cry out for a “revolution in female manners” was followed by a revolution on education, one that’s impact can be seen today. However, upon examination into the different schools, one finds that inconsistencies still remain prominent in today’s education system. Wollstonecraft’s legacy in public education seems to be missing the vital component of her strategy. Today’s schools lack a consistently inclusive education that creates success stories. In order to analyze education in public school systems, the standards of success must also be looked at against the ideas of Wollstonecraft. More specific requirements, like the No Child Left Behind act, must be analyzed through the lens of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing in order to effectively understand how the overall system has strayed from her vision. 

Would her desires for equal education for women be fulfilled by the education in 2019? Maybe. Wollstonecraft did desire to have women and men placed in the same playing field. However, we still find ourselves lost in a public class system that often translates to the quality of education available. When education across the board receives the same standard, the tests reveal disparities that often hide the growth occurring in these schools. Despite the No Child Left Behind Act’s intent to create equal, standardized education, Mary Wollstonecraft would not approve of the education system it produces. 

Fig. 1. No Child Mandate. No Child Left Behind Education Mandat. Mike Keefe Accessed 5 November 2019.

Wollstonecraft writes, “That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious, is, I think not to be disputed; and, that the most salutary effects tending to improve mankind might be expected from a REVOLUTION in female manners, appears, at least, with a face of probability, to rise out of the observation,” (Wollstonecraft 324). If “uneducated” replaces “women” in her writing, I find an eerily similar idea that our culture often constructs around the working class. In “Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Macaulay on Education,” Elizabeth Frazer analyzes the legacy that Wollstonecraft leaves through her analysis of social constructivism and call for equal education. Frazer summarizes that “[g]iven agreement that virtue can be taught, there is the questions whether this involves teaching knowledge of propositions and principles, or whether, rather, ethical education is more like teaching skill,” (Frazer 2011). Focusing on virtues and skills, Frazer identifies the components central to Wollstonecraft’s view of education. 

In order to view how education produces virtue and skills in the students of today, it’s necessary to identify how public schools define success in an academic environment. George W. Bush introduced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2011. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Public School Review, this act attempted to standardize the United States’ school systems, focusing education on what the tests deemed important. Wollstonecraft might have approved of this attempt at equalizing the availability of education quality by promoting a standard for all teachers to follow. However, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft writes, “For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings, 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,” (Wollstonecraft 312). In light of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, the concept of virtues and understandings might be impossible to capture in a standardized test, given to all students of the same educational level in different places. 

Contrary to the overall argument, several components of Wollstonecraft’s arguments appear in the logic of standardizing schools through consistent testing. In the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Frazer point. out, “Virtues are potentially realizable characteristics of the human condition in civilization. Virtuous conduct is predictable and stable,” (Frazer 2011). Following Frazer’s line of reasoning, standardizing education across the United States promotes the idea of a predictable and stable behavior. If Wollstonecraft was here today making education policy, she might change her ideas based on affluence and stereotypes. In the time she was writing in, the No Child Left Behind act might have survived the test of standardizing education because there would be nothing to compare it to. Moreover, in the book Fifty Major Thinkers on Education, Michael Flauta emphasizes, “she did not abolish this position for women, or even invite men to share with women the tasks and responsibilities associated with life in the private home. Rather, she rejected the education in dependency that Rousseau prescribed,” (Flauta 77). Flauta validly points out that Wollstonecraft’s main desire education that grants independence. Emphasizing the name of the No Child Left Behind Act, it appears that this standard of education promotes standard while fostering the intellect of the individual. 

If Wollstonecraft desired women to gain independence through education, this act attempts to fulfill her wishes. Even in her writing, Wollstonecraft admits that her idea of education has not yet been defined or produced during her time. Furthermore, “By individual education, I mean, for the sense of the word is not precisely defined, such as 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 man may only have to proceed, not begin, the important task of learning to think and reason,”(Wollstonecraft 313). This passage admits the slow process takes time and will not be perfect. Rather, the individual continues to mature as they age, and the things they learn actively create the person they’re becoming. Wollstonecraft even admits the faults that come with not understanding. She concludes that one must “[s]trengthen 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 endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play thing,”(Wollstonecraft 314). In the case of the No Child Left Behind Act, Wollstonecraft’s idea pertains to the blind obedience of solely relying on standards for one’s education instead of actively furthering education, in and out of a school building. Further emphasizing the need for independent education, Wollstonecraft equates dependence to blind obedience.

All in all, Wollstonecraft laid the ideal groundwork behind public education. However, the vastness of the public education system makes some of her ideas not plausible. The writing of Wollstonecraft represents a necessary seed planted that still brings up highly relevant issues today. In spirit of what she wanted, the best way to strengthen human minds is to not be complacent and actively pursue education. 

Works Cited

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David, and Dettmar, Kevin, editors, Pearson, 2010, 306-326. 

Flauta, Michael Chris. “FIFTY MAJOR THINKERS ON EDUCATION.” Fifty Major Thinkers on Education

Frazer, Elizabeth. “Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Macaulay on Education.” Oxford Review of Education, vol. 37, no. 5, Oct. 2011, pp. 603–617., doi:10.1080/03054985.2011.625165.

Keefe, Mike. No Child Mandate. 5 May 2004. Intoon, Mike Keefe. Accessed 5 November 2019.