"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, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives."
This, in essence, is the major reason Wollstonecraft identifies regarding why women are subordinate to men: every facet of their upbringing from the moment they enter the world is oriented toward rendering them weak, docile, and dependent upon men. Women are socialized to only want to be beautiful so they can attract men. They delight in their own meekness and diminished bodily strength. They engage in rivalries with other women. They are focused on no other concerns or duties because they are confined to the private sphere. They cannot exercise reason or truly perfect their souls since they linger in this dependent state. Mothers shape and mold their daughters' characters, which are even further ossified into silliness when they attend boarding schools. In their youth they are attracted to men of ill repute because they desire gallant men and seek to indulge their fantasies and sentimentalities. All of this is due to their upbringing; they rarely have any way of breaking out of this structure of teachings.
"The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural; satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority."
Generally confined to the private sphere of their homes, where they spend their time conforming to social manners, women become acclimated to staying there rather than entering the public sphere. They tend not to hold substantial jobs, participate in politics, attain advanced education, discuss and debate the major ideas of the day, or take on noble, heroic duties. Their education is fragmentary and lacking, so coupled with their confinement, they become ignorant and caught in the social prejudices of their age. The males in their lives make their decisions for them because they have become too delicate. This power is arbitrary except that social structures have enforced and reinforced women's need to submit to the authority of others. Since both men and women were endowed with souls by their Creator, men do not have a "natural" hegemony over women on the level of individual rights, but their differences in physical strength are carried over in society to falsely justify male hegemony in many other areas of life.
"If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; consequently, their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim."
One of the major arguments Wollstonecraft challenges in her work is that women are naturally inferior to men from a moral perspective. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others believed this (indeed, most men and women in the 18th century did), and Rousseau in particular asserted that women's virtues were different than men's. Wollstonecraft strongly disagreed, explaining that while men were physically superior to women, both sexes were endowed with souls by their Creator and are able to develop their reason and endeavor to perfect their virtue. Virtue is not relative to sex but to individual differences, which means that everyone's conduct should arise from the same moral principles and have the same kind of human goals. Even if men could demonstrate a better ability to be virtuous than women could, everyone has the same virtues to strive for.
"But I still insist, that not only the virtue, but the knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that women, considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavour to acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the same means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of half being, one of Rousseau's wild chimeras."
Education is one of the major themes of the Vindication. The inferior education women receive is directly responsible for their subordinate status and their paramount concern of cultivating their physical beauty and charm instead. Their education is fitful and sometimes irrelevant. They do not learn anything of seriousness or substance, and even if they do it is not considered necessary for their lives. At boarding schools, where they are confined with other girls their age, they learn cunning, immodesty, sentimentality, and irrationality. Their bodies are not allowed to grow strong because they are forced to stay indoors. Overall, female education is so different from male education that it results in women who are ignorant and indolent. Reform therefore is necessary; they should attend school with boys, have physical exercise, learn the same subjects as boys, and live with their families instead of boarding schools. They should be allowed to enter some professions that they train for. This will result in the development of their reason, virtue, and modesty and will free them from their physical and mental shackles.
"Women, it is true, obtaining power by unjust means, by practising or fostering vice, evidently lose the rank which reason would assign them, and they become either abject slaves or capricious tyrants. They lose all simplicity, all dignity of mind, in acquiring power, and act as men are observed to act when they have been exalted by the same means."
One of the major problems that results from denying women significant power is that they will manifest this oppression either in becoming an abject slave, or perhaps worse, tyrannizing over their own household by trying to control their husband and children and domestic servants. It is observed that rich women are even cruel to their pets. Their behavior is not dissimilar from that of men, who also relish their absolute, arbitrary power when they can get it. This is quite understandable given human nature, but it is still quite lamentable. If women were able to attain rational education and enlarge their minds, at least they would not take out their frustrations on their family. They would be companions to their husbands and dutiful, loving mothers to their children, asserting the reasonable power that they deserve.
"All their thoughts turn on things calculated to excite emotion; and, feeling, when they should reason, their conduct is unstable, and their opinions are wavering, not the wavering produced by deliberation or progressive views, but by contradictory emotions."
Women in Wollstonecraft's time generally do not govern their views by reason and rationality; they prefer to be governed by their emotions and sentiments. As she elaborates: They love reading novels and exult in the sensational scenes and verbose and florid language; history or other genres are considered boring. They are interested in men who indulge their fancies, not men of substance and character. They prefer romance, drama, and excitement to soberness and modesty. They live for the moment only. They delight in visiting fortunetellers, mediums, and healers even though their Christian faith would seemingly preclude giving countenance to these people. All of their attention is centered upon their persons, not understanding that their youthful good looks are ephemeral. Since they are so swayed by their emotions, they also are ineffectual mothers because they only want to secure their children's love and cannot provide proper discipline. Wollstonecraft's conclusion from such lines of argument is that women's fickleness comes from living on the basis of their changing emotions rather than their reason, which does not mean having eternally fixed views but means making decisions rationally.
"Were women more rationally educated, could they take a more comprehensive view of things, they would be contented to love but once in their lives; and after marriage calmly let passion subside into friendship—into that tender intimacy, which is the best refuge from care; yet is built on such pure, still affections, that idle jealousies would not be allowed to disturb the discharge of the sober duties of life, nor to engross the thoughts that ought to be otherwise employed."
Wollstonecraft offers many strong opinions about marriage. First, she decries the fact that women do not want to marry the men that they should; they prefer gallant men who excite their emotions but may be frivolous or immoral. When women marry, they expect the passion of their courtship to be sustained throughout the whole marriage. This is unreasonable and can lead to problems when the feelings wane and the husband turns out to have little substance. Sometimes a woman will enter into love affairs to try and stoke her emotions, or she may ignore her husband or tyrannize over him. It is better that women understand that the best type of marriage resembles a friendship. Both partners are equal and have things in common; they should conceive of the other as a companion, not merely a lover. The deep bond of friendship is a better way to have a relationship than to be enmeshed in tumultuous passion. Husband and wife should also not be too concerned with the sexual part of their relationship, as it diverts attention from more important duties. Overall, a happy marriage is one where both man and woman are content with the substance and equanimity of their relationship and conceive of each other as a partner.
"The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other. This I believe to be an indisputable truth, extending it to every virtue. Chastity, modesty, public spirit, and all the noble train of virtues, on which social virtue and happiness are built, should be understood and cultivated by all mankind, or they will be cultivated to little effect."
In the 18th century it was commonly assumed that man and woman were two halves of a whole. While Wollstonecraft concedes there is some possibility that some women will not marry and be content in their singleness, the assumption is that each one will marry a man and bear his children and tend his home. Men and women can bring out the worst in each other but can also improve each other, if only women were considered men's equals, not men's inferiors. Coeducation is a crucial component, for if boys and girls went to school together from a very young age women would not be rendered so ignorant and indolent and men would not have the desire to subjugate and feel contemptuous of women. Marriages would be more fulfilling and meaningful, and the household as a whole would run more smoothly. Virtue, which Wollstonecraft has established as not relative to gender, would develop in both sexes. Women and men would be more modest and chaste since they would not operate in such separate, heterogeneous spheres. Thus, the sexes would benefit each other.
"The whole system of British politics, if system it may courteously be called, consisting in multiplying dependents and contriving taxes which grind the poor to pamper the rich ..."
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is not only a feminist work but also one deeply engaged in politics. Wollstonecraft writes on the foundation of Locke and Hobbes, two political theorists who articulated the theory of the social contract. The idea that arbitrary, absolute power is dangerous, so that the governed must consent while illegitimate power be overthrown, is implicit in Vindication. Wollstonecraft's debt to Enlightenment thinkers is visible in her discussions of parents and children and husbands and wives. This quotation encapsulates her frustration with the British government at the time she was writing, which was creating a welfare state both by "multiplying dependents" and by overtaxing the poor to serve the projects favored by the rich. As one of the more significant thinkers in the Age of Reason, she fearlessly takes on British society and politics as well as Europe's leading political philosophers.
"... obeying a parent only on account of his being a parent, shackles the mind, and prepares it for a slavish submission to any power but reason."
Wollstonecraft says a great deal about parenting. Socializing children to believe that they should obey their parents simply as a matter of power is a dangerous lesson because they will learn to blindly obey even when they become adults. Instead, parents should show that their power is based upon their virtue and superior exercise of reason. Their children should obey them because they observe that their superiors are rational and capable human beings. As Wollstonecraft elaborates, parenting is a God-given duty to men and to women, but women, as they are responsible for reproduction, are even more beholden to the rearing of their children. Since society demands they behave like children themselves, they are often poor parents. Their own silliness, ignorance, and capriciousness leads them to raise unruly, spoiled children. If they have daughters, they instill the same unfortunate values in them. Some mothers, repressed by the nature of their sex, tyrannize over their children and thus violate the laws of nature. Wollstonecraft advocates for education reform for women so that, among other things, they will be better mothers.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.