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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis

by Mary Wollstonecraft

Chapter II: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed

Many arguments have been put forth to justify man's tyranny over woman and explain how women are unable to attain virtue due to their insufficient strength. However, Wollstonecraft repeats, if women have souls then there should be no fundamental difference between men and women in pursuing and attaining virtue. Men complain about the silliness and folly of women but do not comprehend that people themselves are responsible for the ubiquity of women's servility; from childhood women are taught to be weak, soft, cunning, and proud only of their beauty. Women are kept in a state of childhood and innocence, and when the term "innocence" is applied to women it designates them as weak rather than blameless.

Wollstonecraft turns to the subject of manners and education. Individual education is extremely significant not just to manners but to fundamental human development as it "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 the man may only have to proceed, not to begin, the important task of learning to think and reason." Of course, individual education must be supplemented by the society within which men and women live. The most perfect type of education is one that encourages the individual to attain habits of virtue that will render him or her independent. Virtuous beings must derive their virtue from the exercise of reason. Rousseau focused on applying that argument to men, and Wollstonecraft here applies it to women.

Many of the writers on female education, such as Rousseau and Dr. Gregory, tend to paint women as more artificial and weak than they would be under better conditions. Their work can be said to degrade one half of the human species, which is objectionable. Taking Rousseau's argument to its end, if men achieved perfection of mind when they arrived at maturity it would be acceptable to have man and woman become one and let the woman lean on the man's perfect understanding, but in reality, men are just as debauched and childlike as women are assumed to be!

There are many causes that enslave women, one of them being the disregard of order. Women's education is disorganized, fragmented, and random. The knowledge strong women attain is usually received from the desultory observation of everyday life. In her time, learning comes in snatches and is always subordinate to the goal of perfecting one's beauty. This situation is similar to that of military men, who are "sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles." Standing armies are occupied with the same sorts of things women are: dancing, crowds, ridicule. (Even so, military men benefit from their sex.) Similarly, both military men and women "acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature." They thus are driven by social norms that they hold like prejudices, without understanding.

For their part, sensualists prefer to keep women in the dark in their quest for power. Rousseau's character Sophia from his novel Émile is a case in point. Wollstonecraft avers that she admires Rousseau and does not to intend to criticize Sophia as a whole but the foundation upon which she was built: her faulty education. Women are to "be considered either as moral beings, or so weak that they must be entirely subjected to the superior faculties of men," and Rousseau's answer to that claim is to have women never feel independent, to learn the grand lesson of obedience. This is absurd, she argues, since women's conduct "should be founded on the same principles and have the same aim" as men's. The end of women's exertions should be to "unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue."

Wollstonecraft's aim is not to invert the order of things. Men's physical size makes them naturally superior because it, as well as their worldly pursuits, leads to greater opportunities to make moral choices and attain virtue. All she is saying is that there should be no double standard when it comes to virtue; moral and intellectual virtue should not differ in kind for men and women.

Further, women will not lose their "peculiar graces" if they pursue knowledge. Wollstonecraft is not trying to speak against love, but rather to demonstrate how tumultuous passions should not usurp the place of the superior powers. Women's charms and beauty fade away during her marriage; "will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties?" She may simply try to please other men, having stored little other virtue to rely on.

Also, Dr. Gregory's Legacy to his Daughters is problematic because he encourages them not only to cultivate a love for dress (something he claims is "natural," although that term is specious because women's souls seem not to have an inherent love of clothing) but to learn to dissemble and lie about their feelings.

Instead, women should seek to purify their hearts, but they cannot do so when they are entirely dependent on their emotions and senses and care only for trivial things. Women should not be content with a role that gives them nothing else to do but secure men's affections. Besides, a woman who strengthens her mind and body will become a friend to her husband, not merely a servile dependent. More importantly, the women in history who distinguished themselves were not the most attractive or gentle.

Love is in fact dangerous in a marriage, for it is assumed that passion is commonplace, but when it dies out the marriage becomes problematic. Those with intelligence understand that passion should be replaced by friendship and understanding. Passions can spur actions but soon sink into mere appetites and become only a momentary gratification when the object is obtained. Wollstonecraft even ventures to claim that "an unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and ... a neglected wife is, in general, the best mother" because happiness and pleasure detract from experience and understanding. Reason must teach passion to submit to necessity.

Dr. Gregory also advises his daughters not to bother cultivating their minds by reading or educating themselves if they intend to marry. Women should not stop their pursuit of knowledge, Wollstonecraft rebuts, when they decide they want to marry. Some women do go too far into cultivating their delicacy of sentiment (such as novelists), but that is not what she advocates. Dr. Gregory's ideas amount to nothing more than a system of slavery.

Moreover, there is nothing wrong with gentleness as it is observed in the scriptures, but when "gentleness" is applied to women it brings with it weakness, dependence, prostration, and quiet submission. It is absurd that women are told to only plan for the present in their marriage, and only recommended to cultivate the virtues of gentleness and docility. Women are thus made the toys of their husbands, meant to amuse them instead of help them. It seems ridiculous that "passive indolence" could really make the best wives. Men have made women sink almost below the standard for rational creatures.

The minds of women should be cultivated, and they should be able to exercise their God-given reason. Also, if "experience should prove that they cannot attain the same strength of mind, perseverance, and fortitude, let their virtues be the same in kind, though they may vainly struggle for the same degree; and the superiority of man will be equally clear, if not clearer."

Wollstonecraft states that she loves man as her fellow but does not love the scepter he uses to wield power over women; any submission she has to a man is due to reason, not the mere fact of his sex. Liberty is the mother of virtue, but when women are slaves they cannot attain virtue.

Analysis

Wollstonecraft discusses a woman's role as a wife many times throughout her work. She espouses the idea that if women are continually oppressed by society and denied education and its concomitant development of reason, they cannot be good wives. Some, in their silliness instilled in them from girlhood, will be discontented with the routine of married life and look for illicit love affairs elsewhere in order to continue to stimulate their sensibility. Others will tyrannize over their husbands in their unconscious desire for power. Husbands and wives can never be true friends or companions if women want only to be pleasing and alluring.

Wollstonecraft's ideal marriage is one that resembles friendship in its emphasis on freedom, reason, mutual esteem, respect, and concern for moral character. This in turn mirrors traditional political liberalism in its promulgation of liberty and equality. Several scholars have noted the fact that Wollstonecraft thinks about marriage in a political manner, as well as the fact that her ideal marriage is like a friendship. One of the questions that stems from such discussions is where sexuality can fit in, as it seems that, in Vindication, Wollstonecraft counsels against letting sex and passion take on a central role in a relationship.

Ruth Abbey's scholarly article on this subject is quite illuminating. She first places the author in the context of other writers, particularly John Stuart Mill, who firmly argued that marriage should be like friendship. Unlike Mill, however, Wollstonecraft's ideas were more complex and did not fully espouse the idea that marriage could embody the hegemonic social contract and "rights discourse" whereby women should voluntarily give up their liberty by getting married. Abbey also points out Wollstonecraft's antipathy to the notion that marriage was the only way for a woman to rise in life; this notion is especially frustrating because of the ways in which women are taught from childhood to render themselves appealing to the male sex. Female education is sporadic and misleading and tends to result in girls who want to be alluring. This is also dangerous for men because women only want the "rakes" and "gallants" who can flatter and tease, not the men of substance. Similarly, Wollstonecraft argues, education in its limited and sexist capacity leads to bad mothers and a cycle of bad education over the following generations.

Thus, as Abbey writes, "if men and women marry by choice and for companionship, the husband is more likely to be at home and be a better father to his children." The husband and wife would not be subject to "petty jealousies" and would channel their energies into being effective parents. Neither would seek romantic solace outside of the home or exercise undue power within it. Each would value the partner's character, not physical attractiveness alone. Of course, as Abbey points out, Wollstonecraft also entertained the notion that a woman did not have to marry at all; she could a meaningful, fulfilled life. Of course, this would be not be considered a very common possibility in an age when marriage was expected, but the possibility existed.

Wollstonecraft prioritizes reason over power. For reason to abound in households, arbitrary power must be eradicated. Since both men and women are capable of reason, there is no substantive explanation for why men ought to rule absolutely over their wives. Furthermore, since women are ruled by their husbands, they act out tyrannically with their inferiors; they seek out in a clandestine and calculating fashion how to exercise power over children, servants, and animals. Abbey notes that the author's "idea of marriage as friendship would bring this situation to an end" and make an environment "more conducive to the development of the virtues citizens need."

Finally, regarding to sex within marriage, it may seem like Wollstonecraft does not see the two as compatible. However, it was obvious that she did not deny the "sexual dimension of personality; on the contrary, her discussions of modesty and its role in directing and controlling sexual desire testify to its presence. Nor does she underestimate the role sexual desire might play in a love relationship: rather, she admires the Danish practice of giving engaged couples considerable liberty in their courtship," Abbey explains. Sexual desire can, however, become all-consuming and thus problematic. However, Wollstonecraft is also realistic concerning how such desire usually fades away in marriage as people age. Friendship can survive after such passion wanes, since reason long outlasts external beauty.

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