Wollstonecraft begins by explaining that she is going to start with some basic principles and ask several simple questions. These questions may lead to truths, but these results are often contradicted by people's words and conduct. Reason is what gives man preeminence over brute creatures, and passions were instilled in us so that men might grapple with them and attain experience and knowledge. She writes that "perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society..."
Reason has been mixed with error through the course of mankind, so it is necessary to look at how deeply rooted prejudices have clouded reason and how reason is used to justify such prejudices. Wollstonecraft wonders if the bulk of the people of Europe have received anything in exchange for their innocence. The desire for wealth and power has overwhelmed mankind. There is such wretchedness that flows from "hereditary honours, riches, and monarchy, that men of lively sensibility have almost uttered blasphemy in order to justify the dispensation of providence."
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that man was by nature a solitary animal and that society was conducive to wickedness. Wollstonecraft disagrees with the view that Roussau's state of nature, characterized by solitude, is preferable to civilization. God placed humans on earth and intended for them, after the Fall, to live in a community of other humans. God's plan for humans entailed their discovery of and use of reason to reach for godlike happiness. The presence of free will, however, means that evil and error exist.
In terms of regal power, subsequent generations produce more idiocy and "render thousands idle and vicious." Men attain their regal status by innumerable and unmentionable crimes and intrigues, and their subjects sit and idly allow "the nerveless limbs of the posterity of such rapacious prowlers to rest quietly on their ensanguined thrones." Society will never be healthy if such rulers are allowed to retain their power.
Those who achieve the status of king naturally desire flattery and are barred from the achievement of wisdom and virtue by the very nature of their ascent to power. It is absurd that the fate of thousands rests in the hands of such men. All "power inebriates weak men," and the more there is equality in society, the more virtue and happiness will reign.
Not simply kinghood but any profession that constitutes power by great subordination of rank is problematic for morality. A standing army "is incompatible with freedom" because subordination, rigor, and despotism are necessary for the maintenance of an army. The presence of such an army, with its idle and gallant young men, is dangerous for the town in which they reside. Sailors are also indolent and mischievous and serve no purpose during peacetime. The clergy system also is maintained in a grievous fashion, for much is made of the subordination and obsequiousness of novitiates to their bishops.
Overall, "it is of great importance to observe that the character of every man is, in some degree, formed by his profession." Thus, his opinions are formed by the structure within which he moves every day, and the character he possesses is related to his profession. In order for society to attain more enlightenment, it must not sustain groups of men who are made foolish or cruel by the nature of their professions.
Even though an aristocracy may be the most natural type of government as the earliest society emerges from barbarism, this form of government became untenable as the years progressed and the people begin agitating for some share of the power. It is the "pestiferous purple" of royalty that thwarts the progress of civilizations and "warps the understanding."
In this first chapter Wollstonecraft tackles some of the major reasons why women are subjugated: prejudice, lack of education, lack of ability to take on a profession, their own silliness and eschewing of reason, and a governmental structure that does not yield enough power to the people. Through society's mandate that they render themselves attractive before all else, women become ridiculous, immoral, and worthy of disapprobation. Women have a soul just as men do, and if the soul is unsexed, as she argues, then both sexes have a capacity for reason and should endeavor to exercise it.
Wollstonecraft mentions Jean-Jacques Rousseau, her intellectual contemporary (more or less; he died in 1778 when she was 19) and one of the major philosophical voices from the Age of Reason. Rousseau expostulated several views on women that were very distasteful to Wollstonecraft, and multiple times throughout the Vindication she lambastes him. As the scholar Catriona MacKenzie writes, "Her targets are, first, Rousseau's claim that women are by nature inferior to men with respect to those capacities that ground equality—namely reason, independence, and virtue—and second, his claim that women's equality would subvert the social order." She may agree with Rousseau to some extent that women are sillier and more rational than men, but she argues that this is because society has molded them in such a fashion and has denied them the capacity to reason like men.
Similarly, Wollstonecraft critiques Rousseau's conception of female virtue, which he believes is founded on modesty, not reason, and grants some of his assumptions but critiques the inferences he draws from them. Public virtue must be founded on private virtue, but the way women are raised will subvert that goal, she argues. In contrast, his advice, as MacKenzie writes, "is more likely to produce infidelity or at least sham infidelity, than genuine fidelity because it focuses women's whole attention on 'corporeal embellishments' rather than on attaining genuine virtue." Wollstonecraft writes that Rousseau's "ridiculous stories, which tend to prove that girls are naturally attentive to their persons, without laying any stress on daily example, are below contempt" (43). She scoffs, "I have, probably, had an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy than J. J. Rousseau" (43), adding that she understands what usually becomes of young girls inculcated with these repressive ideas of modesty and virtue.
Wollstonecraft's frequent critique of Rousseau is that he simply wants women to grow up learning that their attractiveness is what matters, since to him they are incapable of reason and truly equal education is inappropriate. In chapter five she will go into depth regarding the writers whose work is problematic, but the fact that Rousseau is mentioned in this first chapter and in nearly every other one demonstrates the central role he plays in her social and philosophical critique. He is a figure to challenge, subvert, and even negate. In taking on the premises of one of the famous philosophers of her time, Wollstonecraft is entering the debate at the highest level and establishing herself as a figure to be reckoned with.
Finally, one more point of discussion for this first chapter includes the discussion of kinghood, power, and freedom. Wollstonecraft is writing nearly one hundred years after John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, political philosophers whose theories of social contract had recently come to the fore quite conspicuously in the American Revolution and the French Revolution. There is an implicit, and at times explicit, utilization of the tenets of democracy and the social contract in the Vindication. Wollstonecraft criticizes absolute power derived from some arbitrary fount; for Locke and others, this was royal lineage, whereas for Wollstonecraft this is gender. Men have no right to tyrannize over women, she argues, based on their gender, whatever natural physical superiorities men may enjoy. Their claim that they are reasonable and rational while women are incapable of being rational is specious because the soul is not gendered and virtue is relative rather than qualitatively different by gender. The governmental danger of tyranny via aristocracy or monarchy has a social parallel in men’s tyrannical use of power over women.