A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapter III: The Same Subject Continued

People of genius, Wollstonecraft writes, tend to ignore and disregard their health as they pursue their calling. People assume such people are weak and naturally have a delicate constitution, but strength of mind is usually accompanied by strength of body because there is a "natural soundness of constitution." Shakespeare and Milton did not write with shaky hands, did they?

Even if it can be acknowledged that men have more physical strength than women, their virtue and knowledge should be the same in nature and degree, and women should endeavor to attain those virtues in the same fashion as men. It is absurd that women tout their weakness and exalt in their own delicacy of health. What power women do have comes from preying on the weakness of men, but in obtaining this power they degrade their own character and, to make matters worse, "licentiousness spreads through the whole society." If women were only educated as men, the progress of human knowledge would proceed without its frequent checks.

Similarly, even though women are physically weaker than men, why must they be made even weaker than nature intended? A mother who wants to instill character in her daughter must avoid the teachings of Rousseau and instead allow her a measure of independence instead of the dependence that is assumed natural for young girls. The pursuit of beauty and poise is restricting and repressive, and the idea that being a coquette is natural is absurd; even Rousseau would admit this if he were not inclined to propagate such an idea to serve his own ends. Wollstonecraft has had many more opportunities to observe young women than Rousseau has, and she notes that when girls and boys are allowed to play together in ignorance of sex distinctions, girls are likely to avoid coming to the conclusion that they must pursue physical beauty and eschew rationality.

As the attainment of beauty is the only pursuit women are taught to have, they do not have the various employments and pursuits that men do, those which lead to experience and knowledge and the opening of their minds. Women tend to limit themselves to the triumph of the hour.

The things that men have that seem to exalt them above other men—birth, riches, and other extrinsic advantages—in fact degrade them. A man who exercises absolute power loses his humanity, but men still follow such a creature. It would be absurd to allow men in the pride of power over women to invoke the same excuses that tyrannical rulers do, that women are inferior to men because they always have been. Whatever small amount of power women have usually fades away, and they become slaves or fickle tyrants over their miniature kingdoms. They act as poorly as their male counterparts do.

It is thus time to "effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore them to their lost dignity—and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world." The true foundation for morality is the Supreme Being, who "must be just, because he is wise, he must be good, because he is omnipotent." God is the fountain of wisdom and goodness and power and is thus the only one whom humans must look to when they desire to acquire virtue or knowledge.

Returning from her digression, Wollstonecraft moves to discuss why men seem to expect impossibilities, that is, why they expect "virtue from a slave" who has been rendered weak and vicious by society. Should women be shut up or allowed to think for themselves? Wollstonecraft concedes that it will be a long time before deeply held prejudices are routed out of society and women understand that they do not need to affect weakness and delicacy and betray their real interests.

Women who are uneducated delight in wielding what small amount of power they have and may use it improperly toward their children or husband. It is only natural that one so repressed will take pleasure in resting their yoke on even weaker shoulders. If an uneducated woman who was nothing other than an object of pleasure to her husband and never learned anything other than obedience and servility is widowed, then she is lost. She does not have the ability to act for herself and for her children and will no doubt fall prey to a seducer or become the victim of "discontent or blind indulgence." This situation is not uncommon or outlandish given the way women are taught to behave.

In terms of religion, women believe that wiser heads than theirs understand the mysteries of the scriptures and it is not their place to seek enlightenment. They cannot judge for themselves and content themselves with mere offerings.

Returning to the common situation of a man dying and leaving his wife a widow, if the woman in this case was actually the friend and helpmate of her husband and had earned his respect then she will not have as difficult a time as the previous woman would. She could turn to her children and anxiously endeavor to provide for them, is "raised to heroism by misfortunes," and avoids the pitfalls most common to her sex. Her children grow up with virtues instilled, and her life's task is fulfilled. She can die calm and content.

To sum up, Wollstonecraft decries the idea of different sexual virtues and says that man and woman must be the same; the writers who espouse the idea that virtue is relative, "having no foundation other than utility," are grossly incorrect. Women may have different duties to fulfill in a particular social milieu, but they are still human duties. Human character is formed by the experiences and endeavors an individual pursues, and if these experiences and endeavors are limited or nonexistent, then character and virtue are stilted and unformed. Women are rendered insipid because they are not allowed these pursuits, and "vanity takes the place of every social affection, and the characteristics of humanity can scarcely be discerned."


Readers might note Wollstonecraft’s propensity for repeating and belaboring a point. The title of this chapter, "The Same Subject Continued," suggests as much. Let us take the opportunity to put Wollstonecraft’s ideas in a broader context.

Wollstonecraft calls for a "revolution in female manners" several times throughout this text. These calls to revolution prefigure the American women's movement of the 19th century. Scholars have tried to demonstrate the continuities of style and idea between Wollstonecraft, commonly referred to as the first feminist, and her 19th-century counterparts. The common assumption is that the women of the 19th century shied away from her because of the depths to which her reputation had plummeted. This problem was due to the publication of William Godwin's memoir about life with Wollstonecraft, which revealed her putative immorality in posing as Gilbert Imlay's wife and bearing his child out of wedlock. However, while she may have remained controversial in terms of the potentiality of women's sexual liberation, her philosophy was clearly influential on 19th-century feminist thought, rhetoric, and even strategy.

Scholars Eileen Hunt Botting's and Christine Carey's influential and painstakingly-researched article delves into the work and lives of Hannah Mather Crocker, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Grimké, Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all of whom "critically engaged the Rights of Women, entering into a philosophical dialogue with its author on the questions which she so controversially brought to the forefront of the Enlightenment: is the soul sexed or unsexed? Do men and women share the same moral laws, and practice the same moral virtues? Should boys and girls be educated in the same way?" From this perspective, it can hardly be denied that Wollstonecraft addressed fundamental questions with lasting significance, in a way that later writers and activists found worthy of grappling with.

For the purposes of this analysis, we will look at three of the figures Botting and Carey analyzed: Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mott's writings explicitly state she read Wollstonecraft; in her own speeches she spread her interpretation of her predecessor's ideas, especially on "the corrupt state of feminine culture and female education and the need for their reform." She railed against decadent, luxurious culture that subordinated women to men and heavily criticized novels, just like her predecessor did. Both believed female education would help women fulfill their roles as wives and mothers, and that they should be independent in marriage, trained for some professions, and capable of fulfilling their intellectual promise.

Susan B. Anthony read Wollstonecraft and donated her copy of the book to the Library of Congress, identifying Wollstonecraft as the founding mother and philosopher of the feminist movement in her dedication on the inside cover. Both believed equal souls had the equal right to education. Anthony argued that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution also referred to women, not just African Americans, because it referred to "servitude," a situation most women found themselves in. One difference was that while Wollstonecraft did believe women should have access to property in a limited fashion, she mostly believed it was deleterious to strive for property. Anthony, in contrast, felt that property was essential for women because it represented liberty and autonomy.

Finally, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also delves into the ways in which societies have oppressed women, and argues "that male control over customs and education—what Wollstonecraft calls 'the male Aristocracy'—produces a false education that indoctrinates male superiority and stunts the physical, moral, and intellectual abilities of women." Both agree that equal education makes better marriages because husband and wife are partners. One point of divergence is on the theological question of whether or not the human soul is sexed; "Wollstonecraft argues that the soul has no sex, and uses this theological notion as the metaphysical basis of her view of human equality, Stanton contends that there is 'no doubt there is sex in the mortal and spiritual world.'"

It is clear that the 19th-century feminists were challenged and influenced by the writings of Wollstonecraft and considered her their most worthy predecessor. It may well be impossible to mount a serious discussion of the origins of feminism and the feminist movement without including Wollstonecraft.