A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV: Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes

Women are rendered weak by men and by circumstances, Wollstonecraft repeats. They are like slaves in that they only live for the present moment and finally despise that freedom which they never try to attain. Since women are denied genius and rationality, there is little other way to characterize intellect. Man was not created perfect, or else he would cease to exist upon death since existence after life would not be necessary. Man must strive for reason, which is how he is improved. Reason must be the same in men and women since it originates from a divine source, the Creator. Men fall into error when they view education as merely preparation for life and do not consider it the first step toward gradually progressing toward enlightenment and perfection.

Wollstonecraft explains that she will now endeavor to point out the various ways in which her sex is degraded. The "grand source of folly and vice has ever appeared to me to arise from narrowness of mind." A mind cannot be expected to expand when it is not threatened by adversity or the pursuit of knowledge "goaded on by necessity." The business of a woman's life is pleasure, but she will not gain wisdom from it. These women exalt their own inferiority, and the men they want to impress actually disdain their weaknesses.

The female sex is not much different than the rich because they are born with a set of privileges. Women are used to company and are rarely alone; this leads to the predominance of sentiments, not passions. They are not able to think and ruminate alone and come to their own decisions based on reason. This is also similar to the rich, for "they do not sufficiently deal in general ideas, collected by impassioned thinking, or calm investigation." Wollstonecraft quotes Adam Smith on the same subject; he argues that the rich cultivate the arts by which they submit the rest of mankind to their power and govern their inclinations. However, the rich man does not have actual talents and virtues; his skills are specious and frivolous.

In the middle rank of society men have occupations and professions to focus their minds and develop their reason, while women "have no other scheme to sharpen their faculties." Women, like the rich, "have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit." Civilized women have even less morality than the primitive ones, since civilized women are so weakened. Their opinions waver because they have contradictory emotions instead of progressive views. Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry serve to make women "creatures of sensation," their characters molded by folly. Should one half of the human race really continue in such a fashion and "remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence?"

Women earn men's contempt even though they are so soft and fair. If girls were only treated as boys in terms of their fear and displays of weakness, they would grow up to be more respectable. Wollstonecraft asserts, "I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves." There is no charm in ignorance. Reason is necessary for a woman to perform any duty properly, but sensibility is not reason.

Education in her time tends to make women either fine ladies or "mere notable women," meaning industrious and energetic housewives. With regard to the former, they look down upon vulgar accomplishments while their own offer little to brag about. These women are more amiable but are weak and frail and silly. The housewives are respected by their husbands for being trusty servants, but they are unfit to manage a family. As the rearing of children is a duty given to mothers, women of sensibility do badly because they are carried away by their feelings and spoil their children.

Often the female sex is considered to arrive at maturity before the male sex does. This is not helpful for the cause of women because, according to Wollstonecraft, it offers false information. Polygamy is also degrading because it reinforces the idea of women's inferiority and violates nature.

Wollstonecraft explains that "much of the evils of life arise from a desire of present enjoyment that outruns itself." This is clear with love, for it is an animal appetite that cannot feed long on itself without extinguishing. Love is transitory. Contrasted with friendship, which is "founded on principle, and cemented by time," love is problematic. Wollstonecraft goes so far as to argue that friendship and love cannot exist together in the same bosom because they are diametrically opposed. Wollstonecraft is not against strong and perseverant passions but the "romantic wavering feelings" of females.

The result of this analysis is Wollstonecraft’s conclusion that the poorer women in society actually have the most virtue among women due to their toil and heroic actions, devoid of the frippery of fashion and sentimentality. All of the degradations of the female sex "spring from want of understanding," but at least poor women learn how to work hard in order to survive.


In this chapter Wollstonecraft expatiates on several of the reasons why women are rendered inferior. In brief, men in her time and the society they control render women feeble, inferior, and irrational. Women are not able to develop reason, which is the only way they would become able to exercise self-governance. They are supposed to be pleasing to men in their appearance and manners, which is problematic since beauty is evanescent. Their education is fragmentary and geared towards their attainment of a husband. Wollstonecraft has treated these issues in earlier chapters.

Wollstonecraft again rails against the idea of separate virtues for men and women. The prevailing view of the day espoused separate spheres of activity. As summed up by the scholar Carolyn W. Korsmeyer, "female nature and feminine virtues were often touted as the complement of male nature and masculine virtues, the two together making a perfect whole of human behavior." The idea of natural spheres was particularly absurd to Wollstonecraft, since men do not actually have one in her society: their sphere spans the whole world and their numerous activities within it. Women are confined and relegated to the home only. The imbalance seemed implausible on its face.

In this chapter Wollstonecraft explores the many deleterious effects which result from this stratification of men and women. Since women have no real power of their own, they exercise what little they can over their children, husbands, and servants. They are callous, cruel, insipid, silly, and capricious. Men actually learn to despise the women they have created even as they prop up their absurdities. Women are led to only want romance and sentiment and seek to indulge their emotions. Thus, they prefer rakes and libertines over men of substance and character. They only care for the present moment and transitory pleasure. In their marriages they are often unhappy because they want that passion of courtship to continue and cannot adjust to the friendship and equanimity that are needed once passion and beauty wane. Again, see earlier chapters for Wollstonecraft’s similar points earlier.

Wollstonecraft identifies novels as a major source of the propagation of these injurious ideals for women. She writes that "novels, music, poetry, and gallantry all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed in the mould of folly during the time they are acquiring accomplishments" (61). In chapter 13 she develops her viewpoint further, explaining that "stupid novelists, who knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious senses, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste, and draw the heart aside from its daily duties" (183). For these women, "sentiments become events" (183), and they do not want to read anything else of substance. The reading of novels "makes women, and particularly ladies of fashion, very fond of using strong expressions and superlatives in conversation" (186). Wollstonecraft herself resists this writing style, adopting instead one designed to appeal to reason while still expressing justified emotion regarding the poor state of women in her society.

One final, minor note: readers might notice that while Wollstonecraft is very critical of the way in which men repress and subordinate women, she is also quite harsh and stinging in her criticism of women themselves. She seems disdainful, disgusted, and embarrassed by their behavior, whether it is ultimately their fault or not. Feminist scholar Barbara Taylor notices that "against her sex she spoke also, sometimes with a misogynist intensity which appalls the modern reader." It seems apparent that Wollstonecraft's ideas and perspectives on gender relations came not just from a pragmatic, theoretical place but from deep within her, rooted in her own experiences and psychology. Her occasional vitriol towards her own sex is likely to be not just an expression of frustration with the women she meets in society, who seem to revel in their subjugation and know or seek no alternative, but also a manifestation of her frustration with the limitations placed upon herself as a smart, middle-class woman in the late 18th century.