Wollstonecraft discusses several authors whose work she deplores for its depiction of women as weak and pitiful. She begins with Rousseau, whose character of Sophia in his novel Émile exemplifies the most deleterious traits a woman could possess. Rousseau’s views on women are, as Wollstonecraft sees them: women should be weaker and more passive than men due to their physical inferiority, a woman ought to sacrifice every bodily comfort to render herself agreeable to a man, and she should be completely inferior mentally.
As Wollstonecraft explains, quoting Rousseau, he writes that the education of women should be relative to men’s and that “to please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.” Girls are quite incapable of understanding what is told to them, and they care only about their behavior. They must be taught their roles early. To be thought beautiful, they are under constant and severe restraint in their persons and their minds. Rousseau argues that they ought to have as little liberty as possible because they will indulge what is given to them. Daughters should be totally submissive.
Wollstonecraft completely disagrees with Rousseau; she writes that men have “superior strength of body; but were it not for mistaken notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to earn their subsistence, the true definition of independence; and to bear those bodily inconveniences and exertions that are requisite to strengthen the mind.”
Rousseau even advocates taking religion away from women in the sense that they do not need to engage in it on their own, but a man should explain it to them. Wollstonecraft does not understand why, even though a woman should be beautiful and innocent, her understanding should be sacrificed as well. She does not see a beneficial marriage state for an insipid, frivolous woman and a shallow man.
In the second section of this long chapter, Wollstonecraft turns to other writers. Dr. Fordyce’s sermons are popular, but he is nearly as dangerous as Rousseau in his “most sentimental rant” on how women ought to behave. Hervey’s Meditations are objectionable for their “lover-like phrases of pumped up passion.” His women are depicted in terms of conquest only. His invocation of desire and flattery creates women of little substance.
In section three Dr. Gregory’s “Legacy to His Daughters” is addressed once more. Wollstonecraft explains that his daughters will grow up completely dependent and deceptive. Another point in his discourse is “the sentiment, that a woman may allow all innocent freedoms, provided her virtue is secure, is both grossly indelicate and dangerous,” and Wollstonecraft agrees with his point.
In section four, she explains that she does not want to deal with every writer who has presented his views on the need to subjugate and oppress women, for that would take far too long; she does want to attack the “boasted prerogative of man” that comes from the “iron scepter of tyranny.”
It is not only the male authors who have erroneous and prejudicial perspectives on women; female authors are sometimes complicit in their own inferiority. Women tend to “adopt the sentiments that brutalize them.” Mrs. Piozzi and the Baroness de Stael are both responsible for putting into print these problematic views. Madame Genlis’s books for children feature “prejudices as unreasonable as strong.”
Of course, there are some exceptions. Mrs. Chapone’s letters are worthy of approbation, and Mrs. Macauley was perhaps “the woman of the greatest abilities, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced,” even though many do not know of her.
In section five, Wollstonecraft excoriates Lord Chesterfield’s letters, with their “unmanly, immoral system,” and she tries to imagine a world “stripped of its false delusive charms.” As she nears the end of the chapter, she brings God into her discussion and calls upon her readers to remember, “most prospects in life are marred by the shuffling worldly wisdom of men, who, forgetting that they cannot serve God and mammon, endeavor to blend contradictory things.”
One of the most compelling elements of Wollstonecraft’s work is the care with which she restates and then dismantles other writers’ viewpoints about the way men and women ought to be raised taught and to behave. She argues that these writers’ views are specious and dangerous. Rousseau bears the brunt of her ire, as in her view his completely irrational and self-interested portrayal of the ideal woman, Sophia, in his famous work is one of the most telling examples of the sort of deeply entrenched views on gender that prevailed in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft quotes large blocks of his text in order to demonstrate to her readers just how misogynistic she finds Rousseau. As she does so, it is important to remember that she is also persuading her readers that she can compete against a leading philosopher and win the argument.
So, who is Wollstonecraft’s intended audience? Some scholars have claimed her primary audience is middle-class women because much of her argument regarding the need for reform seems to center upon that class, while others claim the primary audience is the men who need to adjust the system of gender stratification that is so damaging to society. Amy Elizabeth Smith’s influential article delves into this question and concludes, as one might expect, that Wollstonecraft’s audience is both men and women, and that “what has often been seen as a lack of focus [in her writing] can be more accurately seen as a double focus.” Beyond that, Wollstonecraft may have been trying to engage the leading philosophers of her time to make broader inroads against the fundamental points on which she and people such as Rousseau disagree.
Wollstonecraft herself makes several references to readers. The first reference is to middle-class women, but there are several more that show she anticipated male readers. Her preface reveals that she is writing to both men and women. It is important to note that there are two types of men who ought to hear her message: libertines and men of reason. In this chapter Dr. Gregory is mentioned; he is a man of substance but he still has several prejudices that must be ameliorated by women.
As for women, Smith points out that “when Wollstonecraft addresses the weakness that leaves women ‘forlorn and disconsolate’ she adopts a more distant stance and does not directly associate herself with her sex.” She knows she is also a victim of the gendered societal system but does not believe herself privy to the same excesses of silliness and ignorance her female peers are.
Both men and women are to learn lessons from Wollstonecraft's discourse. For men, “frail and foolish women, however languid and appealing they appear, do not make good mothers; there are no real rewards for the encouragement of such behavior in females. Instead, sensible women will make a pleasing home and provide healthy, happy heirs.” Women should note that their husbands will tire of them if they have nothing else to offer but their transitory beauty.
One stylistic tool Wollstonecraft uses that Smith notes is the “semi-imperative,” which includes the use of pleas and requests to her readers. She continually warns them of the effects of their bad behavior, particularly her male readers. She issues plenty of challenges to men to address the reasons and foundations for their erroneous claims of women's inferiority and their own legitimacy of authority. Overall, the Revolution in Female Manners that Wollstonecraft advocates is viewed as possible and necessary, but “despite the encouraging tone of this passage a pessimism about women pervades the work.” Men of understanding and reason must help, because without them women simply cannot overcome their weaknesses inculcated and reinforced in so many ways by society.