A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapter XIII: Some Instances of the Folly Which the Ignorance of Women Generates; with Concluding Reflections on the Moral Improvement That a Revolution in Female Manners Might Naturally Be Expected to Produce

There are plenty of follies particular to women, and Wollstonecraft explains that her goal here is to point out those follies most harmful to women's moral character. She divides this chapter into smaller sections on specific topics.

In the first section she calls attention to people who prey on women by predicting the future using astrology. Women flock to them ignorantly, not seeing them as the charlatans they are. Wollstonecraft adds that going to a soothsayer belies the Christian religion in that this activity violates God's commands. A Christian woman cannot really believe God would allow his prophets to lurk in cities and charge money to dabble in astrology.

Women are also swayed by magnetizers, who are mesmerists or hypnotists who claim to treat bodily or spiritual infirmities. Actual physicians should be aware of the basics of medicine and anatomy; they should adhere to a regimen, "another word for temperance, air, exercise, and a few medicines, prescribed by persons who have studied the human body" as "the only human means, yet discovered, of recovering that inestimable blessing health." The swindlers, however, are motivated merely by money, not "superior temperance or sanctity." They are merely "priests of quackery." It is even worse when they claim to be Christians. Rational religion must be based on reason, not these devilish pursuits. One cannot respect God and give credence to such manipulative liars.

In the second section, Wollstonecraft turns to women's romantic, "sentimental" twist of the mind. They read stupid and silly novelists who know nothing of real human life and spin sordid, tawdry tales to draw the heart and mind away from real duties. Women's attention is focused not on important community issues but on these minute fictions. Their "sentiments become events." They shy away from reading history, which they find boring. Of course, it is better to read something than nothing, but novels are quite dangerous. Women should not read such silly and irrelevant works but instead "read something superior." The way to get women to avoid these novels is to ridicule them, but this should not be done indiscriminately, throwing away the good with the bad, and the proper discrimination should come from someone whom they admire.

In the third section, ignorance and cunning lead to a woman's over-fondness of dress. When a mind is not open to reflection or rumination, extra care is given to one's outward appearance. This can be observed in slaves and servants as well. The author adds that whereas men have friendships, women are all rivals. Even virtuous women are concerned, nonetheless, with trying to be agreeable above all else. The "immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure, and for sway" is the passion of savages as well as civilized women.

In section four, Wollstonecraft states that women are supposed to possess more humanity and sensibility, but there is nothing noble about ignorance. They usually become selfish, no different than children or animals. This affection is the result of their confined status and views; even sensible, smart women can rarely rise to heroism in their circumstances. Friendship is more commonly found in the male world than the female world, and men also tend to have a higher sense of justice. And she points out, "how can women be just or generous, when they are the slaves of injustice?"

In section five, the subject of childrearing is heeded. Children are unutterably affected by a mother's ignorance. Education's job is usually to correct the abuses perpetrated by a silly mother. Women treat their servants poorly in front of their children and set a bad example, yet they often rely on those servants to practically raise their children. Conversely, they also treat their children like little idols or demigods and give them whatever they desire. Nature has made it the duty of women to raise their children, but they are not equipped to do so by the current state of sexual relations. Women cannot be more affectionate until equality is achieved, until "ranks are confounded and women freed."

In section six, Wollstonecraft begins her concluding remarks. Moralists agree, she writes, that virtue needs liberty to develop. Women's minds should be cultivated to love their country; one cannot be expected to love what one does not understand. Public virtue is only an aggregate of private virtue. There must be a revolution in female manners. Husbands and wives also must have more in common to strengthen their marriages because "virtue flies from a house divided against itself—and a whole legion of devils take up their residence there."

Most of these follies stem from the tyranny of man, and women's cunning is produced by their oppression. Most of women's faults are a "natural consequence of their education and station in society." If women could share with men fundamental rights and freedoms, they would more likely become virtuous and progress toward perfection.


One quite salient component of Vindication is its author's near-misogynistic tone when cataloguing the various faults, flaws, and follies of women. Although Wollstonecraft asserts several times that the predominant reason for women's oppression and low status is men's subjugation of them, she does not shy away from heaping vitriol upon her own sex. In chapter thirteen in particular, her scorn is manifest as she sharply criticizes women for visiting fortunetellers and healers as well as reading stupid novels. One critic, Susan Gubar, refers to this critique as "feminist misogyny." The critic Christine Skolnik defines this further: "The double bind of the abject category of the feminine lies in the (ironic) principle that anyone who likes being a woman would not need to be a feminist." Wollstonecraft might respond that women can hardly be blamed for being stunted by an oppressive system and that being a woman does not mean those awful things she is criticizing.

To sum up the Vindication, Wollstonecraft firmly lays the blame for the subordinate status of women with its concomitant rendering of them as facile, self-absorbed, and useless creatures at the feet of men. Men have long denied women education and the ability to develop their reason and virtue. They are kept in a state of slavish dependence, both emotionally and financially. In their girlhood they are taught that only their external beauty matters and that the goal of life should be to attain a husband. That husband is usually a man unfit for marriage, since rakes best attract the attention of insipid girls. Women are barred from meaningful employment and are confined to the home. Within that home they are often poor wives and mothers, as their oppression results in their own exercise of tyrannical power over their household. Women become cunning and duplicitous.

Wollstonecraft’s message is that changes in education, the law, political representation, and general perception of the capacity of women to reason must be implemented. Boys and girls should attend school together, and girls should be privy to the same subjects as boys. Some professions, not just menial ones, should be open for women, who should have a degree of financial independence so they are not rendered utterly helpless if their husband dies. They should even have some representation in politics so they are not rendered so subordinate. All of this follows from the fundamental premise that women too have souls and the ability to reason, while contemptuous stereotypes regarding women's "natural" deficiencies perpetuate the injustices she has catalogued and explained.

Wollstonecraft's Vindication would go on to be one of the most read and discussed books in the 19th century women's movement in America. It was viewed as an important foundation of feminism for feminists in the 1970s, even though many of them found several of Wollstonecraft's assumptions disturbing. Non-Christian and explicitly atheist feminists do not see a need to include Christianity and invoke a Creator in order to argue for equality based on human reason. Other feminists have denied that women's primary duty is motherhood simply due to their reproductive capacity. Still others have denied that gender is a fixed entity that is defined by one’s culture or even one’s anatomy.

Scholar Julia Kristeva's article "Women's Time" identifies three phases of the women's movement, the third being "the most recent grouping of avant-garde feminists who 'having started with the idea of difference' are attempting to break free of 'the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities' which should now be understood as 'belonging to metaphysics'" (quoted in Barbara Taylor). Such differences between Wollstonecraft and later feminists provide rich fodder for discussion about whether there even exists something distinct that can be called the "rights of woman."

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