A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters VI and VII: The Effect Which an Early Association of Ideas Has upon the Character; Modesty--Comprehensively Considered, and Not as a Sexual Virtue

The insufficient education women receive, coupled with their subordinate status in society, render them defected. Early associations and ideas tend to have a determinate effect upon their character. Acquiring knowledge, on the positive side, offers a great advantage. The association of ideas is either habitual or instantaneous, with the latter mode "seeming to depend on the original temperature of the mind than on the will." Ideas are taken in until a circumstance makes them dart into the mind with force. We have little power over these quick associations, and reason can obtain little sway over them. Humans tend to prefer these poetic feelings and flights of fancy, fleeing from sensible objects until an author shows them the truth and they benefit from his eyes.

Thus, education "only supplies the man of genius with knowledge to give variety and contrast to his associations; but there is an habitual association of ideas, that grows 'with our growth,' which has a great effect on the moral character of mankind; and by which a turn is given to the mind that commonly remains throughout life." Females tend to be more habitually enslaved to first impressions than males because they do not move about in larger society and occupy themselves with significant concerns as males do. Everything they see or hear fixes their associations and calls forth emotions, but these are of a sexual character and they are weakened and rendered delicate and sickly. Women are usually ridiculed for their rote learning, but how can they be held responsible, she asks, when they are not allowed to let reason govern their conduct and can only learn in a rote fashion?

Rakes thus find it easy to appeal to women, who shun reasonable and sensible men because their feelings are not as affected and they have "few sentiments in common." It is a bit absurd to expect women to be more reasonable than men in matters of love when men themselves turn from the mind to beauty when they are looking for a female companion. Love and arbitrary passion reign by their own authority and are not privy to reason; "common passions are excited by common qualities."

These superficial accomplishments give the rake the edge with women, for they are "rendered gay and giddy by the whole tenor of their lives" and shy away from wisdom. Women do not understand that true beauty arises from the mind, but it is not wholly their fault because they are conditioned to think in this manner. The rake will always have the advantage until conditions change.

If the revolution Wollstonecraft desires were to occur, reason would take the place of emotion and people would "quickly learn to despise the sensibility that had been excited and hackneyed in the ways of women, whose trade was vice; and allurements, wanton airs." When choosing a husband they would not be led astray by the qualities of a lover. Passion could subside into friendship, and they would be happy.

Overall, it is impossible to blame a woman for desiring a rake, for "can they deserve blame for acting according to principles so constantly inculcated? They want a lover, and protector; and behold him kneeling before them—bravery prostrate to beauty!" Only misery can truly ensue from this state of affairs, and only reason can bring independence and freedom.

In the next chapter, Wollstonecraft turns to a discussion of modesty, which is "the sacred offspring of sensibility and reason!" It is necessary to distinguish between the purity of mind that is the effect of chastity and the simplicity of character that leads an individual to form a just opinion of themselves distant from vanity and presumption. Modesty is the soberness of mind that teaches a man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to, and can be distinguished from humility, which is a kind of self-abasement.

Modest men are steady where humble men are timid and vain men are presumptuous. Modesty is a virtue and a mean, not a quality. The purity of mind that supports chastity is nearest to the refinement of humanity that cannot happen in any but the most cultivated minds. Through her ruminations on the subject, Wollstonecraft has concluded that women who have most improved their minds are also the most modest.

In order to bring modesty forth from chastity, it is necessary for women to avoid employments that only exercise sensibility. Women who pursue intellectual activities have a greater purity of mind than those who are occupied with gay pleasures.

Even though women are more often chaste than men, it is doubtful that chastity actually produces modesty (although it can produce propriety of conduct). Women do have the advantage in propriety of conduct, as men often display impudence, gross gallantry, and forwardness. It does not make sense that women can grow more virtuous if both men and women do not strive toward more modest conduct. It is unfortunate that when it is necessary to check a passion or defend honor, the burden is thrown upon the woman's shoulders; this is contrary to reason or true modesty because women are weaker and bravery is supposed to be a manly virtue. Men boast of their triumphs over women, but this is unfair because men are to be the directors of a woman's reason and her protectors. The favorite men pretend to respect women but inwardly despise "the weak creatures they consort with."

Turning back to women's upbringing once again, Wollstonecraft points out the falsities women are told from their childhood onward. Their passions take the place of the senses and begin to form their character. In nurseries and boarding schools women are in close confines with each other; this is deleterious because they are too familiar with each other, which can make their later marriage states unhappy. Girls should be washing and dressing alone regardless of their rank. The nasty customs they are used to should be overturned, and "that decent personal reserve which is the foundation of dignity of character, must be kept up between woman and woman, or their minds will never gain strength or modesty." In terms of dressing, women tend to dress only for the men of gallantry.

Similarly, Wollstonecraft objects to the shutting up of women in convents and schools. Their silly tricks and jokes are improper. If she were to name the graces that adorn beauty, she would choose "cleanliness, neatness, and personal reserve."

Women are also habitually indolent. Until they can strengthen their bodies and understanding by active exertions, modesty will never take the place of bashfulness. Modesty mixes kindly with all other virtues and is to be desired.

In terms of marriage, it is improper to prolong the passion and ardor of early courtship; rather, common appetites and passion should be kept in check by reason for both men and women. This obligation to check is the duty of mankind, not a sexual duty. Overall, "nature, in these respects, may safely be left to herself; let women only acquire knowledge and humanity, and love will teach them modesty."


Wollstonecraft takes an Aristotelian rationalistic view of the virtue of modesty. The rational man or woman finds the mean between self-debasing humility and brash presumption. Recognizing this kind of argument, one can revisit some of Wollstonecraft’s other distinctions and find a similar pattern. For example, a mother should find the mean between the extremes of coddling her children and tyrannizing over them.

Much of the rest of these chapters is similar to earlier material, so we again take the opportunity to reflect on the broader context. The word "sublime" is used by Wollstonecraft 21 times in Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In chapter six she writes, "In order to admire or esteem any thing for a continuance, we must, at least, have our curiosity excited by knowing, in some degree, what we admire; for we are unable to estimate the value of qualities and virtues above our comprehension. Such a respect, when it is felt, may be very sublime" (118). In chapter seven she writes, "Yet, that affection does not deserve the epithet of chaste which does not receive a sublime gloom of tender melancholy, that allows the mind for a moment to stand still and enjoy the present satisfaction, when a consciousness of the Divine presence is felt—for this must ever be the food of joy!" (124) Wollstonecraft's use of the word is not merely a stylistic device; she also took on the idea of the sublime, especially as promulgated by Edmund Burke, and dealt with its use not only as a stylistic mode but also as an important associative in gender relations.

The literary scholar Christina M. Skolnik discusses Wollstonecraft's use of the sublime in a 2003 article. She begins by noting the debt to male writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Rousseau, Burke, and Paine. Her work is consistent with the rhetorical conventions of the time, but since she cites those conventions in a different context, she actually constitutes a challenge to that discourse community. She accomplishes this by adopting a masculine voice (perhaps the only respectable one for philosophers at this time) and critiquing Burke's arguments and style in accordance with the established critical tenets of the sublime that her contemporaries were also using.

According to Skolnik, Wollstonecraft uses the sublime in five discernible ways. The first is that she uses "references to the divine as a supreme power and arbiter." She writes that people's rights are due to the divine will, transcending gender. The second "is reference to great civilizations and the passage of time" that transcends and ultimately levels them. The third is in her prose, which "uses classical tropes and figures and is elevated by such usage," taking more of a rationalistic than an emotional flight of spirit. One example, as Skolnik points out, is personification of principles and qualities: "reason, truth, virtue, and religion are personified throughout her text and often gendered female. At other points in the text, however, reason, virtue, and justice are described as masculine characteristics. This mixing of gendered associations is typical of Wollstonecraft's rhetoric throughout both Vindications and parallels the shifting qualities of her prose style as well as her rhetorical critiques."

The fourth way is the use of apostrophe. In this work Wollstonecraft addresses her work not just to Burke but to a larger audience and often women in particular. Finally, Skolnik sees the sublime in Wollstonecraft's valorization of social justice and equity "through association with both the transcendent and the terrifying characteristics of the sublime." Morality and reason are described through the lens of the sublime, providing a kind of heavenly utopia, whereas social injustice is likened to a hell on earth, in the low reality of present circumstances. Overall, the sublime is both an aesthetic category and an expression of the gender-transcendent value of social equity.

Thus Wollstonecraft has mixed the Classical and the Romantic. Skolnik ends her article with a discussion of the gender construction of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft has challenged the traditionally masculine and feminine virtues by criticizing their tendency to render women corrupt, useless, or stunted. To the degree that gender is a social construct, it has resulted in problems by separating gender from nature and reason. Her visionary idea that sexual character is shaped by society offers the possibility of a future in which society offers ways for all people to maximize their virtue.