A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters VIII and IX: Morality Undermined by Sexual Notions of the Importance of a Good Reputation; Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society

Wollstonecraft addresses behavior and reputation and how such things can undermine a woman's morality. Women are taught very early to develop artificial behavior. They do not indulge in truths but master the art of lies and platitudes. Many do not exercise their own minds. Morality is thoroughly undermined in the female world because attention is given to show, not substance. If only a humble mind were able to ruminate upon what God wanted, it would "seldom form an erroneous opinion of its own virtues." These reflections can lead to a truer understanding of reason.

While it is easy to criticize the young unmarried woman who falls into sexual immorality, a married woman can get away with it. This is reprehensible, for she must be deceitful and childish and vicious as well as being an unfit mother in order to pull off her affair. The married woman has violated not only her respect for herself but also her duty to her family. Some women who do not love their husbands do not have extramarital affairs but rather fix their attention on themselves, exalting their unsullied reputation while at the same time neglecting their duties.

Women only desire the respect of the world, as Rousseau himself acknowledged. He wrote, "reputation is no less indispensable than chastity." This is a problematic perspective because while reputation comes from exercising virtue, women can rarely ever regain their reputation if they return to virtue, whereas men "preserve theirs during the exercise of vice." Wollstonecraft acknowledges that those accused of vice are usually guilty of it, but some may also earn a reputation better than they deserve.

Returning to the subject of reputation, Wollstonecraft writes that the attention is only given to one virtue, chastity. If only a woman's honor is safe, "she may neglect every social duty; nay, ruin her family by gaming and extravagance; yet still present a shameless front—for truly she is an honorable woman!" Of course, while women prize this chastity, men despise it and "the two extremes are equally destructive to society." Men are much more swayed by their appetites (food and sex) than women. Men should respect humanity by refusing to give into gross gluttony and other debasing forms of satiating one's natural desire for food. As for sex, it brings men and women together and allows the species to continue, but it is also a desire that must be properly controlled.

Women in her time have no duty to fulfill other than being attractive, so it is easy for them to fall into casual lust. When women also themselves to be seduced by men, both are depraved because the taste of men is indulged and women continually enslave themselves to men's desire. Additionally, when men are afflicted with diseases attained from promiscuity, they infect women, which can lead to aborted or deformed children. Wollstonecraft writes, "Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them without impunity." Men should have to support the women they ruin, or, even better, should "turn the attention of women to the real value of chastity." Women are partially guilty here, for all they care about is adorning their own person and being attractive to men. If virtue were respected for its own sake, then women would not feel the need to be compensated by vanity.

Overall, men and women can corrupt or improve each other. All mankind must endeavor to cultivate the virtues of chastity, modesty, and public spirit. There should not be a double standard for sexual conduct, for unchaste men are dangerous in that they render women barren, destroy their own health, and undermine morality.

In chapter nine, Wollstonecraft discusses the deleterious effects of unnatural distinctions in rank and class. In the most polished societies lurk the most rank and noisome creatures and a "voluptuousness pampered by the still sultry air." Property is the end, and men neglect their duties and are treated as demigods. Religion is separated from morality, yet men wonder why the world is filled with oppressors. There must be more equality in society or morality will never prevail over immorality and ignorance.

Riches and inherited honors debase all of mankind, but women are injured even more because men at least have the recourse of being a soldier or statesmen while women are confined to their private sphere. However, there is little true heroism to be found in the military anymore, and British politics is equally distasteful as it "consists in multiplying dependents and contriving taxes which grind the poor to pamper the rich." Systems of rank are preposterous and dangerous, for civilization becomes a curse. It exists of tyrants and those who are envious of them; it also gives merit to the station of life, not the duties. Even if there are some holes through which men can escape this situation, this is a "herculean task" for women.

The first duty of women is to themselves as rational creatures, then as citizens, which includes being a mother. Wollstonecraft takes up the idea of the soldier's camp as a breeding ground for heroism, as exalted by writers like Rousseau who scoffed, "How can they leave the nursery for the camp!" She is not in favor of war unless it is a just, defensive one. Of course, lest her readers revolt, she is not directly advocating that women buy guns!

Women should not be so dependent for subsistence upon their husbands. It is not possible to be generous when one has nothing, and impossible to be virtuous when one is not free. Women ought to have representation in politics instead of "being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government." They are about as well represented as the poor mechanics, men who have manual occupations or work in a trade; that is, the British system supports royals while these men can barely feed their families.

Women merely want to be ladies, just as most poor people merely desire to be rich. Women should, however, get into some professions. They could be physicians, nurses, or midwives; study politics and read history; or get involved in some business. The only occupations available to them are menial, though, and even being a governess (a typical occupation for an educated woman) is often debasing and humiliating. Often "the most respected women are the most oppressed" because they waste away their lives when they could have done something remarkable, such as work as a doctor or run a farm. A woman who earns respect by her hard work is much better off than a woman who is respected for her beauty.

Thus, Wollstonecraft concludes, "would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens."


The historical context of this work is relevant when considering its political significance in light of debates regarding the components, strategies, and ends of classical liberalism and radicalism. Literary scholar Susan Ferguson claims to demonstrate that "Wollstonecraft's critique of class and family—thought trenchant and politically explosive in her day—stops short of challenging the centrality of those institutions to liberalism."

In brief, classical liberalism reflected its cultural situation and tended to imagine that in a free economic system, property owners are also male heads of households. The public economy and the private family are seen as unchanging and natural, and the state acknowledges or guarantees rights and freedoms commensurate with property ownership and exchange. Private and public realms are separate; after all, the family is not a competitive marketplace. Socialist challenges to these ideas would criticize the "privatization and naturalization of the family and the economy" and argue that the liberal state enforces repressive constraints that effectively prop up male property owners.

Wollstonecraft does not go so far as to turn her progressive liberalism into socialism. She does criticize property ownership in her work, but only the aristocratic forms of property that interfere with virtue. She also implicitly accepts that the private sphere of the home is where a woman should be; "her programme for female emancipation assumes these institutions are necessary, good, and indeed, natural."

Nevertheless, Ferguson claims that Wollstonecraft engages in "social radicalism—a radical politics that disrupts status quo notions of governance and authority." For example, Vindication criticizes the system of unequal representation that keeps women out of the public realm and reinforces the inequality of the sexes. There is no natural reason for men to exercise superiority, since both sexes are capable of reason. She also advocates equal education for both sexes. In terms of the relationship between the private and the public, while she does politicize the private and does understand that it is to some degree artificial, she does not disrupt the "structural separation" in liberalism that protects the private sphere against government intrusion.

Overall, Wollstonecraft's radicalism was most progressive in her contemporary context. She made demands "beyond the historic possibilities imagined by a ruling class composed of those from bourgeois and aristocratic backgrounds," but her radicalism did not threaten the existence of family and class structures themselves. It thus is fair to categorize Wollstonecraft as a classical liberal who supported a free and equitable economic, social, and political system at least in terms of gender.