A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters X and XI: Parental Affection; Duty to Parents

When parents govern their children; they can tend to tyranny and relish power without restraint. If reason were to become the rule of duty in life, however, such tyrants would have cause to tremble. Some view parental affection as a "pretext to tyrannize when it can be done without impunity, for only good and wise men are content with the respect that will bear discussion."

Since women are often slaves to prejudice, they can rarely exhibit enlightened maternal affection; rather, they either neglect or spoil their children. Sometimes their affection for their children is brutish. Since the care of children is a grand duty of the female sex, it only makes sense that there would be many arguments for "strengthening the female understanding." The formation of character begins early in children, and it can be problematic if a mother loves her children only out of duty or just because they are her own children. The lack of reason is what makes mothers run into the extremes and be careless or unnatural mothers.

Meek wives are foolish mothers because they only desire their children's love and depict the father as the "scarecrow." A woman must have independence of the mind to be a good mother. The use of a nurse can be deleterious to the growth of parental affection, and it is only through parental affection that "filial duty" is produced.

In the next chapter, Wollstonecraft discusses duty to parents. She deplores the fact that old principles and ways of doing things are rigidly adhered to; blind obedience is customary and "a mysterious sanctity is spread round the most arbitrary principle; for what other name can be given to the blind duty of obeying vicious or weak beings merely because they obeyed a powerful instinct?" A reciprocal duty entails that parents raise children while they are young and helpless, and the children later assist their helpless and elderly parents. However, there is no reason to obey a parent only because they are a parent; this shackles the mind and leads to submission to "any power but reason." Parents who are blindly obeyed are usually obeyed out of sheer weakness that "[degrades] the human character." A lot of the misery of the world stems from the negligence of parents, but these people will voraciously defend their natural right even though it is subversive of the birthright of man, which is to act according to his own wisdom.

Indolent parents of high rank do extort a large degree of respect from their children, especially females. Females are particularly dependent on their families and their viewpoints; this is apparent in nearly every country. As John Locke points out in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, "a slavish dependence to parents cramps every faculty of the mind." This is most commonly observed in females and may contribute to their weaknesses. The duties required of females are more intense, are arbitrary, and come from a sense of propriety, not reason. These women usually grow up to be tyrants in their own marriages.

In contrast, a parent who works to form the heart and enlarge the understanding of her child, based on reason, discharges the correct type of duty to a child and will gain in return the correct type of parental affection. The child will listen to the parent's advice because it is reasonable and rational. Parents who set a good example for their children will commonly receive the natural effect of filial duty. Children cannot be taught too early how to submit to reason. Wollstonecraft believes that "it must be allowed that the affection which we inspire always resembles that we cultivate; so that natural affections, which have been supposed almost distinct from reason, may be found more nearly connected with judgment than is commonly allowed."

Girls learned the lessons they will practice on their husbands from the way in which they were brought up as children. Of course, it is difficult to remedy all of these evils, for it almost would seem that girls must be taught to despise their parents until their parents prove their worth. Esteem and love must be blended together in the first affection, however, and "reason made the foundation of their first duty" so as to secure morality.


Wollstonecraft's two chapters on parenting contain some of the same themes she has been developing over the course of the treatise. Parents are in a position like rulers of a state; that is, if they exercise reason and earn their children's respect and obedience on the basis of fair treatment and embodiment of virtue rather than tend toward tyranny and absolutism, their children will grow up to be more virtuous and rational citizens. It is dangerous for parents to expect their children to heed them on the basis of nothing more than the fact that they are their parents. Much of Wollstonecraft's argument is owed to the writings of John Locke in the Second Treatise of Civil Government, which discusses the differences between a state of nature and a state of governance, the danger of absolute power, and the necessity of the consent of the governed.

Parenting is, of course, an extremely important duty for men and women who have children. From Wollstonecraft’s perspective, women in particular, owing to their deleterious education and society's molding of them as mere playthings and insipid objects of adoration, are often poor parents. They either desire their children's affection and thus shower them with gifts and unwarranted praise, or are neglectful of their duties due to their own self-centeredness. Since young girls model their behavior after their mother's, it is unsurprising that new generations of girls grow up to be silly and narcissistic themselves. In other ways, women also tend to tyrannize over their children and husbands due to their complete lack of power and autonomy in any other capacity. We have seen these arguments several times in earlier chapters.

In terms of Wollstonecraft's feminist ideology, many scholars have commented that later writers have been much more radical about the duty of mothers. That is, she not only argued that women had a duty to perform as mothers, but also that they generally should care for their family from home. Education and the revolution in female manners that she calls for would make women better wives and mothers within the traditional social structure, making them equal partners in the family without challenging traditional gender roles. Women should be educated, they should exercise reason, they should participate in politics and be better citizens, and they should perfect their virtue. However, for Wollstonecraft, all of that should be done with the intent of becoming better wives and mothers, even though Wollstonecraft also argues for expanding the range of professions available to women. Catrionia MacKenzie argues that "the net effect of Wollstonecraft's account of virtue is to leave intact the structures of women's subordination."

Of course, Wollstonecraft was aware that some financial independence was necessary for women to attain self-governance. They would continue to be emotionally dependent upon and controlled by men if they remained financially dependent upon men. Her novel The Wrongs of Woman dealt with the various ways women were unequal under the law and how it rendered them feeble and dependent. Financial independence is also significant in that it allows a woman to develop virtue and self-esteem, she recognizes. She explained that property and marriage laws should be reformed, education should be improved, and, perhaps, representation in government should be implemented.

Unfortunately, as MacKenzie points out, "Wollstonecraft had no clear proposals for how the changes she advocated might be compatible with the maternal 'duties' that she seemed to think were natural to women." Contemporary feminists thus tend to object to the Vindication in that it presents "an ideal attainable only by middle-class women." Radical feminists go even farther and argue that, despite her suggestions of changing marriage and property laws, "her critique of civil society works by trying to extend the contractual relations of civil society into the private sphere rather than by challenging the association between the masculine/feminine distinction and the tensions within the liberal public sphere between justice and love, contract and kinship, individuality and community." It is up to the reader to decide how far Wollstonecraft’s first principles actually ought to lead and whether other, more radical principles are necessary to accomplish what MacKenzie seeks.