Mary Wollstencraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women
This feminist reading by Wollstencraft begins with the gender reality of her
time which was extremely unequal. She attributes the role and subjugation of
women to the tyrannical amount of power man has held over the role of
women. Men and women are given two different and very unequal guidelines
to achieving virtue.
In response to Milton's depiction of women Wollstencraft responds by saying
he must mean "we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and
docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer
soar on the wing of contemplation."
Men are ignorant, thus they are guided by that ignorance in their suppression
of women. From birth they are taught to be genteel and delicate flowers that
are pure and docile in manner content on following the heels of man. Their
"innocence" is essentially a weakness. Men are doing a great injustice in
keeping women in a constant childlike state.
Important themes: Virtue, Education, Marriage, Sensibility,
Is a very important in society as a means to "... sharpen the senses, form the
temper, regulate the passions as they begin to ferment, and set the
understanding to work before the body arrives at maturity; so that the man
may only have to proceed, not to begin, the important task of learning to
think and reason." The education received is always shaped by the society an
individual lives in. For Wollstencraft, the perfect education would be one that
results in the individual’s independent pursuit of virtue from their exercise of
reason. She is applying Rousseau’s argument to women. Until manners and
times change, the application and societal acceptance of Wollstonecraft’s
argument for reasoned pursuit of virtue will take time and acceptance from
both men and women.
She claims that writers in female education such as Rousseau and Dr.
Gregory have depicted women as artificial and weak characters- essentially
claiming that one half of the human species are useless members of society
and degrade the work that women do. From Rousseau’s argument of reason-
when men reached perfection of mind when his body arrived at maturity,
woman and man should become one and she should wholly rely on his
understandings. Wollstonecraft humorously refers to men as overgrown
children who are just as childlike and ignorant as they assume women to be.
There are many causes that contribute in the enslavement of women; the cramping of their sunder standing and sharpening their senses and the one
Wollstonecraft believes does the most damage is the disregard of order which
is a direct result of their education. Most of the knowledge women acquire is
more desultory than man and from observations of life experiences. They are
led by dependent and domestic employments into society; learning is only
secondary and is subordinate to the perfecting of her own beauty. "They
dwell on effects, and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and
complicated rules to adjust behavior are a weak substitute for simple
Proving that education leads to the appearance of weakness in women, she
compares this situation to that of military men who are "sent into the
world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or
fortified by principles."
Both with similar consequences: "soldiers acquire a little superficial
knowledge, snatched from the muddy current of conversation..." similar to
the snatches by which women are educated. But where is the sexual
difference? Wollstonecraft sees it only as the superior advantage of liberty
which allows one to see more of life than the other (man).
"The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals
and knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance
with the grand ideal outline of human nature." Both military men and women
are driven by their feeble understanding of life, of social etiquette and
She argues to strengthen the female mind by enlarging it which will result in
the end of blind obedience, but this blind obedience is needed for the tyrants
and sensualists to keep women in the dark. The sensualist is the most
dangerous of tyrants because in their quest for power they have continually
kept women in the dark.
Ex. Wollstencraft alludes to Rousseau's character Sophia in his novel Emile,
whom while captivating, is grossly unnatural. But it isn't Sophia’s character
she plans on attacking, but the foundation of her character, the principles her
education was built on.
Women are, therefore, to be considered either as moral beings, or so weak
that they must be entirely subjected to the superior faculties of men.
Rousseau argues that women should never for a moment feel herself
independent and that she should be governed by a fear to exist in her
'natural' docile state. She responds to Rousseau’s insolence by stating that if
women are by nature inferior, their virtues must be the same and their
conduct should have the same principles and the same aim. She doesn’t mean to insinuate that either sex should lose the order of things
as to forget their duties that lie before them, "on the contrary, I would warmly
recommend them, even while I assert that they afford most satisfaction when
they are considered in their true, sober light."
She states that while the constitution of the bodies men seem to be designed
to attain greater virtue" this shouldn't discount women from attaining virtue,
which should hold equal weight for both sexes, morally and intellectually.
Therefore "cunning should not be opposed to wisdom, little cares to great
exertions, or insipid softness, varnished over with the name of gentleness, to
that fortitude which grand views alone can inspire."
Not meaning to offend and speaking disrespectfully about love, Wollstencraft
argues that preparation should be made for the more important years of life
rather than waste them away during youth. Rather than have their existence
revolve around the objective to simply please, there is no reason for women
to be subservient to love or lust. Women will not lose their graces if they
pursue knowledge and become self-reliant. What will she do "Whe