A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 11 : Duty to Parents | Summary



  • Wollstonecraft now addresses children's responsibility to their parents. "If parents discharge their duty they have a strong hold and sacred claim on the gratitude of their children," she says, but most parents instead demand "blind obedience." The relationship between parent and child is rational, she argues: the parent helps the child in infancy and the child helps the parent in old age. But some parents insist on controlling their children's lives even after the children are grown. This, she says, causes damage to the family relationships and to the child's morality. Wollstonecraft wants to "distinguish between the natural and accidental duty due to parents."
  • She says children are inclined to listen to their parents' advice, even after they are grown. A parent who helps the child grow deserves such respect "and his advice, even when his child is advanced in life, demands serious consideration." She gives the example of marriage, saying a 21-year-old son might reasonably marry anyone he chooses without parental consent, but a son younger than age 21 might wait for a few years out of respect for his parents' wishes. However, she says, most parents do not treat their children this way. Instead, they demand unreasoning obedience and "implicit respect," which is due only to God.
  • According to Wollstonecraft, much of the world's misery "is allowed to rise from the negligence of parents." She describes parents "of high rank" who "extort a shew of respect" but drive the child to bad behavior because of their tight control. She suggests parents could, but don't, talk to their children as follows: "It is your interest to obey me till you can judge for yourself," following that with "when your mind arrives at maturity, you must only ... respect my opinions, so far as they coincide with ... your own mind."
  • Things are even worse for female children. Wollstonecraft suggests this tight control breaks the spirit of a child, citing Locke: "if the mind be curbed and humbled too much in children ... they lose all their vigor and industry." Girls are groomed to be slaves in marriage, and if they are not slaves, Wollstonecraft says, they are tyrants.
  • "Children cannot be taught too early to submit to reason," she insists. She acknowledges commanding a child is easier than reasoning with the child, but "the irregular exercise of parental authority ... injures the mind, and to these irregularities girls are more subject than boys." Wollstonecraft observes how girls learn to manipulate their families and later use these skills to manage their husbands. She sadly concludes of women: "when their first affection must lead them astray ... little can be expected from them as they advance in life."


Teachers get a first-hand view of how parenting affects a child's development, and Wollstonecraft, like many teachers, formed strong opinions about parenting. She warns parents not to demand "blind obedience" and encourages them to reason with their child. For England in 1792 this is positively scandalous parenting advice. Reasoning with a child sounds distinctly closer to modern parenting methods. Parents of Wollstonecraft's time were more likely to cite the Bible about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Yet Wollstonecraft argues a child must learn to figure things out for himself or herself—problem-solving in today's school curriculum.

Wollstonecraft claims girls suffer more from bad parenting than boys because society permits girls less freedom. Using extravagant images, she describes girls as either slaves or tyrants because their parents either completely control them or parents spoil them and they refuse to listen to any good advice.

Wollstonecraft also addresses how parents might speak to their grown children. She encourages the children to be respectful of their parents, but not so respectful as to submit to acts that go against their better judgment. This does not seem to have happened to Wollstonecraft personally, as her father would likely not approve of the life choices she made. No doubt she saw the effects in friends, family members, or former students who married or made career choices to please their parents rather than themselves.

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