A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 2 : The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed | Summary

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Summary

  • Wollstonecraft claims differences between men and women are largely because of how girls are raised. She acknowledges qualities men complain about in women; Wollstonecraft calls these "the natural effect of ignorance" because society teaches women that being beautiful is all that matters.
  • She argues education should be shaped to each individual person, but it should also reflect "the opinions and manners of the society they live in." Unfortunately for women, society strictly limits female education. Wollstonecraft argues the best education will "enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent."
  • Objecting to how men write about female education, Wollstonecraft says they have made women "more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been." Rousseau is a particular target. Wollstonecraft criticizes his idealized view of women, which is represented in his character Sophie, who is "captivating" but "grossly unnatural." She objects to Rousseau's claim that a woman should be "made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire."
  • Wollstonecraft also disapproves of Dr. Gregory's book, A Father's Legacy to his Daughters. Gregory believes women are naturally fond of dressing up, but Wollstonecraft asserts that a woman focuses on clothes because a well-dressed woman commands attention. She says Gregory tells women to lie about ways in which they are not "typical" and that he also recommends a woman never tell her husband how much she loves him. Wollstonecraft fiercely rejects such deceptions.
  • She argues men should not be made responsible for women's moral and intellectual growth. If men became perfect at "maturity," maybe his wife could depend on him to guide her, but adult men "are often only overgrown children ... if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence."
  • Wollstonecraft claims love should "not be allowed to dethrone superior powers," arguing marrying for love is not always a practical choice. Instead, she writes that a good marriage should be based on friendship rather than love.
  • From a theological perspective, Wollstonecraft states that a woman's education prepares her for marriage, yet the Bible says there is no marriage in Heaven. Using a rhetorical question, she asks readers: how are women prepared to go to Heaven given the education they receive?
  • Wollstonecraft asserts women's feelings of inferiority have increased because of their treatment. She claims women must be given room to develop and "then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale." If, after they are given opportunities, women do not prove equals to men, then men's superiority will be clear. Just as kings do not always prove to be better than ordinary men, Wollstonecraft suggests that men will not always be better than women: "As sound politics diffuse liberty, mankind, including woman, will become more wise and virtuous."

Analysis

Having written broadly about equality and society, Wollstonecraft now turns to her main issue: women's education. Wollstonecraft experienced the education—or lack thereof—of a typical middle-class English girl as she grew up. She also ran a school for girls, served as a governess, and published her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. In 1792 a woman would not be considered an expert, but Wollstonecraft was, in fact, an expert on women's education. She demolishes one of the most common beliefs about women's education at the time: that men should manage women's education for them. In this section she moves from more broadly accepted principles to her women-specific arguments. She reminds the reader that kings and courtiers are not always better than the common man—a point that would find favor among most of her readers—then transfers that argument to men and women, suggesting not all men are always better than all women.

Just in case the logical argument is not sufficient, Wollstonecraft throws in an emotional/spiritual appeal, suggesting women's immortal souls may be endangered by their poor education. She rejects virtually everything previously written on this topic, particularly targeting Rousseau and Dr. Gregory. Rousseau's book Emile, published almost 30 years earlier, is a natural target for Wollstonecraft; it is guaranteed to inflame any supporter of female education. Rousseau describes the ideal education for a young man, Emile, to develop as a moral and virtuous person. Wollstonecraft might have few arguments if he had stopped there, but Rousseau also weighs in on the education of Sophie, Emile's intended wife. Sophie is taught to be submissive to Emile and to please him. Rousseau does not think women are stupider than men, but he consigns them to what he views as their "natural" role. This is precisely what Wollstonecraft is fighting against and it will not be the last time Wollstonecraft argues against Rousseau.

Wollstonecraft also objects to Dr. Gregory's A Father's Legacy to his Daughters, a far less lofty tome than Rousseau's works. Gregory was a physician who advised his daughters on how to live their lives. His book was a popular gift to young ladies in the 18th century. Gregory's advice was predictable, but Wollstonecraft vehemently disagreed with much of it, especially with the suggestion women should lie and deceive to make themselves "acceptable" by societal standards.

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