A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 5 : Animadversions on Some of the Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity, Bordering on Contempt | Summary

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Summary

In this chapter, Wollstonecraft critically addresses how some other writers have written about women.

Section 1: Rousseau

  • Rousseau, unsurprisingly, is a chief target. Wollstonecraft disagrees with his claims that women are weaker than men, so their role is to please men.
  • Rousseau wants the education of women to focus solely on how to please men. Her whole purpose is to be "a more alluring and indulgent companion." Wollstonecraft queries how such education prepares women to become "chaste wives and sensible mothers." She says "many women in the world ... have strengthened their own minds ... yet have never met with a hero, in the shape of a husband."
  • Wollstonecraft acknowledges men's physical strength, but says, "were it not for mistaken notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to earn their own subsistence, the true definition of independence."

Section 2: Dr. Fordyce

  • Dr. Fordyce's sermons are often recommended to young girls, but Wollstonecraft would not share them with her students. She objects to the "lover-like phrases of pumped up passion" with which he describes the loveliness of women. Speaking to women in such a way limits their ability to see themselves as "rational creatures." Fordyce suggests women need only "a small degree of knowledge" to maintain their appeal to men.
  • Although men in literature have a wide range of different characters and roles to play, women are always supposed to be the same. Wollstonecraft thinks Fordyce's description of women as "levelled, by meekness and docility, into one character of yielding softness and gentle compassion" is impossible and unrealistic. She doesn't think he intends any harm, but so many people read his books she feels compelled to respond.

Section 3: Dr. Gregory

  • Wollstonecraft returns to A Father's Legacy to his Daughters, which she admits is written with "parental solicitude," but is seriously misguided.
  • Gregory thinks all men will set out to deceive his daughters. If all men are untrustworthy, Wollstonecraft queries, why teach women to depend on men for everything?
  • Gregory warns his daughters not to be "out of the track of common life" and tells them to conceal it if they have more learning than others, particularly from men. The "dissimulation" and deceit is what bothers Wollstonecraft most.

Section 4: Other Writers

  • Wollstonecraft says she will not attempt to respond to all writers because most of them hold similar ideas.
  • She objects to Baroness de Stael's reaction to Rousseau. The Baroness is willing to forgive his sexism, but Wollstonecraft cannot.
  • Madame de Genlis wrote Letters on Education, which Wollstonecraft describes as full of unreasonable and strong prejudice, as in her expectation of "not only blind submission to parents; but to the opinion of the world."
  • On the other hand, Wollstonecraft believes Mrs. Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind deserve praise and that English historian Catharine Macaulay has not received the respect she deserved. Wollstonecraft refuses to use the phrase "masculine understanding" in referring to Macaulay, but her work "was a proof that a woman can acquire judgment, in the full extent of the word."

Section 5: Lord Chesterfield

  • Wollstonecraft turns to letters written by Lord Chesterfield to his son, which became a popular manual for the education of young men. She objects to "the art of acquiring an early knowledge of the world," asking why young men should be expected to develop wisdom about the world at a young age? She refers to the Bible and the famous line from it: for everything there is a season.
  • She rejects the idea of "blind obedience," arguing education should prepare people "to encounter the evils of life with dignity, and to acquire wisdom and virtue by the exercise of their own faculties." Wollstonecraft suggests men may develop "superior judgment, and more fortitude than women" because they allow themselves to experience "grand passions" and make mistakes. Wollstonecraft insists a young person cannot have a "just" view of life until he has experienced it for himself and she objects to "hasty premature instruction" that forms and solidifies prejudices.

Analysis

Wollstonecraft made a living reviewing texts written by other authors, and she puts her experience to work in this chapter. She quotes heavily from the authors she references, which gives a modern reader insight into how most writers of the era addressed the topic of women in society. Wollstonecraft's objections to Rousseau are well-documented. His emphasis on female frailty and the need for women to be shaped and guided by men is anathema to Wollstonecraft. She also addresses many other popular writers of the time.

Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women was almost 30 years old at the time Wollstonecraft was writing, but it was still a popular book. He was a minister, and his ideas about women alternate between praising their beauty and encouraging them to be "meek" and emotionally sensitive.

Wollstonecraft raises a new criticism of Dr. Gregory: his emphasis on the deceptiveness of men. She acknowledges his good intentions but asks a fair question: what father can encourage his daughter to depend upon her husband and then immediately warn her that her husband may deceive her? To Wollstonecraft, this inconsistency is another reason society should encourage women to think for themselves.

Female writers also come under review. Baroness de Stael was known for hosting literary salons where great thinkers might discuss the issues of the day. Both she and Madame de Genlis, an aristocrat who wrote on educational issues, were far more lenient on Rousseau than Wollstonecraft could accept. She did approve of Mrs. Chapone, who wrote a popular advice book on good conduct for young ladies. Surprising for the time, her book put great emphasis on learning and reading. Wollstonecraft praises Mrs. Chapone as "worthy of respect." She also has great respect for English historian and philosopher Catharine Macaulay.

Wollstonecraft tackles a highly popular source of advice for young men: Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. Like Dr. Gregory's letter to his daughters, Chesterfield's letters gave advice to a well-bred young man as he grows up. Wollstonecraft was not alone in her dislike of them. English author Samuel Johnson claimed they taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master."

Wollstonecraft was still a relatively unknown writer at this stage, and she needs to prove herself the intellectual equal of the men she is writing to and about. Allusions to other texts prove she is well-read and help demonstrate her point to her reader. This entire chapter serves that purpose, much the way a modern researcher might conduct a literature review of other publications in his or her field of expertise. It shows she considered herself a part of Enlightenment scholarship and was out to prove it. No better way than to join the fray and argue it out with her male "colleagues," most of whom probably wished she would just shut up and go away.

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