A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 8 : Morality Undermined by Sexual Notions of the Importance of a Good Reputation | Summary

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Summary

  • Wollstonecraft challenges the overriding importance of a "good reputation." According to Wollstonecraft, people claim "respect for the opinion of the world" is "the principal duty of woman." Such advice, Wollstonecraft claims, may actually help destroy a woman's morality.
  • Wollstonecraft cites examples of women "in high life" who are unfaithful to their husbands out of boredom or a desire for additional praise. She describes women in loveless marriages who spend all their time indulging themselves, even at the expense of their own children. Yet these women, she says, are still praised for "their unsullied reputation."
  • English philosopher and economist Adam Smith suggests people are rarely held responsible for crimes they do not commit, but "the established opinion of the innocence of his manners will often lead us to absolve him where he has really been in the fault." Wollstonecraft agrees, suggesting people should worry more about what God thinks of them than what other people think.
  • Wollstonecraft suggests a single rule: "to cherish such a habitual respect for mankind as may prevent us from disgusting a fellow-creature for the sake of a present indulgence."
  • Society puts too high a value on chastity, she says. A woman may do almost anything to her family, as long as she remains chaste. She cites the English historian, Catharine Macaulay, who refutes the idea that a woman who has lost her chastity is utterly ruined as a human being. Instead, she posits that total rejection by those close to them ruins many of these women.
  • According to Wollstonecraft, "men are certainly more under the influence of their appetites than women," drawing a parallel between food and other appetites. She attributes female weaknesses to "one grand cause—want of chastity in men." She claims women become more "voluptuous" in an effort to please men, saying some women will even reject pregnancies or babies in order to please men. Wollstonecraft concludes that "the two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other."

Analysis

Wollstonecraft now addresses a controversial topic—women's sexuality. Later in her own life, Wollstonecraft's personal and sexual choices damaged her reputation and diminished the impact of this book, but in this chapter she writes cautiously. She primarily criticizes loose sexual morals in upper-class society, a safer topic. She does explore a few more daring points, however. She cites Catharine Macaulay, a female historian who also wrote about education. Macaulay advances the idea, revolutionary for the time, that a woman who has been sexually active outside of marriage is not a ruined person. Macaulay and Wollstonecraft were not engaging in hyperbole: society considered women who were sexually active outside of marriage no better than prostitutes. Some even ended up as prostitutes after their families rejected them. Wollstonecraft also briefly mentions abortion and infant abandonment, practices, which at the time, were considered morally repugnant and, in the case of abortion, illegal. As usual, Wollstonecraft lays the blame for women's shortcomings on men. This may seem like feminist male-bashing, but Wollstonecraft makes the reasonable argument that if men want to take responsibility for women's education, they must also take responsibility for the outcomes.

Wollstonecraft continues to demonstrate her own intellectual credentials, citing both Macaulay and Adam Smith in this chapter. To a modern reader, Adam Smith is known for The Wealth of Nations, but at that time he was known more as a philosopher than an economist. Wollstonecraft quotes from his Theory of Moral Sentiments, using Smith to bolster her argument that reputation may sometimes shield a person from justified criticism.

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