A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 9 : Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society | Summary



  • Wollstonecraft takes aim at society in general because it respects people of wealth rather than people of worth. She reminds the reader of the proverb about the devil employing idle people and asks what causes more idleness than hereditary wealth. Wealthy women, she points out, often choose not to care for their own children. How can society expect virtuous women if it only teaches them to be beautiful and well-mannered?
  • Duty is very important to Wollstonecraft: "Society is not properly organized which does not compel men and women to discharge their respective duties." She claims true happiness comes from affection and "an affection includes a duty" (for example, toward children). Wollstonecraft says a woman's first duty should be to herself and her second to her children, if she has them. She paints vivid images of a woman nursing her baby and a woman caring for her children—with a maid to help keep the house tidy—and claims this family will be happier than other even wealthier households because all members of the family have affection and duty. She does specify the family would need enough money for its necessities plus a little extra for books or to give to the poor.
  • Wollstonecraft briefly addresses how men can ennoble themselves in their professions, but she argues that few men truly do so. She claims they are more involved in gambling and fun than in nobly doing their jobs.
  • Directly attacking the way laws treat women, Wollstonecraft compares women to "poor African slaves" and objects to laws that "make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by ... only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cypher." Women are deprived of their natural rights because they have no identity other than as an adjunct to their husbands. Wollstonecraft makes the point that upper-class women who neither breastfeed nor actively raise their children don't deserve civil rights: "to render her really virtuous and useful, she must not, if she discharges her civil duties, want, individually, the protection of civil laws."
  • In one of her most revolutionary statements, Wollstonecraft claims "women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government." She acknowledges her idea may find ridicule, and she admits there are many citizens, not just women, who lack true representation in government.
  • Wollstonecraft also wants job opportunities for women. She suggests they "study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses. And midwifery, decency seems to allot to them." Business is another option for them "if they were educated in a more orderly manner." She recommends women study politics and history rather than solely reading romances. If society permitted women to work, they would not marry solely for financial support, she argues.
  • At the time Wollstonecraft wrote this book, working women received bad treatment, with many employers treating them no better than prostitutes. The jobs that are open to women are mostly menial, and even jobs like governess are not respected. Wollstonecraft blames the government because it "does not provide for honest, independent women, by encouraging them to fill respectable stations."
  • Wollstonecraft writes "How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!" She warns women that if they continue to tolerate a society that only values them for their beauty, they should consider the view society will have of them when their beauty fades: "I wish, from the purest benevolence, to impress this truth on my sex," but she fears they will not listen. Wollstonecraft asks men to help "snap our chains and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience."


The first part of this chapter demonstrates Wollstonecraft's narrow view of life through a middle-class or upper-class lens. She paints an idyllic picture of family life, noting casually that she assumes the family has money enough for a maid and some luxuries. Most families in England at the time could afford neither a maid nor sometimes even the bare necessities, much less extras like new books. Wollstonecraft's narrow focus could be a result of several factors. First, her audience is middle and upper class—average laborers would not have had the money to purchase her publication and would be functionally illiterate. Second, she holds middle- and upper-class women at fault because they could be more socially active and choose not to be. Lower-class women had no such choice: if they didn't work hard, their families starved. Third, Wollstonecraft came from a comfortable, middle-class background, so she is writing about the class of people she knew. Perhaps most importantly, Wollstonecraft identifies the middle class as being the most "natural" and possessing the fewest bad habits about idleness and vanity. Therefore, she focuses on a middle-class family.

The African slavery to which Wollstonecraft refers is slavery on Caribbean islands possessed by the British. She was aware of the American slave trade, but focused on the British slave trade. There are multiple references to slaves in her book Vindication of the Rights of Man, published in 1790. Wollstonecraft's use of the term slavery in this book, however, reflects women's lack of control over their own lives.

Up until this point Wollstonecraft's plan for women's rights has seemed relatively mild. Now that she has persuaded her reader of her good sense, she launches her more revolutionary ideas: representation in government and careers for women. At that time women could not vote, and there would not be a female member of the British Parliament until the early 20th century. While some mostly lower-class women did work, these jobs were typically "menial," as Wollstonecraft describes them. She suggests women might become doctors—in fact, the first female physician in the United States would not graduate medical school until over 50 years later (Elizabeth Blackwell, 1849), and the first female doctor in Great Britain (Elizabeth Anderson) would not graduate until 1865. Wollstonecraft also suggests women might run a business, which was considered shockingly unladylike at the time. Clearly some personal history influences this section, as Wollstonecraft writes ruefully of the disrespect visited upon governesses. Earlier in her life she ran a school with her sister and a friend, but when the school failed, she took a job as a governess. The treatment she received was not respectful, so she was well aware how poorly some employers treated a woman who had to support herself and her children in the world.

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