A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Discussion Post #2

Chapter Four

In this and the next chapter, Wollstonecraft covered numerous topics, of which I will attempt to focus on some important ones.

The author explained that the simplest way to improve yourself is through reason, or knowing how to discern truth, which is her evidence for the universal education of women.

But some men and women saw education incorrectly: that it is not for the perfection of one's character, but for the preparation for life's work only. And since women are taught to exist for the pleasure of men, they draw all of their power from their beauty, which, as I have said before, is quite temporary.
Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch. It is true they are provided with food and raiment for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty, and virtue, are given in exchange.
Wollstonecraft said again that women were treated like children, unable to care or think for themselves. She did not believe men should show "respect" by doing for a woman what she was perfectly and physically able to do for herself, like "lift a handkerchief or shut a door."

Another observation: that men were educated for a future profession, developing necessary reason and character, while marriage was an option after all else was achieved; yet, for women, marriage was the only focus of attention and hope for their future.

About sensuality and emotions: the author believed that women, like both sexes of the rich, "have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit." They had been "weakened by false refinement that, respecting morals, their condition is much below what it would be were they left in a state nearer to nature." This caused women to be unstable, contradictory, and fleeting in emotion, unable to use reason and good judgment. Women were considered weak emotional creatures, "a mixture of madness and folly." No wonder they were treated like children.

Wollstonecraft was in favor of educating women as men were educated, not so women could be like men or even have power over men, but rather, "so women may have power over themselves," to think independently and to be morally and virtuously accountable.
Without knowledge there can be no morality.
If women were expected to educate their children and manage a household, "...reason [was] absolutely necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly; and...sensibility is not reason." Meanwhile, some believed a woman's power was her sensibility, which was a great disservice to women and the men who would eventually marry them.

Wollstonecraft did respect marriage and referred to it as the "foundation of almost every virtue," but she did not agree that love and friendship could exist together. I think she meant lust, not love, because she called love "an animal appetite," which eventually expired. (Sounds like lust to me.)

Finally, the author ended this chapter with concern for the idleness of young women who had few employments to keep their minds occupied and distracted from their emotions, permitting men to "enslave women."

Chapter Five

Chapter five was so long, but this is where Wollstonecraft called out writers who objectified women.

The first was Rousseau who believed women to be naturally agreeable and that their education should keep them passive and weak, whereas men, being stronger, should rule over them. He said women should be educated according to their particular "temperament or character, tastes and inclinations." Rousseau wrote:
Woman and men were made for each other; but their mutual dependence is not the same. The men depend on the women only on account of their desires; the women on the men both on account of their desires and their necessities: we could subsist better without them than they without us.
(And I said, "Whoa!")

He also wrote:
...the education of the women should be always relative to the men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advice, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy. 
(I'll just leave that there.)

Rousseau believed that women should learn restraint so that they may easily be obedient to their husbands, and Wollstonecraft warned that an oppressive environment would push a woman to adultery.  Rousseau also advised women to preserve their seduction within the marriage to make it last longer because love in marriage is otherwise short lived.

The second writer, Dr. Fordyce, encouraged women to behave meekly and gracefully, while Wollstonecraft asked why they could not be taught true grace, which was an independent mind.

Personally speaking, this Dr. had many misunderstandings about women. He was surprised that women complained when husbands left them alone or were indifferent towards them; Dr. Fordyce blamed the women for not being more respectful, obedient, or tender! Wollstonecraft argued that it was not perfect behavior that captured a husband's heart, but "esteem, the only lasting affection, that can alone be obtained by virtue supported by reason. It is respect for understanding that keeps alive the tenderness for the person."

The next writer was Dr. Gregory Legacy. He was complicated because his advice appeared pleasant and careful, but Wollstonecraft called it dangerous toward "morality and manners of the female world." Legacy believed women should withhold knowledge so as not to appear superior to men. Instead, the author shared:
Make the heart clean, and give the head employment, and I will venture to predict that there will be nothing offensive in the behavior.
 Dr. Legacy also advised women to focus on their beauty, something Wollstonecraft always wrote sharply in opposition.

In a fourth section, the author encouraged readers to submit to the authority of reason.
The being who can govern itself has nothing to fear in life...
She then referenced particular women who supported the ideas of writers like Rousseau. One woman admitted that, "All our arts are employed to gain and keep the heart of man..." Another woman agreed with Rousseau for encouraging women to be idols of adoration. How many times does Wollstonecraft have to say that beauty cannot keep men's attentions for very long?

In the final section, Wollstonecraft discussed how an education of experience may improve one's character, and she argued how wrong it was to withhold the knowledge of the world, including very difficult truths, from young people. She said,
A knowledge at this period of the futility of life...if obtained by experience, is very useful, because it is natural; 
She also added warnings for moderations, creating idols, passions, prejudices, and habits. And she ended: you cannot be both moral and worldly; you must choose one road.


Wow, this one felt long to me, but it was full of great insight that caused me to rethink some of my own prejudices. She expounded deeper on opinions and ideas from the first three chapters; therefore, some of her remarks may seem repetitive.

One of my prejudices that I struggle with is this: I believe in masculine and feminine traits, but where do they begin and where do they end? Wollstonecraft may not be arguing these ideas, per se, but there may be some cross over. Where she encouraged girls to exercise their bodies and be strong, I thought about how God designed us: He did design women to be physically strong, to a degree, even if it is not equivalent to masculine strength; hence there can be nothing wrong with women strengthening their bodies to their fullest potential. Yet, for so long I accepted that a woman could not do work that required physical strength because it was for a man to do. This is just plain silly on my part, and I will never look at it this way again, nor will I require it of my girls. That is just one example of how this book is reversing my silly notions.

Discussion Questions

How about you? Are any of Wollstonecraft's ideas changing the way you think? Is there anything you disagree with, even some of her comments about minor details that I did not bring up? (She had some odd things to say about polygamy.)

Share a favorite quote.

Prior to reading this work thus far, did you know anything about Jacques Rousseau? If so, what was your opinion about him before? Has it changed now? What works of his did you read? Would you be interested in reading anything by him in the future?

What do you think of her argument that love (or lust, I think) diminishes in marriage and why equality should exist so that a woman is her husband's friend, equal in ability to reason and discern?
(I actually believe lust diminishes, as maturity in love grows deeper. Love is more of an act than an emotion, even though we use it as such.)


  1. Yeah, this part was fascinating, and full of zingers! It took me a while to process my thoughts, but here's my post for Week 2: https://www.classicsconsidered.com/2019/04/a-vindication-of-rights-of-woman-week-2.html

  2. Women are rendered weak by men and by circumstances, Wollstonecraft repeats this again and again ad nauseam. She expounds on several reasons why women are rendered inferior. I'll be brief this time and leave just one reason I found very intriguing. Wollstonecraft identifies novels as a major source of the propagation of these injurious ideals for women. She writes that "novels, music, poetry, and gallantry all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed in the mould of folly during the time they are acquiring accomplishments" (61)
    Have a nice week.

    1. Good point about the novels, etc. If you return for an answer...let me ask you this: do you believe she is blaming the novels for encouraging weakness in women's character, or is she pointing out that the novels highlight women in weakness, making a spectacle of them?

    2. I think she thinks the reason women were held back is because they (women) thought they were supposed to be pleasing to men in their appearance and manners, which is problematic since beauty is fading. Their education is fragmentary and geared towards their attainment of a husband. She alluded to these issues in earlier chapters. I must confess that I've already finished the book and can say that in later chapters she develops this viewpoint a bit further, saying that "stupid novelists, who knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious senses, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste, and draw the heart aside from its daily duties." "For these women, sentiments become events, and they do not want to read anything else of substance. The reading of novels makes women, and particularly ladies of fashion, very fond of using strong expressions and superlatives in conversation." Mary seems to me to resist this style of writing, instead she appeals to reason while still expressing her emotions regarding the poor state of women in her society. So to answer your question, I think mostly she blames the novels or at least certain types of novels, but she too must also hold the novelists in contempt as she addressed them as 'Stupid.' I'm guessing here, but in her heart of hearts she must surely mean both male and female novelists since some of the female writers hid the fact that they were women. Surely, her contemporaries: Austen, Eliot, Burney, Manley, Behn and Haywood must be included in this contempt. Sorry my answer was so long.

    3. No problem....

      Thanks for explaining in depth.

      I think this is still a problem today, of course. In media and entertainment of all kinds, we see the objectification of women, if I can use that term. In many cases, it is women who are deceptively selling themselves as perfect objects, not only to men, but other women; and it is a great disservice to both sexes.

  3. Great comments!

    - Rousseau - have you read him before?

    I have read The Social Contract + the 2nd Discourse — but I don’t think there is anything like the arguments Wollstonecraft quotes in those works.

    "novels, music, poetry, and gallantry all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed in the mould of folly during the time they are acquiring accomplishments"

    - Do you believe she is blaming the novels for encouraging weakness in women's character, or is she pointing out that the novels highlight women in weakness, making a spectacle of them?

    I think it is mostly the former — novels, music, & poetry encourage weakness in women b/c they present it as desirable.

    1. Hey, Beth,


      If you ever want to experience Rousseau, to see what he's all about, check out his autobiography...Confessions. It's definitely enlightening. No pun intended.

  4. HI there. I wasn't going to comment because there's so much to chew on, but I'll say this. It seems that authors who make these sweeping sociological statements are presuming a certain amount of omniscience and also presupposing that individuals, women, in this instance, don't have free will, or, ironically, a mind of their own. "Society", be it through culture or novels etc..determine their self-worth and attitude.

    I think humans are way more complicated than that and I also disagree that women were treated less respectfully then. Wollenstonecraft associated with a liberal, Bohemian group of people who had rejected God and normal morals, and I think there is a certain elitism in her attitude.

    Your review of this book is really good and I appreciate it.

    1. Sharon, I am sensing this, too. While I read, I wonder, by her observations and experiences, why women were so incapable of correcting these mistreatments themselves. Some of her arguments are against women themselves for being so helpless.

      I think there is some truth to what she says...but she also walked right into it in her own personal life. She believed marriage was good, but she gave herself to a man outside of marriage.

      She seems to reference God frequently, but again, it is hard to know to what degree she believed b/c she did not always practice what she preached.

    2. Marion H. set me straight that this book was written by the mother of Mary Shelley. I thought it was written by the daughter. The daughter hung out with an immoral, Bohemian crowd She also ran off with Percy Blythe Shelley while he was married to another woman and only married him after his wife committed suicide. Hence, my somewhat cynical view of the book. I still think what I said was right about the book, but I now realize that I am thinking of a different person.

      Well, I was just reading up on Wollstonecraft. She had several affairs as well. Hmm....

    3. Oh, what a mess! Ugh!

      Well, thanks for the clarification. Nonetheless, it's all still a mess.

  5. I would quite like to see Rousseau manage without some women in his life.

    1. Yeah, me, too. They were like mommies to him. :D