Wollstonecraft wants to prove that the weakness of mind and body willfully perpetuated by men in women prevents them from discharging their particular duties, namely motherhood. One example of such weakness is ignorance, which unscrupulous cranks prey upon—such as those who tell horoscopes for money. A Christian woman, she argues, should not believe that a charlatan in disguise holds the secrets of the future. The same goes for belief in hypnotists, whose “hocus pocus tricks pretend to work a miracle.” She argues that while “it is easier to touch the body of a saint, or to be magnetized, than to restrain our appetites or govern our passions … health of body or mind can only be recovered by these means.”
Wollstonecraft disdains certain hobbies popular among middle-class women that illustrate the sadly undeveloped state of their reason. No reasonable person would resort to fortune-tellers or hypnotists to guide their lives; virtue and duty should occupy that role. She believes that “rational religion” only submits to a being who is “reasonable”; charlatans make a mockery of that.
Another feminine weakness, the result of a narrow education, is “a romantic twist of the mind,” or sentimentality. Women who are taught to be overly reliant on their feelings often neglect their duties and fall into vice. Such women are “amused by the reveries of the stupid novelists.” When women aren’t allowed into the higher business of political life, “sentiments become events,” and they “imbibe opinions” which insipid reading inspires. “Unable to grasp anything great, is it surprising that they find…disquisitions addressed to the understanding intolerably tedious?” Nevertheless, she grants that even reading a silly novel is better than reading nothing.
Wollstonecraft is not dismissing the importance of literature with these remarks; rather, she was very concerned about the popularity of sensational, romantic novels among her peers, believing that they only reinforced women’s excessively sentimental tendencies. At the same time, she acknowledges that most women have not been educated so as to develop a taste for more sophisticated and beneficial reading material.
Wollstonecraft also argues that the excessive attention to dress is not actually a propensity of women, but is common to humanity. But the “immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure, and for sway” shows women to be uncivilized. Their tendency toward exclusive affections, poured into their husbands, children, and pets, is likewise an indication of a confining education, not of genuine generosity of spirit.
Wollstonecraft identifies other behavior patterns that have traditionally been considered “natural” for women, arguing that these are actually signs that women have not had sufficient opportunity to develop their reason and virtue.
Wollstonecraft names a few more “follies” to which women are subject, such as neglecting or indulging their children. Wollstonecraft also argues that if women nursed their babies, childbirths would be spaced at wider intervals, preserving mothers’ health. And if they undertook a more rational system of managing the home, women would have more time to, for instance, read literature or cultivate a taste for fine arts. But greater domestic happiness will not be possible until women’s minds are preferred to their bodies.
Wollstonecraft’s views about breastfeeding and household management accord with her belief that nature and reason ideally work in tandem. But these options are not readily available to most middle-class women because of the way society encourages them to focus their energies on physical beauty instead of on engaging their intellects.
Wollstonecraft sums up her argument that women must acquire more rational understandings and affections in order to be more useful to society. A “revolution” in female manners is needed. While Wollstonecraft has not tried to downplay female faults, she has sought to demonstrate that they are “the natural consequence of their education and station in society,” which means they will change when women are afforded their due freedoms. If this does not prove to be the case, then men should “not mark more severely what women do amiss” than mere animals do; “allow her the privileges of ignorance, to whom ye deny the rights of reason, or ye will be worse than Egyptian task-masters, expecting virtue where nature has not given understanding!”
Wollstonecraft uses the word “revolution” for the first time in the book, no longer letting her political sympathies remain implicit. In closing, she argues that if women are granted freedom and their lives fail to evolve as expected, then men should rightfully dominate over them (obviously, she does not believe this will happen). She ends with another provocative reference, this time to the Egyptian slaveholders who kept the biblical Hebrews in captivity. If indeed nature hasn’t granted women the capacity for understanding, then it’s better to treat them like irrational creatures than to expect impossible things from them. If society undertakes needful structural changes, however, women’s potential can be expected to shine forth more and more.