Wollstonecraft argues that “to account for, and excuse the tyranny of man,” many have argued that men and women should aim to acquire different virtues. In fact, “women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire” real virtue. But Providence has appointed only one path to human virtue; so if women have immortal souls, there can be no secondary path to virtue.
Key to Wollstonecraft’s argument is the claim that there can be no such thing as “gendered” virtue. She believes that God has created human beings with souls capable of virtue, and there are not distinct, sex-differentiated tracks for attaining virtue.
Men complain of women’s folly, but, Wollstonecraft holds, folly is only the natural result of ignorance. Women are taught all their lives that cunning and outward propriety “will obtain for them the protection of man,” and that as long as they’re beautiful, they don’t need to worry about anything else for at least 20 years of their lives. Innocence in children is a good thing; but when applied to adults, it’s a synonym for weakness.
When Wollstonecraft argues for education, she means “such an attention…as will slowly sharpen the senses, form the temper, regulate the passions…and set the understanding to work.” Though education can’t work miracles, she does believe that through this process, every person is capable of becoming virtuous. Such habits of virtue allow for personal independence.
Wollstonecraft gives her definition of education, which is clearly based on Enlightenment principles of Reason’s reign over the senses, personality, and passions. Being educated with the goal of virtue leads to individual freedom, also underlining her political belief in liberty.
Wollstonecraft admits that she might be considered arrogant for taking on writers on this subject from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, but she believes that all of these writers’ works have served only to make women weaker and less useful to society.
Wollstonecraft is bold in publicly critiquing prominent male writers—something that would not have been common in her time.
One of the things that has most served to limit women’s education, Wollstonecraft says, is “disregard of order.” The training of men tends to be methodical from birth; women’s education, by contrast, is marked by a “negligent kind of guess-work.” This indicates a “contempt of the understanding in early life,” and leads to women picking up information in a piecemeal fashion throughout life, often by observation. Thus, women enter adulthood having learned “by snatches,” as a secondary emphasis, and without sufficient rigor to master any subject or strengthen the overall judgment.
Wollstonecraft begins explaining the factors that have contributed to inadequate education for women, beginning with its typically disorganized character. Training for men is purposeful, but women are taught without any apparent method or goal, leading them to devalue learning and leaving their reasoning faculties underdeveloped.
Wollstonecraft draws a comparison with military men. Like women, soldiers are given superficial knowledge, then sent out to mix with society, where they emulate manners, but gain no real understanding of humanity. They “practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness.” She uses this as evidence that there is no fundamental sexual difference, where educational background has been so similar.
Poorly educated soldiers are a favorite example for Wollstonecraft. At this relatively peaceful time in British society, soldiers had little to occupy them except to develop rather superficial social graces. From this similarity in outcome between men and women, Wollstonecraft argues, we can conclude that women do not lack the capacity for virtue.
Women must be “considered either as moral beings,” or as so weak “that they must be entirely subjected to the superior faculties of men.” Rousseau takes the latter position, arguing that women therefore should not cultivate truth or fortitude (“the corner stones of all human virtue”), but obedience. Wollstonecraft counters that, even if women are naturally inferior to men, their virtues must still be the same in quality, and thus their conduct “should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim.”
There is no middle ground, Wollstonecraft argues; either women are moral beings or are deservedly subjected to men as their superiors. Rousseau makes the latter case in his work Emile, an educational treatise written some 30 years before the present work. Wollstonecraft counters that, since there are no gender-distinct virtues, women should strive for the same virtues as men, even if it were to be demonstrated that they can’t reach the same level of virtue as men.
Women’s moral character is important because of their duties to parents, husbands, and children; yet, more importantly, they should work “to unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.”
Wollstonecraft consistently upholds traditionally feminine roles and duties to the family, but she goes beyond moral philosophers of her day in that she sees virtue as an end to be pursued for its own sake, not only for the sake of women’s responsibilities to others.
Wollstonecraft argues that if women have immortal souls, there is no reason to make women constantly “subservient to love.” She acknowledges that downgrading love is “high treason against sentiment,” but that she wants to address the head rather than the heart. She doesn’t mean to “reason love out of the world,” but to prevent love from “[usurping] the scepter which the understanding should ever coolly wield.”
It is degrading for women as human beings, Wollstonecraft argues, to be expected to live as if their concerns should rise no higher than romance. Her comment about “high treason” is heavily sarcastic, an indictment of the prevalence of emotion and sentiment in contemporary writings by and about women. While love has its place, she believes, it is secondary to all-important reason—her Enlightenment commitments once again shining through.
While love is an appropriate focus for both men and women in their youth, Wollstonecraft says, “in those days of thoughtless enjoyment provision should be made for the more important years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation.” Unfortunately, Rousseau, and male writers like him, say that the entire goal of women’s lives is to please men.
Wollstonecraft reiterates that romance has a role in most people’s lives, but it is ultimately a minor and short-lived one. That’s why, contra Rousseau and his fellows, overemphasizing love does a disservice to women (and men) who will long outlive the most passionate season of life.
Wollstonecraft argues that writers who argue as Rousseau does do not understand human nature. When the passion of youth passes, what are women to do then? Unless a woman is motivated to activate her “dormant faculties,” it’s likely that she will seek to please men besides her husband. The study of “pleasing” that’s pressed on women is, therefore, entirely inadequate; in fact, it’s “only useful to a mistress.” Women’s concern should be, instead, to “purify their heart,” but this is impossible when most women have been taught to amuse themselves with vanities and have never been encouraged to curb their emotions.
Wollstonecraft argues that when the usual educational path for women is followed to its logical conclusion, it sometimes leads to women becoming mistresses. This is because women aren’t taught to regulate their emotions appropriately and to pursue goals higher than romance. This is an example of an important undercurrent of Wollstonecraft’s thesis, which is that the dominant approach to women’s education undermines morality for society as a whole.
Wollstonecraft scorns writers like Dr. Gregory who urge women not to develop too much “delicacy of sentiment,” lest they be shocked by their husbands’ shortcomings in this regard. Women should rather “acquire the qualities that ennoble a rational being,” and not “model [their souls] to suit the frailties” of their spouses.
Typically, writers who limit women to the pursuit of love put a damper on the acquisition of all virtues, warning them not to surpass potential husbands in their attainments. Wollstonecraft argues that this is degrading for a rational human being, whose soul should be “ennobled” for its own sake.
Women, Wollstonecraft charges, are only encouraged to develop the so-called virtues of “gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection,” to prepare themselves to be the toys of men in the present, but to make no preparations for the future state of their souls. The implication of most writers is that women were “made to be loved,” but “must not aim at respect, lest they should be hunted out of society as masculine.” But Wollstonecraft thinks it is questionable whether “passive indolent women make the best wives.” Do such women have “sufficient character to manage a family or educate children?”
The virtues women are typically encouraged to acquire have very limited utility; remaining fixated on the concerns of the present, they fail to do justice to women’s immortal souls. Wollstonecraft scathingly points out that desiring respect is viewed as “masculine” by her society. Ironically, too, the characters formed by traditional values don’t actually serve the needs of one’s husband or family well in the long run.
There can be no direct comparison of men and women with regard to virtue, Wollstonecraft says, until women’s “faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength.” Even if it’s shown, in time, that women can’t attain the same degree of virtue as men, “let their virtues be the same in kind.” In short, let a woman strive for her God-given rank in the world, instead of artificially suppressing her.
The arguments of writers who claim that women are inferior in virtue are premature, because women haven’t had sufficient opportunity to prove themselves. Anyway, Wollstonecraft contends that there is no risk in letting women strive for greater virtue, even if it’s proven that they are unequal to men in this way.
Wollstonecraft points out that kings have always been acknowledged to be inferior in virtue to the masses, yet they’re treated with reverence; men submit to them in order to enjoy the benefits of their favor. This is analogous to what women have always done in submitting to men. If servile courtiers are moral agents, then “it cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.”
Wollstonecraft demonstrates the inadequacy of the argument that women must be inferior to men because they have traditionally been subjugated to men. The same could be said about those who submit to kings, but the moral status of such people has never been questioned. Here, again, Wollstonecraft makes an implicit critique of monarchy.