Bodily strength has come to be regarded with contempt, especially for women, because it’s seen to detract from grace and appealing weakness. Wollstonecraft argues that, with regard to women’s weakness, an effect has been taken for a cause. She holds that “strength of mind” has most often “been accompanied by superior strength of body.”
When “feminine” grace, weakness, and beauty are elevated above other values, women’s physical health and strength suffer. Here, as elsewhere, Wollstonecraft sees a conflation of the effects of societal oppression (women’s weakness) with their cause (limiting women’s activity). She also sees a close link between the mind and the body.
While physical strength is rightly the boast of men, women are “infatuated” with physical weakness. Women use this weakness to gain sway over men, but in doing so, they “[sacrifice] virtue…to temporary gratifications.” This degrades women’s character and is correspondingly bad for society as a whole. In educating their daughters, therefore, parents should not allow girls “to imbibe the pernicious notion that a defect can…become an excellence.”
Wollstonecraft thinks it’s true that men are physically stronger than women, but women have been encouraged to weaken themselves deliberately and turn that weakness into a desirable attribute, chiefly because it allows them to attract and flatter men. But, she argues, it’s nonsense to turn a negative thing into something praiseworthy in itself.
Even if women are naturally weaker than men, it doesn’t follow that they should try to become even weaker. Wollstonecraft points out that young animals require continual exercise, but children, especially girls, are closely watched, kept dependent, and limited to sedentary indoor play. If girls are kept in such a cramping environment, then it’s no wonder they show a preference for dolls, dresses, and idle chatter. But it is “unphilosophical” to draw the conclusion that these interests are somehow natural. In fact, it would be harmless for girls and boys to play together, if sex distinction weren’t stressed at such a young age.
Wollstonecraft draws on evidence from the natural world to suggest that children, like other young creatures, require freedom in play for the sake of health and development. She denounces the illogical conclusion that just because girls prefer certain activities, it necessarily means that those preferences are somehow intrinsic to girls. She even makes the radical recommendation that children’s play not be gender-segregated, arguing that if distinctions weren’t heavily stressed at an early age, they would not become such a big deal.
“Dependence of body naturally produces dependence of mind,” and a sheltered woman who’s constantly preoccupied with the threat of sickness won’t make a good wife or mother. Such women are “slaves to their bodies,” and what’s worse, they “glory” in this. When women are taught from a young age to confine their concerns to beauty, their minds will “only [seek] to adorn” their prison.
Wollstonecraft again underlines the close connection between body and mind—arguing that if women constantly fear sickness and focus on their looks, they will seldom rise above bodily concerns, making them inadequate spouses and parents in the process.
If women are trained to be and treated as “viceregents” ruling a small household domain, then it’s not surprising that some will undertake a reign of terror; “having no fixed rules to square their conduct by,” they will behave according to the whim of the moment. And any woman, even one married to a sensible man, will find herself at a disadvantage if she is widowed; a woman who has “never thought, much less acted for herself,” will be hard pressed to educate and provide for her children, or to find another husband who will treat her justly.
If women are not given principles for behavior, they will have no consistent rules governing the way they treat their families—potentially leading to disaster. Moreover, no wife is guaranteed the lifelong protection of a husband; an uneducated widow finds herself and her children in a deeply vulnerable position.
Wollstonecraft sums up her argument by denying that there is such a thing as sex-specific virtues. But in her context, virtue for women has become relative and subjected to mere utility, which men shape to their convenience. Even if women generally must fulfill different duties in life than men do, these are still human duties, which should be regulated according to the same principles which govern the duties of men. Women must therefore learn to exercise their understanding, so that they can submit to reason, not human opinion.
The prevailing idea of “virtue” for women is primarily geared toward the desires of men, but Wollstonecraft rejects the idea that virtues can be different for women and men; different duties do not imply different virtues. The only way to undermine this prejudiced system is to enable women to exercise their mental faculties fully, allowing them to discern the difference between reason and mere opinion. Wollstonecraft’s confidence in Enlightenment principles is evident once more.