Wollstonecraft argues that women are “degraded by the…propensity to enjoy the present moment” and therefore don’t struggle to attain greater freedom. She defines reason as “the simple power of improvement” which ties creature with Creator. But women’s souls are not acknowledged to be reasonable; they’re expected to take things through the mediation of men, simply on trust.
Addressing the argument that women don’t seem to want freedom, Wollstonecraft points out that nothing in the usual training of women inclines them to desire it. To desire improvement, they need to be taught to exercise their reason; but they are taught to entrust themselves to the reason of men instead.
A false view of education has contributed to this erroneous view of women. Rather than being seen as “the first step to form a being…towards perfection,” it is only viewed as “preparation for life.” This system has served as the foundation for a harmful view of female manners, which denies them understanding and muffles their instincts.
Wollstonecraft argues that the educational system in England fails both sexes by being too short-sighted; it looks no farther than one’s livelihood or future prospects and does not address the soul itself. This system has especially curtailed women’s development.
Knowledge is the ability to generalize ideas—to draw conclusions based on observation. Wollstonecraft points out some of the factors that deny women this ability. One of the prerequisites for acquiring virtue is struggling with adversity, which requires sacrificing pleasure. But because society views pleasure as the primary business of a woman’s life, little can be expected from women. They prefer to sacrifice liberty for the false honor of being fawned over for a season by men, trading short-lived adoration for lifelong respect.
Wollstonecraft sees knowledge as a matter of more than academic study; it demands real-life experiences in order for people to develop their reasoning faculties. For women, a particular obstacle is that pleasure, and pleasing men, has long been considered primary in their lives; so they are shortchanged of opportunities to wrestle with adversity and develop their reason.
Wollstonecraft makes the argument that in a certain way, women are born with privileges resembling those of the rich. Women, for example, are never to be publicly contradicted, they are never allowed to exert any strength, and they are generally expected to live by sentiment instead of logic. They occupy an arbitrary station in society due to their “loveliness.” Young noblemen, similarly, aren’t expected to earn public approval through accomplishments, but to be entitled to it by virtue of their ancestry.
Wollstonecraft makes the interesting argument that women have an unearned “privilege” by virtue of being women—one that ultimately harms both them and society. Like those born into wealth, their status is not earned through the exercise of virtues, but granted on an arbitrary basis.
Whereas men are prepared for professions throughout their lives, women are given no “scheme to sharpen their faculties,” because marriage, and marrying advantageously, is considered “the grand feature in their lives.” Pleasure, in fact, is the purpose of women’s existence. But, Wollstonecraft argues, we should no more question women’s humanity because of this than we should question that of French courtiers under despotic rule, who sacrificed liberty for vanity.
Wollstonecraft, having argued that women have the same faculties as men, now argues that they have no arena in which to exercise and develop those faculties. But just because women have not had the chance to publicly display their abilities, choosing vain pursuits instead, it does not follow that their humanity is unequal to men’s.
Because women receive a trifling education, their conduct reflects this throughout their lives; they care more about adventure than about duty. They have “acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit.” They “become the prey of their senses, delicately termed sensibility, and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling.” Such things as novels, music, and poetry reinforce women’s reliance on sensation.
Superficial education shapes the kinds of things women take interest in throughout their lives and limits their usefulness to society. Because they’ve primarily trained their senses, not their reason, they occupy themselves with sensational literature and other arts. Wollstonecraft’s concern about “silly” books by and for women is recurrent throughout the work.
Wollstonecraft contends that if girls received the same education as boys, they would be much less dependent on men in adulthood, therefore more useful to society, and less subject to contempt. She quotes Rousseau’s line, “Educate women like men, and the more they resemble our sex the less power they will have over us.” This is exactly what she is arguing—she wants women to have power not over men, but over themselves.
Rousseau’s point seems to have been that women will be less desirable to men if they are taught to cultivate so-called “masculine” virtues. Wollstonecraft rejects the premise that educating women makes them “masculine”; instead, education makes them masters of themselves, no threat to anyone else.
Too often, sensibility (delicacy of sensation or perception) is put in the place of reason for women. But when the sensibility is overdeveloped—which romance tends to promote—women crave the attentions of men, seeking new lovers after their husbands cease to be interesting, or else pining in secret.
Wollstonecraft argues that “sensibility” is a poor substitute for reason. It further oppresses women by giving them little to strive for beyond love. This then threatens marriages as well.
Fulfilling domestic duties requires resolution and perseverance, not just emotion; but such things can’t be expected from women who “from…infancy, [have] been made the weather-cock” of their sensations. Usefulness requires self-discipline, without which a person is susceptible to either tyranny or self-indulgence, neither of which mold a child’s temper effectively.
Wollstonecraft points out that family life—the lot of most women—requires hard work and discipline, something that most women are unprepared for. They are accustomed to pointing in whatever direction their emotions move them. This is especially problematic when it comes to teaching children to control their emotions. This reinforces Wollstonecraft’s argument that suppressing women’s abilities doesn’t just harm them; it’s detrimental to society as a whole.
Wollstonecraft dismisses polygamy as an argument for the inferiority of women. She nevertheless argues that when a man seduces a woman, he should be legally obligated to maintain her and her children, and she shouldn’t be treated like a prostitute.
While some of her contemporaries have argued that polygamy proves women’s inferior status, Wollstonecraft suggests that inclination to practice polygamy is due to genetic abnormalities and is unnatural. She also argues that, given women’s weak status in society, accommodations should be made for those who have been “seduced”; they shouldn’t be treated as wives, but they should not be scorned and cast off, either.
Wollstonecraft shows compassion for “those unfortunate females who are broken off from society…by one error.” Often, she argues, it’s not even a question of error, but of an innocent young girl being duped and “ruined” before she can distinguish between virtue and vice. Lacking any other means of support, such a girl often takes refuge in prostitution, with catastrophic effects on her character. Because of the deficiency of women’s education, “her character…depends on the observance of one virtue.”
Wollstonecraft offers an argument, progressive for her time, that “ruined” women do not deserve the ostracism and disgrace they typically experience; it’s possible that such women, or girls, were incapable of making a morally informed choice in the matter. And since they can’t provide for themselves, it only makes sense that such women will resort to morally degrading means of survival. Overall, it’s a grievous disservice to women when their character is reduced to upholding a single so-called “virtue” (chastity), which they do not always have complete control over anyway.
Wollstonecraft argues that it’s best for marriage to be founded on friendship rather than love, since these two forms of affection aren’t ultimately compatible; friendship is based on principle and respect, whereas love, founded on passion, inclines toward vanity and jealousy.
Wollstonecraft, again showing her bias toward reason, doesn’t see love as enduring, because it arises from the passions instead of from reason. Women must be equipped through education to fall back on lasting friendships with their husbands after initial passion subsides.
Middle-class women’s preoccupation with ornamental clothing, mimicking the fashions of the nobility, has a further narrowing effect on character, confining their thoughts to their bodies. Uneducated poor women, who have to strive to hold their families together, often display far better sense, persuading Wollstonecraft that “trifling employments have rendered woman a trifler.” Overall, while there are exceptions, most women don’t have the opportunity to exercise their understanding sufficiently to rise above their circumstances.
Wollstonecraft’s bias toward republican virtues of simplicity comes through here—she idealizes the inherent good sense of poorer women who lack the demoralizing luxuries characteristic of better-off women. In a footnote, she offers a few examples of rare female intellectuals who have risen above societal prejudices, including ancient Greek poet Sappho, medieval thinker Heloise, and Russia’s Catherine the Great.