Wollstonecraft examines contemporary writers’ objectionable claims about women, starting with Rousseau. In his book Émile, he argues that women were formed to be weak and passive, for the pleasure of men. Men, in turn, are to try to please women, to “obtain [their] consent that he should be strongest” She altogether rejects the idea that woman was created for man, calling the Genesis account “beautiful, poetical cosmogony.”
Rousseau’s argument is a prime example of the male-centered limitations on women’s potential that Wollstonecraft rejects. She is even radical enough to question the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s account of the creation of woman as man’s helper.
Rousseau argues that since women are created differently from men in temperament and character, they ought to be educated differently. Because women are dependent on men, their education “should be always relative to the men”—to be useful to them, secure their love, take care of them, and make their lives easier. Little girls, he says, are naturally more interested in dress and personal ornamentation and should be encouraged in this. In response to these claims, Wollstonecraft argues that “the effect of habit is insisted upon as an undoubted indication of nature.” When women are not allowed to develop their reason, they are naturally subjected to authority instead.
Rousseau’s argument is based on what he sees as women’s natural, rightful subordination to men—since their primary goal in life is to please and serve men, why give them education that won’t serve those ends? Wollstonecraft responds that this is, once again, a confusion between cause and effect; women are acting as they have been trained to do for a long time, but that doesn’t mean their behavior is “natural.” Given how long a view like Rousseau’s has prevailed, she adds, it’s not surprising that women often cling to men’s authority instead of wishing to break free of it.
Wollstonecraft grants that men have superior physical strength, but argues that if women were allowed to develop their strength such that they could earn their own living—what she calls “the true definition of independence”—their minds would profit as well. Girls should therefore be allowed to enjoy the same exercise as boys, so it can be proven to what extent men’s superiority extends—“for what…virtue can be expected from a creature when the seed-time of life is neglected?”
Because most of the claims about male superiority are based on unfounded assumptions about women, Wollstonecraft says that valid evidence is needed in order to determine to what degree men may be superior. Her call for women’s financial independence is radical for the time, and something she sees as unlikely to be realized unless girls are nurtured toward independence from a very young age.
Wollstonecraft points out that all Rousseau’s view of education achieves is to render a woman “beautiful, innocent, and silly,” able to be little more than a “mistress” to a husband for a short time. She concludes that his educational method isn’t even well suited to the ends he has in mind; is “the surest method to make a wife chaste…to teach her to practice the wanton arts of a mistress?”
Wollstonecraft believes that Rousseau’s view of women and marriage amounts to little more than a form of “virtuous coquetry,” teaching women to attract men, but not equipping either man or woman with the virtue needed in order to build a lasting relationship founded on mutual respect.
Wollstonecraft sums up this discussion by stating that “the pernicious tendency” of such educational books “in which the writers insidiously degrade the sex whilst they are prostrate before their personal charms, cannot be too often or too severely exposed.” She urges women to strengthen their minds “to become a balance for our hearts,” subordinating every other duty to this, in order to prepare “our affections for a more exalted state.” Women are not created “to flutter our hour out and die,” concerned only with sensibility and pleasure.
Wollstonecraft’s denunciation of Rousseau’s Emile, and books like it, is scathing. Such books fail to appeal to women’s minds, much less their souls, and thus have a dehumanizing effect. Women must work to bring mind and heart into balance and rise above the inadequate models provided for them.
Wollstonecraft next takes up James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women. She complains that that the writer’s exhortations “[melt] every human quality into female meekness and artificial grace.” She also heavily critiques his “lover-like phrases of pumped up passion,” wondering, “why must [women] be cajoled into virtue?” If women were taught to respect themselves as rational creatures, then there would be no need for such flattery.
Wollstonecraft deals more briefly with the writings of Fordyce, a Scottish minister whose 1766 collection of sermons was very popular. She does not find the sermons worthy of much comment, criticizing their reductionistic treatment of virtue and their patronizing, romanticized appeal to women. She thinks that such sentimental works would not be appealing if women understood their self-worth.
Dr. Gregory’s Legacy to His Daughters is another offender. His remarks on female behavior, Wollstonecraft says, begin “at the wrong end,” since a well-cultivated understanding and affections won’t require “starched rules of decorum”; when someone’s reason has been properly trained, external goads to behavior are not so necessary. She especially objects to Gregory’s recommendation that women downplay whatever learning they have so as not to provoke jealousy; “where are rules of accommodation to stop?” She despises the “system of dissimulation” this creates.
Dr. John Gregory was a Scottish doctor and moralist whose instructions to his daughters were published and became popular after his death. Wollstonecraft argues that Gregory just imposes rules without acknowledging that women have any ability to reason for themselves. In fact, he advises women to conceal any learning they have so as not to scare off men—which is not only offensive, but establishes a pattern of deceit that’s harmful to women and their relationships.
Wollstonecraft argues that because man’s authority rests on “a chaotic mass of prejudices” instead of on reason, there’s no “sinning against the order of things” in going against it. But women are seldom able to do this, having been taught to submit to their own feelings, and thus being subjugated to the whims of others; they begin to “adopt the sentiments that brutalize them.” She is convinced that once women are “sufficiently enlightened,” they will give up the prerogatives of unequal love for “the calm satisfaction of friendship” and act reasonably both before and after marriage.
In keeping with her Enlightenment perspective, Wollstonecraft argues that prejudiced views are rightfully resisted, since they are not founded upon reason. However, most women are not yet in a position to resist, since they don’t understand their own capacities or potential. By way of example, she briefly names a few women authors whose arguments support oppressive sentiments.
Wollstonecraft makes a few more general remarks on education, claiming that we tend to ask too much of instruction—“precepts are heaped upon precepts,” requiring blind obedience, instead of expecting young people to acquire wisdom through the development of their own faculties. Part of the process of gaining wisdom takes place through disappointment and failure. It’s better to let a young person struggle with unruly passions, even at the risk of sorrow, in order to grow in true knowledge and virtue.
Wollstonecraft’s vision for education involves more than classroom lectures based on instructors’ authority. For her, the heart of learning is experiencing life for oneself, especially through struggle. If this were not true, then we really shouldn’t seek anything but pleasure out of life. Students need to actively pursue and fight for virtue by exercising their reason; it can’t be a passive process.
Again, people “expect from education, what education cannot give.” A parent or teacher can do what’s within their power to sharpen a child’s faculties, but “the honey must be the reward of the individual’s own industry.” One cannot become wise through the experience of another person, any more than the body can become strong through theoretical exercise. Expecting a child to attain wisdom by a “borrowed fallacious light,” on the basis of authority rather than experience, is folly, in Wollstonecraft’s view.
Wollstonecraft does not just critique the way girls are educated, but the educational system as a whole. In her view, wisdom has too often been regarded as something that can be gained secondhand. Her belief in the primacy of human reason and downgrading of traditional authority suffuses her approach to learning.