Given that women are educated so inadequately, and occupy a subordinate state in society, is it any wonder, Wollstonecraft asks, “that women everywhere appear a defect in nature?” She argues that this has largely to do with the effect of “early associations of ideas…on the character.”
While her contemporaries have argued that women’s subordinate status is due to their inferiority, Wollstonecraft turns these arguments on their head, arguing that women’s apparent inferiority is due to the failings of society. These failings begin to impact them in the earliest stages of life.
Habitual association of ideas has a significant effect on people’s moral character. “So ductile is the understanding” in childhood and youth, Wollstonecraft says, that the associations formed during these years “can seldom be disentangled by reason.” Women are more susceptible to “this habitual slavery to first impressions” because they aren’t given the chance to develop the mental rigor necessary to question first impressions.
Wollstonecraft’s point is that what people learn when they’re very young can seldom be unlearned in later life, especially if they aren’t taught how to question it. For example, she mentions that women usually learn facts by rote when they’re children, and are socialized to favor dashing but unscrupulous men.
Wollstonecraft critiques the “absurdity” of expecting women to be reasonable in their “likings” when their whole lives have not been oriented toward acquiring wisdom and virtue. Until they’re educated to use their minds, to love more discriminately, and to better moderate their passions, women shouldn’t be mocked for preferring “rakish” men.
Women shouldn’t be mocked as adults for continuing to act according to patterns instilled in childhood. This is in keeping with Wollstonecraft’s belief in the crucial, moderating effect of reason on emotions; when that’s missing, there’s only so much that can be expected from behavior.
Until that happens, however, women will “pine for a Lovelace”—and they can’t be blamed for “acting according to principles so constantly inculcated.” They’ve been trained to desire a brave protector “prostrate to [their] beauty.”
Wollstonecraft quotes Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, which was immensely popular at the time. In the book, the selfish rake Lovelace is determined to undermine Clarissa’s virtue, ultimately kidnapping and raping her. Wollstonecraft has an extremely low opinion of this and similar novels, believing they exert a strong cultural influence on vulnerable women.