Wollstonecraft next tackles the subject of modesty—“that soberness of mind which teaches a man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think,” as distinguished from a self-abasing humility. She argues that the woman who has most developed her reason will be the most modest. A woman who has spent time in intellectual pursuits will have greater “purity of mind” than one who’s dedicated her time to the pursuit of pleasure or love.
Wollstonecraft draws a distinction between chastity and modesty. Although women are more chaste than men, she claims, chastity cannot of itself produce modesty; it can produce “propriety of conduct, which is merely a respect for the opinion of the world.” But she says it stands to reason that men ought to be more modest than women.
Wollstonecraft sees chastity—externally adhering to norms of appropriate behavior—as distinct from modesty because, even if someone refrains from outward scandal, they are not necessarily regarding themselves and others through the eyes of reason. Because she sees modesty as dependent on the exercise of the understanding, it makes sense that men, in her view, would excel women in this area.
In reality, though, both men and women need to become more modest. Men need to bestow “the modest respect of humanity, and fellow-feeling—not the libidinous mockery of gallantry.” And women should not be expected to be more responsible for checking passion when they haven’t been taught how to moderate their own passions; self-denial should be mutual. In fact, “modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes, or it will ever remain a sickly hothouse plant.”
True modesty can only blossom when men and women are capable of respecting one another, and women should not be held solely responsible for upholding chastity when they’ve been taught all their lives to live according to their passions.
Wollstonecraft argues that the “ridiculous falsities” told to children about reproduction, etc., tend only to undermine modesty, by allowing their passions to take the place of reason in the formation of their moral characters. She also encourages greater modesty among girls in boarding schools, where bawdy humor tends to reign.
Consistent with her earlier emphasis on the importance of childhood impressions, Wollstonecraft argues that children should receive more accurate information about sex; withholding it bypasses reason and inflames passion unnecessarily.
Modesty must be founded on more than “worldly prudence,” or “a good reputation will be her only reward.” If women really desire to possess this virtue, they must seek sobriety of mind and knowledge, because “modesty, being the child of reason, cannot long exist with the sensibility that is not tempered by reflection.”
Wollstonecraft sees external chastity as only good for preserving one’s name, not genuinely respecting one’s own person. For women to become modest, they must first become thoughtful.