A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Wollstonecraft expands on the subject of reputation. She holds that a preoccupation with reputation has encouraged artificial behavior among women: “it is reputation, not chastity…that they are employed to keep free from spot, not as a virtue, but to preserve their station in the world.” This way of “[confounding] virtue with reputation” leads to hypocrisy.
In Wollstonecraft’s opinion, preserving one’s position in society has little to do with exhibiting true virtue. She gives the example of a flirtatious married woman who treats a seduced young girl with contempt—the former is in the more socially approved position, yet is arguably living more immodestly.
Themes
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Women, instead of being encouraged to develop intrinsic virtues, have been taught to garner respect for the opinion of the world—something that is only to be expected from “[beings] to whom reason has been denied.” When motives are pure, on the other hand, virtuous behavior will follow, without requiring obsession with mere outward ceremonies. It’s never enough to view ourselves through the eyes of others, but from the perspective of God’s justice.
For another example of the elevation of reputation over virtue, Wollstonecraft mentions the well-known legend of Lucretia, an ancient Roman woman who stabbed herself after being raped. This is the kind of thing that happens when women are taught to put the world’s opinion before genuine modesty.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Wollstonecraft also attacks male unchastity, a fault that serves to render women “systematically voluptuous” because women accommodate their behavior in order to obtain pleasure and power from men. This skewing of priorities leads them to “[sacrifice] to lasciviousness the parental affection,” either aborting or abandoning their offspring. “Surely nature,” she argues, “never intended that women, by satisfying an appetite, should frustrate the very purpose for which it was implanted?”—i.e., motherhood.
Wollstonecraft argues that women respond to men’s unchastity by lowering themselves accordingly, having been accustomed to gaining power from male lust. Unchastity in both sexes leads to abortion and abandonment of children—something Wollstonecraft argues is against nature. Sexual desire is meant to work in harmony with motherhood, she believes, not against it.
Themes
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Women’s Roles in Society Theme Icon
“The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other” when it comes to all the virtues. And especially when it comes to unchastity, both men and women “defeat the purpose of nature,” even though men are able to avoid “the shame that pursues the crime in the other sex.”
While Wollstonecraft maintains that men’s and women’s virtue is always intertwined, chastity is the most blatant example, because men’s behavior leads directly to the degradation of women’s. Not only that, but women end up bearing the shame of both parties, since men can get away with their outward reputation untouched; women often can’t.
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