Wollstonecraft sees the disparity between classes as a factor in the decline of virtue. Once a person gains property, they “procure the respect due only to talents and virtue” and begin to neglect their duties. Hereditary wealth produces habitual idleness. She argues that until more equality is present in society, “morality will never gain ground.”
A wealthy person doesn’t have the same attachment to duty as a person without wealth, Wollstonecraft believes; the wealthy can rely on reputation instead of virtue. Therefore societal inequality is bad for morality overall.
Not only that, but virtue cannot be expected of women until they are independent of men. As long as they are dependent on their husbands, women will be selfish and cunning. As long as men live by their wealth and women live by their charms, “how can we expect them to discharge those ennobling duties which…require exertion and self-denial”? Wollstonecraft says that “society is not properly organized which does not compel men and women to discharge their respective duties.”
When dependent women seek to stay attached to men by whatever means necessary, their virtue is degraded. Wollstonecraft believes that virtue upholds duty, and duties uphold society. As long as men and women are connected by manipulation and passion instead of by the virtuous and reasonable fulfillment of duties, society is on a shaky footing.
By way of illustration, Wollstonecraft observes that when a woman is admired for her beauty, to the degree that she neglects her duties as a mother, she undermines her own happiness by failing to cultivate maternal affections. True happiness comes from “well regulated affections, and an affection includes a duty.” Men cause misery and vice when they incentivize women to focus on their beauty—they “make natural and artificial duties clash…when in nature they all harmonize.”
Wollstonecraft distinguishes affections from mere feelings. Affections are dispositions, shaped by reason, to fulfill one’s duties to society. When one’s affections are distorted, as when one strives to remain sexually desirable rather than paying attention to one’s children, it’s impossible to fulfill one’s duties. Wollstonecraft also believes that nature inclines us toward certain duties, pointing to her Enlightenment expectation that nature and reason are harmonious.
Wollstonecraft argues that breastfeeding is supposed to “[cement] the matrimonial tie,” but because wealthy women “spurn” the duty of nursing their children, this natural bonding does not occur. She envisions working-class families as being in the most natural and happiest state, because husband and wife are fully occupied in their respective duties—“equally necessary and independent of each other”—and thus regularly renewed in their affection for one another.
For Wollstonecraft, breastfeeding is the clearest example of the tie between nature and duty. It is meant to deepen the bond between women and their children and husbands, but when the duty is neglected, affections cannot grow as nature intends. Because of this, Wollstonecraft critiques those middle-class mothers who choose not to nurse their own babies. She idealizes working-class families who necessarily have to devote more time to their duties, and thus have more natural ties of affection in daily life.
Wollstonecraft argues that distinctions in rank, by dividing the world between tyrants and dependents, “corrupt, almost equally, every class of people, because respectability is not attached” to duties, but to station. When duties aren’t fulfilled, “the affections cannot gain sufficient strength to fortify the virtue of which they are the natural reward.”
The unhealthy dynamics prevalent between men and women reflect unhealthy societal divisions. Because society is obsessed with reputation instead of with duty, natural affections can’t flourish, and virtue isn’t reinforced. Wollstonecraft says that it’s “almost superhuman” for women, in particular, to circumvent this system.
A good legislator, Wollstonecraft argues, tries to encourage each individual to be virtuous, because private virtue is “the cement of public happiness.” But women can’t strive for virtue if they are continually subject to mere propriety instead of to principles. So not only wealth but the lack of cultivation of reason denigrates women.
Wollstonecraft draws a comparison between oppressed women and African slaves who are “subject to prejudices that brutalize them,” making virtue all but unattainable. The British slave trade and the growth of abolitionism would have been much discussed at this time.
A person who discharges their duties is independent. Women’s first duty to themselves as rational beings and to society is that of being a mother. Wealthier stations, therefore, degrade women by dispensing with the duties of motherhood and rendering women “mere dolls.”
Because Wollstonecraft believes that women are naturally disposed to be mothers, she holds that taking on the duties of motherhood, in harmony with reason, is actually the path to independence for most women. When wealthier women pass the duties of motherhood to nurses and live in leisure instead, they undercut their own virtue. They also do not have alternatives open to them to keep their faculties sharp, unlike men, who can turn to the military or politics.
In order to be really virtuous and useful in their domestic duties, women need the protection of civil laws. They must also not be entirely dependent on their husbands for support; after all, generosity is not possible for someone who has nothing, or virtue for someone who is not free.
Law should safeguard women’s rights, especially property rights, since dependence weakens virtue, which in turn weakens society as a whole.
Though Wollstonecraft holds that “women in the common walks of life are called to fulfil the duties of wives and mothers, by religion and reason,” she laments that women “of a superior cast” don’t have avenues to pursue yet greater independence. She comments that, though it might incite laughter, she believes that women ought to have governmental representatives.
Though Wollstonecraft believes that the majority of women are called to be mothers, she allows that some exceptional women need other avenues. She hints that political involvement might be one outlet for such women.
Wollstonecraft suggests that women could occupy themselves by studying medicine and be physicians as well as nurses and midwives. They might also study politics and history. The study of business might save women from resorting to both “common and legal prostitution.” As it stands, few employments are open to women, and even the role of governess tends to be degrading.
Wollstonecraft offers several examples of ways that women could become more useful and engaged in society. Her suggestion that the ability to start businesses would spare women from the degradation of prostitution (or a loveless marriage) is particularly groundbreaking. Her remarks on governesses reflect her own unhappy experience as a governess in Ireland.
Wollstonecraft argues that any government is defective which is “unmindful of the happiness of one half of its members” and doesn’t provide for them by encouraging them to fill “respectable stations.” In order to “render their private virtue a public benefit, they must have a civil existence in the state,” no matter whether they are married or single; otherwise, women’s abilities will go undeveloped, and society will never benefit.
Unless women enjoy full equality as citizens and their rights are protected by law, they will be prevented from benefiting society as a whole. Wollstonecraft believes that if society is structured properly, then women will be free to flourish—a view reflective of enlightenment progressivism and a high regard for human nature.
In short, as long as women are entrapped in a system that rewards them for wasting their lives, they won’t “willingly resign the privileges of rank and sex for the privileges of humanity.” Men must take the initiative to “snap [women’s] chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience.” Then women will have the ability to become not only better wives and mothers, but better citizens.
Wollstonecraft believes that it’s up to men to take the first steps in liberating women; under society’s present structure, there are few incentives for women to do this. In her view, once women are free to develop their reason, there will be no further obstacles to larger society’s benefit.