After studying various books on education, Wollstonecraft has concluded that the neglect of women’s education has resulted in great misery. “The conduct and manners of women,” she argues, “prove that their minds are not in a healthy state.” The educational system looks at women more as females than as human beings, concerned to make them “alluring mistresses” instead of “affectionate wives and rational mothers.” As a result, women are more concerned about romance than about nurturing their abilities and virtues.
Wollstonecraft had previously worked as a governess and even ran a short-lived girls’ school along with her sisters, so she had given much thought to prevailing educational practices. The chief problem, in her eyes, is that women are viewed as women first and human beings second—preventing them from reaching their full potential and even undermining their effectiveness in traditionally feminine roles.
In tackling this subject, Wollstonecraft will deal with works that have been specifically written for women’s instruction; in some of which, she alleges, women are regarded as “subordinate beings” instead of rational creatures. She concedes that men are incontestably superior in physical strength, but that men “sink us still lower” by reducing women to objects of allure, and that women acquiesce to this status, rather than striving to become friends of men.
Other treatises on the education of girls were being circulated in the late 18th century, and Wollstonecraft will deal with some of them, like the writings of Rousseau and Fordyce, later in the work. Her common critique is that these works don’t respect women’s rational capacities and even objectify women.
In her discussion, Wollstonecraft will consider women first as “human creatures … placed on this earth to unfold their faculties,” and second consider their situation more particularly as women. She will also focus on women in the middle class “because they appear to be in the most natural state.”
Wollstonecraft’s argument is based on her belief that women’s purpose in the world is to fully realize their natural potential, something they have been denied the opportunity to do. Throughout the work, she will focus especially on the middle class, because she believes that both wealth and poverty are departures from an idealized middle station in life.
Wollstonecraft hopes that other women will excuse her if she treats them “like rational creatures” instead of as perpetual children. She wants to persuade women to “acquire strength, both of mind and body,” to show “that elegance is inferior to virtue,” and that their first ambition should be “to obtain a character as a human being.” In doing so, she hopes to avoid both artificial feelings and “flowery diction.”
Wollstonecraft’s request for the pardon of her peers is, of course, tongue in cheek. She names some of the themes that will recur throughout the work—striving to better oneself; favoring internal qualities over external ones; and the priority of human virtues over “female” ones. She will also frequently critique “flowery” writing because she believes it appeals more to emotions than to reason.
Although writers pay more attention to women’s education than they once did, they still regard women as “frivolous,” taking a satiric or pitying attitude toward them. By focusing on marriage as “the only way women can rise in the world,” they “[make] mere animals” of women and infantilize them.
Wollstonecraft lays out what she sees as the deficit in existing works about women’s education—most do not take women seriously as moral beings in their own right, limiting their prospects of advancement to marriage.
There should be no fear, Wollstonecraft says, that she is trying to make women “masculine.” Women are already physically dependent upon men, and there is no need to increase this dependence by “prejudices that give a sex to virtue.” In fact, women are likewise degraded by “mistaken notions of female excellence,” because this devotion to women’s “artificial weakness” inclines them to tyranny and cunning. The solution is for men to become “more chaste and modest,” and for women to become wiser.
Wollstonecraft anticipates the likely criticism that she wants women to intrude on men’s turf. Rather, she wants women to regain their equal standing with men as people capable of virtue. Too often, she thinks, sexist views of women have been elevated into supposed virtues, and women have taken advantage of this to obtain power by the limited means available to them.