In the late eighteenth-century treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft agrees with some of her contemporaries that women do not seem to attain the same level of virtue as their male counterparts. However, she determines that this deficit is not due to some inherent weakness in women, but rather to the inadequate system of education that most middle-class English girls are subjected to. Wollstonecraft argues that women are typically only taught to attract husbands, with the result that their mental and moral faculties are never fully developed—an injustice that will only be rectified if girls are educated according to the same system and toward the same goals as boys.
Wollstonecraft demonstrates that insofar as women are educated at all, they are mostly taught to value maintaining beauty and securing a man’s love above all else. These superficial goals have harmful consequences for women’s minds; they are not trained to provide for themselves or to be resourceful. Wollstonecraft writes: “The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.” This “barren blooming” can be attributed, in part, to “a false system of education,” due to which “the civilized women of the present century … are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.” In other words, women are taught to care only about finding husbands, so it’s no surprise that they don’t earn any other kind of respect.
Because girls tend to “learn … by snatches,” and learning is secondary to external beauty in their upbringings, “they do not pursue any one branch with that persevering ardor necessary to give vigor to the faculties, and clearness to the judgment.” That is, girls’ education is never sufficiently deep to allow for mastery of subjects, or even the maturation of natural intellectual abilities.
Because of this inadequate education, women tend to stagnate, both intellectually and morally, early in life. Wollstonecraft argues that when marriage is the only option available to women for elevating themselves in the world, and they’ve only prepared themselves for securing a suitable marriage, it shouldn’t be surprising that they act like children after marriage. And how, she wonders, can such an immature woman “be expected to govern a family with judgment?” Youth is a brief part of a woman’s life, and once it has passed, many women discover that no “provision [has been] made for the more important years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation.” At best, then, married women’s lives become occupied with frivolous trifles, and at worst, some become mistresses, having only been taught the art of pleasing men.
The solution to this infantilizing and morally debilitating state of affairs, according to Wollstonecraft, is to develop higher aims for women’s education. Women should be educated in such a way that they’re able to develop enduring virtues and make their own judgments. Wollstonecraft claims that there is a common error of viewing education for both sexes as “only a preparation for life” and not as “the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection.” In other words, education shouldn’t just be concerned with one’s employment or station in life, but with training one’s soul with an eye toward eternity.
Furthermore, Wollstonecraft argues that a large part of training in virtue is having opportunities to struggle with adversity oneself. When girls are insulated from such challenges (and instead encouraged to make pleasure the primary occupation and goal of life), they never develop these capacities. Thus, little can be expected of them in later life.
Unless virtue is conditioned on sex—a notion Wollstonecraft dismisses as ridiculous—then girls should be educated according to the same foundational principles as boys. The “grand end” of women’s fulfillment of moral duties should be “to unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue,” just as it is for men.
Wollstonecraft observes that women are often mocked for their limited capacities and poor choices, but that these sorry circumstances are often the results of inadequate early training. “Rendered gay and giddy by the whole tenor of their lives, the very aspect of wisdom, or the severe graces of virtue” hold little natural appeal for women who’ve been brought up this way. Wollstonecraft adds: “[T]ill women are led to exercise their understandings, they should not be satirized for their attachment to rakes [womanizing men]…when it appears to be the inevitable consequence of their education.” This claim leads into the Vindication’s next major theme, which directly concerns relations between men and women.
Education and Virtue ThemeTracker
Education and Virtue Quotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity. — One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.
In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason.
What acquirement exalts one being above another? Virtue we spontaneously reply.
For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes; whispers Experience.
Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society: and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively.
Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.
Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless … he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation.
Standing armies can never consist of resolute, robust men; they may be well disciplined machines, but they will seldom contain men under the influence of strong passions, or with very vigorous faculties. And as for any depth of understanding, I will venture to affirm, that it is as rarely to be found in the army as amongst women; and the cause, I maintain, is the same. It may he further observed, that officers are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry. — They were taught to please, and they only live to please. Yet they do not lose their rank in the distinction of sexes, for they are still reckoned superior to women, though in what their superiority consists, beyond what I have just mentioned, it is difficult to discover.
The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature.
I wish to sum up what I have said in a few words, for I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty. For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience.
Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfil; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same.
Necessity has been proverbially termed the mother of invention — the aphorism may be extended to virtue. It is an acquirement, and an acquirement to which pleasure must be sacrificed — and who sacrifices pleasure when it is within the grasp, whose mind has not been opened and strengthened by adversity, or the pursuit of knowledge goaded on by necessity? — Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming a prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness! But, if from their birth men and women be placed in a torrid zone, with the meridian sun of pleasure darting directly upon them, how can they sufficiently brace their minds to discharge the duties of life, or even to relish the affections that carry them out of themselves?
Pleasure is the business of woman’s life, according to the present modification of society, and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings.
Still, highly as I respect marriage, as the foundation of almost every social virtue, I cannot avoid feeling the most lively compassion for those unfortunate females who are broken off from society, and by one error torn from all those affections and relationships that improve the heart and mind. It does not frequently even deserve the name of error; for many innocent girls become the dupes of a sincere, affectionate heart, and still more are, as it may emphatically be termed, ruined before they know the difference between virtue and vice: — and thus prepared by their education for infamy, they become infamous. Asylums and Magdalenes are not the proper remedies for these abuses. It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world!
I particularly object to the lover-like phrases of pumped up passion, which are every where interspersed. If women be ever allowed to walk without leading-strings, why must they be cajoled into virtue by artful flattery and sexual compliments? — Speak to them the language of truth and soberness, and away with the lullaby strains of condescending endearment! Let them be taught to respect themselves as rational creatures, and not led to have a passion for their own insipid persons. It moves my gall to hear a preacher descanting on dress and needle-work; and still more, to hear him address the British fair, the fairest of the fair, as if they had only feelings.
The fact is, that men expect from education, what education cannot give. A sagacious parent or tutor may strengthen the body and sharpen the instruments by which the child is to gather knowledge; but the honey must be the reward of the individual’s own industry […] The business of education in this case, is only to conduct the shooting tendrils to a proper pole; yet after laying precept upon precept, without allowing a child to acquire judgment itself, parents expect them to act in the same manner by this borrowed fallacious light, as if they had illuminated it themselves; and be, when they enter life, what their parents are at the close. They do not consider that the tree, and even the human body, does not strengthen its fibers till it has reached its full growth.
Weak minds are always fond of resting in the ceremonials of duty, but morality offers much simpler motives; and it were to be wished that superficial moralists had said less respecting behavior, and outward observances, for unless virtue, of any kind, be built on knowledge, it will only produce a kind of insipid decency. Respect for the opinion of the world, has, however, been termed the principal duty of woman in the most express words, for Rousseau declares, ‘that reputation is no less indispensable than chastity. […] as what is thought of her, is as important to her as what she really is. It follows hence, that the system of a woman’s education should, in this respect, be directly contrary to that of ours. Opinion is the grave of virtue among the men; but its throne among women.’
I have already animadverted on the bad habits which females acquire when they are shut up together; and, I think, that the observation may fairly be extended to the other sex, till the natural inference is drawn which I have had in view throughout — that to improve both sexes they ought, not only in private families, but in public schools, to be educated together. If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfil the peculiar duties of their sex, till they become enlightened citizens, till they become free by being enabled to earn their own subsistence, independent of men … Nay, marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses…
The weakness of the mother will be visited on the children! And whilst women are educated to rely on their husbands for judgment, this must ever be the consequence, for there is no improving an understanding by halves, nor can any being act wisely from imitation, because in every circumstance of life there is a kind of individuality, which requires an exertion of judgment to modify general rules ... In public schools women, to guard against the errors of ignorance, should be taught the elements of anatomy and medicine, not only to enable them to take proper care of their own health, but to make them rational nurses of their infants, parents, and husbands; for the bills of mortality are swelled by the blunders of self-willed old women, who give nostrums of their own without knowing any thing of the human frame. It is likewise proper only in a domestic view, to make women acquainted with the anatomy of the mind…
But, confined to trifling employments, they naturally imbibe opinions which the only kind of reading calculated to interest an innocent frivolous mind, inspires. Unable to grasp any thing great, is it surprising that they find the reading of history a very dry task, and disquisitions addressed to the understanding intolerably tedious, and almost unintelligible? Thus are they necessarily dependent on the novelist for amusement. Yet, when I exclaim against novels, I mean when contrasted with those works which exercise the understanding and regulate the imagination. — For any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers…