Throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft is often concerned with unequal relationships between men and women, including in marriage. Though she doesn’t ignore questions surrounding male virtue, she devotes more attention to the inadequate moral training which, she believes, leaves women ill-prepared to find worthy husbands and to build enduring marriages and families. What’s more, she argues that these weak families and unhappy marriages are in fact destructive for society as a whole.
Women are encouraged to make a virtue of weakness and use this as a power play to attract men—thereby establishing patterns that serve women poorly throughout their lives. Wollstonecraft notes that women are socialized to boast of their weakness in order to make themselves more appealing to suitors, writing: “Virtue is sacrificed to temporary gratifications, and the respectability of life to the triumph of an hour.” This custom has a negative effect on society as a whole, because it creates lifelong patterns of elevating gratification and romantic conquest over relationships founded on mutual respect.
Even if females are naturally weaker than males, Wollstonecraft argues, that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to become even weaker than nature intended. She critiques middle-class practices whereby girls aren’t allowed to play freely, but are instead weakened from a young age through sedentary indoor play. “How,” she asks, “can she be a good wife or mother, the greater part of whose time is employed to guard against or endure sickness?” Sheltered girls, in other words, become sheltered and ineffectual women.
What’s more, if girls are taught to be preoccupied with physical beauty from a young age, it’s no surprise that they will be preoccupied with frivolous, external concerns as adults. Wollstonecraft writes: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
Wollstonecraft goes on to claim that not only does typical girls’ education have limited utility in later life, but it also sets them up for unhappiness in the marriages they’ve attained through such questionable means. That is, inadequate education makes women vulnerable if anything goes wrong in marriage, especially after the early passion of marriage fades.
Based on the principles instilled into women all their lives, it makes sense that many women agree to marry immoral men who know how to present themselves attractively—after all, they’ve been primed to fall for a sentimental picture of “bravery prostrate to beauty,” without much regard for internal virtues. Even if a woman is fortunate enough to secure a virtuous husband, a woman who’s never been taught to fend for herself is highly vulnerable if she’s left a widow and must act on behalf of dependent children as well; she’s easy prey to suitors who might take advantage of her.
In most marriages, youthful passion eventually gives way to more prosaic domestic life, but women who’ve been brought up to prize romance are unprepared for this eventuality, finding themselves unhappy well before middle age. Wollstonecraft points out that “were women more rationally educated, could they take a more comprehensive view of things, they would be contented to love but once in their lives; and after marriage calmly let passion subside into friendship.”
To guard against such potentially weak, unhappy, and even disastrous marriages, women should be prepared to be the lifelong companions of their husbands, not merely their lovers. Wollstonecraft argues that a virtuous man won’t be won through mere affectation. And “besides, the woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind will, by managing her family and practicing various virtues, become the friend, and not merely the humble dependent of her husband.” All such “exercise” should be undertaken from earliest girlhood, preparing a woman not only to be a good wife, but a valuable contributor to her society as well.
In short, even if women have different duties than men do—Wollstonecraft never rejects the primacy of motherhood and domestic duties for most women—fundamentally “they are human duties, and the principles that regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same.” In other words, as she emphasizes elsewhere in Vindication, virtue isn’t reserved for men alone, and the earlier girls are trained in universal virtues, the happier their future marriages are likely to be. And, in turn, the more useful these women will be in broader society, no matter their marital status.
In response to charges that she wished to overturn social order by undermining gender distinctions, Wollstonecraft responds that there should be no fear of social order being inverted by the education of women. After all, if women really aren’t capable of attaining the same degree of virtue as men are, that will quickly become clear to everyone; there should be no risk in simply testing their mettle. And if they do prove themselves capable, both women and men—and society as a whole—have everything to gain from the more equal gender relations, happier marriages, and healthier families that will result.
Gender and Marriage ThemeTracker
Gender and Marriage Quotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
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.
Woman also thus ‘in herself complete,’ by possessing all these frivolous accomplishments, so changes the nature of things—
‘That what she wills to do or say
‘Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best;
‘All higher knowledge in her presence falls
‘Degraded. Wisdom in discourse with her
‘Loses discountenanc’d, and, like Folly, shows;
‘Authority and Reason on her wait.’
And all this is built on her loveliness!
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.
To render chastity the virtue from which unsophisticated modesty will naturally flow, the attention should be called away from employments which only exercise the sensibility; and the heart made to beat time to humanity, rather than to throb with love. The woman who has dedicated a considerable portion of her time to pursuits purely intellectual, and whose affections have been exercised by humane plans of usefulness, must have more purity of mind, as a natural consequence, than the ignorant beings whose time and thoughts have been occupied by gay pleasures or schemes to conquer hearts. The regulation of the behavior is not modesty, though those who study rules of decorum are, in general, termed modest women.
Cold would be the heart of a husband … who did not feel more delight at seeing his child suckled by its mother, than the most artful wanton tricks could ever raise; yet this natural way of cementing the matrimonial tie, and twisting esteem with fonder recollections, wealth leads women to spurn. To preserve their beauty, and wear the flowery crown of the day, which gives them a kind of right to reign for a short time over the sex, they neglect to stamp impressions on their husbands’ hearts, that would be remembered with more tenderness when the snow on the head began to chill the bosom, than even their virgin charms. The maternal solicitude of a reasonable affectionate woman is very interesting, and the chastened dignity with which a mother returns the caresses that she and her child receive from a father who has been fulfilling the serious duties of his station, is not only a respectable, but a beautiful sight.
Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue, if they were educated in a more orderly manner, which might save many from common and legal prostitution. Women would not then marry for a support, as men accept of places under government, and neglect the implied duties; nor would an attempt to earn their own subsistence, a most laudable one! sink them almost to the level of those poor abandoned creatures who live by prostitution. For are not milliners and mantua-makers reckoned the next class? The few employments open to women, so far from being liberal, are menial; and when a superior education enables them to take charge of the education of children as governesses, they are not treated like the tutors of sons…
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…