Throughout her treatise, Wollstonecraft takes on caricatures of women that portray them as concerned only with trivial, external matters and therefore as unsuited to higher intellectual pursuits. To rebut this, she turns these common appraisals of women around, claiming instead that women generally aren’t given the chance to develop their reason, but have traditionally been allowed to let their emotions master them—thereby limiting their appetite and capacity for anything but trivialities. Wollstonecraft argues that women, as rational creatures made in the image of God, must develop their reason in order to properly regulate their emotions and, ultimately, to become virtuous.
Education, Wollstonecraft states, is for the sake of elevating oneself as a human being. To this end, women as well as men should be encouraged to develop virtues, which are common to both sexes. Reason is what elevates humanity over animals, and virtue is what elevates one human being over another. However, Wollstonecraft argues, “women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” In fact, she notes that among women, superficial qualities like elegance and “chastity”—really just an obsession with external propriety—have become confused with genuine virtues.
“Many have argued that men and women should aim at different virtues,” Wollstonecraft says, but if we assume that women—created in the image of God—possess souls just as men do, then we must acknowledge that “there is but one way appointed by Providence to lead mankind to either virtue or happiness.” That is, women should develop their God-given capacity for reason toward the attainment of virtue, just like their male counterparts. There is no such thing as “male virtue” or “female virtue,” and any form of education that claims otherwise is inherently defective.
One of the chief obstacles in women’s moral training is that they’re taught to rely on sentiment and feeling instead of developing their reason. Wollstonecraft therefore seeks to “address the head [rather] than the heart,” even though this is commonly considered to be “high treason against sentiment and fine feelings.” Wollstonecraft argues that women must be trained to “strengthen our minds by reflection, till our heads become a balance for our hearts.” If women are allowed to waste their minds on “the petty occurrences of the day” or “acquaintance with our lovers’ or husbands’ hearts,” then they will never develop the mental faculties necessary for higher virtues. They will be led by their emotions, to the detriment of their own moral development and the unhappiness of those around them. Instead, she asserts, the “practice of every duty [should] be subordinate to the grand one of improving our minds, and preparing our affections for a more exalted state!” All of life should be geared toward training the soul, in other words, but preoccupation with their feelings shortchanges women of this higher aim.
For an example of the ways that women are encouraged to wallow in emotion at the expense of reason, Wollstonecraft critiques popular reading material, especially sentimental novels, writing: “…[C]onfined to trifling employments, [women] naturally imbibe opinions which the only kind of reading calculated to interest an innocent frivolous mind, inspires…is it surprising that they find the reading of history a very dry task, and disquisitions addressed to the understanding intolerably tedious?” That is, if women aren’t given the opportunity to develop a taste for mental exercise, it’s only to be expected that they will reject material that’s aimed at the mind instead of the heart.
To ensure that girls receive the same training in reason and virtue that boys do, Wollstonecraft proposes that girls should receive the same vigorously intellectual education. In order for women to regulate their hearts according to reason, their understanding must be trained—“their lively senses will ever be at work to harden their hearts, and the emotions struck out of them will continue to be vivid and transitory, unless a proper education store their mind with knowledge.” In other words, if women don’t have good raw material to work with in order to strengthen their minds, they will continually fall back upon simplistic emotions in order to make sense of the world.
Anticipating the criticism that through such education Wollstonecraft seeks to instill “masculine virtues” in young women, she argues that “it is not the enchantment of literary pursuits, or the steady investigation of scientific subjects, that leads women astray from duty. No, it is indolence, and vanity,” which are problems of unregulated emotion. She doesn’t desire to make women more like men, but rather to promote more well-rounded human beings in general.
Wollstonecraft doesn’t argue that emotion has no role in well-rounded people, but that until it’s brought into harmony with reason, it will inevitably stunt understanding and moral development. To her, this is the main deficiency not just of education, but of the values encouraged for women throughout their lives. These values consign women to narrow, sentimental concerns, and Wollstonecraft argues that a new emphasis on reason is necessary in order for women to claim their birthright as rational creatures inherently equal to men.
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The Primacy of Reason Quotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style; — I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart. — I shall be employed about things, not words! — and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation.
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.
…I cannot discover why, unless they are mortal, females should always be degraded by being made subservient to love or lust.
To speak disrespectfully of love is, I know, high treason against sentiment and fine feelings; but I wish to speak the simple language of truth, and rather to address the head than the heart. To endeavor to reason love out of the world, would be to out Quixote Cervantes, and equally offend against common sense; but an endeavor to restrain this tumultuous passion, and to prove that it should not be allowed to dethrone superior powers, or to usurp the scepter which the understanding should ever coolly wield, appears less wild.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
Were not dissenters, for instance, a class of people, with strict truth, characterized as cunning? And may I not lay some stress on this fact to prove, that when any power but reason curbs the free spirit of man, dissimulation is practiced, and the various shifts of art are naturally called forth? Great attention to decorum, which was carried to a degree of scrupulosity, and all that puerile bustle about trifles and consequential solemnity … shaped their persons as well as their minds in the mold of prim littleness. […] Oppression thus formed many of the features of their character perfectly to coincide with that of the oppressed half of mankind; or is it not notorious that dissenters were, like women, fond of deliberating together, and asking advice of each other, till by a complication of little contrivances, some little end was brought about? A similar attention to preserve their reputation was conspicuous in the dissenting and female world, and was produced by a similar cause.