A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by

Mary Wollstonecraft

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Women’s Roles in Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Education and Virtue Theme Icon
Gender and Marriage Theme Icon
The Primacy of Reason Theme Icon
Women’s Roles in Society Theme Icon
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Wollstonecraft laments that, while men are generally prepared for professions, women “have no other scheme to sharpen their faculties,” and, in fact, they are encouraged throughout their lives to be “ever anxious about secondary things…instead of being occupied by duties.” Even those duties which society views as inherently feminine—like motherhood—suffer as a result of this attitude. To remedy this societal malaise, Wollstonecraft argues that women must be oriented toward meaningful things throughout their lives. This will let them acquire virtues suited to the rigors of motherhood, and even be educated for the sake of their own financial security and the overall betterment of society.

Motherhood, which Wollstonecraft argues is the calling of a majority of women, requires maturity. Maturity doesn’t come naturally, but must instead be cultivated through continual attention to virtue and duty, which most middle-class women are unprepared for. Fulfilling domestic duties requires resolution and perseverance, not just untamed emotions. Generally speaking, however, “women of sensibility are the most unfit” for the task of shaping a child’s character, because ever since their own infancy they’ve been allowed to be led by their own feelings and sensations. Wollstonecraft also argues that, by refusing to nurse their babies themselves, many middle-class women bypass one of the chief means of deepening natural affection into the mature sympathy that’s critical for family bonding.  By having their children raised by nurses, too, many women circumvent duty in favor of self-indulgent leisure.

Furthermore, it’s not just motherhood that requires more of women. Wollstonecraft argues that in all areas of life, broader education reduces women’s dependence on their husbands, expands their freedom, and enables them to be more engaged contributors to society. “Though I consider that women in the common walks of life are called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers,” Wollstonecraft concedes, “I cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence.” For example, she encourages the study of medicine so that women will be better equipped to care for their families, as well as the reading of history in order that they might be more politically aware. She even envisions the possibility of direct political involvement, though admitting this might seem laughable in the eyes of society: “I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint, which I mean to pursue, some future time, for I really think that women ought to have [governmental] representatives…”

Additionally, Wollstonecraft argues that women should even be encouraged to develop basic business acumen. This, she argues, would reduce the likelihood that downtrodden women will resort to prostitution. What’s more, she notes that all women should be financially independent, rather than needing to secure financial security through marriage—something that inevitably inhibits their freedom.

In her most progressive move, Wollstonecraft closes Vindication with an argument for state-sponsored coeducational schools. She argues that such schools, by mixing genders from an early age, would allow virtuous habits to develop more naturally, would prepare women to be companions rather than simply lovers to their husbands, and even give them tools to be able to earn their own money. These proposals reinforce her core goals of awakening women’s capacity for reason; building up all of their faculties; and equipping them to be as resourceful as possible for the sake of their families, their society, and the good of their own souls.

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Women’s Roles in Society Quotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Below you will find the important quotes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman related to the theme of Women’s Roles in Society.
Introduction Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker), Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker), John Milton
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

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!

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker), John Milton
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

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!

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker), James Fordyce
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

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.’

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker), Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

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…

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

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…

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

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…

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mary Wollstonecraft (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis: