Wollstonecraft wrote ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792, two years after Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ and three years after the Revolution itself in 1789. It was also before the Reign of Terror in 1793 and her views were no doubt shaped by the optimism which drove the revolution.
For Wollstonecraft, independence was a blessing and the basis of every virtue. At this time women could not earn an independent living, they came under the ‘protection’ of their male relatives – father, husband, and brother. Equally, they could not hold property in their own name, unless they were widowed, or inherited property in the absence of a male heir, but this was rare due to primogeniture. Primogeniture was the practice of leaving the whole of an estate to the firstborn son. This meant any other male children had to make their own living to support themselves and their families and any women in the family needed to marry. Hence the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Burke supported a hierarchical structure with a benevolent aristocracy and gendered spheres of influence which would promote a stable society. A view echoed in the Victorian hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.” It was this rigid system of thinking that Wollstonecraft sought to challenge, she did not believe everything had to remain the same.
As women had no occupation to dominate their time, they sought out accomplishments to impress a future husband. These often consisted of music, painting, needlework, dancing, propriety, acting, and conducting themselves in the correct manner. Wollstonecraft complained that the cultivation of the mind was always secondary to these accomplishments. She viewed them as trifles, entirely dependent on their senses. Equally, women’s attention to clothes and their appearance is based on a desire to please the opposite sex which she attributes to custom and not some natural feminine disposition as Rousseau would suggest. Their interactions with men also contribute to their position as an object of desire.
Men pursue and women yield. By submitting they become more helpless and therefore more alluring. Such adoration becomes intoxicating to the senses which Wollstonecraft believed robbed women of the desire to seek a long-term commitment. Strength of mind and body is sacrificed in favour of beauty and a need to establish themselves in marriage. The portrayal of women in novels fosters a docile, submissive, innocent, childlike image where ignorance is prized above understanding. It is no coincidence that Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty are all young, innocent, beautiful maidens in need of rescue, and more modern images of women, Moana, Merida, and Anna are more energetic and reasoned in keeping with Wollstonecraft’s forward-looking ideas of strengthening the body and mind.
Wollstonecraft argues that girls whose spirits were not repressed by inactivity or false shame will naturally want to engage in active play like their male counterparts. Shame here probably refers to unladylike conduct which was not limited to the home. She goes on to say that they would only play with dolls if confined inside and there was no alternative. For eighteenth-century women, physical strength took away from the feminine graces and for men, it was not in keeping with being a gentleman. Yet a woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind manages her family, practices virtue, and becomes the friend and not the dependant of her husband. Wollstonecraft felt that until women were more rationally educated the progress of society in virtue and knowledge would be hindered.
She defines knowledge as generating ideas and drawing conclusions from individual observations. Observation without reflection and reason she deems common sense. Virtue, and high moral standards, are acquired through the sacrifice of pleasure and the mind strengthened by adversity. She argues men focus on goals in life while women’s purpose is relaxation. Men look to the end of a journey whilst women are concerned with the impression they make on their fellow travelers, the care of their appearance, and what they carry with them. Therefore, it is difficult for women to experience the kind of character-building adversity that would strengthen their minds and improve their reason.
Wollstonecraft acknowledges that women brought up to cherish weakness and delicacy in the name of beauty will take convincing that they inspire more sublime emotions by displaying intellectual beauty. For her, women stripped of their natural virtue and clothed with artificial graces, make their sole aim to be beautiful, raising emotion instead of respect and like slavery, this controls their character. Eighteenth-century women lacked the independence we take for granted, they had no means of supporting themselves and marriage provided the only security open to them. In our highly visual Instagram, and TikTok society we should not forget Wollstonecraft’s warning to strengthen both body and mind.