Study Guide

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Men and Masculinity

By Mary Wollstonecraft

Men and Masculinity

I am aware of an obvious inference:—from every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? (I.4)

Many people argue that women will become too "masculine" if they ask for the same education and the same rights as men. But these claims are always super vague and Wollstonecraft would like to know which women in particular these critics are talking about. Where are these "masculine women," exactly?

Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear: there is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude. (I.14)

The truth is that there's no reason to worry that women will become too "masculine" if they're given equal rights to men. Sure, they'll have more of an opportunity to speak their minds and to challenge men's opinions. But Wollstonecraft thinks that men should accept this challenge if they're actually confident in their worldview.

But, alas! husbands, as well as their helpmates, are often only overgrown children; nay, thanks to early debauchery, scarcely men in their outward form—and if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence. (2.13)

Wollstonecraft is sad that so many women are slaves to men, especially since men are often just overgrown children who are used to getting their own way all the time. So how can women possibly improve themselves if their only shot at learning comes from immature men?

I will allow that bodily strength seems to give man a natural superiority over woman; and this is the only solid basis on which the superiority of the sex can be built. (3.5)

Wollstonecraft admits that men enjoy an advantage in physical strength over women. The thing is that physical strength doesn't matter all that much in modern civilization: people's brains are what matter.

Let men prove this, and I shall grant that woman only exists for man. (4.6)

Wollstonecraft challenges men to prove that women would still be inferior to men even if they had the same education. She insists that this can't be proven until the women are given a chance at equal opportunities and rights.

Boys love sports of noise and activity; to beat the drum, to whip the top, and to drag about their little carts. [Girls], on the other hand, are fonder of things of show and ornament; such as mirrours, trinkets, and dolls. (5.13)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has very clear ideas about the "natural" love that little boys have for violent sports and the natural love girls have for dolls and pretty things. But here's the catch: why should a parent force their daughters to play with dolls if this is supposed to come naturally? This is clearly a contradiction in JJR's thinking.

I will not call hers a masculine understanding, because I admit not of such an arrogant assumption of reason; but I contend that it was a sound one, and that her judgment, the matured fruit of profound thinking, was a proof that a woman can acquire judgment, in the full extent of the word. (5.126)

Wollstonecraft can offer several examples of women who have cultivated their minds to the point that they are just as wise and just as men. This fact alone should show why it would be good to educate all women just as much as men.

[One] reason why men have superior judgment, and more fortitude than women, is undoubtedly this, that they give a freer scope to the grand passions, and by more frequently going astray enlarge their minds. (5.142)

Wollstonecraft thinks that one of the main reasons men have better minds than women (in her culture) is because men are given much more freedom to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.

Men are certainly more under the influence of their appetites than women; and their appetites are more depraved by unbridled indulgence and the fastidious contrivances of satiety. (8.23)

Many people would argue that women are slaves to their passions, but Wollstonecraft insists that it's actually men who can't control their urges. Men also have much more freedom to indulge these urges than women, which makes them more immoral in the long run.

When chastisement is necessary, though they have offended the mother, the father must inflict the punishment; he must be the judge in all disputes. (10.7)

Wollstonecraft insists that mothers should have strong judgment and good sense. But she also thinks that when it comes time to hand out punishment, the father should be in charge. This might seem contradictory to her arguments, but she's willing to throw her male readers a bone now and then just to soothe their bruised egos.