Study Guide

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Chapter 2

By Mary Wollstonecraft

Chapter 2

The prevailing opinion of a sexual character discussed

  • There are many men who have argued over the ages that women don't have enough mental strength to become morally good on their own: they need the guidance of men. But Wollstonecraft believes that if women have souls, then they must have the same rational powers as men. The only other option is for men to claim that women don't have souls, which even the worst misogynists in the world would hesitate to argue.
  • The biggest challenge to women's education seems to be the belief that women should be kept innocent like children and taught nothing other than the skills for pleasing their future husbands.
  • Wollstonecraft agrees that to some extent, young children should be kept innocent. But the same can't be said for women. There comes a time for all human beings when they should be encouraged to think for themselves.
  • She thinks that parents should prepare their children for the day when they begin to think for themselves. But she also admits that to some extent, people are always products of the societies they live in. So all education should strive toward making the individual as independent a thinker as possible.
  • Wollstonecraft blames the men of her time (especially Jean Jacques Rousseau) for promoting a type of education that makes women completely useless as members of society.
  • Rousseau thinks that men are so perfectly rational that women should follow their guidance. But Wollstonecraft argues that many (if not most) men are just overgrown children.
  • In the current system, women are only able to learn about the world by looking at the surfaces of things. They are never taught how to figure out larger patterns from individual observations, so they all just end up being superficial and shallow. The same is true of military soldiers, who are taught only how to follow orders and who don't have any core reason or virtue guiding what they do. They live on the surface of life, according to Wollstonecraft.
  • Wollstonecraft brings us back once again to the decision we have to make. Either women are so weak that they need to be guided completely by men, or they are rational people who are capable of thinking for themselves.
  • Here, Wollstonecraft wants to clarify that she doesn't want to reverse the order of things and place women above men. She just wants women to have the independence they need to develop their minds fully.
  • Even though it might anger some men, Wollstonecraft believes that women were made for something more than making men fall in love. Yes, there's a time for thoughtless love when a person is young. But those years should also be spent preparing for the more important and mature years of life, when reason is most important.
  • Wollstonecraft next critiques the work of a guy named Dr. Gregory, who has written a book on how he chooses to raise his daughters.
  • For starters, Dr. Gregory instructs his daughters to learn how to dress nicely. This actually seems like the most important thing in his books. Wollstonecraft finds it strange that Dr. Gregory thinks that liking dresses is "natural" for women, since this presupposes that the soul (a completely intangible thing) somehow possessed a love for dress before it entered a human body.
  • The truth is that women like to dress nicely because looking good is where they get their power in society.
  • The second piece of advice Dr. Gregory gives his daughters is for them to hide their true emotions whenever they can. It's a woman's duty not to let her frustrations show.
  • The truest bond between men and women, according to Wollstonecraft, is not love. It's friendship. Love is something Wollstonecraft connects to sex and romance. But friendship is a bond between two people who respect one another's intellects. Besides, the shine wears off on love fairly quickly, but friendship lasts a lifetime.
  • If we went nowhere after we died, then Wollstonecraft would agree that the only point of life is to pursue pleasure. But she believes in an afterlife, and therefore thinks that we have to spend our time on Earth doing the right thing.
  • If Dr. Gregory's advice is right, then a woman's purpose in life ends the moment she gets married and has children. There is nothing left for her to accomplish.
  • The truth is that we won't really know what women are capable of until we offer them all of the same social respect and education that we offer to men. In Wollstonecraft's time, society was still a long way from achieving this goal.
  • If men are truly superior to women, then let them prove it by giving women an equal playing field. In a worst case scenario, you're still going to wind up with a bunch of women who are better than they used to be.
  • Men have about as much right to oppress women as kings have to oppress men. And when Wollstonecraft was writing this text, men were definitely turning against the idea of political oppression. Notice here how she's capitalizing on a political movement for democracy by applying the same logic to women's rights.

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