Study Guide

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Chapter 5

By Mary Wollstonecraft

Chapter 5

Animadversions on some of the writers who have rendered women objects of pity, bordering on contempt

  • Wollstonecraft tells us that she's going to devote this chapter of Vindication to examining and critiquing all the wrong things that men have written about women and women's education in her time.
  • She'll start her critique by looking at her #1 enemy, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believes that women should be weak and passive, and that education should make them as weak and passive as possible. Oh yeah, and he also thinks that the whole point of a woman's life is to be pleasing to men, especially her husband.
  • Rousseau says that we can clearly see how different boys and girls are from a young age. Boys like to play rough sports while girls like to sit and play with dolls. But Wollstonecraft insists that this is only because parents give their daughters dolls and tell their sons to play more active games. She also tells us that Rousseau writes what he does because in France (where he's from), people care about appearances way more than substance. Wollstonecraft would like to think that the English have a little more faith in substance.
  • Rousseau goes on to say that young women should be taught how to restrain themselves. If a young girl really loves to play with her doll, she must learn not to play with it. If she loves to run around the house, her parents must stop her from doing so. It's only by resisting every desire that a young woman can become a lady.
  • Rousseau tells men to be aggressive and commanding with their wives. Otherwise the wives might get uppity and start acting like they run the show.
  • Wollstonecraft warns people who agree with Rousseau that it isn't this easy. Women will become frustrated if men keep them in a cage, and one of the most common ways for women to express their frustration is to have an affair.
  • Rousseau concludes by saying that the way things are is the way they're supposed to be.
  • Wollstonecraft finds this nonsensical, since all of the rest of Rousseau's work talks about how people should change their behavior and change the world by returning to nature.
  • Rousseau also thinks that girls talk too much when they're young, to which Wollstonecraft answers, "Good."
  • Wollstonecraft once again points out all of the ways that women could be more useful to society if they were educated. They could have better conversations with their husbands and could give a better education to their children.
  • Eventually, Rousseau advises women not to give their husbands too much sex or affection in the beginning of the marriage. They have to pace themselves or else their husbands will get bored of them too quickly. In either case, once the romance wears off (which it will, according to Rousseau), a husband and wife will be kept together by sheer habit. Children are also great for keeping couples together after the husband and wife stop loving each other.
  • In short, all of Rousseau's advice on how to educate young women is calculated only to make them pleasing to men for a short time. Wollstonecraft wants to replace this kind of thinking with an education that can make women valuable their entire lives.
  • Rousseau was already dead when Wollstonecraft was writing this book, and she claims she doesn't want to speak ill of the dead—only of his opinions.
  • Wollstonecraft's next target for critique is a guy named Dr. Fordyce, who apparently wrote a bunch of sermons instructing young women how to behave. Her main beef with Fordyce seems to be that the guy teaches women to look and act graceful instead of teaching them the grace that really matters—the one you develop on the inside. Like Rousseau, Fordyce obsesses over the way women appear to men more than they way women are on the inside.
  • At one point, Fordyce even instructs young women to look as angelic as possible when they're praying to God. To Wollstonecraft, this is a huge insult to religion and to God, because women's minds should be on God when they're praying, not on how good they look to other people.
  • Fordyce goes on to say that he is often offended when women get mad at their husbands for ignoring them. Fordyce thinks that more often than not, this lack of attention is the women's fault. Maybe if women tried harder to encourage their husbands, overlook all of their husbands' mistakes, and submit to their opinions in every way, their husbands would pay them a little more attention.
  • For Wollstonecraft, it might be time for men to get over themselves. What Dr. Fordyce is essentially saying is that men should never have to admit they're wrong about anything. Wollstonecraft doesn't accept this argument. If it were true, how would anyone ever improve?
  • The next dude on Wollstonecraft's chopping block is Dr. Gregory, the same dude who instructs his daughters to be nothing more than pleasing objects for men.
  • Once again, Wollstonecraft's main objection is that Dr. Gregory's text is obsessed with appearances and totally silent on the topic of women's true inner feelings. For Wollstonecraft, nothing will ever improve until women are changed from the inside out.
  • Dr. Gregory even advises women to hide their knowledge of things whenever they can. No one likes a know-it-all, he says, and it's important for a woman never to make a man feel like she knows more than him. But Wollstonecraft says that women should become as smart as possible and then show it to the world. It's not up to women to hide their intelligence; it's up to men to get over themselves and become better people.
  • In the end, Wollstonecraft insists that it's better to have a husband's respect than his sexual attraction. At the end of the day, people need to let go of their egos and not be afraid of improving themselves through knowledge.
  • After finishing with Dr. Gregory, Wollstonecraft returns to her general points about how men have acted like tyrants over women and how nothing good can ever come from dominating people by force. That's why she wants her readers to reason through the issue of women's rights with her, calmly and respectfully.
  • One writer named Mrs. Piozzi argues the women are willing to hear their intelligence insulted way more than their appearance. Wollstonecraft thinks this is an empty claim, since it's impossible to know what women really think because they've been trained their whole lives to hide their feelings.
  • One lady named the Baroness de Stael praises the work of Rousseau and says that he has helped women learn to avoid acting like men and to be content with their natural role, which is to be beautiful objects for men to worship. Wollstonecraft can't criticize this view enough, since she thinks it's silly to argue that women have power over men by being dumb and weak. She doesn't want women going through life this way; she wants equality between the sexes, plain and simple.
  • There is also a woman named Madame de Genlis who Wollstonecraft disagrees with. Breaking News: Wollstonecraft disagrees with a lot of people. Genlis argues that children should always obey the authority of their parents the way a commoner would obey a king. Wollstonecraft says that this kind of upbringing will never produce an independent thinker.
  • While discussing the importance of reason, Wollstonecraft mentions a writer named Mrs. Macaulay, who she admires very much because Macaulay shows just how much a woman can understand good sense and reason.
  • Wollstonecraft knows that she has pinned a lot of her arguments on her idea of reason. But she knows that if she's going to be convincing, she needs to go into deeper discussion of what she means by "reason" and what humanity can hope to gain by it.
  • One thing Wollstonecraft knows for sure is that men tend to improve their intelligence more than women because they're allowed to make more mistakes (and thus learn from those mistakes) than women. Regardless of their gender, young people should be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.
  • It's true, though, that sometimes the mistakes we make are too big and have an impact on the rest of our lives. But Wollstonecraft repeats that any knowledge worth having can't be attained without hard work and sorrow. For this reason, she can't stand it when she's at a party and people won't contradict each other because they think it's rude.
  • For Wollstonecraft., you must devote yourself either to a life of moral goodness or a life of shallow opportunism. You can't have it both ways in her mind.

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