Support Aeon this December

Every donation makes a difference.

Please Give Now

‘We need your support to sustain Aeon in 2019. Your end-of-year gift will help us spread knowledge and promote a cosmopolitan worldview.’

Brigid Hains, Editorial Director

Please Give Now

Go to Introduction by Eileen Hunt Botting
Go to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ by Mary Wollstonecraft
Classic /Gender
CLASSIC

Bringing down the patriarchy

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

With a new introduction and commentary by Eileen Hunt Botting

Journalists participating in the Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions in London, 27 April 1909, organised as part of the International Woman Suffrage Conference. All photos are by Christina Broom, considered to be the UK's first female photojournalist. Courtesy the Museum of London

Introduction

The educated woman, with power over herself, can bring down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity

Eileen Hunt Botting

The French Revolution was not enough. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted something more. She declared war against the patriarchy. She called for nothing less than ‘a revolution in female manners’. This revolution was not about how to set up or sit at the dinner table. It rather sought to overthrow the system of socialisation that made men and women prisoners of each other’s tyranny, rather than the virtuous companions whom they were meant to be. 

Wollstonecraft waged her war in print. She targeted literary and intellectual giants – John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke – for propagating absurd and pernicious ideas about the innate inferiority and natural subordination of women to men. With her pointed wit, she eviscerated a host of second-rate writers whose views on female education derived from this triumvirate. She chortled: ‘Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear.’ Then she gladly granted them their premise. Men and women obviously differed in their bodies. On the whole, women appeared to be physically weaker, but it did not follow that deeper differences of intellect or virtue prevailed between the sexes. With strikingly gender-neutral language, she contended: ‘Whatever effect circumstances have on the abilities, every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason.’

Wollstonecraft identified education as the culprit behind the inequalities between men and women. Education influenced every aspect of life, for it began in the crib, long before one learned language or went to school. Parents gave dolls and mirrors to infant girls, while letting baby boys toddle freely outside. These gross differences in the socialisation of young children, Wollstonecraft saw, bore consequences that could hardly be overstated. ‘The grand misfortune is this,’ she soberly noted, ‘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.’ Yet people applauded the difference in manners that education produced between the sexes. Women came to see and present themselves as weak and meek, and all the more attractive to men for it.

Women’s ‘rights and manners’, she insisted, must be considered alongside each other. If women were raised to see and treat themselves as mere toys and playthings of men, then they could not possibly avail themselves of the historic opportunity for civic engagement that the French Revolution had brought to them. To bring women’s ‘rights and manners’ into concert, people had to reconceive ‘rights and duties’ as inseparable. Into the narrow rights talk of the time – the ‘rights of man’, the ‘rights of men’ – Wollstonecraft infused a rich vocabulary of ‘rights and duties’. A Rational Christian Dissenter, she derived all rights from fundamental, God-given duties. Like Immanuel Kant, however, she never claimed that all duties generate a corresponding right. In her system of ethics, duty enjoyed moral primacy.

Wollstonecraft’s moral emphasis on duty animated her revolutionary politics. In order for women’s rights to be respected, men had to fulfil their duties to respect their wives, daughters, mothers and other women in their lives. Women had to learn self-respect, and to seize more than the few, meagre opportunities that patriarchal society had availed them. Once women and men together exercised their duties for respect of self and others, they would be psychologically and socially capable of respecting and recognising one another’s rights in law and culture.

Wollstonecraft’s theory of equal rights and their political realisation requires a transformation of how men and women perceive and relate to each other. No longer could men view women as weak and dependent creatures, or mere toys and playthings for their sexual pleasure. No longer could women view men as their lords and masters, the rulers of their entire way of life. It began with a change in self-understanding, for both men and women. A psychological change of such depth would require reform of education on the deepest level too. Only comprehensive education and religion could accomplish this kind of change.

Wollstonecraft was a governess, a primary school teacher, and a disciple of the Dissenting Christian minister and abolitionist Richard Price. From these experiences – ordinary and extraordinary – she learned how to bring education and religion together to advance a cultural revolution that would make Burke quiver. It would push women to stand up and speak out alongside men as moral equals – deserving of the same civil and political rights and bound by the same God-given duties.

Six weeks of single-minded writing produced A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published early in 1792, it was an instant international success. Although the title suggested its vindictiveness toward men’s mistreatment of women, its arguments are free from personal vitriol or bias toward her fellow women. Her core thesis was measured and even-handed: ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’

As we contest our own patriarchs in media wars on the internet, it is still time to heed her revolutionary message. The dedication and introduction of Wollstonecraft’s book lay out the first steps toward bringing down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity.

Eileen Hunt Botting is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Her books include Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights (2016) and Mary Shelley and the Rights of the Child: Political Philosophy in ‘Frankenstein’ (2017).

aeon.co

Classic Text

Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

From ‘The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft’ (1989), vol 5, edited by Marilyn Butler and Janet Todd

With a new commentary by Eileen Hunt Botting

To M Talleyrand-Périgord Late Bishop of Autun

Sir, 

Having read with great pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I dedicate this volume to you; to induce you to reconsider the subject, and maturely weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education: and I call with the firm tone of humanity; for my arguments, Sir, are dictated by a disinterested spirit – I plead for my sex – not for myself. Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue – and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

It is then an affection for the whole human race that makes my pen dart rapidly along to support what I believe to be the cause of virtue: and the same motive leads me earnestly to wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality. My opinion, indeed, respecting the rights and duties of woman, seems to flow so naturally from these simple principles, that I think it scarcely possible, but that some of the enlarged minds who formed your admirable constitution will coincide with me.

In France there is undoubtedly a more general diffusion of knowledge than in any part of the European world, and I attribute it, in a great measure, to the social intercourse which has long subsisted between the sexes. It is true, I utter my sentiments with freedom, that in France the very essence of sensuality has been extracted to regale the voluptuary, and a kind of sentimental lust has prevailed, which, together with the system of duplicity that the whole tenor of their political and civil government taught, have given a sinister sort of sagacity to the French character, properly termed finesse; from which naturally flow a polish of manners that injures the substance, by hunting sincerity out of society. – And, modesty, the fairest garb of virtue! has been more grossly insulted in France than even in England, till their women have treated as prudish that attention to decency, which brutes instinctively observe.

The Suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst in 1909.

Manners and morals are so nearly allied that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name. The personal reserve, and sacred respect for cleanliness and delicacy in domestic life, which French women almost despise, are the graceful pillars of modesty; but, far from despising them, if the pure flame of patriotism have reached their bosoms, they should labour to improve the morals of their fellow-citizens, by teaching men, not only to respect modesty in women, but to acquire it themselves, as the only way to merit their esteem.

Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to cooperate unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations. 

In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me were conclusive, to prove that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity must more universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolised, when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of affection.

Consider, Sir, dispassionately, these observations – for a glimpse of this truth seemed to open before you when you observed, ‘that to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, was a political phaenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain’. If so, on what does your constitution rest? If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test: though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman – prescription.

Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?

Suffragists prepare to take part in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies procession, 13 June 1908, displaying the Famous Women banners designed by the founder of the Artists’ Suffrage League, Mary Lowndes.

In this style, argue tyrants of every denomination, from the weak king to the weak father of a family; they are all eager to crush reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful. Do you not act a similar part, when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark? for surely, Sir, you will not assert, that a duty can be binding which is not founded on reason? If indeed this be their destination, arguments may be drawn from reason: and thus augustly supported, the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty – comprehending it – for unless they comprehend it, unless their morals be fixed on the same immutable principle as those of man, no authority can make them discharge it in a virtuous manner. They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.

But, if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason – else this flaw in your NEW CONSTITUTION will ever shew that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant, and tyranny, in whatever part of society it rears its brazen front, will ever undermine morality.

I have repeatedly asserted, and produced what appeared to me irrefragable arguments drawn from matters of fact, to prove my assertion, that women cannot, by force, be confined to domestic concerns; for they will, however ignorant, intermeddle with more weighty affairs, neglecting private duties only to disturb, by cunning tricks, the orderly plans of reason which rise above their comprehension.   

Besides, whilst they are only made to acquire personal accomplishments, men will seek for pleasure in variety, and faithless husbands will make faithless wives; such ignorant beings, indeed, will be very excusable when, not taught to respect public good, nor allowed any civil rights, they attempt to do themselves justice by retaliation. 

The box of mischief thus opened in society, what is to preserve private virtue, the only security of public freedom and universal happiness?

Let there be then no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places. And, now that more equitable laws are forming your citizens, marriage may become more sacred: your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity.

The father of a family will not then weaken his constitution and debase his sentiments, by visiting the harlot, nor forget, in obeying the call of appetite, the purpose for which it was implanted. And, the mother will not neglect her children to practise the arts of coquetry, when sense and modesty secure her the friendship of her husband.

But, till men become attentive to the duty of a father, it is vain to expect women to spend that time in their nursery which they, ‘wise in their generation’, choose to spend at their glass; for this exertion of cunning is only an instinct of nature to enable them to obtain indirectly a little of that power of which they are unjustly denied a share: for, if women are not permitted to enjoy legitimate rights, they will render both men and themselves vicious, to obtain illicit privileges.

I wish, Sir, to set some investigations of this kind afloat in France; and should they lead to a confirmation of my principles, when your constitution is revised the Rights of Woman may be respected, if it be fully proved that reason calls for this respect, and loudly demands JUSTICE for one half of the human race.

I am, SIR,

Your’s respectfully,

MW

The Putney & Fulham Women’s Social and Political Union shop, London.

Introduction

After considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilisation which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result? – a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. 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 civilised 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.

In a treatise, therefore, on female rights and manners, the works which have been particularly written for their improvement must not be overlooked; especially when it is asserted, in direct terms, that the minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement; that the books of instruction, written by men of genius, have had the same tendency as more frivolous productions; and that, in the true style of Mahometanism, they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species, when improveable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation, and puts a natural sceptre in a feeble hand.

Yet, because I am a woman, I would not lead my readers to suppose that I mean violently to agitate the contested question respecting the equality or inferiority of the sex; but as the subject lies in my way, and I cannot pass it over without subjecting the main tendency of my reasoning to misconstruction, I shall stop a moment to deliver, in a few words, my opinion. – In the government of the physical world it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. A degree of physical superiority cannot, therefore, be denied – and it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society. 

I am aware of an obvious inference: – from every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind; – all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine.

This discussion naturally divides the subject. I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this Earth to unfold their faculties; and afterwards I shall more particularly point out their peculiar designation.

I wish also to steer clear of an error which many respectable writers have fallen into; for the instruction which has hitherto been addressed to women has rather been applicable to ladies, if the little indirect advice, that is scattered through Sandford and Merton, be excepted; but, addressing my sex in a firmer tone, I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state. Perhaps the seeds of false-refinement, immorality and vanity, have ever been shed by the great. Weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society! As a class of mankind they have the strongest claim to pity; the education of the rich tends to render them vain and helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character. – They only live to amuse themselves, and by the same law which in nature invariably produces certain effects, they soon only afford barren amusement.

But as I purpose taking a separate view of the different ranks of society, and of the moral character of women, in each, this hint is, for the present, sufficient; and I have only alluded to the subject because it appears to me to be the very essence of an introduction to give a cursory account of the contents of the work it introduces.

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists – I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.

Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.

This is a rough sketch of my plan; and should I express my conviction with the energetic emotions that I feel whenever I think of the subject, the dictates of experience and reflection will be felt by some of my readers. Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style; – I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart. – I shall be employed about things, not words! – and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation.

The Historical Pageant of the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911, organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union, who were hoping to enlist the support of the new king in getting the Conciliation Bill of 1911 through parliament.

These pretty superlatives, dropping glibly from the tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth; and a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart, render the domestic pleasures insipid, that ought to sweeten the exercise of those severe duties, which educate a rational and immortal being for a nobler field of action.

The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them. It is acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves, – the only way women can rise in the world, – by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act: – they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures. – Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio! Can they be expected to govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?

If then it can be fairly deduced from the present conduct of the sex, from the prevalent fondness for pleasure which takes place of ambition and those nobler passions that open and enlarge the soul; that the instruction which women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil society, to render them insignificant objects of desire – mere propagators of fools! – if it can be proved that in aiming to accomplish them, without cultivating their understandings, they are taken out of their sphere of duties, and made ridiculous and useless when the short-lived bloom of beauty is over, I presume that rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade them to become more masculine and respectable.

Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear: there is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude; for their apparent inferiority with respect to bodily strength must render them, in some degree, dependent on men in the various relations of life; but why should it be increased by prejudices that give a sex to virtue, and confound simple truths with sensual reveries?

Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannise, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire. Let men become more chaste and modest, and if women do not grow wiser in the same ratio, it will be clear that they have weaker understandings. It seems scarcely necessary to say, that I now speak of the sex in general. Many individuals have more sense than their male relatives; and, as nothing preponderates where there is a constant struggle for an equilibrium, without it has naturally more gravity, some women govern their husbands without degrading themselves, because intellect will always govern.

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, feminist, and moral and political philosopher, who advocated for the educational and social equality of women. Her works include Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), the novel Mary: A Fiction (1788), and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter
Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Essay/
Ethics
Against moral sainthood

As philosopher Susan Wolf argues, life is far more meaningful and rich if we do not aim at being morally perfect

Daniel Callcut

Essay/
History of Ideas
First women of philosophy

Philosophy was once a woman’s world, ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s time to reclaim that lost realm

Dag Herbjørnsrud