Analyzing Wollstonecraft

Chapter 8 (Sexual Notions for Good Reputation)

Page: 80

Women in the same way acquire, from a supposed necessity, an equally artificial way of behaving.  But you can’t with impunity play with truth, because the experienced dissembler eventually becomes the dupe of his own arts, and can no longer quickly perceive common truths, which means that he loses his common sense. Those are truths that are constantly accepted as true by the unsophisticated mind, though it might not have had enough energy to discover them itself when local prejudices got in the way. Most people take their opinions on trust, to avoid the trouble of using their own minds, and these lazy beings naturally adhere to the letter of the law rather its spirit, whether the law be divine or human. Some author (I forget who) wrote: ‘Women don’t care about things that only heaven sees.’ Why indeed should they? It is the eye of man that they have been taught to dread—and if they can lull their Argus to sleep, they seldom think of heaven or themselves, because their reputation is safe; and it is not •chastity but •reputation that they are working to keep free from spot, not as a virtue but to preserve their status in the world.

To prove the truth of this remark, I need only mention the intrigues of married women, particularly in the upper social ranks and in countries where women are suitably married according to their respective ranks by their parents. If an innocent girl become a prey to love [i.e. if she has a sexual affair before marriage.], she is degraded forever, even if her mind wasn’t polluted by the arts that married women practise under the convenient cloak of marriage; and she hasn’t violated any duty except her duty to respect herself. In contrast with that, if a married woman is a false and faithless wife, she breaks a most sacred contract and becomes a cruel mother. If her husband still has an affection for her, the tricks she must use to deceive him will make her the most contemptible of human beings; and the contrivances necessary to preserve appearance will keep her mind in that childish or vicious tumult that destroys all its energy.

Chapter 11 (Duty to Parents)

Page: 92

Females in all countries are too much under the dominion of their parents; and few parents think of addressing their children like this: It is your interest to obey me until you can judge for yourself; and ·God·, the Almighty Father of all, has implanted in me an affection to serve as your guardian while your reason is unfolding; but when your mind arrives at maturity, you must obey me—or rather respect my opinions—only to the extent that they coincide with the light that is breaking in on your own mind. A slavish bondage to parents cramps every faculty of the mind. Locke was right when he said that ‘if the mind is curbed and humbled too much in children—if their spirits are abased and broken by too strict a hand over them—they lose all their vigour and industry’. This strict hand may to some extent explain the weakness of women; because girls are for various reasons more kept down by their parents in every sense of the word ‘down’, than boys are.

The duty expected from them is, like all the duties arbitrarily imposed on women, based less on reason than on a sense of propriety, on respect for decorum; and by being taught slavishly to submit to their parents girls are prepared for the slavery of marriage. [MW concedes that some married women are not slaves, but they, she says, become tyrants. She also says that not all boys and girls are slaves to their parents, but continues her campaign on behalf of those who are. She emphatically contrasts parents who ‘have allowed a natural parental affection to take root in their hearts’ with those who are motivated by ‘selfish pride’. The former, she says, will be rewarded by ‘filial reverence’.] Why should the minds of children be warped. when they are just beginning to expand, only to favour the laziness of parents who insist on a privilege without being willing to pay the price for it fixed by nature?. . . . A right always includes a duty; and I think we can fairly infer from this that those who don’t perform the duty don’t retain the right.

Chapter 12 (National Education)

After the age of nine, girls and boys who are intended for domestic employment or mechanical trades should be transferred to other schools and be given instruction that is to some degree adapted to the destination of each individual pupil; the two sexes should still be together in the morning, but in the afternoon the girls should attend a school where simple sewing, dressmaking, millinery, etc. would be their employment.

Young people of superior abilities or fortune, might now be taught—in another school—the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and more on history and politics, on a more extensive scale that wouldn’t exclude literature. ‘Girls and boys still together?’ I hear some readers ask. Yes! And I wouldn’t fear any consequence except that there might be some early girl-boy attachment that didn’t perfectly agree with the views of the parents though it had an excellent effect on the moral character of the young people. I’m afraid that we are a long way from having a world that is so enlightened that parents, anxious only to make their children virtuous, will let them choose companions for life themselves.