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“VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN.”

The “Vindication of the Rights of Women” is the work on which Mary Wollstonecraft’s fame as an author rests. It is more than probable that, but for it, her other writings would long since have been forgotten. In it she speaks the first word in behalf of female emancipation. Her book is the forerunner of a movement which, whatever may be its results, will always be ranked as one of the most important of the nineteenth century. Many of her propositions are, to the present advocates of the cause, foregone conclusions. Hers was the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way. Her principal task was to demonstrate that the old ideals were false.

The then most exalted type of feminine perfection was Rousseau’s Sophia. Though this was an advance from the conception of the sex which inspired Congreve, when he made the women of his comedies mere targets for men’s gallantries, or Swift, when he wrote his “Advice to a Young Married Lady,” it was still a low estimate of woman’s character and sphere of action. According to Rousseau, and the Dr. Gregorys and Fordyces who re-echoed his doctrines in England, women are so far inferior to men that their contribution to the comfort and pleasure of the latter is the sole reason for their existence. For them virtue and duty have a relative and not an absolute value. What they are is of no consequence. The essential point is what they seem to men. That they are human beings is lost sight of in the all-engrossing fact that they are women.

It is strange that Rousseau, who would have had men return to a state of nature that they might be freed from shams and conventionalities, did not see that the sacrifice of reality to appearances was quite as bad for women. Mary Wollstonecraft, farther-sighted than he, discovered at once the flaw in his reasoning. What was said of Schopenhauer by a Frenchman could with equal truth be said of her: “Ce n’est pas un philosophe comme les autres, c’est un philosophe qui a vu monde.” She had lived in woman’s world, and consequently, unlike the sentimentalists who were accepted authorities on the subject, she did not reason from an outside stand-point. This was probably what helped her not only to recognize the false position of her sex, but to understand the real cause of the trouble. She referred it, not to individual cases of masculine tyranny or feminine incompetency, but to the fundamental misconception of the relations of the sexes. Therefore, what she had to do was to awaken mankind to the knowledge that women are human beings, and then to insist that they should be given the opportunity to assert themselves as such, and that their sex should become a secondary consideration. It would have been useless for her to analyze their rights in detail until she had established the premises upon which their claims must rest. It is true she contends for their political emancipation. “I really think,” she writes, “that women ought to have representatives instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.” And she also maintains their ability for the practice of many professions, especially of medicine. But this she says, as it were, in parenthesis. These necessary reforms cannot be even begun until the equality of the sexes as human beings is proved beyond a doubt. The object of the “Vindication” is to demonstrate this equality, and to point out the preliminary measures by which it may be secured.

The book is now seldom read. Others of later date have supplanted it. Conservative readers are prejudiced against it because of its title. The majority of the liberal-minded have not the patience to master its contents because they can find its propositions expressed more satisfactorily elsewhere. Yet, as a work which marks an epoch, it deserves to be well known. A comprehensive analysis of it will therefore not be out of place.

It begins strangely, as it appears to this generation, with a dedication to Talleyrand. Mary had seen him often when he had been in London, and only knew what was best in him. She admired his principles, being ignorant of his utter indifference to them. He had lately published a pamphlet on National Education, and this was a subject upon which, in vindicating women’s rights, she had much to say. He had, in pleading the cause of equality for all men, approached so closely to the whole truth that she thought, once this was pointed out to him, he could not fail to recognize it as she did. If he believed that, in his own words, “to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation in government was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain,” he could not logically deny that prescription was unjust when applied to women. Therefore, as a new constitution the first based upon reason was about to be established in France, she reminds him that its framers would be tyrants like their predecessors if they did not allow women to participate in it. In order to command his interest, she explains briefly and concisely the truth which she proposes to prove by her arguments, and thus she gives immediately the keynote to her book.

“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument,” she tells him, “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; 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 co-operate 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 interests 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, idolized, when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty or the interesting simplicity of affection.”

In her Introduction Mary further states the object and scope of her work. She advances the importance of bringing to a more healthy condition women, who, like flowers nourished in over-luxuriant soil, have become beautiful at the expense of strength. She attributes their weakness to the systems of education which have aimed at making them alluring mistresses rather than rational wives, and taught them to crave love, instead of exacting respect. But, to prevent misunderstanding, she explains that she does not wish them to seek to transform themselves into men by cultivating essentially masculine qualities. They are inferior physically, and must be content to remain so. Enthusiasm never carried her to the absurd and exaggerated extremes which have made later champions of the cause laughing-stocks. She also expresses her intention of steering clear of an error into which most writers upon the subject, with the exception perhaps of the author of Sandford and Merton, have fallen; namely, that of addressing their instruction to women of the upper classes. But she intends, while including all ranks of society, to give particular attention to the middle class, who appear to her to be in a more natural state. Then, warning her sex that she will treat them like rational creatures, and not as beings doomed to perpetual childhood, she tells them:

“... I wish to show 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.”

The Introduction is important because, as she says, it is the “very essence of an introduction to give a cursory account of the contents of the work it introduces.” Having learnt from it what she intends to do, it remains to be seen how she accomplishes her task.

For the convenience of readers, the treatise may be divided into three parts, though the author does not make this division, and was probably unconscious of its possibility. The first chapters give a general statement of the case. The second part is an elaboration of the first, and is more concerned with individual forms of the evil than with it as a whole. The third part suggests the remedy by which women are to be delivered from social slavery.

Mary assumes as the basis of her entire argument that “the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.” The moral value of equality she demonstrates by the wretchedness and wickedness which result whenever there is a substitution of arbitrary power for the law of reason. The regal position, for example, is gained by vile intrigues and unnatural crimes and vices, and maintained by the sacrifice of true wisdom and virtue. Military discipline, since it demands unquestioning submission to the will of others, encourages thoughtless action. Even the clergy, because of the blind acquiescence required from them to certain forms of belief, have their faculties cramped. This being the case, it follows that society, “as it becomes more enlightened, should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession.” Now women, that is to say, one half of the human race, have hitherto, on account of their sex, been absolutely debarred from the exercise of reason in forming their conduct. As women it has been supposed that they cannot have the same ideals as men. What is vice for the latter is for them virtue. Their duty is to acquire “cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety.” They are to render themselves “gentle domestic brutes.” In their education the training of their understanding is to be neglected for the cultivation of corporeal accomplishments. They are bidden to obey no laws save those of behavior, to which they are as complete slaves as soldiers are to the commands of their general, or the clergy to the ex cathedra utterances of their church. Fondness for dress, habits of dissimulation, and the affectation of a sickly delicacy are recommended for their cultivation as essentially feminine qualities; yet if virtue have but one eternal standard, it should be the same in quality for the two sexes, even if there must be a difference in the degree acquired by each. If women be moral beings, they should aim at unfolding all their faculties, and not, as Rousseau and his disciples would have them do, labor only to make themselves pleasing sexually. Even if this be counted a praiseworthy end, and they succeed in it, to what or how long will it avail them? The result proves the unsoundness of such doctrines:

“The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is past and gone. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties; or is it not more rational to expect, that she will try to please other men, and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavor to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover and the time will inevitably come her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps the most evanescent of all passions, give place to jealousy or vanity.

“I now speak of women who are restrained by principle or prejudice; such women, though they would shrink from an intrigue with real abhorrence, yet, nevertheless, wish to be convinced by the homage of gallantry, that they are cruelly neglected by their husbands; or days and weeks are spent in dreaming of the happiness enjoyed by congenial souls, till the health is undermined and the spirits broken by discontent. How, then, can the great art of pleasing be such a necessary study? It is only useful to a mistress; the chaste wife and serious mother should only consider her power to please as the polish of her virtues, and the affection of her husband as one of the comforts that render her task less difficult, and her life happier.”

Coquettish arts triumph only for a day. Love, the most transitory of all passions, is inevitably succeeded by friendship or indifference.

The arguments which have been advanced to support this degrading system of female education are easily proved to have no foundation in reason. Women, it is said, are not so strong physically as men. True; but this does not imply that they have no strength whatsoever. Because they are weak relatively, it does not follow that they should be made so absolutely. The sedentary life to which they are condemned weakens them, and then their weakness is accepted as an inherent, instead of an artificial, quality. Rousseau concludes that a woman is naturally a coquette, and governed in all matters by the sexual instinct, because her earliest amusements consist in playing with dolls, dressing them and herself, and in talking. These conclusions are almost too puerile to be refuted:

“That a girl, condemned to sit for hours listening to the idle chat of weak nurses or to attend at her mother’s toilet, will endeavor to join the conversation, is indeed very natural; and that she will imitate her mother or aunts, and amuse herself by adorning her lifeless doll, as they do in dressing her, poor innocent babe! is undoubtedly a most natural consequence. For men of the greatest abilities have seldom had sufficient strength to rise above the surrounding atmosphere; and if the page of genius has always been blurred by the prejudices of the age, some allowance should be made for a sex, who, like kings, always see things through a false medium.”

The truth is, were girls allowed the same freedom in the choice of amusements as boys, they would manifest an equal fondness for out-of-door sports, to the neglect of dolls and frivolous pastimes. But it is denied to them. Directors of their education have, as a rule, been blind adherents to the doctrine that whatever is, is right, and hence have argued that because women have always been brought up in a certain way they should continue to be so trained.

The worst of it is that the artificial delicacy of constitution thus produced is the cause of a corresponding weakness of mind; and women are in actual fact fair defects in creation, as they have been called. And yet, after having been unfitted for action, they are expected to be competent to take charge of a family. The woman who is well-disposed, and whose husband is a sensible man, may act with propriety so long as he is alive to direct her. But if he were to die how could she alone educate her children and manage her household with discretion? The woman who is ill-disposed is not only incapacitated for her duties, but, in her desire to please and to have pleasure, she neglects dull domestic cares.

“It does not require a lively pencil, or the discriminating outline of a caricature, to sketch the domestic miseries and petty vices which such a mistress of a family diffuses. Still, she only acts as a woman ought to act, brought up according to Rousseau’s system. She can never be reproached for being masculine, or turning out of her sphere; nay, she may observe another of his grand rules, and, cautiously preserving her reputation free from spot, be reckoned a good kind of woman. Yet in what respect can she be termed good? She abstains, it is true, without any great struggle, from committing gross crimes; but how does she fulfil her duties? Duties in truth, she has enough to think of to adorn her body and nurse a weak constitution.

“With respect to religion, she never presumes to judge for herself; but conforms, as a dependent creature should, to the ceremonies of the church which she was brought up in, piously believing that wiser heads than her own have settled that business; and not to doubt is her point of perfection. She therefore pays her tithe of mint and cummin, and thanks her God that she is not as other women are. These are the blessed effects of a good education! these the virtues of man’s helpmate!”

At this point Mary, after having given the picture of woman as she is now, describes her as she ought to be. This description is worth quoting, but not because it contains any originality of thought or charm of expression. It is interesting as showing exactly what the first sower of the seeds of female enfranchisement expected to reap for her harvest. People who are frightened by a name are apt to suppose that women who defend their rights would have the world filled with uninspired Joans of Arc, and unrefined Portias. Those who judge Mary Wollstonecraft by her conduct, without inquiring into her motives or reading her book, might conclude that what she desired was the destruction of family ties and, consequently, of moral order. Therefore, in justice to her, the purity of her ideals of feminine perfection and her respect for the sanctity of domestic life should be clearly established. This can not be better done than by giving her own words on the subject:

“Let fancy now present a woman with a tolerable understanding, for I do not wish to leave the line of mediocrity, whose constitution, strengthened by exercise, has allowed her body to acquire its full vigor, her mind at the same time gradually expanding itself to comprehend the moral duties of life, and in what human virtue and dignity consist. Formed thus by the relative duties of her station, she marries from affection, without losing sight of prudence; and looking beyond matrimonial felicity, she secures her husband’s respect before it is necessary to exert mean arts to please him, and feed a dying flame, which nature doomed to expire when the object became familiar, when friendship and forbearance take the place of a more ardent affection. This is the natural death of love, and domestic peace is not destroyed by struggles to prevent its extinction. I also suppose the husband to be virtuous; or she is still more in want of independent principles.

“Fate, however, breaks this tie. She is left a widow, perhaps without a sufficient provision; but she is not desolate. The pang of nature is felt; but after time has softened sorrow into melancholy resignation, her heart turns to her children with redoubled fondness, and, anxious to provide for them, affection gives a sacred, heroic cast to her maternal duties. She thinks that not only the eye sees her virtuous efforts from whom all her comfort now must flow, and whose approbation is life; but her imagination, a little abstracted and exalted by grief, dwells on the fond hope that the eyes which her trembling hand closed may still see how she subdues every wayward passion to fulfil the double duty of being the father as well as the mother of her children. Raised to heroism by misfortunes, she represses the first faint dawning of a natural inclination before it ripens into love, and in the bloom of life forgets her sex, forgets the pleasure of an awakening passion, which might again have been inspired and returned. She no longer thinks of pleasing, and conscious dignity prevents her from priding herself on account of the praise which her conduct demands. Her children have her love, and her highest hopes are beyond the grave, where her imagination often strays.

“I think I see her surrounded by her children, reaping the reward of her care. The intelligent eye meets hers, whilst health and innocence smile on their chubby cheeks, and as they grow up the cares of life are lessened by their grateful attention. She lives to see the virtues which she endeavored to plant on principles, fixed into habits, to see her children attain a strength of character sufficient to enable them to endure adversity without forgetting their mother’s example.

“The task of life thus fulfilled, she calmly waits for the sleep of
death, and rising from the grave may say, Behold, thou gavest me a
talent, and here are five talents.”

Truly, if this be the result of the vindication of their rights, even the most devoted believer in Rousseau must admit that women thereby will gain, and not lose, in true womanliness.

From the primal source of their wrongs, that is, the undue importance attached to the sexual character, Mary next explains that minor causes have arisen to prevent women from realizing this ideal. The narrowness of mind engendered by their vicious education hinders them from looking beyond the interests of the present. They consider immediate rather than remote effects, and prefer to be short-lived queens than to labor to attain the sober pleasures that arise from equality. Then, again, the desire to be loved or respected for something, which is instinctive in all human beings, is gratified in women by the homage paid to charms born of indolence. They thus, like the rich, lose the stimulus to exertion which this desire gives to men of the middle class, and which is one of the chief factors in the development of rational creatures. A man with a profession struggles to succeed in it. A woman struggles to marry advantageously. With the former, pleasure is a relaxation; with the latter, it is the main purpose of life. Therefore, while the man is forced to forget himself in his work, the womans attention is more and more concentrated upon her own person. The great evil of this self-culture is that the emotions are developed instead of the intellect. Women become a prey to what is delicately called sensibility. They feel and do not reason, and, depending upon men for protection and advice, the only effort they make is to give their weakness a graceful covering. They require, in the end, support even in the most trifling circumstances. Their fears are perhaps pretty and attractive to men, but they reduce them to such a degree of imbecility that they will start from the frown of an old cow or the jump of a mouse, and a rat becomes a serious danger. These fair, fragile creatures are the objects of Mary Wollstonecrafts deepest contempt, and she gives a good wholesome prescription for their cure, which, despite modern co-education and Women Conventions, female doctors and lawyers, might still be more generally adopted to great advantage. It is in such passages as the following that she proves the practical tendency of her arguments:

“I am fully persuaded that we should hear of none of these infantine airs if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed and their powers of digestion destroyed. To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps created, was treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reasons. ’Educate women like men,’ says Rousseau, ’and the more they resemble our sex, the less power will they have over us.’ This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.”

Some philosophers have asserted with contempt, as evidence of the inferiority of the female understanding, that it arrives at maturity long before the male, and that women attain their full strength and growth at twenty, but men not until they are thirty. But this Mary emphatically denies. The seeming earlier precocity of girls she attributes to the fact that they are much sooner treated as women than boys are as men. Their more speedy physical development is assumed because with them the standard of beauty is fine features and complexion, whilst male beauty is allowed to have some connection with the mind. But the truth is, that “strength of body and that character of countenance which the French term a physionomie, women do not acquire before thirty any more than men.”

There are some curious remarks in reference to polygamy as a mark of the inferiority of women, but they need not be given here, since this evil is not legally recognized by civilized people, with the exception of the Mormons. But there is a polygamy, not sanctioned by law, which exists in all countries, and which has done more than almost anything else to dishonor women. Mary’s observations in this connection are among the strongest in the book. She understands the true difficulty more thoroughly than many social reformers to-day, and offers a better solution of the problem than they do. Justice, not charity, she declares, is wanted in the world. Asylums and Magdalens are not the proper remedies for the abuse. But women should be given the same chance as men to rise after their fall. The first offence should not be made unpardonable, since good can come from evil. From a struggle with strong passions virtue is often evolved.

To sum up in a few words Mary’s statement of her subject, woman having always been treated as an irrational, inferior being, has in the end become one. Her acquiescence to her moral and mental degradation springs from a want of understanding. But “whether this arises from a physical or accidental weakness of faculties, time alone can determine.” Women must be allowed to exercise their understanding before it can be proved that they have none.

While each individual man is much to blame in encouraging the false position of women, inconsistently degrading those from whom they pretend to derive their chief pleasure, still greater fault lies with writers who have given to the world in their works opinions which, seemingly favorable, are in reality of a derogatory character to the entire sex. Having set themselves up as teachers, they are doubly responsible. They add to their personal influence that of their written doctrine. They necessarily become leaders, since the majority of men are more than willing to be led. There were several writers of the eighteenth century who had dogmatized about women and their education and the laws of behavior. Rousseau was to many as an inspired prophet. No woman’s library was then considered complete which did not include Dr. Fordyce’s Sermons and Dr. Gregory’s “Legacy to His Daughters.” Mrs. Piozzi and Madame de Stael were minor authorities, and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters had their admirers and upholders. These writers Mary treats separately, after she has shown the result of the tacit teaching of men, taken collectively; and here what may be called the second part of the book begins.

As Mary says, the comments which follow can all be referred to a few simple principles, and “might have been deduced from what I have already said.” They are a mere elaboration of what has gone before, and it would be therefore useless to repeat them. She exposes the folly of Rousseau’s ideal, the perfect Sophia who unites the endurance of a Griselda to the wiles of a Vivien, and whose principal mission seems to be to make men wonder, with the French cynic, of what use women over forty are in the world. She objects to Dr. Fordyce’s eulogium of female purity and his Rousseau-inspired appeals to women to make themselves all that is desirable in men’s eyes, expressed in “lover-like phrases of pumped-up passion.” The sensuous piety of his Sermons, suggestive of the erotic religious poems of the East, were particularly offensive to her. She next regrets that Dr. Gregory, at such a solemn moment as that of giving last words of advice to his daughters, should have added the weight of his authority to the doctrine of dissimulation; she is indignant that Mrs. Piozzi and Madame de Stael should have so little realized the dignity of true womanhood as to have confirmed the fiat their tyrants had passed against them; and she vigorously condemns Lord Chesterfield’s vicious system, which tends to the early acquirement of knowledge of the world and leaves but little opportunity for the free development of man’s natural powers. These writers, no matter how much they differ in detail, agree in believing external behavior to be of primary importance; and Mary’s criticisms of their separate beliefs may therefore be reduced to one leading proposition by which she contradicts their main assertions. Right and wrong, virtue and vice, must be studied in the abstract and not by the measure of weak human laws and customs. This is the refrain to all her arguments.

These remarks are followed by four chapters which, while they really relate to the subject, add little to the force of the book. Introduced as they are, they seem like disconnected essays. There is a dissertation upon the effect of early associations of ideas to prove what has already been asserted in an earlier chapter, that “females, who are made women of when they are mere children, and brought back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart forever,” will inevitably have a sexual character given to their minds. Modesty is next considered, not as a sexual virtue but comprehensively, to show that it is a quality which, regardless of sex, should always be based on humanity and knowledge, and never on the false principle that it is a means by which women make themselves pleasing to men. To teach girls that reserve is only necessary when they are with persons of the other sex is at once to destroy in their minds the intrinsic value of modesty. Yet this is usually the lesson taught them. As a natural consequence, women are free and confidential with each other to a fault, and foolishly prudent and squeamish with men. They are never for a moment unconscious of the difference of sex, and, in affecting the semblance of modesty, the true virtue escapes them altogether. In their neglect of what is for what seems, they lose the substance and grasp a shadow. This consideration of behavior, arbitrarily regulated, rather than of conduct ruled by truth, leads women to care much more for their reputation than for their actual chastity or virtue. They gradually learn to believe that the sin is in being found out. “Women mind not what only Heaven sees.” If their reputation be safe, their consciences are satisfied. A woman who, despite innumerable gallantries, preserves her fair name, looks down with contempt upon another who perhaps has sinned but once, but who has not been as clever a mistress of the art of deception.

“This regard for reputation, independent of its being one of the natural rewards of virtue, however, took its rise from a cause that I have already deplored as the grand source of female depravity, the impossibility of regaining respectability by a return to virtue, though men preserve theirs during the indulgence of vice. It was natural for women then to endeavor to preserve what, once lost, was lost forever, till, this care swallowing up every other care, reputation for chastity became the one thing needful for the sex.”

As pernicious as the effects of distorted conceptions of virtue are those which arise from unnatural social distinctions. This is a return to the proposition relating to the necessity of equality with which the book opens. In treating it in detail the question of woman’s work is more closely studied. The evils which the difference of rank creates are aggravated in her case. Men of the higher classes of society can, by entering a political or military life, make duties for themselves. Women in the same station are not allowed these channels of escape from the demoralizing idleness and luxury to which their social position confines them. On the other hand, women of the middle class, who are above menial service but who are forced to work, have the choice of a few despised employments. Milliners and mantua-makers are respected only a little more than prostitutes. The situation of governess is looked upon in the light of a degradation, since those who fill it are gentlewomen who never expected to be humiliated by work. Many women marry and sacrifice their happiness to fly from such slavery. Others have not even this pitiful alternative. “Is not that government then very defective, and very unmindful of the happiness of one half of its members, that does not provide for honest, independent women, by encouraging them to fill respectable stations?” It is a melancholy result of civilization that the “most respectable women are the most oppressed.”

The next chapter, on Paternal Affection, leads to the third part of the treatise. It is not enough for a reformer to pull down. He must build up as well, or at least lay the foundation stone of a new structure. The missionary does not only tell the heathen that his religion is false, but he instructs him in the new one which is to take its place. The scientist, besides maintaining that old theories are exploded, explains to the student new facts which have superseded them. Mary, after demonstrating the viciousness of existing educational systems, suggests wherein they may be improved, so that women, their understandings trained and developed, may have the chance to show what they really are.

Family duties necessarily precede those of society. As the “formation of the mind must be begun very early, and the temper, in particular, requires the most judicious attention,” a child’s training should be undertaken, not from the time it is sent to school, but almost from the moment of its birth. Therefore a few words as to the relations between parents and children are an indispensable introduction to the larger subject of education, properly so called, which prepares the young for social life.

Father and mother are rightful protectors of their child, and should accept the charge of it, instead of hiring a substitute for this purpose. It is not even enough for them to be regulated in this matter by the dictates of natural affection. They must be guided by reason. For there are the two equally dangerous extremes of tyrannical exercise of power and of weak indulgence to be avoided. Unless their understanding be strengthened and enlightened, they will not know what duties to exact from their children. In their own disregard of reason as a guide to conduct, they “demand blind obedience,” and, to render their demand binding, a “mysterious sanctity is spread around the most arbitrary principle.” Parents have a right to expect their children throughout their lives to pay them due respect, give heed to their advice, and take care of them should illness or old age make it impossible for them to do this for themselves; but they should never desire to subjugate their sons and daughters to their own will, after they have arrived at years of discretion and can answer for their actions. To obey a parent, “only on account of his being a parent, shackles the mind, and prepares it for a slavish submission to any power but reason.” These remarks are particularly applicable to girls, who “from various causes are more kept down by their parents, in every sense of the word, than boys,” though in the case of the latter there is still room for improvement. That filial duty should thus be reduced to slavery is inexcusable, since children can very soon be made to understand why they are requested to do certain things habitually. This, of course, necessitates trouble; but it is the only way to qualify them for contact with the world, and the active life which must come with their maturity.

Once this rational foundation has been laid for the formation of a child’s character, more immediate attention can be given to the development of its mental faculties and social tendencies.

The first step in solving the great problem of education and here both sexes are referred to is to decide whether it should be public or private. The objections to private education are serious. It is not good for children to be too much in the society of men and women; for they then “acquire that kind of premature manhood which stops the growth of every vigorous power of mind or body.” By growing accustomed to have their questions answered by older people instead of being obliged to seek the answers for themselves, as they are forced to do when thrown with other children, they do not learn how to think for themselves. The very groundwork of self-reliance is thus destroyed. “Besides, in youth the seeds of every affection should be sown, and the respectful regard which is felt for a parent is very different from the social affections that are to constitute the happiness of life as it advances.” “Frank ingenuousness” can only be attained by young people being frequently in society where they dare to speak what they think. To know how to live with their equals when they are grown up, children must learn to associate with them when they are young.

The evils which result from the boarding-school system are almost as great as those of private education. The tyranny established among the boys is demoralizing, while the acquiescence to the forms of religion demanded of them, encourages hypocrisy. Children who live away from home are unfitted for domestic life. “Public education of every denomination should be directed to form citizens, but if you wish to make good citizens, you must first exercise the affections of a son and a brother.” Home-training on the one hand, and boarding-schools on the other, being equally vicious, the only way out of the difficulty is to combine the two systems, retaining what is best in each, and doing away with what is evil. This combination could be obtained by the establishment of national day-schools.

They must be supported by government, because the school-master who is dependent upon the parents of children committed to his charge, necessarily caters to them. In schools for the upper classes, where the number of pupils is small and select, he spends his energies in giving them a show of knowledge wherewith they may startle friends and relations into admiration of his superior system. In common schools, where the charges are small, he is forced, in order to support himself, to multiply the number of pupils until it is impossible for him to do any one of them justice. But if education were a national affair, school-masters would be responsible to a board of directors, whose interest would be given to the boys collectively and not individually, while the number of pupils to be received would be strictly regulated.

To perfect national schools the sexes must be educated together. By this means only can they be prepared for their after relations to each other, women thus becoming enlightened citizens and rational companions for men. The experiment of co-education is at all events worth making. Even should it fail, women would not be injured thereby, “for it is not in the power of man to render them more insignificant than they are at present.”

Mary is very practical in this branch of her subject, and suggests an admirable educational scheme. In her levelling of rank among the young, she shows the influence of Plato; in her hint as to the possibility of uniting play and study in elementary education, she anticipates Froebel. Her ideas can be best appreciated by giving them in her own words:

“To render this [that is, co-education] practicable, day-schools for particular ages should be established by government, in which boys and girls might be educated together. The school for the younger children, from five to nine years of age, ought to be absolutely free and open to all classes. A sufficient number of masters should also be chosen by a select committee, in each parish, to whom any complaint of negligence, etc., might be made, if signed by six of the children’s parents.

“Ushers would then be unnecessary: for I believe experience will
ever prove that this kind of subordinate authority is particularly
injurious to the morals of youth....

“But nothing of this kind [that is, amusement at the expense of ushers] would occur in an elementary day-school, where boys and girls, the rich and poor, should meet together. And to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The schoolroom ought to be surrounded by a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time. But these relaxations might all be rendered a part of elementary education, for many things improve and amuse the senses when introduced as a kind of show, to the principles of which, dryly laid down, children would turn a deaf ear. For instance, botany, mechanics, and astronomy, reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, and some simple experiments in natural philosophy, might fill up the day; but these pursuits should never encroach on gymnastic plays in the open air. The elements of religion, history, the history of man, and politics might also be taught by conversations in Socratic form.

“After the age of nine, girls and boys intended for domestic employments or mechanical trades ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning; but in the afternoon the girls should attend a school where plain work, mantua-making, millinery, etc., would be their employment.

“The young people of superior abilities or fortune might now be taught, in another school, the dead and living languages, the elements of society, and continue the study of history and politics on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature. ‘Girls and boys still together?’ I hear some readers ask. Yes; and I should not fear any other consequence than that some early attachment might take place....

“Besides, this would be a sure way to promote early marriages, and
from early marriages the most salutary physical and moral effects
naturally flow....

“... Those (youths) who were designed for particular professions
might attend, three or four mornings in the week, the schools
appropriated for their immediate instruction....

“My observations on national education are obviously hints; but I principally wish to enforce the necessity of educating the sexes together to perfect both, and of making children sleep at home, that they may learn to love home; yet to make private ties support, instead of smothering, public affections, they should be sent to school to mix with a number of equals, for only by the jostlings of equality can we form a just opinion of ourselves....

“... The conclusion which I wish to draw is obvious: make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers; that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”

This is no place to enter into a discussion as to whether Mary Wollstonecraft’s theories were right or wrong. National education and co-education are still subjects of controversy. But even those who object most strongly to her conclusions must admit that they were the logical results of her premises. Equality! was her battle-cry. All men and women are equal inasmuch as they are human. Her scheme is the only possible one by which this fundamental equality can be maintained. It covers the whole ground, too, by its recognition of the secondary distinctions of rank and sex, and the necessary division of labor. Mary was not a communist in her social philosophy. She knew such differences must always exist, and she allowed for them.

In the remaining chapter she cites instances of folly generated by women’s ignorance, and makes reflections upon the probable improvement to be produced by a revolution in female manners. Some of the evils with which she deals are trifling, as, for example, the prevailing mania for mesmerism and fortune-telling. Others are serious, as, for instance, the incapacity of ignorant women to rear children. But all which are of real weight have already been more than amply discussed. She here merely repeats herself, and these last pages are of little or no consequence.

A plainness of speech, amounting in some places to coarseness, and a deeply religious tone, are to many modern readers the most curious features of the book. A just estimate of it could not be formed if these two facts were overlooked. A century ago men and women were much more straightforward in their speech than we are to-day. They were not squeamish. In real life Amelías listened to raillery from Squire Westerns not a whit more refined than Fielding’s good country gentlemen. Therefore, when it came to serious discussions for moral purposes, there was little reason for writers to be timid. It was impossible for Mary to avoid certain subjects not usually spoken of in polite conversation. Had she done so, she would but have half stated her case. She was not to be deterred because she was a woman. Such mock-modesty would at once have undermined her arguments. According to her own theories, there was no reason why she should not think and speak as unhesitatingly as men, when her sex was as vitally interested as theirs. And therefore, with her characteristic consistency, she did so. But while her language may seem coarse to our over-fastidious ears, it never becomes prurient or indecent. In her Dedication she expresses very distinctly her disgust for the absence of modesty among contemporary Frenchwomen. Hers is the plain-speaking of the Jewish law-giver, who has for end the good of man; and not that of an Aretino, who rejoices in it for its own sake.

Even more remarkable than this boldness of expression is the strong vein of piety running through her arguments. Religion was to her as important as it was to a Wesley or a Bishop Watts. The equality of man, in her eyes, would have been of small importance had it not been instituted by mans Creator. It is because there is a God, and because the soul is immortal, that men and women must exercise their reason. Otherwise, they might, like animals, yield to the rule of their instincts and emotions. If women were without souls, they would, notwithstanding their intellects, have no rights to vindicate. If the Christian heaven were like the Mahometan paradise, then they might indeed be looked upon as slaves and playthings of beings who are worthy of a future life, and hence are infinitely their superiors. But, though sincerely pious, she despised the meaningless forms of religion as much as she did social conventionalities, and was as free in denouncing them. The clergy, who from custom cling to old rites and ceremonies, were, in her opinion, indolent slugs, who guard, by liming it over, the snug place which they consider in the light of an hereditary estate, and idle vermin who two or three times a day perform, in the most slovenly manner, a service which they think useless, but call their duty. She believed in the spirit, but not in the letter of the law. The scriptural account of the creation is for her Moses poetical story, and she supposes that very few who have thought seriously upon the subject believe that Eve was, literally speaking, one of Adams ribs. She is indignant at the blasphemy of sectarians who teach that an all-merciful God has instituted eternal punishment, and she is impatient of the debtor and creditor system which was then the inspiration of the religion of the people. She believes in God as the life of the universe, and she accepts neither the theory of mans innate wickedness nor that of his natural perfection, the two then most generally adopted, but advocates his power of development:

“Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally;
a crowd of authors that all is now right; and I, that all will
be
right.”

She, in fact, teaches the doctrine of evolution. But where its modern upholders refer all things to an unknowable source, she builds her belief “on the perfectibility of God.”

Even the warmest admirers of Mary Wollstonecraft must admit that the faults of the Vindication of the Rights of Women are many. Criticised from a literary stand-point, they exceed its merits. Perfection of style was not, it is true, the aim of the writer, as she at once explains in her Introduction. She there says, that being animated by a far greater end than that of fine writing,

“... 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 to dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, nor 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.”

Yet she errs principally from the fault she determines to avoid, as the very sentence in which she announces this determination proves. Despite her sincerity, she is affected, and her arguments are often weakened by meretricious forms of expression. No one can for a moment doubt that her feelings are real, but neither can the turgidity and bombast of her language be denied. She borrows, unconsciously perhaps, the flowery diction which she so heartily condemns. Her style, instead of being clear and simple, as would have best suited her subject, is disfigured by the euphuism which was the fashion among writers of the last century. When she is enthusiastic, her pen darts rapidly along and her heart bounds; if she grows indignant at Rousseaus ideal of feminine perfection, the rigid frown of insulted virtue effaces the smile of complacency which his eloquent periods are wont to raise, when I read his voluptuous reveries. When she wants to prove that men of genius, as a rule, have good constitutions, she says:

“... Considering the thoughtless manner in which they lavished their strength when, investigating a favorite science, they have wasted the lamp of life, forgetful of the midnight hour, or when, lost in poetic dreams, fancy has peopled the scene, and the soul has been disturbed, till it shook the constitution by the passions that meditation had raised, whose objects, the baseless fabric of a vision, faded before the exhausted eye, they must have had iron frames.”

In her praise of the virtue of modesty, she exclaims:

“... It is the pale moon-beam that renders more interesting every virtue it softens, giving mild grandeur to the contracted horizon. Nothing can be more beautiful than the poetical fiction which makes Diana, with her silver crescent, the goddess of chastity. I have sometimes thought that, wandering in sedate step in some lonely recess, a modest dame of antiquity must have felt a glow of conscious dignity, when, after contemplating the soft, shadowy landscape, she has invited with placid fervor the mild reflection of her sister’s beams to turn to her chaste bosom.”

She is too ready to moralize, and her moralizing degenerates unfortunately often into commonplace platitudes. She is even at times disagreeably pompous and authoritative, and preaches rather than argues. This was due partly to a then prevailing tendency in literature. Every writer essayist, poet, and novelist preached in those days. Mary frequently forgets she has a cause to prove in her desire to teach a lesson. She exhorts her sisters as a minister might appeal to his brethren, and this resemblance is made still more striking by the oratorical flights or prayers with which she interrupts her argument to address her Creator. Moreover, the book is throughout, as Leslie Stephen says, “rhetorical rather than speculative.” It is unmistakably the creation of a zealous partisan, and not of a calm advocate. It reads more like an extempore declamation than a deliberately written essay. Godwin says, as if in praise, that it was begun and finished within six weeks. It would have been better had the same number of months or years been devoted to it. Because of the lack of all method it is so full of repetition that the argument is weakened rather than strengthened. She is so certain of the truth of abstract principles from which she reasons, that she does not trouble herself to convince the sceptical by concrete proofs. Owing to this want of system, the “Vindication” has little value as a philosophical work. Women to-day, with none of her genius, have written on the same subject books which exert greater influence than hers, because they have appreciated the importance of a definite plan.

Great as are these faults, they are more than counterbalanced by the merits of the book. All the flowers of rhetoric cannot conceal its genuineness. As is always the case with the work of honest writers, it commands respect even from those who disapprove of its doctrine and criticise its style. Despite its moralizing it is strong with the strength born of an earnest purpose. It was written neither for money nor for amusement, too often the inspiration to book-making. The one she had not time to seek; the other she could have obtained with more certainty by translating for Mr. Johnson, or by contributing to the “Analytical Review.” She wrote it because she thought it her duty to do so, and hence its vigor and eloquence. All her pompous platitudes cannot conceal the earnestness of her denunciation of shams. The “Rights of Women” is an outcry against them. The age was an artificial one. Ladies played at being shepherdesses, and men wept over dead donkeys. Sensibility was a cultivated virtue, and philanthropy a pastime. Women were the arch-sufferers from this evil; but, pleased at being likened unto angels, they failed to see that the ideal set up for them was false. It is to Mary’s glory that she could penetrate the mists of prevailing prejudices and see the clear unadulterated truth. The excess of sentimentalism had given rise to the other extreme of naturalism. In France the reaction against arbitrary laws, empty forms, and the unjust privileges of rank, led to the French Revolution. In England its outcome was a Wesley in religious speculation, a Wilkes in political action, and a Godwin and a Paine in social and political theorizing. But those who were most eager to uphold reason as a guide to the conduct of men, had nothing to say in behalf of women. Even the reformers, by ignoring their cause, seemed to look upon them as beings belonging to another world. Day, in his “Sandford and Merton,” was the only man in the least practical where the weaker sex was concerned. Mary knew that no reform would be complete which did not recognize the fact that what is law and truth for man must be so for women also. She carried the arguments for human equality to their logical conclusion. Her theories are to the philosophy of the Revolutionists what modern rationalism is to the doctrine of the right of private judgment. She saw the evil to which greater philosophers than she had been indifferent. The same contempt for conventional standards which characterized her actions inspired her thoughts. Once she had evolved this belief, she felt the necessity of proclaiming it to the world at large; and herein consists her greatness. “To believe your own thought,” Emerson says, “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius.” The “Vindication of the Rights of Women” will always live because it is the work of inspiration, the words of one who speaketh with authority.

Furthermore, another and very great merit of the book is that the ideas expressed in it are full of common sense, and eminently practical. Mary’s educational theories, far in advance of her time, are now being to a great extent realized. The number of successful women physicians show how right she was in supposing medicine to be a profession to which they are well suited. The ability which a few women have manifested as school directors and in other minor official positions confirms her belief in the good to be accomplished by giving them a voice in social and political matters. But what is especially to her credit is her moderation. Apostles of a new cause or teachers of a new doctrine are, as a rule, enthusiasts or extremists who lose all sense of the fitness of things. A Diogenes, to express his contempt for human nature, must needs live in a tub. A Fox knows no escape from the shams of society, save flight to the woods and an exchange of linen and cloth covering for a suit of leather. But Mary’s enthusiasm did not make her blind; she knew that women were wronged by the existing state of affairs; but she did not for this reason believe that they must be removed to a new sphere of action. She defended their rights, not to unfit them for duties assigned them by natural and social necessities, but that they might fulfil them the better. She eloquently denied their inferiority to men, not that they might claim superiority, but simply that they might show themselves to be the equals of the other sex. Woman was to fight for her liberty that she might in deed and in truth be worthy to have her children and her husband rise up and call her blessed!