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they marry they act
as such children may be expected to act -
they dress, they paint, and nickname God's creatures..."
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
by Mary Wollstonecraft
by Mary Wollstonecraft
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
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
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 improvable 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 quality 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
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 preeminence, 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 raises 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 gland 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
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 show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first
object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a hurnan 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, or 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.
These pretty superlatives, dropping glibly from the
tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that tums
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
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
 A lively writer (I cannot recollect his name) asks what business
women turned of forty have to do in the world? [RETURN TO TEXT]
from Mary Wollstonecraft to M. Talleyrand-Perigord
TO M. TALLEYRAND-PERIGORD
Late Bishop of Autun
Having read with great
pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I dedicate this volume
to you - the first dedication that I have ever written, to induce you to
read it with attention; and, because I think that you will understand me,
which I do not suppose many pert witlings will, who may ridicule the arguments
they are unable to answer.
But, sir I carry my respect
for your understanding still farther; so far that I am confident you will
not throw my work aside, and hastily conclude that I am in the wrong, because
you did not view the subject in the same light yourself.
And, pardon my frankness,
but I must observe, that you treated it in too cursory a manner, contented
to consider it as it had been considered formerly, when the rights of man,
not to advert to woman, were trampled on as chimerical - I call upon you,
therefore, now to 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
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.
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
And how can woman
be expected to cooperate unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous?
unless freedom strengthens her reason till she comprehends 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
phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to
If so, on what does your
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 of the gift of reason?
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 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
show 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.
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
Note by Mary Wollstonecraft
When I began to write this work, I divided it into
three parts, supposing that one volume would contain a full discussion
of the arguments which seemed to me to rise naturally from a few simple
principles; but fresh illustrations occurring as I advanced, I now present
only the first part to the public.
Many subjects, however, which I have cursorily
alluded to, call for particular investigation, especially the laws relative
to women, and the consideration of their peculiar duties. These will furnish
ample matter for a second volume, which in due time will be published,
to elucidate some of the sentiments and complete many of the sketches begun
in the first.
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