TO CHAP. SEVEN | CHAPTER
VIII | GO
TO CHAP. NINE |
greater number of people
take their opinions on trust to avoid the trouble
of exercising their own minds...
A VINDICATION OF
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
by Mary Wollstonecraft
Morality Undermined by Sexual Notions
of the Importance of a Good Reputation
It has long since occurred to me that advice respecting
behaviour, and all the various modes of preserving a good reputation, which
have been so strenuously inculcated on the female world, were specious
poisons, that encrusting morality eat away the substance. And, that this
measuring of shadows produced a false calculation, because their length
depends so much on the height of the sun, and other adventitious circumstances.
Whence arises the easy fallacious behaviour of
From his situation, undoubtedly: for standing in need
of dependents, he is obliged to learn the art of denying without giving
offence, and, of evasively feeding hope with the chameleon's food: thus
does politeness sport with truth, and eating away the sincerity and humanity
native to man, produce the fine gentleman.
Women likewise acquire, from a supposed necessity,
an equally artificial mode of behaviour. Yet truth is not with impunity
to be sported with, for the practised dissembler, at last become the dupe
of his own arts, loses that sagacity, which has been justly termed common
sense; namely a quick perception of common truths: which are constantly.received
as such by the unsophisticated mind, though it might not have had sufficient
energy to discover themselves, when obscured by local prejudices.
The greater number of people take their opinions
on trust to avoid the trouble of exercising their own minds, and these
indolent beings naturally adhere to the letter, rather than the spirit
of a law, divine or human.
some author, I cannot recollect who, "mind not
what 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 reputation,
not chastity and all its fair train, that they are employed to keep free
from spot, not as a virtue, but to preserve their station in the world.
To prove the truth of this remark, I need not advert
to the intrigues of married women, particularly in high life, 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,
she is degraded forever, though her mind was not polluted by the arts which
married women, under the convenient cloak of marriage, practise; nor has
she violated any duty - but the duty of respecting herself.
The married woman, on the contrary, breaks a most
sacred engagement, and becomes a cruel mother when she is a false and faithless
wife. If her husband have still an affection for her, the arts which she
must practise to deceive him, will render her the most contemptible of
human beings; and, at any rate, the contrivances necessary to preserve
appearances, will keep her mind in that childish, or vicious, tumult, which
destroys all its energy. Besides, in time, like those people who habitually
take cordials to raise their spirits, she will want an intrigue to give
life to her thoughts, having lost all relish for pleasures that are not
highly seasoned by hope or fear.
Sometimes married women act still more audaciously.
I will mention an instance.
A woman of quality, notorious for her gallantries,
though as she still lived with her husband, nobody chose to place her in
the class where she ought to have been placed, made a point of treating
with the most insulting contempt a poor timid creature, abashed by a sense
of her former weakness, whom a neighbouring gentleman had seduced and afterwards
The woman had actually confounded virtue with reputation;
and, I do believe, valued herself on the propriety of her behaviour before
marriage, though when once settled to the satisfaction of her family, she
and her lord were equally faithless, so that the half-alive heir to an
immense estate came from Heaven knows where!
To view this subject in another light.
I have known a number of women who, if they did
not love their husbands, loved nobody else, give themselves entirely up
to vanity and dissipation, neglecting every domestic duty; nay even squandering
away all the money which should have been saved for their helpless younger
children, yet have plumed themselves on their unsullied reputation, as
if the whole compass of their duty as wives and mothers was only to preserve
Whilst other indolent women, neglecting every personal
duty have thought that they deserved their husbands' affection, because,
forsooth, they acted in this respect with propriety.
Weak minds are always fond of resting in the
ceremonials of duty, but morality offers much simpler motives; and
it were to be wished that superficial moralists had said less respecting
behaviour, and outward observances, for unless virtue, of any kind, be
built on knowledge, it will only produce a kind of insipid decency.
Respect for the opinion of the world, has, however,
been termed the principal duty of woman in the most express words, for
Rousseau declares, "that reputation is no less
indispensable than chastity."
"A man," adds he,
"secure in his own good conduct, depends only
on himself, and may brave the public opinion; but a woman, in behaving
well, performs but half her duty; as what is thought of her, is as important
to her as what she really is. It follows hence, that the system of a woman's
education should in this respect, be directly contrary to that of ours.
Opinion is the grave of virtue among the men; but its throne among women."
It is strictly logical to infer that the virtue
that rests on opinion is merely worldly, and that it is the virtue of a
being to whom reason has been denied.
But, even with respect to the opinion of the world,
I am convinced that this class of reasoners are mistaken.
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 endeavour to preserve
what once lost - was lost for ever, till this care swallowing up every
other care, reputation for chastity, became the one thing needful to the
But vain is the scrupulosity of ignorance, for neither
religion nor virtue, when they reside in the heart, require such a puerile
attention to mere ceremonies, because the behaviour must, upon the whole,
be proper, when the motive is pure.
To support my opinion I can produce very respectable
authority; and the authority of a cool reasoner ought to have weight to
enforce consideration, though not to establish a sentiment.
Speaking of the general laws of morality, Dr. Smith
"That by some very extraordinary and unlucky
circumstance, a good man may come to be suspected of a crime of which he
was altogether incapable, and upon that account be most unjustly exposed
for the remaining part of his life to the horror and aversion of mankind.
By an accident of this kind he may be said to lose his all, notwithstanding
his integrity and justice, in the same manner as a cautious man, notwithstanding
his utmost circumspection, may be ruined by an earthquake or an inundation.
"Accidents of the
first kind, however, are perhaps still more rare, and still more contrary
to the common course of things than those of the second; and it still remains
true, that the practice of truth, justice, and humanity, is a certain and
almost infallible method of acquiring what those virtues chiefly aim at,
the confidence and love of those we live with.
"A person may be
easily misrepresented with regard to a particular action; but it is scarce
possible that he should be so with regard to the general tenor of his conduct.
An innocent man may be believed to have done wrong: this, however, will
rarely happen. On the contrary, the established opinion of the innocence
of his manners will often lead us to absolve him where he has really been
in the fault, notwithstanding very strong presumptions."
I perfectly coincide in opinion with this writer,
for I verily believe that few of either sex were ever despised for certain
vices without deserving to be despised.
I speak not of the calumny of the moment, which hovers
over a character, like one of the dense morning fogs of November, over
this metropolis, till it gradually subsides before the common light of
I only contend that the daily conduct of the majority
prevails to stamp their character with the impression of truth. Quietly
does the clear light, shining day after day, refute the ignorant surmise,
or malicious tale, which has thrown dirt on a pure character. A false light
distorted, for a short time, its shadow - reputation; but it seldom fails
to become just when the cloud is dispersed that produced the mistake in
Many people, undoubtedly, in several respects obtain
a better reputation than, strictly speaking, they deserve; for unremitting
industry will mostly reach its goal in all races.
They who only strive for this paltry prize, like the
Pharisees, who prayed at the corners of streets, to be seen of men, verily
obtain the reward they seek; for the heart of man cannot be read by man!
Still the fair fame that is naturally reflected by
good actions, when the man is only employed to direct his steps aright,
regardless of the lookers-on, is, in general, not only more true, but more
There are, it is true, trials when the good man
must appeal to God from the injustice of man; and amidst the whining candour
or hissings of envy, erect a pavilion in his own mind to retire to till
the rumour be overpast; nay, the darts of undeserved censure may pierce
an innocent tender bosom through with many sorrows; but these are all exceptions
to general rules.
And it is according to common laws that human behaviour
ought to be regulated. The eccentric orbit of the comet-never influences
astronomical calculations respecting the invariable order established in
the motion of the principal bodies of the solar system.
I will then venture to affirm,
that after a man is arrived at maturity, the general outline of his character
in the world is just, allowing for the before-mentioned exceptions to the
I do not say that a prudent, worldly-wise man, with
only negative virtues and qualities, may not sometimes obtain a smoother
reputation than a wiser or a better man. So far from it, that I am apt
to conclude from experience, that where the virtue of two people is nearly
equal, the most negative character will be liked best by the world at large,
whilst the other may have more friends in private life.
But the hills and dales, clouds and sunshine, conspicuous
in the virtues of great men, set off each other; and though they afford
envious weakness a fairer mark to shoot at, the real character will still
work its way to light, though bespattered by weak affection, or ingenious
With respect to that anxiety
to preserve a reputation hardly earned, which leads sagacious people to
analyse it, I shall not make the obvious comment; but I am afraid that
morality is very insidiously undermined, in the female world, by the
attention being turned to the show instead of the substance.
A simple thing is thus made strangely complicated;
nay, sometimes virtue and its shadow are set at variance.
We should never, perhaps, have heard of Lucretia,
had she died to preserve her chastity instead of her reputation. If we
really deserve our own good opinion we shall commonly be respected in the
world; but if we pant after higher improvement and higher attainments,
it is not sufficient to view ourselves as we suppose that we are viewed
by others, though this has been ingeniously argued, as the foundation of
our moral sentiments. 
Because each bystander may have his own prejudices,
beside the prejudices of his age or country. We should rather endeavour
to view ourselves as we suppose that Being views us who seeth each thought
ripen into action, and whose judgment never swerves from the eternal rule
of right. Righteous are all His judgments - just as mercifu!
The humble mind that seeketh to find favour in
His sight, and calmly examines its conduct when only His presence is felt,
will seldom form a very erroneous opinion of its own virtues. During the
still hour of self-collection the angry brow of offended justice will be
fearfully deprecated, or the tie which draws man to the Deity will be recognised
in the pure sentiment of reverential adoration, that swells the heart without
exciting any tumultuous emotions.
In these solemn moments man discovers the germ of
those vices, which, like the Java tree, shed a pestiferous vapour around
- death is in the shade! and he perceives them without abhorrence, because
he feels himself drawn by some cord of love to all his fellow-creatures,
for whose follies he is anxious to find every extenuation in their nature
- in himself.
If I, he may thus argue, who exercise my own mind,
and have been refined by tribulation, find the serpent's egg in some fold
of my heart, and crush it with difficulty, shall I not pity those who have
stamped with less vigour, or who have heedlessly nurtured the insidious
reptile till it poisoned the vital stream it sucked?
Can I, conscious of my secret sins, throw off my fellow-creatures,
and calmly see them drop into the chasm of perdition, that yawns to receive
The agonised heart will cry with suffocating impatience
- I, too, am a man! and have vices, hid perhaps, from human eye, that bend
me to the dust before God, and loudly tell me, when all is mute, that we
are formed of the same earth, and breathe the same element. Humanity thus
rises naturally out of humility and twists the cords of love that in various
convolutions entangle the heart.
This sympathy extends still further, till a man
well pleased observes force in arguments that do not carry conviction to
his own bosom, and he gladly places in the fairest light, to himself, the
shows of reason that have led others astray, rejoiced to find some reason
in all the errors of man, though before convinced that He who rules the
day, makes His sun to shine on all. Yet, shaking hands thus as it were
with corruption, one foot on earth, the other with bold stride mounts to
Heaven and claims kindred with superior natures.
Virtues, unobserved by man, drop their balmy fragrance
at this cool hour, and the thirsty land, refreshed by the pure streams
of comfort that suddenly rush out, is crowned with smiling verdure; this
is the living green on which that eye may look with complacency that is
too pure to behold iniquity!
But my spirits flag; and I must silently indulge
the reverie these reflections lead to, unable to describe the sentiments,
that have calmed my soul, when watching the rising sun, a soft shower drizzling
through the leaves of neighbouring trees, seemed to fall on my languid,
yet tranquil spirits, to cool the heart that had been heated by the passions
which reason laboured to tame.
The leading principles which run through all my
disquisitions, would render it unnecessary to enlarge on this subject,
if a constant attention to keep the varnish of the character fresh, and
in good condition, were not often inculcated as the sum total of female
duty; if rules to regulate the behaviour, and to preserve the reputation,
did not too frequently supersede moral obligations.
But, with respect to reputation, the attention
is confined to a single virtue of chastity. If the honour of a woman, as
it is absurdly called, be safe, she may neglect every social duty;
nay, ruin her family by gaming and extravagance; yet still present a shameless
front - for truly she is an honourable woman!
Mrs. Macaulay has justly observed, that "there
is but one fault which a woman of honour may not commit with impunity."
She then justly and humanely adds -
"This has given rise to the trite and foolish
observation, that the first fault against chastity in woman has a radical
power to deprave the character. But no such frail beings come out of the
hands of Nature. The human mind is built of nobler materials than to he
easily corrupted; and with all their disadvantages of situation and education,
women seldom become entirely abandoned till they are thrown into a state
of desperation, by the venomous rancour of their own sex."
But, in proportion as this regard for the reputation
of chastity is prized by women, it is despised by men: and the two extremes
are equally destructive to morality.
Men are certainly more under the influence of their
appetites than women; and their appetites are more depraved by unbridled
indulgence and the fastidious contrivances of satiety. Luxury has introduced
a refinement in eating, that destroys the constitution; and, a degree of
gluttony which is so beastly, that a perception of seemliness of behaviour
must be worn out before one being could eat immoderately in the presence
of another, and afterwards complain of the oppression that his intemperance
Some women, particularly French women, have also lost
a sense of decency in this respect; for they will talk very calmly of an
indigestion. It were to be wished that idleness was not allowed to generate,
on the rank soil of wealth, those swarms of summer insects that feed on
putrefaction, we should not then be disgusted by the sight of such brutal
There is one rule relative to behaviour that,
I think, ought to regulate every other; and it is simply to cherish such
an habitual respect for mankind as may prevent us from disgusting a fellow-creature
for the sake of a present indulgence.
The shameful indolence of many married women and others
a little advanced in life, frequently leads them to sin against delicacy.
For, though convinced that the person is the band of union between the
sexes, yet, how often do they from sheer indolence, or, to enjoy some trifling
The depravity of the appetite which brings the
sexes together, has had a still more fatal effect. Nature must ever be
the standard of taste, the gauge of appetite - yet how grossly is nature
insulted by the voluptuary. Leaving the refinements of love out of the
question; nature, by making the gratification of an appetite, in this respect,
as well as every other, a natural and imperious law to preserve the species,
exalts the appetite, and mixes a little mind and affection with a sensual
gust. The feelings of a parent mingling with an instinct merely animal,
give it dignity; and the man and woman often meeting on account of the
child, a mutual interest and affection is excited by the exercise of a
Women then having some necessary duty to fulfill,
more noble than to adorn their persons, would not contentedly be the slaves
of casual lust; which is now the situation of a very considerable number
who are, literally speaking, standing dishes to which every glutton may
I may be told that great as this enormity is it
only affects a devoted part of the sex - devoted for the salvation of the
rest. But, false as every assertion might easily be proved, that recommends
the sanctioning a small evil to produce a greater good; the mischief does
not stop here, for the moral character, and peace of mind, of the chaster
part of the sex, is undermined by the conduct of the very women to whom
they allow no refuge from guilt: whom they inexorably consign to the arts
that lure their husbands from them, debauch and force them, let not modest
women start, to no refuge exercise of their sons, assume, in some degree,
the same character themselves.
For I will venture to assert, that all the causes
of female weakness, as well as depravity, which I have already enlarged
on, branch out of one grand cause - want of chastity in men.
This intemperance, so prevalent, depraves the appetite
to such a degree, that a wanton stimulus is necessary to rouse it; but
the parental design of Nature is forgotten, and the mere person, and that
for a moment, alone engrosses the thoughts. So voluptuous, indeed, often
grows the lustful prowler, that he refines on female softness.
Something more soft than women is then sought for;
till, in Italy and Portugal, men attend the levees of equivocal beings,
to sigh for more than female languor.
To satisfy this genus of men, women are made systematically
voluptuous, and though they may not all carry their libertinism to the
same height, yet this heartless intercourse with the sex, which they allow
themselves, depraves both sexes, because the taste of men is vitiated;
and women, of all classes, naturally square their behaviour to gratify
the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power.
Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and
body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being
taken into the account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not
sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing
to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either
destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.
Nature in everything demands respect, and those who
violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.
The weak enervated women who particularly catch the
attention of libertines, are unfit to be mothers, though they may conceive;
so that the rich sensualist, who has rioted among women, spreading depravity
and misery, when he wishes to perpetuate his name, receives from his wife
only an half-formed being that inherits both its father's and mother's
Contrasting the humanity of the present age with
the barbarism of antiquity, great stress has been laid on the savage custom
of exposing the children whom their parents could not maintain; whilst
the man of sensibility, who thus, perhaps, complains, by his promiscuous
amours produces a most destructive barrenness and contagious flagitiousness
Surely nature never intended that women, by satisfying
an appetite, should frustrate the very purpose for which it was implanted?
I have before observed, that men ought to maintain
the women whom they have seduced; this would be one means of reforming
female manners, and stopping an abuse that has an equally fatal effect
on population and morals.
Another, no less obvious, would be to turn the attention
of woman to the real virtue of chastity; for to little respect has that
woman a claim, on the score of modesty, though her reputation may be white
as the driven snow, who smiles on the libertine whilst she spurns the victims
of his lawless appetites and their own folly.
Besides, she has a taint of the same folly, pure
as she esteems herself, when she studiously adorns her person only to be
seen by men, to excite respectful sighs, and all the idle homage of what
is called innocent gallantry.
Did women really respect virtue for its own sake,
they would not seek for a compensation in vanity, for the self-denial which
they are obliged to practise to preserve their reputation, nor would they
associate with men who set reputation at defiance.
The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each
This I believe to be an indisputable truth, extending
it to every virtue. Chastity, modesty, public spirit, and all the noble
train of virtues, on which social virtue and happiness are built, should
be understood and cultivated by all mankind, or they will be cultivated
to little effect.
And, instead of furnishing the vicious or idle with
a pretext for violating some sacred duty, by terming it a sexual one, it
would be wiser to show that Nature has not made any difference, for that
the unchaste man doubly defeats the purpose of Nature, by rendering women
barren, and destroying his own constitution, though he avoids the shame
that pursues the crime in the other sex. These are the physical consequences,
the moral are still more alarming; for virtue is only a nominal distinction
when the duties of citizens, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and directors
of families, become merely the selfish ties of convenience.
Why then do philosophers look for public spirit?
Public spirit must be nurtured by private virtue,
or it will resemble the factitious sentiment which makes women careful
to preserve their reputation, and men their honour. A sentiment that often
exists unsupported by virtue, unsupported by that sublime morality
which makes the habitual breach of one duty a breach of the whole moral
 I allude to various biographical writings,
but particularly to Boswell's Life of Johnson. RETURN TO TEXT
 Smith. RETURN TO TEXT
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