TO CHAP. EIGHT | CHAPTER
IX | GO
TO CHAP. TEN |
laws respecting woman...
make an absurd unit of a man and his wife...
by the easy transition of only considering him
as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cipher.
A VINDICATION OF
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
by Mary Wollstonecraft
Of the Pernicious Effects
Which Arise From the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society
From the respect paid to property flow, as from
a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world
such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind. For it is in the most polished
society that noisome reptiles and venomous serpents lurk under the rank
herbage; and there is voluptuousness pampered by the still sultry air,
which relaxes every good disposition before it ripens into virtue.
One class presses on another, for all are aiming
to procure respect on account of their property; and property once gained
will procure the respect due only to talents and virtue.
Men neglect the duties incumbent on man, yet are
treated like demigods.
Religion is also separated from morality by a ceremonial
veil, yet men wonder that the world is almost, literally speaking,
a den of sharpers or oppressors.
There is a homely proverb, which speaks a shrewd
truth, that whoever the devil finds idle he will employ.
And what but habitual idleness can hereditary wealth
and titles produce?
For man is so constituted that he can only attain
a proper use of his faculties by exercising them, and will not exercise
them unless necessity of some kind first set the wheels in motion.
Virtue likewise can only be acquired by the discharge
of relative duties; but the importance of these sacred duties will scarcely
be felt by the being who is cajoled out of his humanity by the flattery
There must be more equality established in society,
or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not
rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one-half of mankind be chained
to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through
ignorance or pride.
It is vain to expect virtue from women till they
are in some degree independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength
of natural affection which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst
they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean,
and selfish; and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness of
spaniel-like affection have not much delicacy, for love is not to be bought;
in any sense of the words, its silken wings are instantly shrivelled up
when anything beside a return in kind is sought.
Yet whilst wealth enervates men, and women live, as
it were, by their personal charms, how can we expect them to discharge
those ennobling duties which equally require exertion and self-denial?
Hereditary property sophisticates the mind, and the unfortunate victims
to it - if I may so express myself - swathed from their birth, seldom exert
the locomotive faculty of body or mind, and thus viewing everything through
one medium, and that a false one, they are unable to discern in what true
merit and happiness consist. False, indeed, must be the light when the
drapery of situation hides the man, and makes him stalk in masquerade,
dragging from one scene of dissipation to another the nerveless limbs that
hang with stupid listlessness, and rolling round the vacant eye, which
plainly tells us that there is no mind at home.
I mean therefore to infer that the society is
not properly organised which does not compel men and women to discharge
their respective duties by making it the only way to acquire that countenance
from their fellow-creatures, which every human being wishes some way to
The respect consequently which is paid to wealth and
mere personal charms is a true north-east blast that blights the tender
blossoms of affection and virtue. Nature has wisely attached affections
to duties to sweeten toil, and to give that vigour to the exertions of
reason which only the heart can give. But the affections which is put on
merely because it is the appropriated insignia of a certain character,
when its duties are not fulfilled, is one of the empty compliments which
vice and folly are obliged to pay to virtue and the real nature of things.
To illustrate my opinion, I need only observe that
when a woman is admired for her beauty, and suffers herself to be so far
intoxicated by the admiration she receives as to neglect to discharge the
indispensable duty of a mother, she sins against herself by neglecting
to cultivate an affection that would equally tend to make her useful and
True happiness - I mean all the contentment and virtuous
satisfaction that can be snatched in this imperfect state - must arise
from well-regulated affections, and an affection includes a duty.
Men are not aware of the misery they cause, and the
vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves
pleasing; they do not consider that they thus make natural and artificial
duties clash by sacrificing the comfort and respectability of a woman's
life to voluptuous notions of beauty, when in nature they all harmonise.
Cold would be the heart of a husband, were he
not rendered unnatural by early debauchery, who did not feel more delight
at seeing his child suckled by its mother than the most artful wanton tricks
could ever raise, yet this natural way of cementing the matrimonial
tie, and twisting esteem with fonder recollections, wealth leads women
To preserve their beauty, and wear the flowery crown
of the day, which gives them a kind of right to reign for a short time
over the sex, they neglect to stamp impressions on their husbands' hearts
that would be remembered with more tenderness when the snow on the head
began to chill the bosom than even their virgin charms.
The maternal solicitude of a reasonable affectionate
woman is very interesting, and the chastened dignity with which a mother
returns the caresses that she and her child receive from a father who has
been fulfilling the serious duties of his station is not only a respectable,
but a beautiful sight.
So singular, indeed, are my feelings - and I have
endeavoured not to catch factitious ones - that after having been fatigued
with the sight of insipid grandeur and the slavish ceremonies that with
cumbrous pomp supplied the place of domestic affections, I have turned
to some other scene to relieve my eye by resting it on the refreshing green
everywhere scattered by Nature.
I have then viewed with pleasure a woman nursing her
children, and discharging the duties of her station with perhaps merely
a servant-maid to take off her hands the servile part of the household
business. I have seen her prepare herself and children, with only the luxury
of cleanliness, to receive her husband, who, returning weary home in the
evening, found smiling babes and a clean hearth. My heart has loitered
in the midst of the group, and has even throbbed with sympathetic emotion
when the scraping of the well-known foot has raised a pleasing tumult.
Whilst my benevolence has been gratified by contemplating
this artless picture, I have thought that a couple of this description,
equally necessary and independent of each other, because each fulfilled
the respective duties of their station, possessed all that life could give.
Raised sufficiently above abject poverty not to be
obliged to weigh the consequence of every farthing they spend, and having
sufficient to prevent their attending to a frigid system of economy which
narrows both mind, I declare, so vulgar are my conceptions, that I know
not what is wanted to render this the happiest as well as the most respectable
situation in the world, but a taste for literature, to throw a little variety
and interest into social converse, and some superfluous money to give to
the needy and to buy books.
For it is not pleasant when the heart is opened by
compassion, and the head active in arranging plans of usefulness, to have
a prim urchin continually twitching back the elbow to prevent the hand
from drawing out an almost empty purse, whispering at the same time some
prudential maxim about the priority of justice.
Destructive, however, as riches and inherited honours
are to the human character, women are more debased and cramped, if possible,
by them than men, because men may still in some degree unfold their faculties
by becoming soldiers and statesmen. As soldiers, I grant they can now only
gather for the most part vain-glorious laurels, whilst they adjust to a
hair the European balance, taking especial care that no bleak northern
nook or sound incline the beam.
But the days of true heroism are over, when a citizen
fought for his country like a Fabricius or a Washington, and then returned
to his farm to let his virtuous fervour run in a more placid, but not a
less salutary, stream.
No, our British heroes are oftener sent from the gaming-table
than from the plough; and their passions have been rather inflamed by hanging
with dumb suspense on the turn of a die, than sublimated by panting after
the adventurous march of virtue in the historic page.
The statesman, it is true, might with more propriety
quit the faro bank, or card-table, to guide the helm, for he has still
but to shuffle and trick - the whole system of British politics, if system
it may courteously be called, consisting in multiplying dependents and
contriving taxes which grind the poor to pamper the rich. Thus a war, or
any wild-goose chase, is, as the vulgar use the phrase, a lucky turn-up
of patronage for the minister. whose chief merit is the art of keeping
himself in place. It is not necessary then that he
should have bowels for the poor, so he can secure for his family the odd
trick. or should some show of respect, for what is termed with ignorant
ostentation an Englishman's birthright, be expedient to bubble the gruff
mastiff that he has to lead by the nose, he can make an empty show, very
safely, by giving his single voice, and suffering his light squadron to
file off to the other side.
And when a question of humanity is agitated, he
may dip a sop in the milk of human kindness to silence Cerberus, and talk
of the interest which his heart takes in an attempt to make the earth no
longer cry for vengeance as it sucks in its children's blood, though his
cold hand may at the very moment rivet their chains, by sanctioning the
A minister is no longer a minister, than while he
can carry a point, which he is determined to carry. Yet it is not necessary
that a minister should feel like a man, when a bold push might shake his
But, to have done with these episodical observations,
let me return to the more specious slavery which chains the very soul
of woman, keeping her for ever under the bondage of ignorance.
The preposterous distinctions of rank, which render
civilisation a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants
and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of
people, because respectability is not attached to the discharge of the
relative duties of life, but to the station, and when the duties are not
fulfilled the affections cannot gain sufficient strength to fortify the
virtue of which they are the natural reward. Still there are some loop-holes
out of which a man may creep, and dare to think and act for himself; but
for a woman it is an herculean task, because she has difficulties peculiar
to her sex to overcome, which require almost superhuman powers.
A truly benevolent legislator always endeavours
to make it the interest of each individual to be virtuous; and thus private
virtue becoming the cement of public happiness, an orderly whole is consolidated
by the tendency of all the parts towards a common centre.
But the private or public virtue of woman is very
problematical, for Rousseau, and a numerous list of male writers, insist
that she should all her life be subjected to a severe restraint, that of
propriety. Why subject her to propriety - blind propriety - if she
be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality?
Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood?
Is one half of the human species, like the poor African
slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them, when principles
would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man?
Is not this indirectly to deny woman reason? for a
gift is a mockery, if it be unfit for use.
Women are, in common with men, rendered weak and
luxurious by the relaxing pleasures which wealth procures; but added to
this they are made slaves to their persons, and must render them alluring
that man may lend them his reason to guide their tottering steps aright.
or should they be ambitious, they must govern their tyrants by sinister
tricks, for without rights there cannot be any incumbent duties.
The laws respecting woman, which I mean to discuss
in a future part, make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then by
the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced
to a mere cipher.
The being who discharges the duties of its station
is independent; and, speaking of women at large, their first duty is to
themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance,
as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother.
The rank in life which dispenses with their fulfilling
this duty, necessarily degrades them by making them mere dolls. or should
they turn to something more important than merely fitting drapery upon
a smooth block, their minds are only occupied by some soft platonic attachment;
or the actual management of an intrigue may keep their thoughts in motion;
for when they neglect domestic duties, they have it not in their power
to take the field and march and counter-march like soldiers, or wrangle
in the senate to keep their faculties from rusting.
I know that, as a proof of the inferiority of the
sex, Rousseau has exultingly exclaimed, How can they leave the nursery
for the camp! And the camp has by some moralists been proved the school
of the most heroic virtues; though I think it would puzzle a keen casuist
to prove the reasonableness of the greater number of wars that have dubbed
I do not mean to consider this question critically;
because, having frequently viewed these freaks of ambition as the first
natural mode of civilisation, when the ground must be torn up, and the
woods cleared by fire and sword, I do not choose to call them pests; but
surely the present system of war has little connection with virtue of any
denomination, being rather the school of finesse and effeminacy than of
Yet, if defensive war, the only justifiable war,
in the present advanced state of society, where virtue can show its face
and ripen amidst the rigours which purify the air on the mountain's top,
were alone to be adopted as just and glorious, the true heroism of antiquity
might again animate female bosoms.
But fair and softly, gentle reader, male or female,
do not alarm thyself, for though I have compared the character of a modern
soldier with that of a civilised woman, I am not going to advise them to
turn their distaff into a musket, though I sincerely wish to see the bayonet
concerted into a pruning-hook. I only re-created an imagination, fatigued
by contemplating the vices and follies which all proceed from a feculent
stream of wealth that has muddied the pure rills of natural affection,
by supposing that society will some time or other be so constituted, that
man must necessarily fulfil the duties of a citizen, or be despised, and
that while he was employed in any of the departments of civil life, his
wife, also an active citizen, should be equally intent to manage her family,
educate her children, and assist her neighbours.
But to render her really virtuous and useful, she
must not, if she discharge her civil duties, want individually the protection
of civil laws; she must not be dependent on her husband's bounty for her
subsistence during his life, or support after his death; for how can
a being be generous who has nothing of its own? or virtuous who is not
The wife, in the present state of things, who
is faithful to her husband, and neither suckles nor educates her children,
scarcely deserves the name of a wife, and has no right to that of a citizen.
But take away natural rights, and duties become null.
Women then must be considered as only the wanton
solace of men, when they become so weak in mind and body that they cannot
exert themselves unless to pursue some frothy pleasure, or to invent some
What can be a more melancholy sight to a thinking
mind, than to look into the numerous carriages that drive helter-skelter
about this metropolis in a morning full of pale-faced creatures who are
flying from themselves!
I have often wished, with Dr. Johnson, to place some
of them in a little shop with half a dozen children looking up to their
languid countenances for support. I am much mistaken, if some latent vigour
would not soon give health and spirit to their eyes, and some lines drawn
by the exercise of reason on the blank cheeks, which before were only undulated
by dimples, might restore lost dignity to the character, or rather enable
it to attain the true dignity of its nature. Virtue is not to be acquired
even by speculation, much less by the negative supineness that wealth naturally
Besides, when poverty is more disgraceful than
even vice, is not morality cut to the quick?
Still to avoid misconstruction, though I consider
that women in the common walks of life are called to fulfil the duties
of wives and mothers, by religion and reason, I cannot help lamenting that
women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue
more extensive plans of usefulness and independence. I may excite laughter,
by dropping an hint, which I mean to pursue, some future time, for I
really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being
arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the
deliberations of government.
But, as the whole system of representation is now,
in this country, only a convenient handle for despotism, they need not
complain, for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hard-working
mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can scarcely stop
their children's mouths with bread.
How are they represented whose very sweat supports
the splendid stud of an heir-apparent, or varnishes the chariot of some
female favourite who looks down on shame?
Taxes on the very necessaries of life, enable an
endless tribe of idle princes and princesses to pass with stupid pomp before
a gaping crowd, who almost worship the very parade which costs them so
dear. This is mere gothic grandeur, something like the barbarous useless
parade of having sentinels on horseback at Whitehall, which I could never
view without a mixture of contempt and indignation.
How strangely must the mind be sophisticated when
this sort of state impresses it!
But, till these monuments of folly are levelled by
virtue, similar follies will leaven the whole mass. For the same character,
in some degree, will prevail in the aggregate of society; and the refinements
of luxury, or the vicious repinings of envious poverty, will equally banish
virtue from society, considered as the characteristic of that society,
or only allow it to appear as one of the stripes of the harlequin coat,
worn by the civilised man.
In the superior ranks of life, every duty is done
by deputies, as if duties could ever be waived, and the vain pleasures
which consequent idleness forces the rich to pursue, appear so enticing
to the next rank, that the numerous scramblers for wealth sacrifice everything
to tread on their heels. The most sacred trusts are then considered as
sinecures, because they were procured by interest, and only sought to enable
a man to keep good company.
Women, in particular, all want to be ladies.
Which is simply to have nothing to do, but listlessly
to go they scarcely care where, for they cannot tell what.
But what have women to do in society?
I may be asked, but to loiter with easy grace; surely
you would not condemn them all to suckle fools and chronicle small beer!
Women might certainly study the art of healing,
and be physicians as well as nurses. And midwifery, decency seems to
allot to them, though I am afraid, the word midwife, in our dictionaries,
will soon give p]ace to accoucheur, and one proof of the former delicacy
of the sex be effaced from the language.
They might also study politics, and settle their
benevolence on the broadest basis; for the reading of history will scarcely
be more useful than the perusal of romances, if read as mere biography;
if the character of the times, the political improvements, arts, etc.,
be not observed.
In short, if it be not considered as the history of
man; and not of particular men, who filled a niche in the temple of fame,
and dropped into the black rolling stream of time, that silently sweeps
all before it into the shapeless void called - eternity. For shape, can
it be called, "that shape hath none"?
Business of various kinds, they might likewise
pursue, if they were educated in a more orderly manner, which might save
many from common and legal prostitution. Women would not then marry for
a support, as men accept of places under Government, and neglect the implied
duties; nor would an attempt to earn their own subsistence, a most laudable
one! sink them almost to the level of those poor abandoned creatures who
live by prostitution. For are not milliners and mantua-makers reckoned
the next class?
The few employments open to women, so far from
being liberal, are menial; and when a superior education enables them
to take charge of the education of children as governesses, they are not
treated like the tutors of sons, though even clerical tutors are not always
treated in a manner calculated to render them respectable in the eyes of
their pupils, to say nothing of the private comfort of the individual.
But as women educated like gentlewomen, are never
designed for the humiliating situation which necessity sometimes forces
them to fill; these situations are considered in the light of a degradation;
and they know little of the human heart, who need to be told, that nothing
so painfully sharpens sensibility as such a fall in life.
Some of these women might be restrained from marrying
by a proper spirit of delicacy, and others may not have had it in their
power to escape in this pitiful way from servitude; is not that Government
then very defective, and very unmindful of the happiness of one-half of
is members, that does not provide for honest, independent women, by encouraging
them to fill respectable stations?
But in order to render their private virtue a public
benefit, they must have a civil existence in the State, married or single;
else we shall continually see some worthy woman, whose sensibility has
been rendered painfully acute by undeserved contempt, droop like "the
lily broken down by a plowshare."
It is a melancholy truth; yet such is the blessed
effect of civilisation! The most respectable women are the most oppressed;
and, unless they have understandings far superior to the common run of
understandings, taking in both sexes, they must, from being treated like
contemptible beings, become contemptible.
How many women thus waste life away the prey of
discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed
a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging
their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty
to which it at first gave lustre; nay, I doubt whether pity and love
are so near akin as poets feign, for I have seldom seen much compassion
excited by the helplessness of females, unless they were fair; then, perhaps,
pity was the soft handmaid of love, or the harbinger of lust.
How much more respectable is the woman who earns
her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!
- beauty did I say! - so sensible am I of the beauty of moral-loveliness,
or the harmonious propriety that attunes the passions of a well-regulated
mind, that I blush at making the comparison; yet I sigh to think how few
women aim at attaining this respectability by withdrawing from the giddy
whirl of pleasure, or the indolent calm that stupefies the good sort of
women it sucks in.
Proud of their weakness, however, they must always
be protected, guarded from care, and all the rough toils that dignify the
mind. If this be the fiat of fate, if they will make themselves insignificant
and contemptible, sweetly to waste "life away," let them not
expect to be valued when their beauty fades, for it is the fate of the
fairest flowers to be admired and pulled to pieces by the careless hand
that plucked them.
In how many ways do I wish, from the purest benevolence,
to impress this truth on my sex; yet I fear that they will not listen to
a truth that dear bought experience has brought home to many an agitated
bosom, nor willingly resign the privileges of rank and sex for the privileges
of humanity, to which those have no claim who do not discharge its duties.
Those writers are particularly useful, in my opinion,
who make man feel for man, independent of the station he fills, or the
drapery of factitious sentiments.
I then would fain convince reasonable men of the importance
of some of my remarks; and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the
whole tenor of my observations.
I appeal to their understandings; and, as a fellow-creature,
claim, in the name of my sex, some interest in their hearts.
I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion,
to make her a helpmeet for them.
Would men but generously snap our chains, and be
content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would
find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful
wives, more reasonable mothers - in a word, better citizens. We should
then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect
ourselves; and the peace of mind of a worthy man would not be interrupted
by the idle vanity of his wife, nor the babes sent to nestle in a strange
bosom, having never found a home in their mother's.
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