A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #2

Week 2 of the Readalong spans chapters 4 & 5 on the topics “the state of degredation to which woman is reduced” and “writers who have rendered women objects of pity, bordering on contempt.”

It looks like I highlighted more quotes in these chapters than in all of the first part. I was especially impressed by chapter 5, where Wollstonecraft responds to opposing views, including those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Boy, she cuts him down to size (and reading what he wrote, I don’t blame her). 

I’m not sure I can put together a coherent summary of this section, so instead I’ll go straight to Ruth’s discussion questions (warning, LENGTHY post ahead!!):

Are any of Wollstonecraft’s ideas changing the way you think? Is there anything you disagree with, even some of her comments about minor details that I did not bring up? (She had some odd things to say about polygamy.)
Yeah, the polygamy comments in chapter 4 are… weird.  She quotes somebody named Forster who drew a correlation between polygamy and the ratio of males to females in a population (??).  I didn’t really get that one.

For the most part, though, I find myself nodding along with Wollstonecraft.  I’ve mentioned before, while reading Virginia Woolf, that I consider myself a very moderate feminist, critical of feminism as it is today, while believing men and women are more alike than unalike.  Most of the issues feminism stood for in the 18th century seem like no-brainers. 

Ruth, to your earlier question – where do masculine and feminine traits begin and end? … lately I’ve been reconsidering the related question of male/female roles.  It’s too vast and sticky a subject to delve into fully here, but FWIW, these are some of my current musings from a biblical perspective:

  • While both Adam and Eve sinned, Jesus is compared to Adam in the New Testament.  I think it’s significant that Paul makes a direct contrast between Adam’s failure and Jesus’s victory.  Is it possible there was a different level of responsibility between Adam and Eve?  And if so, is it role-based or trait-based, or both?  Would the difference be specific to those two individuals, or would it apply to humanity as a whole?
  • Men and women are both created in the image of God, so regardless of gender, there is a fundamental likeness to God and to each other.

I could go on, but in a nutshell: I’ve lately started to wonder if the differences (beyond biological) between male and female are greatly spiritual or metaphysical in nature.  Not as it pertains to salvation, of course (in which we are all equal), but in another way, which I’m finding hard to put into words…

Speaking of doctrine – I was really disturbed by Rousseau’s comments that women should meekly follow their mothers’, fathers’, and finally husbands’ religious doctrines without thinking for themselves – and his claim that God is ok with that!  (Ch. 5, Mary quoting his book Emile (1762))

Share a favorite quote.
There were SO many good ones, but this my very favorite:

Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time. (Ch. 4)

One more, for good measure.  This is about society’s need for a good foundational structure, rather than heroes:

…the welfare of society is built not on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would still be less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.

Prior to reading this work thus far, did you know anything about Jacques Rousseau? If so, what was your opinion about him before? Has it changed now? What works of his did you read? Would you be interested in reading anything by him in the future?
I first met Rousseau in 19th Century European History class, but I don’t remember if we read anything by him.  I just knew he was an influential figure in the socio-political movements of the 18th century.

I don’t recall learning he was a terrible misogynist, at least according to the bits Mary quotes.  Dude literally says:

…women have or ought to have, but little liberty; they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them. Addicted in every thing to extremes, they are even more transported in their diversions than boys. (Ch 5)

For all that…I will probably read something by Rousseau when I start my American Revolution reading focus.

What do you think of her argument that love (or lust, I think) diminishes in marriage and why equality should exist so that a woman is her husband’s friend, equal in ability to reason and discern?
Speaking purely from observation here… I think the best marriages are indeed the ones where it’s an equal partnership, including in intellect, and where the couple shares as many tasks as possible together (when it makes sense to do so).

As for love, romance, or lust, I have no idea…from what I’ve heard, it varies. But without friendship as a backbone to the relationship, it seems like passion would grow quickly stale.  Getting WAY out of my scope here.

I don’t think friendship in marriage is the sole reason for equality, but I can see why Mary made that argument – she was talking to a specific audience where marriage was pretty much expected of everyone.  However, as a single person and likely to remain so, I probably benefit as much (or even more) from the gender equality she was pushing for.  It makes me grateful I live now and not back then.


  1. Thanks, Marian, for sharing your responses. The polygamy comment was unexpected bc she agreed it was necessary in countries where there were more females to male ratios; but otherwise, it wasn't a good thing for society.You mentioned a bit of Rousseau's doctrine on religion, of which his opinion is warped: as for Christianity specifically, every individual is responsible for his own salvation….so even children raised in Christian households must come to an understanding of faith, and choose for himself whom he will serve. Imagine how many people Rousseau led astray. Ugh!Oh, do read some of his books, if you get the opportunity. He was an interesting fellow. His autobiography will demonstrate how confused he was. I find it odd that he labels women as unstable and emotional messes….when he was exactly this way!So I think my last question was for married couples bc I couldn't understand why she thinks \”love\” (since she uses the word) diminishes. That's why I think she means lust, but I could be wrong. If anything…love GROWS in marriage. It matures. Well, it's supposed to.Then she describes that diminishing love as becoming friendship, further grounding the marriage and permitting the two to work better together, especially if the woman is educated, obviously. I was just trying to get a better understanding of her idea of what happens to love in marriage. But thanks for giving it a go…who knows; maybe one day you will find out for yourself. And I agree: definitely grateful I live now, not 200 years ago!


  2. Yeah, it is interesting her choice of word being \”love,\” even though \”lust\” was certainly a word they used back then. On the other hand, \”friendship\” probably had more weight, so maybe that's what she means by \”love\” as we know it. All in all, I think your interpretation is the only one that makes much sense!


  3. HI Marion, I guess I'm prejudiced against Wollstonecraft because I know she ran off and lived with a married man (Percy Blythe Shelley) and only married him after his first wife committed suicide. It seems rather hypocritical to me that someone who treated another woman like that would feel she can pontificate about the role of women.However, I appreciate your comments.


  4. I think you're thinking of Wollstonecraft's daughter, Mary Shelley, who married Percy. Wollstonecraft was first involved with a guy named Gilbert Imlay, and then later William Godwin. That said, her obsession with Imlay (to the point of suicide attempts after he left her) definitely went against what she expounds in this book, in regards to putting God above man.


  5. Also, re: Mary Shelley – that knowledge was very off-putting while reading Frankenstein. I actually didn't care for Frankenstein at all, but that background didn't help. 😦 I think as a reader I try to separate an artist from their work, to some degree, but the more you know, the harder that is to do!


  6. Ah….I did not realize this was her mother. I was wondering why she was being referred to by Wollstonecraft. Thank you for clearing that up.Well, as far as Frankenstein goes, the think her husband heavily edited it.


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