Wollstonecraft

 

Courses:

Intro to Ethics; Social/Political (lower division)

Assigned Texts:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Abridged, with Related Texts). Ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Hackett 2013. ISBN: 1603849386

Suggested Schedule:

Day 1: Reading Lab (in class activity)
Day 2: Go over answers to Reading Lab, do discussion questions of: Intro, Ch. I-V
Day 3: Ch. VI-VII
Day 4: Ch. VI-VII

Background:

This unit provides a brief introduction to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, exploring gender norms, sexism, and education.

Some Background on Wollstonecraft and A Vindication

  • Wollstonecraft lived from 1759-1797
  • Vindication was published in 1792
  • Vindication based on her earlier A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790)--a defense of a republican government (one where the head of state is a representative of the people; e.g., the US)
  • Wollstonecraft had previously written on children’s education and revolutionary politics (connected to the French Revolution in the late 1700s)
  • Had a rough personal life (failed relationships, attempted suicide twice, died in childbirth)
  • Travelled quite a bit in Europe

Some Background on the Enlightenment

  • Emphasis on reason as opposed to tradition (or prejudice)
  • Reason is thwarted by prejudice
  • Humans, overall, are in a stage of infancy
  • Need to throw off the chains of bias and bad reasoning and free themselves intellectually
  • Connection with political and social liberation

Some Background on Rousseau (one of W’s main targets)

  • See Wollstonecraft’s quotes of Rousseau in Ch. 5 especially for his views of women
  • Rousseau thought that humans were naturally good/virtuous in a hypothetical “state of nature”
  • He thought that all civil society is root of vice (not just certain, badly structured civil societies)

Some Background on Virtue

  • For Wollstonecraft, virtue has a double meaning--there’s political or civic virtue (“informed rational interest in public life and the common good”; and also personal virtue (related to personal and interpersonal behavior ). See especially footnotes 3 and 17.

Day 1 Activity:

Wollstonecraft Reading Lab (Many of the ideas here come from Arthur, John, Studying Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2nd Edition. Pearson/Prentice Hall: New Jersey (2004)).

“Because of its complexity, philosophical writing demands close--and perhaps repeated--reading if justice is to be done to the author’s intention. In that respect, it’s like poetry. And, like poetry, philosophical texts require a creative and individual response from readers--such as an imaginary dialogue with the absent author” (Bedau, Hugo, Thinking and Writing about Philosophy, 2nd Edition. Bedford/St. Martins: New York (2002), p. 7).

Some Pro Tips:

  • Read actively, not passively (underline/highlight, take notes, ask questions)
  • Read slowly
  • Make sure you understand the sentence you’re reading before you move on to the next one
  • Read charitably
    • Try to put yourself in the author’s shoes. What’ is s/he trying to say and why?
    • Start with the assumption that there is something worthwhile and avoid dismissing material too quickly before its meaning is clear.
    • Why would a thoughtful person take this stance?

When reading, look for:

  1. The thesis: what is the author trying to get you to believe or understand?
  2. The argument: what is the reasoning or grounds that support the conclusion?

Steps for Reading for Comprehension:

  1. What’s the big picture? What issue is being discussed? What is the main point? Is the author responding to someone else? How does the reading fit into the topics covered in the course?
  2. How does the author reach his/her conclusion? What are the background assumptions? What are the premises in the argument for the conclusion? Is the author using any arguments by analogy? Counterexamples?
  3. Write a synopsis (outline or summary) that contains the background/context, thesis, main argument.

Exercises

  1. Find 5 words that you do not understand (you can’t define). Provide a short definition or synonym. Then use the word in a sentence.
  2. Rewrite 2 of the “difficult sentences” (on back) in your own words. These re-writes may be more than one sentence. Your group has been assigned: (____ & ____)
  3. Provide a 1-2 sentence summary (in your own words) of one of the “difficult paragraphs” (on back) paragraph. Your group has been assigned: (______)

Difficult Sentences:

  1. “Contending for the rights of woman,...or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.” (p. 4)
  2. “If by this appellation men mean to inveigh...that they may every day grow more and more masculine.” (p. 9)
  3. “Thus, as wars, agriculture, commerce...snatched by open force.” (p. 17)
  4. “Rousseau declares that a woman should never...whenever he chooses to relax himself.” (p. 21)
  5. “The absurdity, in short...and truth to a favourite paradox.” (p. 29)
  6. “Women, I argue from analogy...virtue to struggle to attain.” (p. 33)
  7. “The vain fears and fond jealousies...tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship.” (p. 41)

Difficult Paragraphs:

  1. “But, if women are to be excluded...will ever undermine morality.” (p. 5-6)
  2. “The education of women has, of late...or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?” (p. 10-11)
  3. “If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers...for, at least, twenty years of their lives.” (p. 18)
  4. “He advises them to cultivate a fondness...from a love of power.” (p. 23)
  5. “It has also been asserted, by some naturalists...before thirty, any more than men.” (p. 38--this is only ½ of the paragraph)

Answers:

Difficult Sentences:

  1. “Contending for the rights of woman,...or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.” (p. 4)
    1. My main argument is based on this: if women aren’t educated, they will not be virtuous, since you need to know the truth in order to have it affect your behavior.
  2. “If by this appellation men mean to inveigh...that they may every day grow more and more masculine.” (p. 9)
    • If by calling women masculine men mean to say it’s bad if women hunt and shoot, I agree; but if it means that women are virtuous (and rise above the animals), then I disagree. I think in that way, women should become more masculine.
  3. “Thus, as wars, agriculture, commerce...snatched by open force.” (p. 17)
    • As society advances (war, agriculture, trade, literature) and people’s mind become more open, rulers have to sneakily take power instead of taking power by violence.
  4. “Rousseau declares that a woman should never...whenever he chooses to relax himself.” (p. 21)
    • Rousseau thinks that women should never be independent but instead should be afraid to be reasonable or cunning. Instead, she should be flirtatious and subordinate so that she can be prettier and more attractive to men.
  5. “The absurdity, in short...and truth to a favourite paradox.” (p. 29)
    • It’s silly to think that women are naturally flirtatious and that the desire to have sex is something that appears in early youth (before a bad education has encouraged that kind of attitude). The only reason Rousseau thinks this is because he twists reason to accomplish his purposes.
  6. “Women, I argue from analogy...virtue to struggle to attain.” (p. 33)
    • Just like men who have been oppressed, women also are forced to just enjoy the frivolous pleasures they find in the moment. Eventually, they don’t even want freedom because they aren’t virtuous enough to fight for it.
  7. “The vain fears and fond jealousies...tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship.” (p. 41)
    • The kind of strong feelings we have that come from passionate love (or lust), such as jealousy, once they go away or are made less intense are incompatible with true friendship.

Difficult Paragraphs:

  1. “But, if women are to be excluded...will ever undermine morality.” (p. 5-6)
    1. If women aren’t allowed to vote or participate in public life, you must prove that they lack reason, or else you are being unjust or inconsistent. If you base your constitution on unequal rights, then this will lead, eventually, to women (and probably men too) being amoral.
  2. “The education of women has, of late...or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?” (p. 10-11)
    • While women do learn some random things early in life, bodily strength and development of reason are not emphasized; being pretty is. Because they are treated like children or animals and turned into prostitutes, they can’t be expected to be a good head of a family or good parent.
  3. “If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers...for, at least, twenty years of their lives.” (p. 18)
    • Since women are more than just pointless dolls, they shouldn’t be kept in ignorance (disguised as keeping them innocent). Men complain that women are flighty and stupid (or overly passionate and evil), but women act that way because that’s the effect of not being taught reason.
  4. “He advises them to cultivate a fondness...from a love of power.” (p. 23)
    • I don’t know what people mean when they say that women loving fashion is “natural.” If they mean that women are born this way, then it just seems dumb since babies don’t like fashion. If they mean that it’s something that will naturally come out over time as girls grow and use their reason and emotions, then I disagree.
  5. “It has also been asserted, by some naturalists...to give scope to our imaginations as well as to the sensations of our hearts.” (p. 38)
    • The reason some people think women reach maturity at 20 but men at 30 is because they think that what makes a woman a woman is her physical appearance (beauty), but what makes a man a man is his mind. But I disagree, because what makes anyone a person (their strength of body and character) isn’t developed before 30 for anyone.

Discussion Questions on Part I: Introduction and Chapters I-V (p. 3-48)

  1. What does Wollstonecraft think about the role of reason in relation to morality? Provide some textual support for your answer. Why might she think this? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Wollstonecraft thinks that reason is necessary for morality. She thinks that if it’s not actually based on reason, it’s really just manners or habits and not truly moral behavior. (p. 4, p. 50) On p. 5, she argues that duties aren’t binding unless founded on reason. So, you can’t have a true moral duty unless there’s a reason for it. She also argues based on difference between man and animal (p. 12). On p. 37: “Without knowledge, there can be no morality!”

  1. What does Wollstonecraft think about the difference between the natures of men and women? Is there much of a difference? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

She thinks that their natures differ pretty much only with respect to physical strength (maybe some child rearing/maternal stuff too). (p.11)

  1. It seems that Wollstonecraft thinks that there are differences in the characters of men and women. What are some of these differences? Are the differences, according to her, due to nature or to nurture? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Sexualized, vain, focus on beauty, love dolls and fashion, kept even more physically weak than “naturally”, submissive, childish, etc. These differences are more based on nurture than nature. Caused by education, the role they have in society, and in general, the fact that they are subordinated. (p. 8, 10, 11, 23)       

  1. What does Wollstonecraft think is the (current/actual--not the ideal) main role for women in her society? Does she extend this to other societies? Why is this a problem? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her?  Do you think this is still true today? Why or why not?

As sexual objects of desire for men. She does extend this to other societies (talks about harems). This is degrading to women. 31, 34, 38-39

  1. What’s Wollstonecraft’s issue with the current educational system? What effect does it have on women? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you think this kind of thing is still a problem today? Why or why not?

The current educational system doesn’t teach women to use reason, but instead just to memorize what little they do need to know and to be obedient. p. 18-21 In short, it is partially responsible for women being unequal and not possessing true virtue.

  1. On p. 19, Wollstonecraft says: “I do not believe that a private education can work the wonders which some sanguine writers have attributed to it. Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in...It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education…” What point do you think she’s trying to make here? Do you agree with her?  Do you think this kind of thing is still a problem today? Why or why not?

That “the way women are” is “socially constructed.” The way women are is determined a lot by their station in society, by the role they play and are expected to play. Interesting related stuff about imitation on p. 29 (basically that girls learn from their mothers and other women about how to be). Education alone won’t make women equal, the whole society will have to be reformed.

  1. Wollstonecraft says some interesting things about a “standing army” and soldiers (see, for example, p. 16 and 20). What is the point she is trying to make? How does her point about soldiers analogize to women? How might her discussion be construed as a counterexample? To what claim is this discussion a counterexample against? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Soldiers are subordinated and expected to be blindly obedient. This injures their reason and therefore their morality. They might have good manners, but not good characters. She uses this as an analogy to argue that like women, soldiers don’t have true virtue because of their lack of deep education and their subordinated role. This is a counterexample to the claim that women are like that “naturally”.

  1. Wollstonecraft makes related analogies between women/men and subjects/monarch and slaves/masters. What is the point she’s trying to make with these analogies? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

She’s trying to argue that people who are oppressed all have something in common--they all lack virtue. Those who endure injustice will become unjust (47).  (26-27, 33)

  1. Wollstonecraft often says that women act like children or are infantilized. Why does she think this? What’s the problem with this? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you think this kind of thing is still a problem today? Why or why not?

They aren’t treated like full, equal adults. They are not taught to use reason. This is problematic because it doesn’t allow them to develop virtue (which reason requires). 10

Discussion Questions on Part II: Introduction and Chapters VI-XIII (p. 48-77)

  1. Wollstonecraft thinks that marriage should be based on friendship, not love. How does she define each? Why does she think this? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Love is romantic love, and heavily based on sex; whereas friendship involves mutual respect (24, 26, 41, 51). She thinks that marriage based on love is a bad idea because love is short and fades and doesn’t involve reason. Friendship is better because it is more equal, involves reason and respect, and will be better for both. She compares the current system of marriage to legal prostitution (p. 63).

  1. What kind of educational system does Wollstonecraft propose? Provide some textual support for your answer. What do you think about her proposal--do you think it’s a good idea? Why or why not?

Public education during the day (not boarding school) where the genders are mixed and funded by the government. Various subjects from ages 5-9, which continues in the morning from ages 9 and following. After that, some separation between those who are indented for domestic employment or mechanical trades (with gender separation) and those who will get a more liberal-arts type education (with mixed genders). p. 67-72

  1. What kind of jobs does Wollstonecraft think women can/should have? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

doctor, nurse, midwife, politician, business, teachers, etc. p. 63. She thinks that it would be better if women could make their own money and be less dependent on men.

  1. What does Wollstonecraft think would be the benefits of equality (for women)? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her?  Why or why not?

Virtue for women, everyone more self-sufficient (and virtuous), less deceit and manipulation, better (more virtuous and well-educated) children, etc. p. 64, 65, 70

  1. Wollstonecraft thinks that the real root of vice is inequality/hierarchy. Why does she think this? Provide some textual support for your answer. Do you agree with her?  Do you think this kind of thing is still a problem today? Why or why not?

61 bottom: divides the world into tyrants and cunning envious dependents. Leads to vice on both sides (and doesn’t just apply to men/women, but any kind of system based on rank).

  1. The title of Wollstonecraft’s book is a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What rights is she demanding? Provide some textual support for your answer. What do you think about this? Do you think that women today still have fewer rights than men (or maybe than particular groups of men)? Why or why not?

Obviously education and equal treatment (respect as a person), ability to support self (70). She doesn’t specifically mention voting or property rights, though clearly she thinks that this is an issue (p. 75, see footnote 109). Freedom from being judged based on looks and dress. Active citizenship.

Essay Questions (for papers or exams) based on this unit:

  1. Wollstonecraft thinks that most of the differences between men and women are caused by various social factors (are socially constructed) and are not “natural.” What are some of the differences Wollstonecraft points out between men and women and how are those differences caused by “nurture” according to her? Which, if any, of these differences are still apparent in contemporary American society? Do you think that these socially constructed differences put women at a disadvantage? Explain your answer.
  1. What is the role of women in her society, according to Wollstonecraft? How does being in this role harm women, according to Wollstonecraft? What is the role of women in contemporary American society? Do contemporary women share roles or expectations with women in Wollstonecraft’s time? Are contemporary women harmed by their roles in society? Explain your answer.   
  1. What does Wollstonecraft think would be the benefits of equality for women? How would women themselves but also men, children, and society at large be made better if women were given the rights that Wollstonecraft demands? Do you think there are any rights that contemporary American women are still lacking? How would women, men, children, and our society benefit if women were given these rights? Explain your answer.

Authorship:

Liz Goodnick (Metropolitan State University of Denver)
egoodnic@msudenver.edu