A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (Introduction, 1792)

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AUTHOR'S INTRODUCTION

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 conclusion. 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 attri- bute 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 respect.

In a treatise, therefore, on female rights and manners, the works
which have been particularly written for their improve- ment 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 opinion. 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 peculiar
designation.

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 charac- teristics 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 them. 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 nse 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 constituion 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 govern.


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