How far do you think Wollstonecraft was arguing that women themselves are also to blame, or are partially responsible for their limited roles in society at the time she was writing?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of Mary Wollstonecraft's strongest condemnations of women can be found in the second Vindication where she accuses women of having weak characters, a feature that is evident in those "sentimental" women who are amused by "stupid novels." The "stupid" novels in question are also mostly authored by women. She thus seems to think women are prone to weakness and sentimentality, traits that only stand in the way of their own rights. This is one reason why one might say that she "blames the victims." However, even her vitriol against women who find pleasure in the sentimental jargon of these novelists need not be seen as a commentary on women but rather as a commentary on the education, or lack thereof, that makes them so. Even though women are, prima facie, to blame for their condition, the ultimate problem is their upbringing:

Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for at least, twenty years of their lives (Wollstonecraft, 1790:19).

The above is just one illustration of a tendency that can be found throughout her writings; it seems, in places, that she blames women for their own condition but a more careful reading reveals that the blaming is superficial and she does not blame them for being in a condition that prevents them from bettering themselves. Wollstonecraft never directly blames any entity but, rather, blames structural forces in society for the inherent power imbalance between women and men.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Wollstonecraft placed the largest share of the blame for women's situation on men, rightly perceiving that they had the power in society and thus the ability to change women's situation. They had power both in terms of control of money and politics, but also because they were considered the "rational" voice in public discourse. Showing that she puts the blame primarily on men, she writes the following:

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.

Wollstonecraft takes aim at particular men who incensed her, such as Rousseau, who said that women should be educated for the pleasure of men.

However, while she primarily described women as slaves without rights, she also argued that they could become "tyrants," using subterfuge and their feminine wiles to control men or to get ahead in life. This is especially bad, because it convinces other women that the way to get ahead is underhanded and manipulative.

She also outlines some of the other ways women are to blame for not making their situation better, though it must be emphasized that Wollstonecraft would place the greater blame on men for producing this situation by not properly educating women. She says women should not treat their servants so abusively, especially in front of children: if women want to be treated well by men, who are above them, they should model polite and gracious behavior and not teach children that it is acceptable to be harsh to underlings. She also condemned reading novels that put ideas into girls' heads of being saved by a dashing, princely male. She criticized women who judged other women, women who were soft hearted to those who did not deserve it, and criticized as well women for being so prone to visit quack doctors. However, in the end women are not primarily to blame, as they are victims of an unjust system.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial