1.5.2 Reason: her starting point

I would like to start this section by quoting Janet Todd’s words because it summarizes in some words the main idea that I want to pass on the reader:

‘Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman stating that the first duty of women was to cultivate reason and urging them to avoid excessive sensibility. While declaring these sentiments, she knew full well she was opposing a long-established tradition: that reason belonged to dominant men and sensibility to irrational and subordinate women.’

I think that Todd’s opinion is clear and to the point because in the 18th century, as I have explained before, began the modern era with the Enlightenment, the power of reason, and Wollstonecraft realized that women were being excluded and refused by her peers because they argued women were weak beings, unable to reason and they were in the world only to please men. So, all of these ideas were challenged by Mary Wollstonecraft in this book with an incredible transparency. I have selected some paragraphs that show how important the power of reason is and how it should be developed since we are born; being education the key aspect to develop it:

‘In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason. […]Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society: and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively. […] Society, therefore, as it becomes more enlightened, should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession.’

 Chapter I. The rights and involved duties of mankind considered

‘To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. Yet it should seem, allowing them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by Providence to lead mankind to either virtue or happiness. […] Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation. […]Rousseau was more consistent when he wished to stop the progress of reason in both sexes, for if men eat of the tree of knowledge, women will come in for a taste; but, from the imperfect cultivation which their understandings now receive, they only attain a knowledge of evil.’

Chapter II. The prevailing opinion of a sexual character discussed

  ‘I never knew a parent who had paid more than common attention to his children, disregarded; on the contrary, the early habit of relying almost implicitly on the opinion of a respected parent is not easily shook, even when matured reason convinces the child that his father is not the wisest man in the world. This weakness—for a weakness it is, though the epithet amiable may be tacked to it, a reasonable man must steel himself against; for the absurd duty, too often inculcated, of obeying a parent only on account of his being a parent, shackles the mind, and prepares it for a slavish submission to any power but reason.’

Chapter x. Parental Affection

Through these paragraphs Wollstonecraft tries to explain how reason remains a key element to human beings because it enables them to live freely and developing their full capabilities. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that she mentions a lot of Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau because they blatanly denied and banned women from birth their basic rights, rights based on human reason and virtues. So education from an early age plays a decisive role to change it; teaching women to exercise their reason in the same way it is taught to men.

To sum up, reason and education are two intertwined concepts, one needs the other, there is any education without reason nor reason without an education that promotes it. In fact, both reason or education could be the starting point becaue they are essential but one thing is clear: everything depends on education we receive at home or in school. This is the reason I have considered “education to be the mainstay of society” and the premise in which Wollstonecraft constructs her arguments to change the society’s thought.


Retrieved from:

Reason and Sensibility in Mary Wollstonecraft’s “The Wrongs of Woman”. Janet Todd. Published by University of Nebraska Press: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3346504?uid=3737952&uid=2129&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21101133257013

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