Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rhetorical Strategy

Overturning the Arguments

Red Deer College


Mary Wollstonecraft s’attaque aux arguments employés pour refuser le droit de vote aux femmes et à ceux qui appuient le statu quo au sein des sociétés européennes et occidentales. Elle propose un ensemble de contre-arguments qui, une fois cumulés, aboutissent à une réfutation accablante des résultats du jeu pseudo rationaliste défendu par ses adversaires. Pour défendre sa position, elle ne fait pas qu’inverser un à un les arguments colligés, mais elle « renverse les rôles » quant aux visions du monde qui s’affrontent. Ce faisant, elle fait montre d’une adresse et d’une habileté bien supérieures à celles de ses adversaires, de manière à convaincre à la fois les hommes et les femmes de la sottise de la position adverse. Or, on n’a pas encore reconnu cette habileté qui mérite d’être examinée et mise en valeur, cela au profit de ceux et celles qui s’intéressent à ses multiples talents.


Mary Wollstonecraft confronts the arguments offered against suffrage for women and in favour of the status quo in European and Western societies. She presents a set of counter considerations which, cumulatively, produce a devastating rejection of the outcome and the pseudo rationalist game played by her opponents. She “turns the tables” on the opposing world view, not just the arguments mustered to try to support it. In doing so, she demonstrates a skill and ability far beyond her opponents in order to convince both men and women of the folly of the opposing view. This skill has not been recognized and deserves to be identified and illuminated for those who are interested in knowing of her varied abilities.

Introduction : The Important Use of an Argumentative Strategy

Recently there has been a tendency to characterize the study of women and their situation in society as one, which necessarily involves consideration of a unique ethical and epistemological worldview distinctive of the character and nature of women. It is suggested that there is a way of knowing and valuing the world that is primarily and peculiarly open to women. For example, surveying the contents of Feminist Epistemologies (Alcoff, Routledge, Kegan, Paul, London, 1992) gives some testimony to this claim. This direction in contemporary thought isreinforced by a concomitant trend to devalue the rational means employed by early feminist writers to achieve convincingly persuasive results which transcend historical, cultural or sociological contextualization or relativization. A colleague, for example, employing the same text in a similar course to my Philosophy and Women course refuses to have her students read the first sections of the text, which deal with historical antecedents, because the views of some dead white males “upsets them”, a response I find unacceptable and irrational.

The combination of these two factors contributes, paradoxically, to an undervaluing of some of the early voices and important ideas developed by early women writers. This undervaluing of these early writers is potentially and seriously antithetical to greater respect for the value and worth of women over time, even if one radical feminist aim may be the creation of exclusionary, partializing feminist communities. Also, this trend represents an important break in the historical continuity, progression and identification of women and their achievements from earlier views to contemporary ideas. This lack of unity is not always desirable and can he dustbin of history when they are as alive and relevant now as they ever were in the past.

As an example of these tendencies, a major work of Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is perhaps least known for her highly effective argumentative strategy these days, while better known for the project of social change her work helped to initiate. In this paper, I attempt a rectification of the situation created by these narrowing trends. I focus on the argumentative strategy Wollstonecraft effectively employed to rationally persuade an audience of men and women to change their contentious or controversial views about the situation of women in society (making the strategy as much a part of the rhetorical as the logical tradition). Woolstonecraft’s goal was to change men and women’s beliefs about the desirable situation of women in society. To do this, she set as her task the determination of whether the situation of women in society was even logically or substantively possible under the conceptual descriptions provided for it. She did not attempt a new symbolic representation of society or reality under the category of a feminine epistemology or ethics but rather she sought to put critical pressure on the existing situation in order to bring about change. She sought equality not difference.

To achieve her avowed task Wollstonecraft does not have as her goal the isolation and confounding of opposing views. Rather, her aim seems to be the enlightenment or clarification of opposing views. She proceeds in this way so that the errors in these views can serve as the formal basis for rebuttals and refutations that can, in principle and in practice, be accepted by both proponents and opponents as these opponents revise their views or beliefs.

This kind of transformation can work effectively, if we employ the strategy of our opponents to consistently and effectively support a view which these opponents have not previously considered as possible, have previously rejected, have been unwilling (on other accounts) to rationally accept. To employ an opponent’s preferred methodology consistently to achieve a result or conclusion which this same opponent would (potentially, at least) initially reject is to employ this methodology to turn the tables in a way which can effectively convince an opponent of the error of his or her beliefs. To turn the tables is to effectively demonstrate that anyone who continued to hold the rebutted view would be (a) guilty of making a significant error in reasoning, and/or (b) guilty of one form of self-deception, and/or (c) guilty of abandoning reason as the basis for providing sound and acceptable support for a controversial or contentious claim. The cumulative effect of these outcomes ((a)-(c)) creates formal and material or factual absurdities. This turns the traditional worldview of women in society on its head, up side down and inside out, puts it out of orbit and renders it completely untenable.

To fully appreciate the substantive contributions to improving the situation of women made by Wollstonecraft over time, it will be instructive to consider the argumentative strategy she employs to turn the tables on the opposing view. The strategy she employs is not effective only within the narrow, specified, partialized and limited confines of her social, historical or cultural context but rather its effective use is atemporal. So, for example, students in a contemporary class studying the situation of women could understand the argumentative strategy she employs without fully understanding her situation in English society in the 17th or 18th century. So effective is her rational assault on the opposing conceptualization of women that the only possibilities open to a respondent, not willing to accept her conclusion that the conceptualization of the situation of women is completely untenable, is to (i) continue to hold onto the traditional view of women in society despite the irrationality of doing so (incurring the conditions that satisfy one definition of self-deception) and (ii) abandoning, in the process of (i) rationality or the main tenets of rationality, defeating the main foundation of inquiry that is initially employed. The result in both (i) and (ii) is absurd. It is absurd in at least three senses : formally – when formulated as a formal argument, the result is a logical mistake known as reduction ad absurdum ; factually or psychologically — when initiated as the psychological basis for accepting a particular view on the basis of irrational considerations the possibility is the debilitating state of self-deception, and dispositionally — when the formal and psychological components are combined, the result is an absurd position for the individual who puts him or herself in this situation because the possibility of arriving at any reasoned outcome for a contentious decision is all be eliminated.

The purpose of Wollstonecraft’s argumentative strategy is to demonstrate that a clear understanding of the traditionally conceptualized situation of women in society is unacceptable for both men and women. In the case of women, the refutation of the traditional situation is factual or substantive (in either a psychological, dispositional or combined psychological / dispositional sense), since she argues that it is impossible for women to live in the conceptual role assigned to them by men (and complied with by many women). In the case of men, the refutation is formal (since they are not in the situation of women, no factual refutation seems in order) given that she argues that it is illogical, irrational and so logically absurd to attempt to consistently hold the conceptual characterization of women men espouse and many women accept. So, for different reasons, Wollstonecraft provides an audience of both men and women the irrefutable basis or justification for abandoning the traditional characterization of women in society. Both men and women are capable of understanding the factual and formal approaches but the difference between each hits at the lived world of each gender. The tables are turned and there is no contextual, historical or sociological basis for reversing the new conclusion. Nor is there any way that the claimed factual or material support for the traditional view of the situation of women can be demonstrated without ending in an irrational, non-persuasive and completely unacceptable response.

Confronting the Absurdity : the Traditional Concept of Women

When I squint my eyes in a certain way, my perception of the world and my situation in it becomes distorted and out of focus. Reality becomes warped. Of course, when I choose to create this warped reality, it is equally within my power to cease squinting and return my world and myself to the undistorted world. If I were a woman situated in English society of the late 1700’s in a warped world, where my existence was distorted by the conceptions of others imposed upon me, I could not cease squinting and return to my world. Mary Wollstonecraft can cease squinting and return to reality, but she is almost alone in this ability. So, her task is to get others to cease squinting and return to reality, both those who produce the distorted reality and those who succumb to a warped world not of their own making.

Wollstonecraft’s audience is composed of both men and women. Her direct attack is on rationalists whose position and beliefs are not rational. Her attack is not against rationalism. The reason for changing the traditional view of women will be that it is irrational not to change. What more powerful reason could the rationalist want than this reason ? How could a rationalist resist this challenge and consistently remain a rationalist ? The net effect of Wollstonecraft’s attack is to turn the tables on the traditional view of women, a result which can be identified as (1) radically altering the perceiver’s world view so as to make it untenable or unacceptable to both men and women, (2) rendering the perceiver’s position (either or both men and women) as paradoxically irrational if he continues to hold it in the face of overwhelming counter evidence, with the final result that (3) those who continually hold the traditional view fall into the trap of self-deception, lying to themselves about the situation.

In Plato’s Georgias, Socrates says “rhetoric is a creator of persuasion […] all its activity is concerned with this and this is its sum and substance” (453a) but he admits his own failing in the use of rhetoric “I know how to produce one witness to the truth of what I say, the man with whom I am debating, but the others I ignore (474a)”. Unlike Socrates, Wollstonecraft takes her rhetorical task to persuade both men and women, the widest possible audience. She says in a sarcastic tone “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” (Wollstonecraft 111) perhaps in allusion to the audience of men addressed exclusively by men, such as Immanuel Kant who claimed “I ask every reader whether, when he sets himself to thinking upon this matter, he must not assent to my opinion” …(about women and their nature) (Mahowald 106). Kant, a male, addresses a male audience about women. Not only is this situation absurd but it produces contradictions, which do not seem to be identified either by the speaker, Kant, or his intended audience of males.

Kant, in the history of ethics, is both the paradigm rationalist arguing that all ethical decisions are measured by the standard of a categorical imperative, understood and applied by reason alone, universally applicable to every rational creature in any possible circumstance, and well known as someone who was appealed to on a regular basis for ethical advice. With this background, it is odd that Kant’s rationalism opens up at least one exception when men are considering whether to tell their wives the truth or not. For example, on one page of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says “A man must never tell his wife if he risks a part of his fortune on behalf of a friend. Why should he fetter her merry talkativeness by burdening her mind with a weighty secret whose keeping lies solely upon him ?” (Mahowald 105). On the very next page, Kant argues following the English Spectator as an authority that “no more insulting reproach could be made to a man than if he is considered a liar”. (Mahowald 106) While recommending that a man lie to his wife, Kant inconsistently suggests that men should wear the virtue of truth telling while concealing important information from their wives. This seems to be something he seems willing to say only because he assumes an audience of men and not women. After all, women would certainly identify the major inconsistency in Kant’s apparently rational advice that men should not lie but husbands should conceal important economic information from their wives. It couldn’t be a Kantian acceptance of lying as not universal but relative to certain kinds of circumstances since there is ample evidence elsewhere in Kant’s writing that lying is categorically, without exception, always wrong.

Wollstonecraft, unlike Socrates, has the task of persuading both men and women of serious absurdities in the characterization and situation of women, absurdities created by some men but lived by most women. Unlike Kant, she directs her arguments to an audience of intelligent women, as well as men and so avoids the duplicity in Kant’s view. Unlike Kant and Plato, she employs reason to a universal audience, not a narrow audience of just those who are closet to her and her preferred beliefs.

Setting the Conditions for Applying the Rationalist’s Model Consistently

According to Wollstonecraft, and consistent with the mainstream of rationalist thinking at the time, in order for human beings to achieve (a) perfection of human nature and (b) possess the capacity for happiness, they need to produce a successful combination of the following components (Wollstonecraft 117) :

3a. Reason : This elevates human beings above the animals and brutes, distinguishing humans as capable of willing to take responsible for their actions.

3b. Virtue : This separates moral human beings from immoral humans (vice) and brutes or animals as a community capable of choosing the right over the wrong act.

3c. Knowledge : This provides the means when combined with reason and virtue for human beings to achieve the (a) perfection of human nature, and (b) capacity for (genuinely morally acceptable) happiness. The relationship between each of these components is as follows :

Reason—>Possibility of Acquiring—>Knowledge—>Necessary to Achieve—>Virtue

This model is used (by the rationalists in conventional European society) to (i) distinguish the individual from brutes or animals, and (ii) direct the laws of society to protect the interests of individuals within society.

If it is to be —in principle— (logically and empirically) possible for women to achieve the same rational virtues as men, then women must be given the same education as men so that the model combining 3a, 3b and 3c can work. As well, if the situation of women in society is to be open to any possible change, then, minimally women must be capable of employing —in principle and in fact— the same model to achieve the same result as men. However, if the situation in European society at the time denies women the possibility of reasoning, then this automatically denies them the opportunity to acquire the same knowledge as men and this precludes them —by fiat, not by fact— the possibility of being virtuous in the same way as men or being virtuous at all. She establishes the following important logical disjunction as a dilemma :

If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative term ; consequently, their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim. (Wollstonecraft 134)

To argue that women are by nature inferior to men is to employ, either implicitly or explicitly, a universal standard to both men and women. If this standard is employed, then it follows that it is assumed that women have the same capacities as men to act virtuously or else —what is unacceptable— standards of virtue are relative. To say that you are wrong and I am right in my ethical choices is to imply that we share the same principles for understanding and making ethical choices and the same aim or purpose for the satisfaction of those choices. If this is so, Wollstonecraft argues, then consistency demands that women should be given the same opportunity to know the right choices from the wrong ones by being given the same education that Rousseau argues should be open to all men, regardless of social class or rank.

The rationalist is not likely to agree with relative moral standards. If he were to agree to such standards then his claim to universal human nature would fall along with his claim that virtue could be taught. Of course, in fact women are not given the same education as men in English society. If it is logically impossible to disengage oneself from this dilemma then this can lead to a formal absurdity, unless it is possible to bridge the two unacceptable alternatives.

This factual situation is absurd since many men and women want to say of a woman that what she has done is morally wrong or morally right and indeed many from both genders employ the standard measures of right and wrong to women. However, the application of any conventional moral standard to women is simply and clearly inconsistent with the model that is employed to establish moral actors or characters and this standards could not consistently be applied to anyone who is —in principle and in fact— incapable of knowing or employing them. So, there is no sense in which women can be either moral or immoral. This conclusion is absurd and, following all rationalists’ accounts all (logical) absurdities (as philosophers recognize) must be eliminated.

This leaves the situation at the time with two possibilities : leave the status quo as it is and accept the absurdity of the situation or change the situation of women by allowing them the opportunity to achieve the same education as men and so achieve the same virtues as men. The second course of action eliminates the absurdity and should appeal to an audience of male rationalists. As well, the second course of action will allow women the opportunity to an education along with men so that they can attain the same knowledge and be capable of the same standard measure of virtue and vice. This alternative should appeal to both audiences, although for different reasons.

One blatant example of the factual absurdity of the situation of women in European society is brought home to Wollstonecraft by various writings about education after the French revolution. For example, the Education Minister of the new French Republic formed after the French Revolution, Talleyrand, as noted in the Letters on Education written by Catharine MacCauley in his (apparently) Rousseau inspired (in his two books, Sophie and Emile) proposed education plan seemed to reverse many of the liberty gains made in the revolution itself (Wollstonecraft 451). In the plan Talleyrand proposed for the publicly supported educational system in the new French constitution, he suggested “French girls were to be educated with their brothers in public schools only to the age of eight, after which they were to remain at home, where their interests and activities would normally centre for the rest of their lives” (Wollstonecraft 451). Wollstonecraft, spurred by support for MacCauley’s negative response to Talleyrand, viewed equal educational opportunity as the key to positive social change to eliminate barriers created by privilege and sex. Having defended the gains of universal liberty and freedom made to the situation of mankind in the French revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke in his negative and reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France, in her Vindication of the Rights of Man, Wollstonecraft was forced to again argue against a repressive educational plan produced by those she initially (but mistakenly) considered revolutionary in their thoughts about universal freedom or liberty. How could this negative consequence of such a noble revolution have occurred ?

Wollstonecraft believed that rationalism had been taken on a wrong course and that the rationalists could be rationally convinced of the error of their ideas. Women and men both trapped by a rationally absurd conceptualization of women could be freed by applying reason demonstrating beyond doubt the errors in their conceptualization. Correcting these errors would require universal education. It would not be sufficient to educate only one segment of the population leaving the other at the mercy of the educated sector since this is the same situation that occurred within a society based on class privilege. The French revolution was supposed to eliminate this situation and Wollstonecraft argued against class privilege in her Vindication of the Rights of Man.

Compounding the Absurdities : Turning the Tables

If the argument to the practical solution suggested above fails to be rationally persuasive, then Wollstonecraft considers some other absurdities, which by their cumulative weight (in true probabilistic fashion) increase the urge to rationally reconsider the prevailing characteristics of the situation of women in society. For the following reasons the characterization of women makes their situation in society impossible because it is absurd.

A. They are in a situation where they are neither brutes nor humans : “women appear to be suspended by destiny […] they have neither the unerring instinct of brutes, nor are allowed to fix the eye of reason on a perfect model” (Wollstonecraft 144). This is an absurd situation and so cannot remain as it is currently constituted. It is a formal or conceptual absurdity at the core of certain kinds of thinking about women. Women are not characterized as endowed with natural instincts, like animals. Women are also characterized as functionally incapable of reasoning. This places women in a logical category that has no members. Women are not gods. Women are not animals. Women are not rational human beings. The characterization of women is absurd. It is unacceptable because it is logically impossible. They are suspended by a falsely claimed determination or destiny that is not only beyond their control but logically and functionally impossible. This is a particular problem for morality. Nothing that women did or could do could be characterized as moral or immoral. For example, brutes err, when they go against their determined nature, when they violate the precepts of natural instinct. They can be thought to do what is right when they follow instinct. Women are not endowed with instinct. Men are judged good or bad, right or wrong, as they follow the commands of reason. Women cannot reason. So, what women do or how they behave can neither be good nor bad. This is their destiny, according to the traditional view, and it is a destiny that determines they should exist in a place one could call “nowhere” with a possibility of achieving “nothing”. What makes this situation factually absurd is that women are judged all the time for doing the wrong thing or the right thing while such judgements are simply nonsensical.

B. The characteristics of women portray them as a mistress, someone who is capable only of a sensual awareness of the world and society. Yet, in fact, the majority of women occupy very different and even contradictory roles from the mistress : mother, sister, wife and daughter. Men do not, in fact, normally think of their mothers or daughters or sisters as “mistresses”, yet most men experience more women in these roles or relationships than that of the mistress. This produces confusion in the identification of women by men and is absurd because the real situation of women does not match the fanaticized “mistress” designation. Yet woman fantasized as the “mistress” who exercises “sensual power” must be brought under the control of men and become : obedient, submissive, passive and superficial. This is also absurd because most men do not (and should not) want women to be the fantasy mistress that they have (falsely) created. This situation could lead to the situation described in C, below or the situation described in F below, with one negative consequence piling onto another in the escalation of the problem women face.

C. The false characteristics of women (created by men not women) create pity and pity, she argues, soon leads to contempt and contempt soon leads to disrespect and disrespect can lead to discrimination and prejudice. Sometimes this combination leads to or is accompanied by violence. The strong (bully) attack those who they believe are the weak (prey). The weak sometimes accept the attacks of the stronger because they (falsely) believe it is their fate. This situation as she describes it, however, is absurd because reason dictates that the strong should attack the strong and not the weak and the weak should not accept the situation of the victim or prey. This follows the rationalist’s characterization of courage and heroism as the strong establishing his strength by rationally overcoming the fear of great strength and odds against him. It is not women who prompt the violence but the image of women created by men that prompts the violence. The absurdity is that the violence is an irrational response to an irrational characterization of women created by the person who perpetuates the violence not by the victim of the violence.

D. The characterization of women leads to the situation where extraordinary women who achieve more than the stereotype are discredited as women and characterized (a) as men in women’s bodies or (b) “out of the orbit prescribed to their sex”(Wollstonecraft 145). This is absurd because as soon as they become human, women do not cease to be women. However, the traditional conception of women determines that “by nature” or by “natural design” and “natural intention” women are incapable of certain functions. When women, in fact, clearly and unequivocally display the abilities which nature had not equipped them to have (according to the “natural” view) and the lack of any formal education has not informed them that they can develop, then the situation is impossible (inconsistent) and hence, in one factual sense, absurd.

E. There has been no fair test of women’s capacities or real talents or abilities. This is due, in part, because of the defective education of women, in which the only strengths encouraged are weak ones and the education is piecemeal, haphazard and designed to produce someone who is capable of a surface (superficial) understanding of everything. There is no possibility of abstract reasoning, contemplation, new discoveries or in-depth reasoning in science, art or culture. This is not, however, indicative of women’s true strength, especially her rational abilities. Without the education, she cannot have the opportunity to change her situation in society and without the education no one will know whether she can take on other roles in society. This is absurd because it means that 50% of the population cannot contribute to the welfare and benefit of the entire population. This line of reasoning taken up later by J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill as they ponder the absurdity of 50% of the population falsely believing the discriminating against the other 50% of the population could really benefit the oppressor, when, in fact, it can do nothing but harm to 100% of the population. (Mahowald 173). This is also an attack on the class system in England, which has at its core the belief that some members of the population are determined by birth and station to be better able to function in certain ways than other members of the population. The absurdity of this belief is, of course, still under some pressure.

F. Women confined to only a relationship of sensual love (mistress) are faced with two possibilities when sexual love fades with age : (a) friendship, or (b) indifference, loneliness and despair. So, the sensual relationship between men and women must change into a relationship characterized, at least in part, by friendship. However, the single focused or unifunctional characterization of “mistress” does not allow a woman to be a friend of a man. This seems particularly true in the marriage situation. However, when the “bloom fades from the rose” of the “fairer sex” her situation in society or in relationships becomes desolate and absurd. This kind of absurdity is directed to women to help change her so she can see the necessity of change to her situation. This is the same direction Wollstonecraft gives in the absurdity mentioned in B : Woman is seen as both mistress and mother or daughter or sister. Wollstonecraft says “This is, must be, the course of nature—friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love. Passions are spurs to action, and open the mind ; but they sink into mere appetites, become a personal and momentary gratification, when the object is gained, and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment.”(Wollstonecraft 142) Of course, indifference is not desirable since this is indeed the main breaking point of any relationship. At the same time, friendship seems impossible since the relationship of mistress is confining, limited exclusively to passion over reason while friendship implies that two people respect each other for their thoughts, minds, reasoning, etc. The situation is potentially factually absurd since loneliness and despair hardly seem to be good reasons to accept and continue a marriage relationship beyond the “bloom fading from the rose”. Yet it is natural that women (and men) age and as such lose some of their initial attractiveness. If the picture of the mistress is the only appealing one, then an aging attraction between men and women is absurd.

G. There are no acceptable role models for women to emulate, to see and understand that they can function in roles within society, other than those assigned by the defective traditional characterization (Wollstonecraft 173). This produces the formally absurd situation that women will never believe that change is possible unless they see some proof that it can occur. If women move out of the norm and achieve some significant contributions then they are “out of orbit” or not women, as indicated in D, above. One of the stark examples of this problem is that “man is prepared by various circumstances for a future state, they constantly concur in advising woman only to provide for the present”(Wollstonecraft 142). She cannot imagine herself in a future state, unlike the one she is in now, because no woman is in that future, changed situation or state (role model). This means that women are encouraged to believe that they have no future that is different from their current situation. In fact, Wollstonecraft herself provides the basis for such a role model instantiating herself as a counter example in her own life as any reading of her biography indicates. She manages to rationally analyze and understand the situation of women below the surface, in depth, providing a rational evaluation which clearly shows logical flaws in the reasoning used by men to support the situation of women. Wollstonecraft’s writings, put together in a short period of time, under extremely stressful circumstances are nothing short of brilliant in the depth of understanding they display of the discredited traditional conceptualization of women. It is not clear that she would accept this role but it is clear that she has produced it. The absurdity of the assumption that women are incapable of in-depth rational analysis is made manifest by Wollstonecraft’s use of the argumentative strategies most enamoured and essential to the argumentative strategy of the rationalists.

H. The Analogy : Finally, the traditional view of men characterizes men as best exemplified in the traits associated with members of the standing army (not currently engaged in any wartime activity). Strength and courage, for example, are accepted as peculiar male characteristics best embodied in the armed forces. What if the situation most esteemed by men, were, in fact comparable in all relevant respects to the situation created by men of women in society ? Would this be a fitting analogy for an audience of both men and women ? Wollstonecraft employs this highly effective analogy to support her claim that the education of women is defective and unacceptable (Wollstonecraft 123). The traditional education of women is disorderly, piecemeal, scattered, not in depth but superficial, encouraging guess work and instinctive common sense over reason and in depth analysis and aiming at weakness in a relationship of allegiance or obedience or dependence. Her analogy has three fundamental components. First, there is a relevantly similar set of shared characteristics between men in the army and women (as espoused by the traditional view of women) ; second, because of the similarity in their situation in society, the consequences of their similar situations are negatively the same. Third, there is a shared singular cause for both the traditional conceptualization of women, their resultant situation in society and the situation of any standing army (and the situation of clergy is similar, where power is exerted by clerics over others, 71-72).

(i) Shared Characteristics : European soldiers in a standing army in the late 17th century and early 18th century display characteristics such as (a) vanity in their dress and manners, (b) chivalry, (c) gallantry, as well as (d) extreme (or affected) politeness since “They were taught to please, and they only live to please” (Wollstonecraft 132). Women display similar characteristics. The situation which brings about and supports or reinforces these characteristics is the same in both cases.

(ii) Similar Situation in Society : Both men in a standing army and women are sent into the world, according to Wollstonecraft, before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified with principles (123).

(iii) Both men in a standing army and women acquire a little superficial knowledge, snatched from the muddy current of conversation (gossip).

(iv) Both men in a standing army and women have an acquaintance with customs and manners which is “frequently confounded with knowledge of the human heart”, as they blindly submit to authority (Wollstonecraft 132).

(v) Both men in a standing army and women practice the minor virtues with “punctilious politeness” (Wollstonecraft 131).

(vi) Both men in a standing army and women acquire manners before morals. They know how to behave but not why they should behave one way or the other. This is a child-like education since early teaches them to behave in a certain way without the knowledge of why they should behave one way and not another.

(vii) Both men in the standing army and women have a superficial knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with human nature.

(viii) Similar Consequences : The consequences of the situation that society delegates to both soldiers in a standing army and women are devastating for both the members of these groups and society itself.

(ix) The weakness of their situation in society and their education makes them both prey to prejudices.

(x) Their situation in society makes them both blindly submit to authority, without rationally evaluating the basis for this authority or the reasons behind it.

(xi) They both display a natural sense that she calls “an instinctive glance” (Wollstonecraft 132) that can roughly determine proportions or what is appropriate in some relative setting or what “decides with respect to manners” (132). However, both lack any rational understanding of what they are doing. This is not a natural instinct one might find in animals but rather a “social instinct” found in someone who has developed a superficial sense of what is the right colour combination or socially appropriate behavior. In this sense, it is an unnatural instinct.

(xii) They both fail, she says “when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed” (132). Their understanding of the world is superficial only.

(xiii) Same Cause : Wollstonecraft identifies the cause as society and support for a defective and unnatural system of education so that (a) “they (soldiers and women) are both thrown out of a useful station by the unnatural distinctions established by civilized life”, as a result of this (b) “idleness has produced a mixture of gallantry and despotism into society, which leads the very men who are the slaves of their mistresses to tyrannize over their sisters, wives and daughters” (132). This unnatural station of women has caused men to become manipulated by women and to tyrannize women “keeping them in rank and file” (132)

The Hermeneutical Turn : Women Out of Orbit

While Rousseau argues that women should fall into the orbit determined for them by men, a sensuous image of a sensuous male creator, Wollstonecraft turns the tables on this view in order to demonstrate the necessity of universal education for both men and women. The traditional conceptualization of women in European society is both formally and factually absurd : undesirable for both males and females, inconsistent with the principles and aims of rationality, useless to the production of a complete society where all contribute and all benefit, and overall functionally impossible. Women should deserve the respect they attain as a result of creating their own character of virtue built on knowledge and supported by reason. This is the only position or view which is not absurd so that “whether she be loved or neglected, her first wish should be to make herself respectful, and not to rely for all her happiness on a being subject to like infirmities with herself” (Wollstonecraft 137). Wollstonecraft in her writings, her persona and her life achievements exemplify this “out of orbit” character who, paradoxically, seems the only one “in orbit”. Her presence changes the interpretation of what women are capable of achieving forever.

It is also, perhaps, a wish Wollstonecraft might have had for her generation that they escape the confines of the traditional view of women so that they not fall into the dependently abusive situation of her mother. For women to “fall out of orbit” was the only plausible or tenable situation given the absurdities of the traditional alternative. By contrast to the traditional view, falling out of orbit hardly seems undesirable. When a certain kind of order is intolerable, then the only alternative may be disorder until a different kind of order is created. Men and some women may want to hold onto the traditional situation of women in society. They may want to do so out of irrational fear of the unnatural concept of women that they have created. This fear, as she suggests, can lead to violence. It is irrational. So, the holder of such a position is potentially guilty of self-deception, a self-created lie about women and their relationship to men. The factual and formal absurdities rendered to those who accept the traditional view of women are so pervasive, so all-encompassing and so devastating that the net effect of Wollstonecraft’s rational demonstration is to completely turn the tables, so that not only is an alternative possible, but rationally desirable, if one is to remain rational and to avoid inconsistencies and self-deception. How more persuasive could this be to an audience of both men and women ? In a hermeneutical turn, Wollstonecraft changes the interpretation of the situation of women by (a) adding her critical voice to the traditional conception of women thus changing that initial interpretation, making it untenable. She enhances our understanding of the situation of women through her illumination of the universality of the prejudices, which continue to plague the situation of women. She continues the historical tradition of rationalism by maintaining an open dialogical process challenging our prejudices and broadening our horizons.


  • MAHOWALD, Mary Briody, Philosophy of Women : An Anthology of Classic to Current Concepts, third edition, Hackett, Cambridge, Mass., 1994.
  • WOLLSTONECRAFT, Mary, The Vindications, The Rights of Men, The Rights of Women, edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, Broadview Press, Ontario, Canada, 1997.