Having discussed virtue, Wollstonecraft gets to smashing the idea that we can have virtue without “strength of mind”. At first, I took this to mean education, but I soon realized I was wrong. Education is a part of it, but not the whole of it. The chapter revolves around this question:
If the women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence?
I just love Wollstonecraft’s word choices. Unfortunately, similar questions still get asked. I believe we’ve come a long way since she first discussed this topic, but there have been setbacks too. We have learned that women are definitely more than ephemeron triflers but we’re still often considered dramatic and over emotional, even when we have a good point and aren’t raising our voices.
If we look at the difference between what was expected of men and women at the time, as opposed to now, we can see the reasons for the biggest change. We have rectified, to a certain extent, the observation that led to Wollstonecraft’s next probing question:
because of the way the world works, the knowledge and reason a man needs is different than what is advantageous to a woman and therefore a woman’s ability to reason is seen as frivolous while a man’s reason puts him above us. women are to be beautiful and docile, and only treasured as such, so how do men get off seeing us as frivolous for applying our reason and learning to that endeavor?
Those things that are often considered frivolities of one gender have an importance, it’s just transparent to the other gender. Men of Wollstonecraft’s time probably wouldn’t have understood the skill in the marketing of oneself as a viable candidate to be a wife or mother with the things that the men considered frivolous. I first noticed it in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The things the girls did to make themselves noticed at a ball to attract a man’s attention who would hopefully marry them and give them lifelong security seem frivolous to men. I’m sure this is because they don’t see how a woman’s life could depend on the color of a ribbon or it’s placement in her hair. Women, on the other hand, knew different. This overall concept remains true today. The things women do to present themselves as put together and professional are somehow still seen as frivolous by the men* who feel the need to comment on how much make up she wears or the height of her shoes while they wear their own suits with an array of ties.
It seems like we’ll never get away from the idea of these things as frivolities unless we become comfortable talking about why they are necessary. For those unsure of the importance of the appropriate level of attractiveness for a job, refer to this article that lines out a study down on attractiveness and hiring. It’s not frivolous if it’s a part of success and survival. Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft’s point that these ideas keep us seen as “sweet and docile like children” also keeps us seen as having weaker minds even while our level of education has dramatically improved to match that of the men we work with.
Wollstonecraft goes on to point out that there are other cases of subjugation or inferiority that men kept each other in, such as the monarchy or the even the military where one rung of power tells the next just enough to instill blind obedience to it. She insists that this was the plight of women, which I find believable for no better reason than that has ceased to be the case with the blind obedience. Women all over the world have fought against blind obedience and have fought for their right to reason as Wollstonecraft suggests. Our rights along with the perception of the character of women has been developing and changing in leaps and bounds, though with some setback, since this time. I’m still waiting for the day when we are not perceived as some sort of hive mind, and that we all do the exact same things when we are clearly individuals with greatly varying interests and talents.
She closes her argument in this chapter with this beautiful passage:
I shall not pursue this argument any further than to establish an obvious inference, that as sound politics diffuse liberty, mankind, including woman, will become more wise and virtuous.
I think she’s on to something there. We’ve come a long way from the despotism that the world was dealing with in Wollstonecraft’s time. This is just as much a denunciation of monarchies as it is a plea for equal rights between men and women. We’ve come a long way, but there’s much further to go.
The calls to action that remain from this chapter are:
Don’t give in to the idea that something is frivolous just because it is feminine.
Don’t give in to the idea that men and women need different knowledge and reason because they don’t operate in different sphere’s of responsibility when trying to maintain a family. I understand the allure of being able to comfortably maintain traditional gender roles in a family environment but I don’t think they were ever healthy or reasonable to ask for. We need to be comfortable with the idea that members of a family do what they can to advance the family. It is ridiculous to assume that each family member shouldn’t be able to do what they excel most at for the benefit of the family based solely on their gender.
To let women “determine to acquire the qualities that ennoble a rational being” and to bear with “the frailties of her companion” so that they are “not an impediment to virtue”.
Get your copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft to read along.
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*Before someone else attempts to do so for me, I just want to take a moment and acknowledge that this is not a problem with all men. Many women experience at different times in our lives when it is advantageous for a man we are somehow competing with to make us appear frivolous are as an ephemeron trifle so as to get whatever it is that we have or are competing for. It is a tactic I’ve seen employed against women for longer than I’ve known what the effect would be. I have seen some women use it tear down other women as well, which always feels worse to me. Nevertheless, the idea that a woman’s appearance is frivolous to her wellbeing or professionalism is ridiculous, as is it for men.