Humanities 103 (Ingram)
October 6, 2017
“It seems to me that I have to dwell on these obvious truths because females have been insulted, as it were: stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked out with artificial graces that enable them to be tyrants for a little time. Because in them love takes place every nobler passion, their sole ambition is to be beautiful, to raise emotion instead of inspiring respect; and this ignoble desire – like the servility in absolute monarchies – destroys all strength of character. Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women are slaves by their very constitution, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must always languish like exotics, and be regarded as beautiful flaws in nature.” (Wollstonecraft 25)
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects is a nonfiction piece published in 1792 towards an English and French audience. It includes themes such as sexuality, revolution, and nature. The passage is the penultimate of Chapter 2: The prevailing opinion about sexual differences. It begins as accusatory towards an antagonist, moves on to grievances regarding the encouragement of women to focus solely on emotion, and concludes by using the theme of revolution to explain the dehumanization of women.
The passage begins with a sense of sarcasm since passive phrases are used such as “It seems to me” and “I have to dwell”. Considering an extensive essay has been composed about the issues that she addresses, she is much more certain in her beliefs than she is letting on. The sentence then moves on to a victimization of Wollstonecraft and women. By using personal pronouns, she puts herself in a position of abuse. For instance, when she writes “I have to dwell”, she begrudgingly introduces an antagonist that compels women to think about “obvious truths”. The description of these truths as obvious implies an ignorance in the readership since they wouldn’t have to be discussed if they were obvious. Victimization continues as Wollstonecraft describes women as “females”, a term that begins to allude to the dehumanization of women in society. The sentence then forces the reader to halt and ponder briefly on the meaning of the phrase “females have been insulted”. It is both an accusatory phrase towards the antagonist implied earlier, and the forced consideration of the phrase allows an opportunity for emotion to rise.
The next part of the first sentence focuses heavily on the theme of sexuality. Women are described as being “stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity”. The words “stripped” and “clothes” refer to clothing in a manner that accuses an antagonist of being overly sexual in a time when that would have been considered shameful. The virtues are also described as qualities that “should” clothe humanity, meaning that sexist forces have not only been the perpetrators of the stripping, but they have withheld humanity from women. This clothing metaphor continues into the next part of the sentence when it is mentioned that women “have been decked out with artificial graces”. They haven’t imposed these artificial graces upon themselves, nor have they simply been clothed with them. Rather, women have been forced to burden a substantial amount of superficial etiquette. Next, this decking out “enable[s] them to be tyrants for a little time”. This refers to the traditional courting process of the time, where the false authority that is given to women allows them to have charge over a man for a certain time. While this would theoretically be considered empowering to women, it is only degrading since the ability to be tyrants lasts for a “little time”. In reality, once a woman agrees to marry a man, her false power is stolen. The word “tyrants” seems strange to use, but it begins to introduce the theme of revolution in an age where deeply ingrained revolutionary spirit grips society. By ending the sentence on this note, one equates the oppression of women to the oppression of people by the government.
The second sentence of the paragraph discusses the role of romantic love in the life of women. At this point, the sentence has progressed into using more complicated words with longer syllables, indicating an increase in intensity and authority by Wollstonecraft. The sentence begins with the statement that “in them love takes place every nobler passion”. Using the word “love” for the first time makes a sharp contrast to the accusatory statements made in the sentence before, but Wollstonecraft then puts down the traditionally valued romantic love by mentioning “every nobler passion”. Using the word “passions” instead of a simpler word like “emotions” or “desires”, coupled with the descriptor of the passions as “nobler”, gives it a transcendental description over love. These couple of words also include an appeal to revolutionary spirit, as “nobler” is reminiscent of nobility and morality, and “passions” is a charged word for revolutionary emotion. Next, Wollstonecraft goes on to outline that “their sole ambition is to be beautiful”. The romantic love that women are encouraged to hold so dearly is unproductive because it is their “sole” desire to please their husbands. The word “ambition” is a strong one to use because it gives the sense of a more ingrained aspiration than a word such as “desire” or “goal” would. At this point in the passage, a consistent occurrence is the referring to women as “they”, “them”, and “their” after referring to them as females once in the first sentence. This continues the ironic dehumanization of women by Wollstonecraft, and provides a subtle sense of degradation of women. Finally, a semicolon forces the reader to stop, and consider the strong ideas that they have been presented.
The next part of the second sentence strays slightly from the empowerment of women, and focuses on the themes of government and revolution. After the abrupt stop in the sentence, the desire for romantic love is described as “ignoble”. This is a shocking reference to an establishment that would want to be considered noble in every way. “Desire” is used instead of “ambition” this time to show a devolution in the true nobility of romantic love. Dashes are then used as a peculiar punctuation that introduces a phrase unnecessary for the development of ideas in the passage. By comparing the desires of women to “the servility in absolute monarchies”, Wollstonecraft takes another jab at an oppressive establishment that detests an absolute monarchy. This likening of society’s oppression of women to the servility in absolute monarchies, coupled with the powerful finale of the sentence saying that each of these “destroys all strength of character” is an unusually personal and aggressive commentary.
The final part of the passage brings together all the themes in the paragraph, with a heavy focus on the themes of revolution and nature. The third sentence begins on an entirely different tone than the second sentence ends on since “liberty is the mother of virtue” is an allusion to creation, while the last part of the second sentence focuses on destruction. Not only is the idea of a woman creating liberty an empowering idea, but the mention of birth begins to allude to the theme of nature. Here revolution is the emphasis since “liberty” is a powerful word to mention. The word “virtue” refers to the virtues that women had been stripped of earlier in the passage, and reiterates the egregious actions that are continually taken to treat women as unworthy. This idea of female dehumanization continues into the next part of the sentence where it is supposed that “women are slaves by their very constitution”. Continuing to use terms that refer to government and revolution fortifies the argument that women are oppressed as slaves. The words “slaves” and “constitution” feed into the strong allusion to government in the first part of the sentence, and the phrase seeks to resonate with a revolutionary spirit that commends a constitution and abhors slavery. As the argument that women are oppressed continues, Wollstonecraft laments that women are “not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom”. An antagonist is once again put into an ironic place of authority here since it is mentioned that women aren’t given the independence to breathe. The word “freedom” allows for the themes of government and revolution to further into the sentence, but the way that freedom is described holds the most weight in the passage. The powerful adjectives of “sharp” and “invigorating” are used here to emphasize the depth of oppression that women face, and the notion that women aren’t even allowed to respire initiates the thought that women are not only dehumanized, but oppressed into an unnatural state.
The final phrases in the passage are the most solemn. After the explanation that women are abused into an inhuman state, Wollstonecraft claims that because of this oppression “they must always languish like exotics”. The idea that they must “always languish” suggests that they are forced to constantly live below their potential, and comparing languishing to the tyrannical power that women possessed earlier in the passage shows the progression of how women are stripped of power. Additionally, the comparison of women to exotics calls attention to the theme of women as dehumanized, unnatural creatures. Exotics refers to the practice of the time where exotic plants or animals were kept and cared for as a novelty. Suggesting that women are akin to pets continues into the last part of the sentence where they are regarded “as beautiful flaws in nature”. The word “beautiful” here gives a sense of sexuality, but also attaches the idea of dehumanization to romantic love since “beautiful” relates to the ambitions mentioned earlier in the passage. Moreover, the phrase “flaws in nature” after the word “exotics” used in the previous part of the sentence drives home the concept that women are oppressed into the role of unnatural pets. Using the word “nature” as the last word of the passage is powerful because it seems to finally bring together the themes of dehumanization and nature. This final mention of nature leaves the audience with the main idea of the passage that women are subjugated into a sub-human role.
An analysis of Wollstonecraft’s incorporation of gripping themes into her feminist literature, coupled with a knowledge of the context in which she was writing, allows for a thorough understanding of the issues that women faced during at the time. However, this excerpt finds itself at an unfortunate place in Wollstonecraft’s essay. As the penultimate paragraph of a very involved section of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, it is probable that many have overlooked such skillfully designed literature. With a close reading of this passage, one is not only enlightened about the complexities of Wollstonecraft’s feminism, but they offer attention to a perspective that many may overlook.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Jonathan Bennett, 2010.