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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 8, 20th January 2021
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 2
00:00:00 01:03:14

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 2

Education: The next theme that really stands out to me is her vision for the education of women. 

  1. Women are not the inferior sex, maybe physically but not intellectually. They have not been given the chance to prove themselves otherwise. Women are not inferior by nature but by consequence of miseducation. 
  1. Women have been relegated to the realm of sensibility or emotion. To the frivolous and shallow, but then are mocked or scorned for it. Yet, she argues, what do we expect of them if that is the only education they are receiving. We cannot expect more from them if this is all they’re given. Like let’s cut women some slack and stop mocking them, since it’s society’s fault that they are “like this”. 
  1. She also argued for women to be educated so that they were not left destitute if a man decides he no longer wants to take care of her. 
  2. “Girls who have been thus weakly educated, are often cruelly left by their parents without provision; and, of course, are dependent on, not only the reason, but the bounty of their brothers. In this equivocal humiliating situation, a docile female may remain some time, with a tolerable degree of comfort. But, when the brother marries, a probable circumstance, from being considered as the mistress of the family, she is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden on the benevolence of the master of the house, and his new partner”
  3. Basically she not only has to be dependent on the kindness of her brother or other family members that might take pity on her, but she is not equipped in the slightest to deal with what life has dealt her. 
  4. This message to women that their role in life is to be a wife and then a mother definitely was the message that my mom was given. She dropped out of college, after one semester, when my dad proposed, got married, had my sister pretty quickly and 3 years later, there she was 23, divorced with a toddler and one on the way--that was me. No education. No real job training. This was the early 70’s during second wave feminism so it wasn’t like there was no counter-messaging happening in the greater world about getting an education or training so you can support yourself. But in her world, in the Mormon world, there seemed to be a doubling down on a woman’s place and one that, because she had great faith in the Mormon church, she believed whole-heartedly. 

  1. There was always a tension between growing up with a single mom and the idealized version of what a family was supposed to look like in the Mormon church--namely father at the head, mother at the hearth and the children kneeling at their feet. Not quite how I grew up living with my single working mom, but then I would visit my dad twice a year from California to Utah and see it play out that way with my dad and stepmom and siblings and it was mostly confusing and painful for me. 

  1. It wasn’t that I wanted my parents to be married and thought that would make everything better for us. All I had ever known was life with my mom. It was more that my siblings had what appeared to be financial stability that we did not have. I know now that my dad and stepmom scrimped and took extra jobs to meet all of their financial obligations but as a kid, it was not lost on me that my dad had an education, a better paying job, and more income than my mom. It was a struggle for my mom. 

  1. However,  because of her experience as a young bride with no education and then finding herself as a single mother, I grew up with the message that a college education is not an option. Not necessarily because I’m worth being educated, but more because “what if something happens to your husband” you will be left alone and struggling. She didn’t want that for me. I certainly did not want that for myself. But the “in case something happens to your husband” part was lost on me. I was going to college because I had a vision for what I wanted for myself. I wanted a career and I wanted to help people. I really had to grow into those other parts of myself as wife and mother. I did not see myself in those roles. 

This is so important, Meagan. Actually my daughter Lindsay just wrote a paper in college on Mormon Women in the 1970’s, and how they responded to the Women’s Lib movement. Most of the women she interviewed - now in their 60’s and 70’s - didn’t even know it was happening. It was like they had a big force field bubble over them. And of those who were aware of it most of the women she interviewed believed the church’s message that the Women’s movement was dangerous, so they dug in even harder on the ideology of female dependence and self-sacrifice.

That is so fascinating! I would love to read her paper! I’ve talked to my mom about this time period in her life and definitely feminism was a dirty four letter word. So yeah, it was going on “out there” but definitely not soaking in to her daily life in any meaningful way that impacted her choices. 

So, Wollstonecraft’s view was pretty out there for the time and was out there for many women in the 70’s! Educate women because they will make better wives, mothers, and citizens. Here she kind of takes a turn and starts talking about how motherhood, a very natural thing, and the unnatural preoccupation with being beautiful and admired get pitted against each other when education is so limited. She says: 

“...When a woman is admired for her beauty, and suffers herself to be so far intoxicated by the admiration she receives, as to neglect to discharge the indispensable duty of a mother…Men are not aware of the misery they cause, and the vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves pleasing; they do not consider that they thus make natural and artificial duties clash…”

She makes several of these arguments of the natural predisposition for women to become mothers and she even argues in several places that women who do not breastfeed are neglecting their natural bond and failing in a severe way. I believe she is mindful of placing the woman in context of the patriarchy and acknowledging that the expectation is going to be low when women are not taught to be thinking more philosophically or rationally. They will tend towards the silly and frivolous. And neglecting their duties as a mother. But she does get a little judgy about motherhood and breastfeeding. 

This does sting in some ways knowing that motherhood is not available to everyone who wants it, it sometimes happens to those who are not yet ready for it, and for others still, they will thoughtfully make the choice to not have children. There’s such a huge spectrum of a woman’s experience when it comes to motherhood. And it’s so complicated, right? But in Mary’s world, it’s a forgone conclusion that women will become mothers. And breastfeeding as well. So much pain for those for whom it doesn’t work, or the judgement that is passed for those that choose not to. I think one thing is for sure: When we take the time to get to know the person, there is usually a really good reason for the choice that they have made, and if there isn’t, it still isn’t really our place to judge. So let’s try and support each other. :) 

Yes! So often these arguments about men’s and women’s roles assume that every woman is a mother. And that’s not true. So we should be careful not to assume, not to conflate motherhood with other things, and then as you said, so importantly, not judge each other.

There are a lot of places where she is pretty harsh to women who are preoccupied with beauty and the vain things of the world. I have to admit that I was pretty judgey like her about girly girl stuff. This started when I was really young and lasted until after we got back from Chile. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder when it came to femininity and things that were considered shallow and flashy and what seemed designed just to get men’s attention. I wanted to be taken seriously. For my ideas. For what I brought to the table intellectually. I did not want to be noticed for what I was wearing or what I looked like. 

 I think that is what Mary is trying to say here is that when a woman is told that her only way of being valued is through her attractiveness or sexuality, then it stands to reason these parts of herself will be focused on and developed. Is there anything wrong with liking to look attractive and feeling sexual. No. And also, they are not the only parts of us that exist and not the only parts of us that have value.

However, for me, I had to really grow into those parts of myself because a rejection of them meant that I was playing by my own rules. In reality, I was still playing by the patriarchy’s rules, just in a slightly different way. Downplay those parts of myself to achieve a different goal. Denigrate what I saw as the obvious rules of the patriarchy: Women be sexy so you can get a man, please him, and be fulfilled by his attention. No instead, I was playing by the equally insidious rules of the patriarchy that equate femininity with inferiority. My internal monologue was: If you want to be successful, downplay anything feminine, do not dress to be noticed, and reject the idea that it’s your role to be a wife and a mother. 

Now I can see the patriarchal system that was not obvious to me before and I can be harsh on the system and soft on the person within the system.

Yes, exactly, that’s exactly what I was doing during that period of my life in college. Thinking I was rebelling, I was actually denigrating what the patriarchy had determined was “feminine.” So I was just playing into the narrative that the “feminine” was inferior.

And I do have to throw in one of my favorites of her quotes on this topic:

“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilded cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views.” (56)

“The mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilded cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” I think we do have to be mindful of this issue. Later in the podcast we will be covering the book The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, that talks about how this very same phenomenon is still plaguing women in the 20th/21st Century. Women are still spending inordinate amounts of time and thought and money on “adornment,” and in some cases it truly is because women are in a mental prison and they’re wasting their “one wild and precious life” on trivial, ephemeral beauty and worrying about how they are perceived every waking moment of their lives. And I think social media is only making that worse. But on the other hand, as you and I both talked about, it’s not healthy either to pretend we don’t care how we look at all or to reject any interest in our appearance because we associate that with “weakness” or femininity.” So it’s super complicated.

Actually, I have to share one more thing: In our house we have a quote on the wall from Little Women, where Marmee says:

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you.”

I love this quote. But. Apparently I have been doing too good of a job inculcating that message that “adornment” is not a worthy way to spend our time and attention, because recently my teenage daughter Sophie came to me and said “Mom, sometimes I feel worried that you’re judging me because I care about clothes and makeup more than you do.” Sophie is an artist and she loves doing makeup and hair and experimenting with clothes… and there’s nothing wrong with that! And I’m so grateful she told me so that I could apologize for making her feel that way, and do some course-correction so she feels free to be herself.

The fact that she was able to come to you and express her worry or fear speaks volumes about the safety and trust you have created with her. That kind of honesty can feel so very risky and yet she trusted that you would handle her fears gently. And allowed you the opportunity to offer reassurance. That is so beautiful. 

And side note: our youngest sounds very similar to Sophie and both Jon and I have to be very mindful that we honor those parts of her that we don’t fully get on an experiential level. 

That’s so interesting! And that makes me wonder if I’m projecting some of my issues onto my girls. There’s that phrase “girls are praised for how they look; boys are praised for what they do.” 


That was definitely true as I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, and once that was pointed out to me I really started noticing how true that still is. And I observed sooooo many women around me who derived their value from their looks and their dress. But my girls have grown up in a totally different environment, at least in our family, and so when she’s experimenting with hairstyles and eyeliner and clothes, she’s doing that as an artist and as a teenager who’s experimenting with how she wants to express herself, which is a completely healthy part of growing up. [And by the way, I never ever say anything to Sophie about her clothes and makeup - it’s just that she notices my simple style… and the quotes I put on the wall. And the fact that the word “Kardashian” is a swear word in our family. But anyway… I want to be careful that I don’t project my own issues onto my kids.

Oh yes! I have found out more about myself through having kids than I did by being in therapy or being a therapist--which requires you understand yourself pretty well...but somehow our kids hold up mirrors for us to see all our rough edges, all the things that maybe we didn’t see before and once we see all that--boy it takes work to not put all our stuff onto them. 

Such a delicate balance and feels like we have to walk through fire to find it sometimes. 

Speaking of walking through fire, it brings me to my next point that Wollstonecraft makes about

  1. Women’s Role & God
  2. Rousseau’s whole premise that women are created for man and that man tries to obtain her consent that he is the strongest...which she labeled as nonsense. You quoted some of his delightful ideas about the purpose of women and Mary directly responds to him with bold declarations. This one I spoke to me in particular:

  1. “And though the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against me, I will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that Moses’s beautiful, poeticial cosmogony, and the account of the fall of man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being: and having no fear of the devil before mine eyes, I venture to call this suggestion of reason, instead of resting my weakness on the broad shoulders of the first seducer of my frail sex.” 

  1. This is a radical stance then and would be radical to many now. But I appreciate that she is separating her own experience of a Supreme Being, of God, and taking God out of that very small box and saying, this does not resonate with me and what I understand of God. Her reasoning tells her that this is not the character of God and therefore she can reject it. That God would not create women solely as pleasers of men and inferior to men. That goes against God’s character.

  1. Benevolent Patriarchy screams its way throughout this whole chapter when she’s quoting her contemporaries. Like all those quotes we read at the beginning and how they attempt to keep women subordinate by telling them how marvelous they are, that they need to be cared for, that their innocence, that like of children, needs to be safeguarded and protected by using flattery and compliments. She says “This is not the language of the heart, nor will it ever reach it, though the ear may be tickled.” (p.168). 

So it might feel good for a bit to be put on the pedestal. It may make you feel cared for, valued, and important. But she calls it out as a farce and nonsense. She bores into the heart of the matter by saying, do away with all that flattery and pretending. Allow women to fully come into themselves and know all the different parts of themselves, not just the parts they’re told they have to have to be acceptable. Let them learn like anybody else learns. Through experience. Not through borrowed reason that may get doled out here and there but through real lived experience to fully exercise their mental capacity. 

  1. Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women? Or, that a gentle innocent female is an object that comes nearer to the idea which we have formed of angels than any other. Yet they are told, at the same time, that they are only angels when they are young and beautiful; consequently, it is their person, not their virtues, that procure them this homage. Idle empty words! What can such delusive flattery lead to, but vanity and folly?”

This is all highly challenging for me as a Mormon woman. Mormon doctrine is steeped in the patriarchy and her arguments here are arguments that Mormon feminists have been making for decades. What is probably the most difficult aspect of this for me is that she was saying these things nearly 230 years ago. That’s a really long time to be having the same arguments. I would imagine for people not growing up in a church like the Mormon church and having a bit more freedom in how gender roles are conceptualized, the arguments of her contemporaries sound really outdated and kind of nuts. 

But they all ring so true to my experience within the Mormon church and the way women are lauded and placed divinely up on the pedestal. And my gut telling me, if we really were equal, we would not be having to make such a big deal about how special we are. We would understand it on a different level through representation, through women leaders guiding us in matters of doctrine and not just leading women and children, but leading men as well. That is certainly not the case, so on it goes as the men try to tell us women, and then women leaders also telling us, that no, in fact, that gut feeling you’re having that there’s something amiss? That something isn’t quite right? 

Ignore that and listen to my flattering words that say how important and special you are. It rings quite hollow to me at this point in my journey. I know for a fact that dear friends desperately need to hear that message and cling to it for all its worth. And I do understand that longing. However, like Wollstonecraft says, it will never reach my heart. 



Absolutely. I love your line,  if we really were equal, we would not be having to make such a big deal about how special we are.” I have heard sooo many men say about their wives, “you know who really rules the roost around here - it’s my wife!” And so many church talks saying how important and valuable women are. And I just kind of feel over it. At a large company you don’t hear people saying “you know who’s really in charge? It’s the CEO!” If something is true, you don’t have to say it. And as I think of it, you know what would be better? Instead of telling me how amazing I am, but then shutting me out of meetings where you make decisions that impact my life, how about instead you say, “you know what? This institution - or family or country or whatever - struggles with sexim. We are not going to pretend that it doesn’t. So instead of telling women what we think they want to hear, we’re going to hold a forum and hear from the women and brainstorm some measures to actually improve things.

And here are a couple of thoughts on a similar topic. Wollstonecraft repeatedly quotes a Dr. Fordyce. Here is a quote from him, where he writes from the point of view of God, speaking to men about women.

“Behold these smiling innocents, whom I have graced with my fairest gifts, and committed to your protection; behold them with love and respect; treat them with tenderness and honour. They are timid and want to be defended. They are frail; O do not take advantage of their weakness! Let their fears and blushes endear them. ...Can you find in your hearts to despoil the gentle, trusting creatures of their treasure, or do anything to strip them of their native robe of virtue? Curst be the impious hand that would dare to violate the unblemished form of Chastity!” (102)

First of all, there’s a lot that we could discuss about sexuality in that quote. I’m grateful he’s having God tell men not to sexually abuse women, but he promotes a terribly damaging idea that a person’s virtue can be taken away by someone else, which makes victims of abuse feel like they’re ruined and have no virtue anymore. That way of thinking is poison, and it persists to this day. 

I know you could talk at length about that, Meagan, and we know from Wollstonecraft’s embrace of sexual freedom that she would take issue with that too, but the part Wollstonecraft battles against in this particular case is the idea that women need protecting because “they are timid, they are frail, they are weak.”

She says:

“Weakness may excite tenderness, and gratify the arrogant pride of man; but the lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected. Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!” (42)

I love that quote. And then here is a concrete example that still has current relevance. So I’ll read it first and then we can talk about a modern application.

“I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, thaey are insultingly supporting their own superiority. ….So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.” (68)

 I love how she says “I scarcely am able to govern my muscles” - that is hilarious. I’m going to start using that line. But what she’s saying is that that big gallant gesture of masculine heroism is insulting, and that when women feign weakness and say “oh thank you,” it reinforces the stereotype that women are dependent. 

This reminds of  men opening doors for women. I’ll say first of all that I think opening the door for someone else is very considerate and whenever someone does that for me, no matter who it is, I say thank you. And I teach my kids to always look around and hold the door for anyone else approaching the door at the same time as they are. But I want to share an anecdote about men holding doors open for women, in light of this Woolstonecraft quote. 

One time I was approaching a door at the same time as a man, and I’m just going to say it - it was Steve Young, the former 49ers quarterback who lived near me at the time in Palo Alto - and he was carrying his baby in a baby carrier and a giant diaper bag, and he had at least one toddler holding onto his belt loop. I was carrying nothing at the time, so I went to get the door for him. But he wouldn’t let me. He insisted that he hold the door open for me, and I argued with him for a few seconds but he would. Not. let me hold the door open for him. I was not in the least offended - I thought that he had clearly been trained by his parents that that was one way to show his respect for women. So I respected that, and I thought it was incredibly kind and considerate, so when he insisted for awhile I was gracious and walked through the door. However, that incident has returned to my mind many times over the years, because in that moment I  wanted to be in a role of offering a kind service, and I  wanted to be the strong one. And I wasn’t allowed to. And, we could bring up a whole other discussion on the variations on Mary Wollstonecraft’s theme. In my time and place one thing that’s different is that men are engaging in the work of fatherhood and housework. We could spend awhile unpacking that visual image of that big strong man absolutely dripping with sippy cups - he was like a pack mule laden with baby gear. I don’t know about Steve Young’s family - I have only heard wonderful things about him and his wife and kids - but in my family, my husband is honestly often the one who carries an oversized load. He has always been the sole breadwinner in our family, and he has always done a ton of housework, and he has always played with our kids and disciplined them and flopped on their beds to chat with them at the end of the day… he does everything. So to ask him to still take on those archaic chivalrous roles of “let me get that for you…” it has kind of a modern twist on it that sits wrong with me for that reason as well. In some marriages it’s the woman who might carry a disproportionate amount of work - especially if she’s working outside the home - but in mine, we both work our butts off but if it’s me or him carrying the bigger load, it’s honestly probably Erik. 

Meagan: OH my gosh. This story. I have so many memories of getting into it with my dad about opening car doors for me and me being SO bugged by it! And finally relenting because he would not let it go. Insisted on "respecting me" but not hearing my actual experience of not feeling respected. And then once I got used to having him open the door for me, I would take note of men who would or would not open doors for me as a sign of respect...so I ended up digesting that and using it as a marker of some kind. At a certain point after getting married and having kids it made zero sense for Jon to open car doors for me because like Erik, his hands were full of stuff just like mine. 


I also remember probably 7 or 8 years ago we were at church and it was an area conference where they had one of the highest ranking leaders speaking to us (Richard G. Scott) and he was recounting stories about his wife and how she would sit in the car and wait until he came and opened the door for her. And one time where someone else was driving her, he got out and went into the building and she waited and waited and waited until the guy finally figured out that he was supposed to go and open the door for her. This was lauded as the correct way to be, both for men (to go and open the door) and for women (to wait until someone does it for you) and I remember walking out to the car, we had three kids at the time, and hearing several couples make a joke about oh now you have to open my door for me or I'm just going to wait here until you do...seemed like we were not alone in our eye rolling. But this idea was definitely being taught as a God- approved prescription of what men are supposed to do and that women are supposed to wait for them to do it. To quote Wollstonecraft: What nonsense and absurdity.


Amy: Yep. Nonsense and absurdity. Well that brings us to the end of our discussion, Meagan! As we wrap up, what is a takeaway that you’ll remember from this book?



Overall gratitude for the strides that society has made 230 years ago in terms of what is possible for women when they are properly educated and allowed the freedom to pursue their own path. That we live in a world where I can actively participate in helping men and women learn more about the emotional parts of themselves that have been shoved aside, labeled as too sissy or too hysterical to be attended to. And watch the beautiful process unfold as couples are able to connect on a much deeper level. To bring more love and connection in this world is truly an honor and I couldn’t do that without all the hard work our feminist foremothers have done as they tackled these subjects head on. 

In tackling this subject head on in my own home, there are several things that this book has brought into sharp focus. The first we touched on a bit with our artistic daughters who love clothes, make up, and things typically associated with femininity. And finding that balance to honor and appreciate all parts of ourselves and those we love without feeling like we have to denigrate any of them based on the rules of the patriarchy. 

The second is, how these conversations get transmitted to the men in our lives. What message are they hearing as we talk through our frustrations, hurt, anger, and pain. 

My son made a comment last night at dinner something to the effect that men are just jerks and basically the worst. Which gave me an opportunity to do some serious course correction like you said. There is such a delicate balance to make explicit the structures that benefit one group of people above others. 

I never want the message I’m sending my son, or my husband for that matter, that they are garbage people because they were born white males. They had nothing to do with that. Teaching my son that he is valuable, that he matters and his needs are important feels like a fundamental lesson that I want to impart to him as his mother. 

At the same time I want to help him develop a very clear understanding of the system and how he automatically benefits from that system. And most of all, understand that as we acknowledge the system and see it for what it is, he can strive to be an ally. To listen and support those working towards change. And then move into being an accomplice, who will actively work to make meaningful change to structures that are oppressive to any group of people. Be willing to stick your neck out when you see oppressive things happening. 

It’s a tightrope walk. I’m in it for the long haul with all my kids. We still have a long ways to go and yet I am deeply grateful for how far we *have* come compared to 230 years ago. 



So true. I share your gratitude, and your frustration, and regarding your sweet son I think of what you said earlier in our conversation, we need to be “hard on systems, soft on people.” We need to reform these structural inequities, but my hope and my goal is to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone.


If I can share one more thought, for my takeaway, I want to reference Olympe de Gouge’s “Declaration on the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” which Wollstonecraft was vindicating. Both De Gouges and Wollstonecraft, were Enlightenment thinkers who employed the argument (which men were using at the time) that all men had “natural rights.” De Gouges and Wollstonecraft argued that those rights applied to women as well. But in our previous episode when we were talking about natural rights my reading partner very astutely pointed out that many thinkers, including Aristotle and Darwin, have argued that the natural order of things includes oppressive power structures, and that those hierarchies, or “caste” systems are appropriate. Some people believe that God ordained those hierarchies, and some believe that they evolved that way through natural selection, but either way, we shouldn’t mess with them because they’re “natural.”


So in that discussion Lindsay and I had a hard time coming up with an argument to contend with men who have that belief. Because those men - especially white men - are in power at the top of the caste system, and they can just say “Meh, agree to disagree, we belong up here,” and they have the power to stay. So how do women and people of color combat that? 


That question requires a long answer, but I was just remembering that book and movie “Cloud Atlas” where a group of characters keeps reincarnating in lots and lots of different situations throughout world history, and the story shows how through time, some of the people evolve and learn and grow, and become more empathetic and more just, while others just keep playing a role that keeps other people down. One character, played by Hugo Weaving, keeps saying in every scenario, “there is a natural order of things.” He says this as a Southern plantation owner who enslaves people, for example, and in several other incarnations in the role of an oppressor. So he’s saying “whatever caste you’re born into, just be content in that role because it’s the natural order of things.”


I share this because this science fiction story of “Cloud Atlas” demonstrates a real-life pattern: there will always be oppressors who say “this is the natural order of things.” And there will always be rebels who can see unjust systems for what they are, and challenge them. Olympe de Gouges was one of those. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those. Sarah Grimke, whom we’ll talk about next time, was one of those. 


And so I want to end by sharing this quote from Wollstonecraft. She’s talking about how women are essentially brainwashed to accept their own inferior status within this caste system of patriarchy. She says:


Thus degraded, her reason… is employed rather to burnish than to snap her chains.” (110)


She is arguing that women need to employ their reason - which is the first point you made today, Meagan. And they need to employ that reason to take a step back, to realize that they occupy a place in society’s structure that is not just - and for heaven’s sake, they need to make sure that they’re not just playing a role in the system that actually burnishes - or polishes - their own chains!!! So my takeaway is to think about what role we are playing within the society we were born into. Are we maintaining any power structures that limit other people and keep them down? If we’re doing that, is it because we’ve been taught that that’s “the natural order of things” and “just the way things are?” Or are we breaking free of the things that are holding us back, and supporting other people as they break free of the limitations that have been imposed on them? As they “snap the chains,” as Mary Wollstonecraft said. And I would say, to all the supportive men in our lives, including your husband and your sweet son, Meagan, and my husband and my sweet son, and any men listening, thank you for being allies for girls and women while we do this work. Like you said, Meagan, we have come so far, but it’s not done yet.


Well thank you again so very, very much for being here today. You are such a brilliant thinker and I miss having these long, in depth conversations with you!! Thank you again.


Meagan: Thank you for this opportunity Amy. I have always appreciated your thoughtfulness and sensitivity to feminist issues and am really grateful to have been a part of this! 


Amy: On our next episode, we will be leaving Europe and heading to the United States, where we will read a text written around the same time as Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written - but in fact it was written one year earlier, in 1791. This text is an essay called “On the Equality of the Sexes,” by Judith Sargent Murray. Murray was an essay writer, playwright, and poet, and she was one of the first Americans to argue that women, like men, had the capability of intellectual accomplishment and should be able to achieve economic independence. This landmark essay "On the Equality of the Sexes" paved the way for new thoughts and ideas regarding women, especially in the United States. It’s not a very long essay, and I found it online on the website nationalhumanitiescenter.org. So give it a read, and maybe even look up the incredible Judith Sargent Murray, and then join us for the discussion, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.



Themes we didn’t have room for

  1. Wollstonecraft demonstrates Enlightenment Values:

“The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart; or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent.” (35)

“Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. … Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.” (38)

The Age of Enlightenment/The Age of Reason: from Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 until the end of the 18th Century. These ideals deconstruct the authority of old institutions and empower the common man - this philosophical movement culminates in the American and French Revolution.

Doubting/pushing back against the dogma of the church and the sovereignty of monarchies. 

German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”  includes the phrase Sapere Aude - Dare to Know. “Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act.”

This is a radically democratizing idea, and just as we see buildings (like Monticello) in the Neo-classical style evoking ancient Greece, so too does the Enlightenment contain the re-emergence of Classical ideals. Democracy, individual reason, individual virtue.


  1. Republican Motherhood: 

“If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.” (Dedication - 20)

“Have women, who have early imbibed notions of passive obedience, sufficient character to manage a family or educated children?” (47)

[But that’s not the only reason to be educated. Education to fulfill the measure of our creation]:

“The end, the grand end of [women’s] exertions should be to unfold their own faculties, and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.” (40) 

Not just to be better wives, mothers, and patriots.


  1. We don’t know why things are the way they are (oh well)

“To see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain.” (Dedication - 21)


  1. Allow people the freedom to do what they want, and let’s see where everyone lands

“Let there be then no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places.” (22)

“Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex. ...Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on.” (33) 

Women are blamed for being silly and unintelligent… Wollstonecraft points out that women are  that way, but it’s because they aren’t allowed to be educated!! 

“Men have contributed to render women more artificial, weaker characters, than they would otherwise have been; and consequently more useless members of society.” (36)

Men have superior strength of body; ...Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of body, that we may know how far the natural superiority of man extends.” (95)  - 

This could be true for military service, STEM, chess…


  1. Virtue is Virtue - if it’s good enough for men, why shouldn’t women also?

Here I throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty.” (62)

“There is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude. [we shouldn’t assign a] sex to virtue.” (26) 

Mormon church. Other conservative churches do this as well, but it’s not in the Bible. Where did these gender roles come from? 


  1. Women are weaker than men - Wollstonecraft’s limitations due to her time period

“It is observable that the female, in general, is inferior to the male. The male pursues, the female yields - this is the law of nature… This physical superiority cannot be denied- and it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower.” (24)

“From the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue.” (40)

[Wollstonecraft mused whether Newton was too brilliant to be human - perhaps his soul was] “accidentally caged in a human body.” “In the same style I have been led to imagine that the few extraordinary women who have rushed in eccentrical directions out of the orbit prescribed to their sex, were male spirits, confined by mistake in a female frame. But if it be not philosophical to think of sex when the soul is mentioned, the inferiority must depend on the organs; or the heavenly fire, which is to ferment the clay, is not given in equal portions.” 

“Acknowledging the inferiority of women, according to the present appearance of things, I shall only insist, that men have increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.” (48)

But then she does say “it cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man, because she has always been subjugated.” (50) 

But should it be proved that woman is naturally weaker than man, from whence does it follow that it is natural for her to labour to become still weaker than nature intended her to be? (53) 

Questions: Wollstonecraft would be shocked to see Billie Jean King, you and I in the CrossFit gym, and women in the military. We are, it is true, smaller, and have smaller muscles. But every generation assumes that the status quo must be “the way things are,” biologically determined. “Women just aren’t as good at Math, Science, Chess.” 

What assumptions have women made about their limitations that have been proven false? 

What assumptions might we still have now that will be proven false in 50, 100 years?


  1. Women are raised to be perpetual children

“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. (25)

If women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?” (59)

With respect to religion, she never presumed to judge for herself; but conformed, as a dependent creature should, to the ceremonies of the Church which she was brought up in, piously believing, that wiser heads than her own have settled that business; and not to doubt is her point of perfection…. These are the virtues of man’s helpmate.” (61)

“Men ...submit everywhere to oppression, when they have only to lift up their heads to throw off the yoke; yet, instead of asserting their birthright, they quietly lick the dust, and say, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Women, I argue from analogy, are degraded by the same propensity to enjoy the present moment; and at last, despise the freedom which they have not sufficient virtue to struggle to attain.” (63)


  1. Women are raised to be pleasing to men

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views.” (56)

Rousseau says that the whole point of female education is to make women pleasing to men. And Dr. Gregory advises his daughters to “cultivate a fondness for dress, because a fondness for dress, he asserts, is natural to them. I am unable to comprehend what either he or Rousseau mean, when they frequently use this indefinite term. I deny it. It is not natural; but arises, like false ambition in men, from a love of power.” (42)

“Inheriting, in a lineal descent from the first fair defect in nature, the sovereignty of beauty, they have, to maintain their power, resigned their natural rights, which the exercise of reason might have procured them, and chosen rather to be short-lived queens than labour to attain the sober pleasures that arise from equality.” (67) 

[Also, this makes women susceptible to be] “scorned when not adored.” 

As soon as she falls from her throne, she is cast aside.

If women are taught that their power lies in their appearance, then of course they’re going to be interested in it. 

Is this still true today? Why do girls and women seem to care more than boys and men about their “adornment?” Think of previous centuries, like Louis XVI. That guy cared a lot about adornment too. What about other cultures? Do women care more than men about beautifying the body? 

What about beauty bloggers? The Kardashians? What is the role of female beauty?

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that that’s all you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.” (Marmee, Little Women)


  1. Women are raised to be weak 

“Can [women] supinely dream life away in the lap of pleasure, or in the languor of weariness, rather than assert their claim to pursue reasonable pleasures, and render themselves conspicuous, by practising the virtues which dignify mankind? Surely she has not an immortal soul who can loiter life away, merely employed to adorn her person, that she may amuse the languid hours, and soften the cares of a fellow-creature who is willing to be enlivened by her smiles and tricks, when the serious business of life is over.” (43)

Due to lack of education, “Woman… seldom attains… greatness of mind;  so that, becoming the slave of her own feelings, she is easily subjugated by those of others. Thus degraded, her reason, her misty reason! Is employed rather to burnish than to snap her chains.” (110)

I love that line: her reason is employed rather to burnish than to snap her chains. This describes so many women I know who defend patriarchy!


  1. Women are raised to be a helpmeet, support, and make men happy

“Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virutes of the sex; ...She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears, whenever… he chooses to be amused.” (47)

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.” (73)

Wollstonecraft, as a “protofeminist” supports equal rights, egalitarianism. Not to replace patriarchy with matriarchy.

Women… appear to be created not to enjoy the fellowship of man, but to save him from sinking into absolute brutality, but rubbing off the rough angles of his character… Gracious Creator of the whole human race! Hast thou created such a being as woman, who can trace thy wisdom in thy works, and feel that thou alone art by thy nature, exalted above her - for no better purpose? Can she believe that she was only made to submit to man her equal; a being, who, like her, was sent into the world to acquire virtue? Can she consent to be occupied merely to please him - merely to adorn the earth, - when her soul is capable of rising in thee?” (78)

I hear this argument a lot - that women are “superior” to men and are needed to help men smooth their rough edges and learn how to be better humans… at the expense of women’s own development. I just don’t accept that women should eternally “take one for the team.” And also, that’s demeaning to men!


  1. Women are raised to get married; men are raised to have careers

“Men, in their youth, are prepared for professions, and marriage is not considered as the grand feature in their lives; whilst women, on the contrary, have no other scheme to sharpen their faculties.” (71)

WOW, is that familiar!!! Is this true in other religions? In the secular world? I think it used to be true everywhere, and it’s certainly still true for Mormons. 

[And what happens when they do get married? They lose the personhood completely through the laws of coverture]

Laws of Coverture:

Under traditional English common law, an adult unmarried woman was considered to have the legal status of feme sole, while a married woman had the status of feme covert. These terms are English spellings of medieval Anglo-Norman phrases (the modern standard French spellings would be femme seule "single woman" and femme couverte, literally "covered woman").

The principle of coverture was described in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in the late 18th century:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. ...I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.

A feme sole had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name, while a feme covert was not recognized as having legal rights and obligations distinct from those of her husband in most respects. Instead, through marriage a woman's existence was incorporated into that of her husband, so that she had very few recognized individual rights of her own. As expressed in Hugo Black's dissent in United States v. Yazell, "This rule [coverture] has worked out in reality to mean that though the husband and wife are one, the one is the husband." A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband's wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture, she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. 



Raising women for beauty, weakness, support, marriage leaves women completely unprepared and vulnerable

“Girls, who have been thus weakly educated, are often cruelly left by their parents without any provision; and , of course, are dependent on… the bounty of their brothers. ...Who can recount the misery, which many unfortunate beings, whose minds and bodies are equally weak, suffer in such situations - unable to work and ashamed to beg?” (76) 


It makes women cling to the one power they do have

“...by an undue stretch of power, they are always tyrannizing to support a superiority that only rests on the arbitrary distinction of fortune. The evil is sometimes more serious, and domestics are deprived of innocent indulgences, and made to work beyond their strength, in order to enable the notable woman to keep a better table, and outshine her neighbours in finery and parade. If she attend to her children, it is, in general, to dress them in a costly manner - and, whether this attention arises from vanity of fondness, it is equally pernicious.” (77) 

This reminds me of “mommy bloggers” and Instagrammers. Too much energy/time/mental effort spent on making children appear beautiful and perfect and wealthy, in order to be praised and “liked.” Mary Wollstonecraft might suggest that women should that energy/time/mental effort and apply it to something that enriched their own minds or did good in the world


  1. Women who experience abuse

“A woman who has lost her honour, imagines that she cannot fall lower … and having no other means of support, prostitution becomes her only refuge. Necessity never makes prostitution the business of men’s lives.”

“Her character depends on the observance of one virtue,... Nay the honour of a woman is not made even to depend on her will...Miserable beyond all names of misery is the condition of a being, who could be degraded without its own consent!” (82) 

Fantine, women on Downton Abbey


Amy: Ok, as we wrap up, what would you say is one of your biggest takeaways from this text?

Meagan: Takeaways

Amy: I would say mine was….

Thank you so much for being here today, thank you for the discussion, etc.

Other notes I thought of:

  • This emphasis on appearance is inculcated from mother to daughter from birth, and girls are praised as being “pretty” sooooo much more often than boys being “handsome.” (It’s sad to see how that plays out every single time I’m with my mom. She says I’m beautiful multiple times every time I see her. She never comments on boys’ appearance. She continues this with all the grandchildren.) We praise girls for how they appear and boys for what they do
  • It seems obvious that at least part of the reason that women emphasize appearance so much is that women sense that the men are in charge, and that’s what men want. They want a beautiful woman. A pretty girl can marry a rich man, and they get what they want from each other.
  • Another reason women do this is that their choices of occupation are limited. So they funnel their time and energy into the channels available to them. And,  conversely, because they spend so much time and energy on shopping, dressing, adorning, that focus crowds out other pursuits.
  • But another reason that women spend a lot of time on dress is that human beings like to adorn themselves! Sophie recently told me (tearfully) that she feels embarrassed and a little judged by me because I have too often talked about the frivolousness of spending a ton of time on appearance… and she, as an artist, loves clothing, hair and makeup. She loves historical dress and she loves trying different looks out on herself, she same as she loves trying different art media in her Art class. This is a human instinct to create beauty, and in other places and time periods men were just as fancy and over-the-top as women!! Think Louis XIV) 


“Children of both sexes have a great many amusements in common; and so they ought; have they not also many such when they are grown up? Each sex has also its peculiar taste to distinguish in this particular. Boys love sports of noise and activity; to beat the drum, to whip the top, and to drag about their little carts: girls, on the other and are fonder of things of show and ornament; such as mirrors, trinkets, and dolls; the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination. The physical part of the art of pleasing lies in dress” (90)

“Girls are to be… early subjected to restraint. This misfortune, if it really be one, is inseparable from their sex; nor do they ever throw it off but to suffer more cruel evils. They must be subject, all their lives, to the most constant and severe restraint, which is that of decorum: it is, therefore, necessary to accustom them early to such confinement , that it may not afterward cost them too dear: and to the suppression of their caprices, that they may the more readily submit to the will of others.” (91)

“There results from this habitual restraint, a tractableness which the women have occasion for during their whole lives, as they constantly remain either under subjection to the men, or to the opinions of mankind; and are never permitted to set themselves above those opinions. The first and most important qualification in a woman is good-nature or sweetness of temper; formed to obey a being so imperfect as man, often full of vices, and always full of faults, she ought to learn betimes even to suffer injustice, and to bear the insults of a husband without complaint; it is not for his sake, but her own, that she should be  of a mild disposition. The perverseness and ill-nature of the women only serve to aggravate their own misfortunes, and the misconduct of their husbands; they might plainly perceive that such are not the arms by which they gain the superiority” (93)

“Her dress is extremely modest in appearance, and yet very coquettish in fact: she does not make a display of her charms, she conceals them; but in counseling them, she knows how to affect your imagination. Every one who sees her, will say, ‘There is a modest and discreet girl; but while you are near her, your eyes and affections wander all over her persons, so that you cannot withdraw them, and you would conclude that every part of her dress, simple as it seems was only put in its proper order to be taken to pieces by the imagination.” (97)