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Reson and Woman

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        Body and Reason

In Wollstonecraft’s work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she spoke up for the all the women who had no voice for their rights. The problem of woman rights had already existed for such a long time. Because of the misleading of public opinion and some literati like Rousseau, people shaped women as cunning, irritable and ignorant. Wollstonecraft considered that, in fact, women treated unequally was not because women born foolish or inferior; it was because no one provided the same opportunities for them. They lacked a good situation to cultivate themselves. So in this way, she criticized the limitation of traditional education for females so that women reduced Reason in daily life and became the accessories of men. The traditional education referred to homeschooling, which only offered fragmented education, so they lacked the systematic understanding of any knowledge. However, education in the home was not the only reason for women becoming inferior to men. Another factor that influenced women’s Reason was based on weakness in their body. In Wollstonecraft’s mind, weakness in women’s bodies would lead to a lack of Reason, and in this case, women were often considered sub-rational beings since they were understood as purely emotional beings. In order to illustrate the relation between women’s body and Reason, she started her analyses in a unique way.

Due to several reasons, including the influence of the stories in Genesis that described woman as a rib of man or some great works from literati, people always shaped women as delicate or beautiful. Using words like brave and ingenious to describe a woman seemed inappropriate. Since youth, girls were educated to be cute and obedient. Based on that, people would like to believe that women had no relation with Reason. They did not need Reason because they born without Reason. However, Wollstonecraft valued Reason in her texts, in particular for women. So at the beginning of chapter one, she argued ‘in what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason (14).’ Why was Reason so important? The answer was that Reason was an extraordinary ability, which decided whether or not people could take meaningful actions and grasp the essence of an individual object. Reason was a tool to distinguish man from beast because beasts relied on instinct instead of Reason. But it seemed that people would be more willing to regard women as beasts because both groups depended on instinct, which for women was sensibility. Unluckily, Wollstonecraft hated sensibility. She strongly disagreed with the idea either ‘man was made to reason, woman to feel (68),’ or “‘The power of woman,’ says some author, ‘is her sensibility;’ (68) …” She believed that they reasoned why people thought women as the representatives of sensibility was due to their body. The weak in the body was more easily lead women to sensibility. ‘Quickness of sensation; quickness of perception; delicacy (68).’ Sensibility was more akin to an instinct instead of skill. ‘To preserve personal beauty, woman’s glory! The limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands, and the sedentary life which they are condemned to live, whilst boys frolic in the open air, weakens the muscles and relaxes the nerves (45).’ Wollstonecraft described the situation of the chains of girls by ‘Chinese band (45)’ precisely. So in this case, she wanted her readers to understand that ‘…the perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart (24).’ When women used their bodies and became stronger, they would no longer leave the impression of being weak.

A weak body would easily lead to a weak will because it was hard for women to focus if they felt physical weariness. Once they were unable to concentrate on a particular thing, then they could not make judgments or take actions. So in this situation, there were two outcomes. The first situation was they would take action purely based on intuition. Intuition was the combination of rationality and sensibility. Due to non-systematic study, senses gained the upper hand. ‘…if they have any sense, it is a kind of instinctive glance, that catches proportions, and decides with respect to manners; but fails when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed (27).’ Thanks to the lack of further consideration, what they could do was to make decisions randomly according to the common customs instead of rational judgments. ‘…they do so when their uncultivated understanding makes them entirely dependent on their senses for employment and amusement (32) …’ The more they depended on their senses, the more mistakes they would make. The disordered way of thinking only showed their foolishness and ignorance. The more regretful thing was that, as Wollstonecraft considered, no one recognized that this haphazard way of thinking was wrong. Women might rejoice that they successfully aroused interest for men. The second situation was woman totally became the dependents. ‘…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 (54).’ Under this circumstance, women did not have their thought but were contented to remain where they were. In this case, these two outcomes of weakness in body generate a vicious circle.

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