1792 | London

Vanity Fairs

Mary Wollstonecraft on feuding via fashion.

I have seldom known a good male or female servant that was not particularly fond of dress.

Their clothes were their riches; and I argue from analogy that the fondness for dress, so extravagant in females, arises from the same cause—want of cultivation of mind. When men meet, they converse about business, politics, or literature; but, says Swift, “how naturally do women apply their hands to each other’s lappets and ruffles.” And very natural it is—for they have not any business to interest them, have not a taste for literature, and they find politics dry, because they have not acquired a love for mankind by turning their thoughts to the grand pursuits that exalt the human race and promote general happiness.

Besides, various are the paths to power and fame which by accident or choice men pursue, and though they jostle against each other, for men of the same profession are seldom friends, yet there is a much greater number of their fellow creatures with whom they never clash. But women are very differently situated with respect to each other—for they are all rivals.

Before marriage it is their business to please men; and after, with a few exceptions, they follow the same scent, with all the persevering pertinacity of instinct. Even virtuous women never forget their sex in company, for they are forever trying to make themselves agreeable. A female beauty and a male wit appear to be equally anxious to draw the attention of the company to themselves; and the animosity of contemporary wits is proverbial.

Is it then surprising that when the sole ambition of woman centers in beauty, and interest gives vanity additional force, perpetual rivalships should ensue? They are all running the same race, and would rise above the virtue of mortals if they did not view each other with a suspicious and even envious eye.

An immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure and for sway, are the passions of savages; the passions that occupy those uncivilized beings who have not yet extended the dominion of the mind, or even learned to think with the energy necessary to concatenate that abstract train of thought which produces principles. And that women, from their education and the present state of civilized life, are in the same condition, cannot, I think, be controverted. To laugh at them then, or satirize the follies of a being who is never to be allowed to act freely from the light of her own reason, is as absurd as cruel; for that they who are taught blindly to obey authority will endeavor cunningly to elude it is most natural and certain.

Yet let it be proved that they ought to obey man implicitly, and I shall immediately agree that it is woman’s duty to cultivate a fondness for dress, in order to please, and a propensity to cunning for her own preservation.


Mary Wollstonecraft

From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Having worked briefly as a governess in Ireland, Wollstonecraft was back in London by 1787 and working again with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. She dedicated her Vindication to French statesman Talleyrand, who had recently argued that women should receive only a domestic education. The biographer Claire Tomalin called the work “thirty years’ rage distilled in six weeks’ hard labor.” Some supporters began referring to the influential author as the “Tom Paine of her sex,” while Horace Walpole, a detractor, derided her as a “hyena in petticoats.”