Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century feminist philosopher and writer whose pioneering work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), laid the foundation for modern feminism by advocating for women’s equality and education.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Introduction

Mary Wollstonecraft, an influential eighteenth-century feminist writer and intellectual, was born on April 27, 1759, in the vibrant city of London. Her legacy is etched in the annals of history, primarily due to her groundbreaking work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” published in 1792. However, Mary’s literary contributions extend far beyond this iconic treatise, encompassing a diverse range of writings, including novels, travel narratives, historical accounts of the French Revolution, children’s literature, and a conduct book. Her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” remains a timeless masterpiece of liberal feminism, igniting debates and controversies that continue to resonate over the past two centuries.

Influences on Mary Wollstonecraft 

The French Revolution:

The late eighteenth century was a period of great upheaval, and one of the most significant events that left an indelible mark on Mary Wollstonecraft was the French Revolution. Alongside notable contemporaries like Rousseau, Burke, and Godwin, Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by the revolutionary fervor sweeping through France. In her seminal work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” she not only expressed her views on the need for political and social reforms but also highlighted the critical importance of extending these reforms to benefit women in both public and private spheres.

According to Wollstonecraft, the French Revolution represented humanity’s first resounding call for gender emancipation and equality. She drew inspiration from the revolutionary philosophy, which underpinned her political and social ideals, nurturing her hopes for a more equitable future. In many ways, Mary Wollstonecraft is rightfully celebrated as the ‘child of the French Revolution’ due to her unwavering commitment to its principles.

John Locke’s Influence:

Another pivotal influence on Mary Wollstonecraft’s intellectual journey was the philosophy of John Locke. Locke’s assertion that a strong body is essential for the development of a strong mind resonated deeply with Wollstonecraft. She admired Locke’s concept of individuals as ‘blank slates,’ believing that we are born devoid of preconceived notions, and our beliefs and character are largely shaped by our upbringing and education.

Like Locke, Wollstonecraft championed the idea that our thoughts and values are heavily influenced by early associations and experiences. This shared belief in the malleability of human nature played a fundamental role in shaping her views on education, particularly for women. Wollstonecraft argued that women should receive an education that fosters their intellectual and moral development, echoing Locke’s emphasis on the formative power of education.

Religious Influences:

Mary Wollstonecraft’s journey in the religious realm was shaped by her association with the Rational Dissenters, a religious movement with radical views that advocated for the separation of church and state, rejected church authority, and promoted the primacy of reason. Under the influence of Richard Price, Wollstonecraft became an active participant in this movement.

For the Rational Dissenters, individual freedom and independence of thought were paramount. They believed that true virtue could only be achieved by individuals who embraced reason and exercised independent judgment. This perspective profoundly influenced Wollstonecraft, reinforcing her belief in the importance of intellectual independence and the necessity of challenging oppressive societal norms.

Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft

Thoughts on Education of Daughters (1786): In this early work, Mary Wollstonecraft delivered a scathing critique of the inadequate education provided to girls during her time. She passionately voiced concerns about a flawed education system that marginalized girls, setting the stage for her lifelong advocacy for improved educational opportunities for women.

Mary: A Fiction (1788): In her debut novel, Mary Wollstonecraft crafted the character of Mary, a heroine forced into a loveless marriage due to economic pressures. Mary’s quest for love and affection outside the confines of marriage foreshadows Wollstonecraft’s later emphasis on the importance of women’s independence and agency.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790): Mary Wollstonecraft launched a spirited attack on the aristocracy, monarchy, and nepotism, advocating for republicanism and social justice. She referred to slavery as a heinous affront to humanity, setting the stage for her more renowned work on women’s rights. This book also reflects as a critique of Emund Burke’s famous text “reflections on the revolution in France”.

She initially believed that when revolutionaries referred to ‘man,’ they meant all of humanity. However, on September 10, 1791, when Talleyrand proposed government schools ending at the eighth grade for girls but continuing for boys, it became evident to Wollstonecraft that despite the rhetoric of equal rights during the French Revolution, women were not the intended beneficiaries. This realization prompted her to embark on planning her most renowned work, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.'”

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): Perhaps her most famous work, Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” delved deep into the role and status of women in the political sphere. She passionately argued for women’s independence and the critical role of education in empowering them to become not only good wives and mothers but also contributors to national development. This book of Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by Charles Maurice’s 1791 report to the National Assembly.

Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798): Published posthumously, this work is often considered Mary Wollstonecraft’s most radical feminist piece. The story revolves around a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband, drawing parallels to Wollstonecraft’s own life. Like the eponymous heroine, Maria also finds fulfillment outside of traditional marriage norms.

Historical and Moral view of French Revolution: Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by the revolutionary fervor sweeping through France. 

Major Themes of Political Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft

On Women

Mary Wollstonecraft criticized Rousseau’s belief that men and women inherently differed in their virtues, asserting that these differences were largely the result of unequal education and rights.

She vehemently opposed the reduction of women to mere sexual beings, asserting that women possessed equal intellectual and moral capacity to men. Moreover, she encouraged women to develop “Manliness” in order to be equal to men and stand out as bold for their interests.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s work sparked debates on the concept of ‘equality versus difference’. Like Plato, Wollstonecraft believed in the principle of equality of sexes and strove to achieve freedom, equality and emancipation within the realm of family and home. With this she also gave the concept of Sophie – Natural perfect women in order to explain that women are not subordinated to men by nature but through the construct of patriarchy deeply embedded in society.

On the Importance of Education

Education was a central theme in Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy. She believed it was instrumental in shaping an individual’s character and rational skills, promoting creativity, excellence, and critical thinking. Like everyone must know three things at least – Reading, writing and Arithmetic. Advocating for equal educational rights for women, she contended that without this, women were deprived of genuine judgment and true virtue. 

Her book “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” aimed at the middle classes, encouraging the rejection of lower-class superstitions and emphasizing the need for educational reform, especially for underprivileged women. 

On Liberty and Equality

Wollstonecraft’s political thought revolves around what can be described as a ‘triad of Liberty, Equality, and Virtue.’ She passionately believed that both men and women, as human beings, possessed inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is the mother of virtue. She felt the need to extend liberal principles to women whom she referred to as the “cradle of human race”.

Moreover her vision extended beyond gender, aiming to create an egalitarian society that embraced not only both sexes but also the marginalized and deprived.

“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”, Wollstonecraft declared. For her, equality was not about dominance but about empowerment, particularly for women. She understood that true reform of social institutions hinged on achieving gender equality.

In line with thinkers like Locke and Smith, Wollstonecraft endorsed the spirit of free enterprise and held unwavering faith in the progressive potential of the middle class. Nature, in her view, entitled every individual to liberty, a birthright she passionately defended.

On Rights and Representation

Wollstonecraft was acutely aware of the hurdles women faced in securing even the most basic rights. Even radical thinkers of her time had equated women with children and domestic servants, rendering them dependent on men and incapable of independently exercising their rights.

Wollstonecraft viewed women’s rights within the broader context of human rights. She saw the liberation of women intricately linked to the liberation of men, both groups subjugated to the state. To her, women were equal parties to the social compact, deserving representation that reflected their unique interests and perspectives.

Summary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Political Thought

In summary, Mary Wollstonecraft’s political thought challenged traditional notions of gender roles and emphasized the role of reason in women’s emancipation. She ardently called for equal opportunities for women, expanding the liberal values of economic independence, individuality, and autonomy. Her critiques extended to royal authority and institutionalized privilege.

Notably, Wollstonecraft saw the family as the foundation of the state, viewing marriage as the ‘cement of society.’ For her, marriage was based on compassion, partnership, and companionship, rather than subservience or hierarchy. She regarded marriage as friendship. 

Quotes by Mary Wollstonecraft 

  • ‘Virtue can only flourish among equals’. 
  • ‘I speak of the improvement and emancipation of the whole sex’. 
  • ‘It is justice, not charity, that is wanted in the world’. 
  • ‘Men and women must be educated, to a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in’. 
  • ‘Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers’. 
  • ‘Children, I grant them innocence; but when an epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness’. 

Conclusion

Mary Wollstonecraft’s significance in the realm of political thought becomes evident when we consider the context in which she wrote. During her time, most contemporary radicals were primarily focused on the liberty of adult males. However, Wollstonecraft’s unwavering commitment to the complete transformation of women’s status and rights positions her as a pioneering figure in women’s issues.

Her impact is twofold. Firstly, she emerges as a trailblazer within mainstream political thought, challenging existing norms and advocating for gender equality. Secondly, her work calls for nothing less than a comprehensive overhaul of socio-political institutions, seeking to reshape the very foundations of society to create a more equitable world.

In essence, Mary Wollstonecraft’s enduring legacy lies in her audacious pursuit of a more just and equal society, one that transcends the constraints of her time and continues to inspire generations in the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and social transformation.

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