Mary Wollstonecraft had a tough life, her father was an abusive drunk and her families’ economic fortunes were ever worsening. Tired of the oppressive nature of home life Mary left and attempted to become an independent woman something that was extremely uncommon in the 18th‐century. Despite the challenges in here way Mary became a respected public intellectual in her day writing two Vindications of the rights of men and women in which she discusses how to achieve a more equal and virtuous society that takes into account both men and women’s rights and progress.
In 1840 two American quaker women named Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met at the world anti‐slavery convention in London. The pair began to chat and bond over their mutual reading of Mary Wollstonecraft. These two women later became the leaders of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first ever convention in the world dedicated to women’s rights. Lucretia and Elizabeth were just 2 of countless women,who were inspired by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who to many, is one of the founding mothers of modern feminism.
Mary was born on April 27th 1759 in London. She was the second oldest of seven children. While her grandfather had been a self‐made man who had amassed an impressive amount of wealth, her father Edward did not inherit his sense of thrift. Edward sank his money into business ventures that constantly went awry. Mary started life in the upper middle class but as she grew older she experienced a downward economic spiral. The Wollstonecrafts were constantly forced to relocate to poorer and poorer areas throughout England.
As if this was not bad enough, her father Edward was an abusive drunk who savagely beat Mary’s mother, Elizabeth. To stop her father’s assaults, as a child, Mary used to sleep at her mother’s door to stop him from entering and even shielded her mother with her own body in often unsuccessful attempts to protect her terrified mother. After years of abuse, Elizabeth grew more and more aloof and passive, often staying in bed all day leaving Mary to look after her siblings.
In the 18th century boys were educated in philosophy, science, and classical languages. Girls on the other hand were taught about manners, sewing, and singing. Women were not meant to be intelligent, robust and thoughtful individuals, instead they were to be demure, quiet,and pleasant in order to attract a husband. An 18th century best seller was John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters in which he advises that women hide their intellect in order to attract a husband.
Thankfully, Mary met Jane, the daughter of a scholar and lecturer named John Arden who taught his daughters the same curriculum as his sons. Wollstonecraft sat in on these lessons and had access to the Arden families library which she read as often as she could. Mary was then introduced to Fanny Blood who would become her life long best friend.
Mary was exhausted by her home life, with a tyrant for a father and an emotionally distant mother, and so at 19, decided that she would leave home and would seek not marriage for support, but employment and the chance to stand on her own two feet.
Mary’s father had squandered most of the family fortune and, to add insult to injury, the remainder was promised entirely to the oldest son on whom her mother had always loved the most. Women were expected to marry and become faithful wives and mothers. If a woman was not married she had very limited options, since women were not educated like boys, they had no qualifications for high earning jobs. Instead the only opportunities open to them were a number of low paying positions such as servants, tutors, and sewers.
In 1778 Mary began her working life as a companion for Sarah Dawson, an easily angered and ill widow. After spending two cheerless years with Dawson, Mary returned home to tend to her dying mother in 1780. After her mother passed away, Mary decided to move in with Fanny Blood’s family, the two had become firm friends since being introduced during Mary’s studies with the Arden family and their bond of friendship became even stronger living together. They began to dream of living independently as the ultimate dynamic duo. In one of her letters Mary writes that “to live with this friend (Fanny) is the height of my ambition, and indeed it is the most rational wish I could make.” But living together required a stable and generous income which was a rare thing for a middle class woman to attain. While living with the Blood’s, Mary engaged in sewing, another traditional women’s role.
Together in 1783, Mary and Fanny moved to Newington Green in London to found their own school. Newington was home to a group of people known as the rational dissenters, English protestants who had broken off from the Church of England.While Mary identified as a follower of the Church of England and never changed her faith, the Dissenters were an open minded bunch that welcomed all kinds of opinions. Many Dissenters were committed to what were considered significantly progressive opinions for their time. They argued for the separation of church and state and the rejection of church hierarchies
It is among the dissenters that Mary began to sharpen her knowledge of political philosophy under the influence of Richard Price, a radical political pamphleteer who had supported the American Revolution. Under Price’s tutelage, Mary began to ascribe to republicanism, no not the modern day political party, but a then tradition of political thinking stretching back to ancient Rome centering around an idea of freedom as an absence of arbitrary power.
By 1784 Fanny had left for Lisbon to join her new husband and to hopefully improve her ailing health. In 1785, when Mary finally arrived in Lisbon, Fanny had tragically died due to complications in childbirth. Mary was distraught at the death of her best friend and confidant. By the time that Mary had returned to Newington the school she had founded was in disarray. Mary continued her work in the school, and wrote her first published work, Thoughts on the education of daughters, to raise some badly needed funds. She sold the rights to her book for a meagre sum. While nowhere near as radical as her later works, in Thoughts, Mary stressed the necessity of women being educated and the importance of women being able to support themselves as adults so they could be self sufficient and not reliant on others to provide for them.
After the publication of Thoughts in 1787, Mary disbanded her school and yet again searched for employment from the few available options open to her. She moved to Cork, in Ireland, to serve as a governess tutoring the children of an aristocratic family, the Kingboroughs. She used her time as a governess to dedicate herself to reading and writing. Writing to one of her sisters she reported that she was “lost in a sea of thoughts.” During her time as a governess she wrote her first novel Mary, a Fiction, if the title didn’t give it away it was heavily based upon her own experiences. The second work that she wrote during her time as a governess was entitled Original Stories From Real Life. Although a work of fiction, aimed at children, there were strong autobiographical elements. Childrens’ literature was a burgeoning field at the time but it usually explained lessons through fantastical tales. Mary subscribed to Empiricism of the philosopher John Locke in his very popular work Some Thoughts Concerning Education from 1683.
Locke posited that we are born without any prior knowledge, we are born as blank slates. Everything we become is a result of our upbringing and education. Example and experience were what guided us, and thus Mary decided to write her work grounded firmly in reality. The book centres around Miss Mason, a tutor of two young girls whom she teaches through real life examples. It might seem a little cheesy that Mary probably saw herself as Miss Mason to the girls she tutored but she must have made a massive impact. One of the daughters she taught, Margaret, would later move to Italy with her lover and in her new life she went by the name Miss Mason, a testament to Mary’s impact on her life Despite her effectiveness as a governess she was fired by Lady Kingborough whom she loathed.
Mary returned to London and began writing with the support of a publisher named Joseph Johnson, a radical dissenter who gave Mary a place to live. By 1788 she published her two works that she had written while a governess. By the end of 1788 Mary had decided that she wanted to become a fully fledged author and in her own words “the first of a new genus.” While Mary was not the first woman to publicly support herself through writing, most female writers faced excessive ridicule. So, at that time, many women who wrote, did so anonymously. Despite this Mary resolved that she must be independent and that “freedom even uncertain freedom‐is dear.” Impressively, between 1788 and 1790 an industrious Mary wrote nearly 300 book reviews for academic journals.
Up until 1790 Mary had carved a career as a writer but had not yet written anything which garnered much attention. But by now the French revolution had begun, and by the first of November 1790 Edmund Burke published his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Burke sternly believed that social and political progress could be achieved by approaching the matter slowly and adhering to traditions shared with our ancestors. Like many political thinkers during the Enlightenment, Burke entertained the idea of a social contract, the idea that political obligations are formed through a kind of mass bargain of each person in a society with everyone else. However, Burke argued that this contract was “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” leading him to adopt a cautious conservatism. He believed that the French Revolution was being orchestrated by intellectuals who had very little hands on experience and in his view, this could only result in disaster saying that “in the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
Burke’s Reflections were widely read and within a week there were a plethora of responses. By November 29th in the same year Mary published her response entitled Vindications of the Rights of Man anonymously. In Vindications, Mary articulated her republican views. She wished to abolish monarchy and hereditary privileges as well as extend the franchise to both working men and women. She believed that both in the personal and the political, virtue was the prime goal of life. The happiness and self‐improvement of all people, be they men or women, was to be the goal of politics not the upholding of tradition and order.
Mary believed “God has made all things right” distinctions of rank and class were unnatural and arbitrary at best. Mary envisioned a society where people’s worth was based upon merit not the accident of birth. Hard work, thrift, and discipline was to be promoted through a society based on commerce resembling the writings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Mary was disgusted by Burke’s disdain for what he referred to as “the dregs of the people.” Instead of giving alms to the poor she believed the ill‐gotten gains of aristocrats should be given to the poor so that “they would be given the means to independence and self‐advancement” to start their own farms and businesses and in short establish a dignified living which did not rely upon the good graces of aristocrats doling out land but instead upon their own individual effort.
Vindications was Mary’s first extensive intellectual work and her efforts paid off immediately. While the first edition of Vindications was hastily prepared it responded to Burke’s cautious conservatism with a fiery radicalism.
Being only half the price of Burke’s Reflections Vindication’s first edition sold out quickly causing Mary to agree to put her name on the second edition. The revelation that this pamphlet had been written by a woman shocked and appalled misogynists who believed that, of all the fields of knowledge, was exclusively male. Politics was for rational men, not emotional women. One reviewer commented that she assumed “the disguise of a man” showing just how alien women discussing politics was for the 18th‐century. The initial anonymity of Vindications proved that, if given the chance and the platform, women could rival the foremost male intellects of the day.
Building upon her ideas in the Vindications of the Rights of Men, Mary developed them further in her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792. It is in this work that Mary solidified her reputation as a pivotal figure in the history of feminism.
Vindications of the rights of woman begins with Mary discussing what makes human beings different from animals. God has ordained a hierarchy of beings with angels at the top and animals on the bottom. Tucked neatly between animal and angel was where humans are situated. According to Mary animals act on instinct, they do not reflect and think nor do they change, their reactions are almost involuntary and hardwired into their psyche. Therefore animals act in a uniform manner with only small amounts of variation. But no two humans are the same, why is this the case? Mary answers “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.”
Mary defined reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth.” Our humanity lies in our potentiality to learn, improve, and innovate. Mary believed the goal of life should be “the dignity of conscious virtue.” This duty for improvement implies a set of natural God given rights to all beings to attempt to better themselves using reason which God gave us. Mary explained that there is no distinction between the sexes in their fundamental rights and obligations, “women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties.”
Men and women have a God‐given duty to pursue their own moral excellence, to do so they have a set of natural rights which ought to be honoured. By virtue of our potentiality for self‐improvement others must respect our rights.
But something had gone horribly wrong over the course of history, due to the unfounded prejudice of men, women have found themselves in a situation where, for the most part, they are completely stunted in their quest for self‐development and improvement. In the 18th‐century women had few economic and legal rights leaving them in a state of perpetual dependence upon the good graces of others. Being a deeply religious person Mary believed staunchly that God had made all things right and that the social evils of the world were man made. While the problems that women faced, spanned across a huge range of issues Mary believed she had identified the root cause of women’s oppression, a lack of meaningful education.
Women’s education was nothing like their male counterparts. Male writers had long stressed women’s lack of rationality and their unsuitability to abstract thought. Because of these unfounded prejudices women were given an education in what Mary believed were frivolities such as singing, sewing, and polite conversation.
Remember John Locke and people being born as blank slates? Mary believed that many of our beliefs are reinforced by education. Women’s education reinforced the notion that women were not made to take part in serious matters such as politics, commerce, or philosophy, instead they had to look pretty, be submissive to their husbands, and most importantly have children. Mary believed that women were “taught from their 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.” Women could be mothers and wives, little else was allowed. Mary argued that what were called womanly virtues were artificially constructed by those in power to keep women subjugated. What makes humans special is not their reproductive organs or their bodies but their capacity for reason, a trait which is genderless and belongs to all. Mary was one of the first thinkers to make the distinction between sex, the biological differences between men and women, and gender societal expectation and duties.
Mary believed that equality between the sexes was an essential step in the progress of humanity. In her without a robust public schooling system most of children’s education was handled within the family. If women were not sufficiently educated they would pass down a similarly faulty education to their children leading to stagnation and eventual decline. Mary explained that her main argument is built on this simple principle, “that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all.”
Vindications of the rights of woman is a book with many ideas so I have to limit myself to what I believe is most important, Mary’s idea of independence.
Applying the republican principles she learned from Richard Price, Mary firmly believed that arbitrary power was the root of all political evils. She explained that “to subjugate a rational being to the will of another…is a most cruel and undue stretch of power”. Our nature as rational beings entitles us to liberty which, in Wollstonecraft’s words, is “the birthright of every man.”
Wollstonecraft believed in a society of equals, writing, “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.” Arbitrary power creates dependence and subordination, while freedom from arbitrary power cultivates independence and equality. Throughout Wollstonecraft’s works, she often compares women’s situation to slavery. Dominated individuals are not in control of their own destiny, and therefore cannot achieve a semblance of virtue, even in the best of circumstances. Wollstonecraft believed that the life of a slave would produce slavish behaviour. Slaves trick their masters and attempt to curry favour with them in order to live comfortably. In her view, marriage was scarcely better than slavery. Because of this, women would act poorly; “whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, woman will be cunning, mean and selfish.” Wollstonecraft thought that it was “vain to expect virtue from women until they are in some degree independent of men.” There was no reason, she argued, to “expect virtue from a slave.”
Wollstonecraft called personal independence “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue.” According to Wollstonecraft, there are two kinds of independence: independence of mind and civil independence.
Independence of Mind Independence of mind is the ability to think freely and unhindered by others. As Wollstonecraft asserted, “it is the right use of reason alone which makes us independent of everything.” This kind of independence can only be achieved by gaining a proper, rigorous education, something most women had been denied for centuries. Women, said Wollstonecraft, were “educated like a fanciful kind of half being,” taught to care about their looks, charm, and manners instead of learning how to discern truth, formulate ideas and arguments, and become resilient people.37 Life would always be a struggle, explained Wollstonecraft, and virtue could only ever be achieved by hardy people willing to test their minds and spirits. But because “men have increased the inferiority of women till they are almost sunk beneath the standard of rational creatures,” Wollstonecraft believed that women could not cultivate the independence of mind that virtue demands.38 Women could and would become rational, robust, and independent beings when allowed to partake in an education that promoted resilience and free thinking instead of dependence and frivolity.
Civil Independence However, this lofty ideal of independence of mind would all be for nought if women did not have the means by which to act upon their convictions. Our beliefs and thoughts are important, but virtue is achieved through action.39 At the time, women were forbidden to work most jobs, denied a proper education, excluded from politics and were wholly dependent on their husbands. This made it impossible for them to live virtuous lives. Wollstonecraft declared that “virtue can only flourish amongst equals…among unequals there can be no society”.40. She lamented that “many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry”. Since we are all born as blank slates, there is nothing innate in us that entitles any person to authority over another, explained Wollstonecraft. To submit to any authority other than reason is degrading to our character; thus all arbitrary power must be abolished. Women, Wollstonecraft said, must be given the same range of choices as men. As such, Wollstonecraft argued both for women’s right to own property, as well as the ability to make contracts, in order to have the option to earn an income separate from their husbands. Wollstonecraft also wished to see women play a role in government, both as representatives and voters. She asked, “who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of reason?”
In 1792 Mary moved to Paris to take advantage of the revolutionary intellectual milieu. She met Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman and diplomat and the two began an intimate relationship. After hiding their relationship for a few months the pair move in together and do not officially marry. Mary became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a daughter she named Fanny in honour of her old friend who had given her so much. Imlay lost interest once Fanny was born and began to retreat from Mary eventually returning to London. The distraught Mary attempted suicide on two separate occassions in 1795.Eventually recovering from her melancholy, Mary encounters William Godwin a forefather of anarchism.The pair had met before at a dinner party where Godwin had longed to meet Thomas Paine. However, Paine talked very little and Mary talked a lot. The pair didn’t exactly leave with the best impressions of each other. However, by 1796 the pair became friends and eventually lovers, marrying in 1797 despite Godwin’s contempt for marriage. Probably the most intellectual couple of their day the pair got along extremely well discussing their ideas and respectfully debating one another and influencing each other’s philosophies.
Mary and Godwin had a child together in 1797 but due to medical complications Mary sadly died a few days after the birth of her daughter. Her daughter was named Mary, and today we know her as Mary Shelley the author of Frankenstein. Godwin was distraught at the death of his wife and wrote to a friend that “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world.” It is one of the greatest tragedies in philosophy that Mary died at the age of 38, while her vindications are amazing achievements. Who knows what she could have produced and achieved if she had lived a full life?
Godwin went on to write a biography of Mary which took a warts and all type approach discussing her illegitimate relations with Imlay and her suicide attempts. Godwin thought he was expressing his love and devotion to his beloved wife but he unwittingly painted a portrait of her which shocked contemporaries. These scandals appalled readers and Godwin’s writings tarnished Mary’s name and reputation. But this by no means stopped Mary’s work from making an impression upon a wide berth of thinkers including the aforementioned members of the Seneca Falls convention and the Suffragette movement. Mary’s appeal stretches across ideologies and disciplines with the anarchist Emma Goldman, the author Virginia Woolf, and the economist Amartya Sen.
Why do we admire Mary, well she was a self made woman who carved a path in man’s world, she was fearless even as a child physically defending her mother from her abusive father, she possessed a wonderful intellect and Vindications of men and women were at the time, the most some of the powerful and compelling argument for reforming society through enlightenment principles. She was in all senses of the word, a pioneer and the path that she physically and metaphorically tread, laid down a track for countless others to follow. Mary Wollstonecraft was a true liberal who championed the rights of all but the domination of none — what we cherish today as equality.