Key thinker: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, England, the second of seven children. Wollstonecraft’s childhood was marked by social and financial decline as her father moved the family around the country while unsuccessfully trying to establish himself as a farmer (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wollstonecraft/). Despite her limited education, Wollstonecraft was a voracious reader who took every opportunity to further her learning (see 21.1. Introduction). Following her mother’s death in 1780, Wollstonecraft, her sister Eliza, and her best friend, Fanny, set up a school in Newington Green. But Fanny died soon after and Wollstonecraft moved to Ireland to work as a governess for the Kingsborough family (https://www.biography.com/scholar/mary-wollstonecraft). These experiences inspired her to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), which argued that an early marriage and a poor education will prevent women from realising their full potential. In 1788, the radical publisher Joseph Johnson founded the Analytical Review, where Wollstonecraft became a regular contributor (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft). She began working as a translator, reviewer, and editor for Johnson’s publication the following year.
In 1792, Wollstonecraft left England for France to observe the outcomes of the French Revolution. In France, she lived with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay, with whom she’d have a daughter, Fanny. But her relationship with Imlay soon broke down and Wollstonecraft returned to London to work for Johnson (https://www.biography.com/scholar/mary-wollstonecraft). In London, she became involved with a group of radicals who gathered at Johnson’s home; notable members included William Blake, Thomas Holcroft, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Paine, who had also written a rebuttal of Burke’s book on the French Revolution (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft). She also published a semi-autobiographical novel, titled Mary: A Fiction (1788). In 1796, Wollstonecraft began a relationship with the founder of philosophical anarchism, William Godwin, who was also a member of the group. The couple got married, but Wollstonecraft died only days after the birth of their first daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, later known as the author of Frankenstein (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wollstonecraft/). She was 38 years old.
In 1790 Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (see Chapter 17 on Edmund Burke). In her response, published only a few weeks after Burke’s text, Wollstonecraft criticizes Burke’s defence of hereditary power and his acquiescence to the social status quo. While Burke believed that however corrupt society is, it is never worse than what it could become if its basic institutions and traditions were abolished. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of the Republicans who argued that radical change was necessary to abolish hereditary monarchy (see 21.3.2. Liberalism or Republicanism). The critique of modern civilization and the programme for a new civilization based on liberty and equality of all people outlined in A Vindication of Man would form the basis of Wollstonecraft’s political thought. But while the first edition of her book was published anonymously and was an immediate success, the second edition, which was published under Wollstonecraft’s name, aroused scandal and led to sexist backlash (see 21.1.2. A Vindication of the Rights of Women).
Only two years later, Wollstonecraft followed up her book with another, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Responding to the sexist backlash her previous book had received, Wollstonecraft set out to show that women were not by nature frivolous and incompetent as the men of the era assumed (see 21.1.2. A Vindication of the Rights of Women). Instead, she argued, such behaviour was the result of inequalities in an educational system which didn’t allow girls the same opportunities as boys. By valuing women for the wrong traits, such as their beauty, for example, society does not give them a chance to develop their intelligence and other intellectual faculties, thereby stunting women’s growth as individuals. Like Olympe de Gouges (see Key Thinker: Olympe de Gouges), Wollstonecraft believed that the ‘universal’ human rights declared by the Revolution have hitherto been restricted only to men. If women were given access to the public sphere, she argues, they could contribute more to society and help shape its development. Women’s education, then, is central to the formation of any functioning democratic society.
Wollstonecraft’s work deals with the question of how to achieve independence and emancipation, especially for women (see 21.2.1. Form). But her revolutionary outlook put her at odds with other prominent women of her time such as Hannah More (see Key Thinker: Hannah More), an Evangelical Christian who believed that the question of women’s emancipation could be divorced from radical politics. For Wollstonecraft, however, the ‘personal challenges’ that women faced were also political; therefore, a feminist discourse should not disregard political questions which might affect it (Kelly, 2007: ix). But Wollstonecraft tended to be disparaging about ‘feminist’ traits, which she regarded as stupid. In her critique of the novel, for example, she chastises women who enjoy reading sentimental fiction which does not address universal questions of society and human nature. For Wollstonecraft, such novels can only dull women’s senses. While her critique is only directed at a certain kind of novel, Wollstonecraft overlooks the subversive potential of popular culture, which later generations of feminist scholars have taken more seriously.
Wollstonecraft has been criticized for her limited focus on the plight of middle-class women and her paternalistic attitude towards working-class women (see 21.5.1. Class). In her final work The Wrongs of Women (1798), however, Wollstonecraft expanded her perspective to consider how the experiences of oppression that women of other classes faced differed from those of middle-class women like herself. Nonetheless, she might not be considered feminist in the sense that the term is employed today. She believed that women had duties of motherhood to which they were naturally inclined and that, despite participation in the public sphere, their lives would only be complete if they were also mothers (see 21.5.2. Motherhood). Moreover, Wollstonecraft’s view of gender as a binary category that refers only to men and women excludes those whose gender is not ‘male’ or ‘female’(see Key Concept: Gender). However, we must consider that Wollstonecraft was an 18th century thinker, who did not have access to the debates around gender as a spectrum that only emerged much later.
Wollstonecraft was a vocal abolitionist and publicly condemned the Atlantic slave trade (see 21.4. Slavery and the Global Context). This opposition to the slave trade was founded on her belief that the enslavement of people who should be considered equals went against both reason and religion. Wollstonecraft again singles out Burke who profited from the trade in enslaved people and whose philosophical arguments could be used to justify it. By linking the gendered inequality of women in England to the exploitation of enslaved peoples on sugar plantations in the Caribbean (see 21.4. Slavery and the Global Context: Key Points), Wollstonecraft illustrates that they are both oppressed by the same system, which only benefits a select few in society. Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary programme for an education that would abolish distinctions of gender, class, and race marks her as a thinker who was deeply concerned with what is today called intersectionality (see Chapter 3 on bell hooks). Her claim that the transformation of society requires the emancipation of all people still rings true today.
Tomaselli, Sylvana, Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion and Politics, Princeton University Press, December 2020.
Freya Johnston, “Marks of Inferiority”, London Review of Books, 4 February 2021.
Kelly, G., ‘Introduction’, Mary and The Wrongs of Women or Maria, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), ix-xxxi.
Bergès, S., Botting, E.H. and Coffee, A., (eds.) The Wollstonecraftian Mind, (London: Routledge, 2019).
Coffee, A and Bergès, S., (eds.), The Social and Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).