Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an influential Anglo-Irish activist of the eighteenth century. She was born in London and was part of a group of radical thinkers including Thomas Pain and William Godwin.
Her father was a bully and irresponsible with his money, but given the challenges presented during her childhood, Wollstonecraft took the responsibility to educate herself. At one point she would even start a school in North East London. Later, when she was living in Paris, Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman and diplomat, with whom she had both an affair and a daughter. Imlay was unfaithful and the relationship ended. Wollstonecraft would later marry journalist and political philosopher William Godwin, with whom she had another daughter shortly before her death at the young age of thirty-eight.
Despite severe criticisms regarding her affairs and personal relationships, Wollstonecraft gained a reputation for being an activist for women’s rights. In her 1792 publication A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft showed demonstrated her interests in the battle for female emancipation from domesticity. There is a memorable quote in which she states that the domestic woman “was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.”
Much of Wollstonecraft’s writing came in response to some of the other big names of the eighteenth century enlightenment period. One such individual was philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did not extend the ideas of liberalism to women. Rousseau was also someone who had his own ideas concerning the place women should have within society, at least in their relation to men,
“The women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, care for them as adults… these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”
Wollstonecraft attempted to not only show how these ideas were unjust but also to demonstrate the glaring inconsistencies inherent in the views of men who called for freedom yet still subjugated women in the process. She argued against the common perception that to be a woman was to be less rational than men. Although women, she noted, were physically weaker than men they were just as capable of engaging in rational thought as them,
“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…
Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
Wollstonecraft also argued that women remained inferior because they were limited to the domestic sphere. This forced them to become men’s “toys and playthings.” She further noted how society taught women that physical appearance, male opinion, and marriage were the most important things, and often more important than education and intellectual pursuit,
“Taught from 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.”
Girls were brought up to exploit their looks so that they would find a man who would both support and protect them. She also emphasized the psychological harm that this could cause. Women, degraded by their dependency on male approval, effectively became men’s slaves which, coupled with other enforced limitations, could be harmful psychologically.
How might change occur? Wollstonecraft believed that to remedy these injustices, men and women had to be educated equally, and she even suggested a co-educational system. She further argued that women should be represented in the public sphere and that they should find a place outside of the home. Women could, for example, fill important roles in the fields of business, medicine, and midwifery.
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was well received within intellectual circles of her day although some were antagonistic to it. One press, for example, described her as a “hyena in petticoats” for her book and lifestyle. However, her ideas were influential and would shape the ideas of later movements and theorists such as Barbara Bodichon and Simone de Beauvoir.
McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 34-35.
Wollstonecraft. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.