In March of 2013 a stencil silhouette of a woman many refer to as the ‘mother of feminism’ mysteriously appeared on an exterior wall of the Unitarian church on Newington Green, in north London. This life-sized image of Mary Wollstonecraft was not entirely shocking, since many had been campaigning for a statue of Wollstonecraft to be erected in this place, where in 1784 she had established a school for girls and later completed much of her writing, her best known work being A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.
How did this 18th century woman come to be a radical, in the way she lived and in the case she made for women’s rights, well over 100 years before the Suffragettes in England formed in any organized way?
In her book, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, Janet Todd explains, “Her knowledge included rejection of her inadequate parents and the resolution ‘never to marry for interested motives, or endure a life of dependence’. In time she made her childhood unhappiness serve her purpose”(11).
Wollstonecraft was also keenly aware and angered by the advantage her brother had over her in terms of education and inheritance/property rights. Todd adds, “Energy also came from her belief that she could change others with her words”(19) and indeed, that’s what Wollstonecraft set out to do.
As the Age of Enlightenment unfolded, many, including notable philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, rallied for expanded and re-imagined rights for men, prompting Mary Wollstonecraft to voice loud and clear that women too deserved to be treated as beings of reason and as such, allowed an equal education and the many and lasting benefits such access provided.
It’s believed Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication rather quickly, in direct response to what was being written and circulated at the time. It must have felt urgent to her, with this revolutionary energy sweeping Europe. It must have struck Wollstonecraft that she was the one to shine a slice of this transformative, liberating light on women.
Allow me to usher you through some of the many powerful passages in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered one of the ‘earliest works of feminist philosophy’.
Throughout, Wollstonecraft directly addresses authority figures and philosophers whose voices and works were making waves throughout the continent, especially those vocal in their belief that women were the weaker, dependent sex, not worthy of the same education and opportunities as boys and men.
“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and consequently, more useless members of society. I might have expressed this conviction in a lower key; but I am afraid it would have been the whine of affectation, and not the faithful expression of my feelings, of the clear result, which experience and reflection have led me to draw”(25).
Wollstonecraft was unafraid to voice her honest opinion, favorable or not, and cast the absurd in a rational light.
“I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority… so ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude, to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two”(61).
“A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it though it may excite a horse-laugh. – I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behavior. For this distinction is, I am firmly persuaded, the foundation of the weakness of character ascribed to woman; is the cause why the understanding is neglected, whilst accomplishments are acquired with sedulous care: and the same cause accounts for their preferring graceful before the heroic virtues”(62).
I find it fascinating that over 200 years ago, Wollstonecraft was rejecting the still-debated, loaded notion that girls mature faster than boys. This fallacy, one where any truth at all owes to societal expectations, remains damaging to all sexes.
“It has also been asserted, by some naturalists, that men do not attain their full growth and strength till thirty; that that women arrive at maturity by twenty. I apprehend that they reason on false ground, led astray by the male prejudice, which deems beauty the perfection of women – mere beauty of features and complexion, the vulgar acceptation of the word, whilst male beauty is allowed to have some connection with the mind. Strength of body, and that character of countenance, which the French term a physionomie, women do not acquire before thirty, any more than men”(74).
Wollstonecraft exerts a lot of effort defending women for their not-so-noble behavior, for which they are often criticized. She points out that women behave as they are regarded, powerless, and when power is denied, they find a way to harness some. It seems we still see this today, women criticized as nags or the jealous-sort, attributes that often manifest due to lasting sexism in our culture.
“But, according to the tenour of reasoning, by which women are kept from the tree of knowledge, the important years of youth, the usefulness of age, and the rational hopes of futurity, are all to be sacrificed to women an object of desire for a short time. Besides, how could Rousseau expect them to be virtuous and constant when reason is neither allowed to be the foundation of their virtue, nor truth the object of their inquiries?”(97).
“The inference is obvious; till women are led to exercise their understandings, they should not be satirized for their attachment to rakes [one who is promiscuous];or even for being rakes at heart, when it appears to be the inevitable consequence of their education. They who live to please – must find their enjoyments, their happiness, in pleasure!”(126).
At points in the text, Wollstonecraft pleads to women to apprehend the tenuous nature of their position in society.
“Would ye, O my sisters, really possess modesty, ye must remember that the possession of virtue, of any denomination, is incompatible with ignorance and vanity! ye must acquire that soberness of mind, which the exercise of duties, and the pursuit of knowledge, alone inspire, or ye will still remain in a doubtful dependent situation, and only be loved whilst ye are fair!”(138).
Wollstonecraft recognizes the dysfunctional relationship between the oppressor and oppressed.
“There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.
“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent from men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whist they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish, and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness of spaniel-like affection, have not much delicacy, for love is not to be bought, in any sense of the words, its silken wings are instantly shrivelled up when any thing besides a return in kind is sought”(149).
“Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens”(158).
Wollstonecraft goes so far as proclaiming that women should have representation in government:
“I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint, which I mean to pursue, some future time, for I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government”(155).
And it gets better! She advocates for a ‘co-ed’ educational system, with uniforms and recess:
“Were boys and girls permitted to pursue the same studies together, those graceful decencies might early be inculcated which produce modesty without those sexual distinctions that taint the mind”(174).
“But nothing of this kind could occur in an elementary day-school, where boys and girls, the rich and poor, should meet together. And to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The school-room ought to be surrounded my a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age, they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time”(177).
“I have already inveighed against the custom of confining girls to their needle, and shutting them out from all political and civil employments; for by thus narrowing their minds they are rendered unfit to fulfil the peculiar duties which nature has assigned them”(178).
Growing up in a home with domestic abuse, Wollstonecraft was aware that how people treated and mistreated other living creatures was revealing and could be devastating.
“Humanity to animals should be particularly inculcated as a part of national education, for it is not at present one of our national virtues…this habitual cruelty is first caught at school, where it is one of the rare sports of the boys to torment the miserable brutes that fall in their way. The transition, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to domestic tyranny over wives, children, and servants, is very easy. Justice, or even benevolence, will not be a powerful spring of action unless it extend to the whole creation; nay, I believe that it may be delivered as an axiom, that those who can see pain, unmoved, will soon learn to inflict it”(181).
And one passage from her closing argument:
“The conclusion which I wish to draw, is obvious; make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives, and mothers; that is – if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers…I wish to see my sex become more like moral agents, my heart bounds with the anticipation of the general diffusion of that sublime contentment which only morality can diffuse”(187).
Wollstonecraft’s intention was to rework and lengthen Vindication at a later date, but she never had the opportunity. She died at age 38, days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary (Wollstonecraft Godwin) Shelley, who would later write Frankenstein.
Fortunately for all of us Wollstonecraft penned this foundational feminist document without waiting until she had more time or could perhaps have rendered it more perfect.
It’s satisfying to see her silhouette stepping onto Newington Green every hour of every day, forever.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a #Nasty Women Writer of a most incredible ilk.
© Maria Dintino 2019
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009.