DLT: Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-97

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month the Henry George Foundation; this month Mary Wollstonecraft. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Mary Wollstonecraft 1759–97

An English radical, whose advocacy of equal rights for women and men attracted considerable attention in her lifetime, Wollstonecraft has subsequently acquired a reputation as the pre-eminent feminist polemicist of her age. The range and quality of her literary work helps to explain much of the contemporary interest in her life and thought.

Key ideas

• The ability to reason should be accepted as the foundation of human political community.

• Women and men cannot be distinguished in terms of their inborn capacity to reason.

• Women and men should, therefore, be treated as equals.

• All need to learn how to employ reason in their own and one another’s best interests.

• Equality of educational opportunity is, therefore, an essential requirement for a fair and a decent society.

• Men – as well as women – will be the beneficiaries if women are no longer subjugated and degraded by men.

Biography

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on 27 April 1759. Her childhood was, by her own account, despoiled by her father’s bullying, drinking and dissolute behaviour. Her brother Edward was the only one of the seven Wollstonecraft children to receive an extended formal schooling; Mary went to school only briefly, in Yorkshire, where she learnt to read and write. She was a truly exceptional autodidact with a great appetite for literature and languages. She worked as a teacher, governess and ladies’ companion before attempting (and failing) to make a success of a girls’ school in London in the mid-1780s.

In 1787 Joseph Johnson published her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and then employed her to write for his literary publication, the Analytical Review; she had acquired a sponsor and supporter with whom she was able to work closely for the rest of her life. It was a mutually advantageous relationship: he published her work and it contributed greatly to his success as a publisher. It was Johnson’s patronage and encouragement that led to the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Wollstonecraft’s personal and emotional life was tempestuous; she attempted suicide at least twice and became entangled in disastrous personal relationships. One of those, with the American Gilbert Imlay, began in Paris, and despite his rejection of her she subsequently travelled to Norway to help him resolve a commercial dispute. Her happiest relationship was with the political philosopher William Godwin. In August 1797 she gave birth to their daughter but, eleven days later, on 10 September, died from puerperal fever. Although Godwin had initially been opposed to marriage he and Wollstonecraft were married six months before the birth of their daughter, who became best known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Ideas

Mary Wollstonecraft’s career was tragically short: if the work that first acquainted large numbers of readers with her opinions can be said to mark its beginning, it lasted just seven years. Those opinions strongly reflected the radicalism (q.v.) of her times. Her reputation, as a political writer, was built upon her highly combative response to Edmund Burke’s (q.v.) Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The first edition of Wollstonecraft’s reply, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, was rushed into print in a bid to be the first of a torrent of radical responses. It was soon joined by others, most notably Thomas Paine’s (q.v.) The Rights of Man, but Wollstonecraft gained considerable prestige from being first.

All Burke’s opponents were scathing in their criticisms of his defence of hierarchy and the ancien régime, but what Wollstonecraft did was to apply the kernel of the radicalism that had informed her response to all of humankind. She dealt with a male blind spot, applying liberal principles to women as well as to men. Her approach rested on the equal value of all human beings, and the critical role of reason in human affairs. If it was possession of reason that distinguished human beings from other creatures, surely every human being, women as well as men, should be entitled to equal respect and to self-determination. Reason itself should be developed and encouraged by coeducational schooling. Respect for the mental abilities that women and men shared should, as Wollstonecraft put it, make it possible for men and women to enjoy ‘rational fellowship’ and bring an end to ‘slavish obedience’. Men who helped to snap the chains that degraded and subjugated women would benefit too – ‘they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens’.

However, in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft sounded what must, to the ears of her twenty-first-century sisters, appear a surprising note. She urges women to pursue those ‘talents and virtues’ that will enable them to become ‘more masculine’; it was the use of reason, which ‘ennoble[d] the human character’, that she had in mind. Social conditioning and social structure meant that men were much more likely to benefit from opportunities to develop the mind. She believes that both men and women were culturally conditioned, but that women were the more likely to be damaged and diminished by it. Elsewhere, in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft criticises women who are ‘proud of their weakness’; she makes it plain that she sees women’s reluctance to strive for independence throughout their lives as a source of vulnerability. She even warns other women that they should not expect to be valued ‘when their beauty fades’. Wollstonecraft feared for women who ‘will not listen to a truth that experience has brought home to many an agitated bosom’.

Wollstonecraft’s fierce and didactic criticism of her own sex should be contrasted with the worldly wise and tolerant viewpoint found in her later fiction. In The Wrongs of Woman, the novel she was writing at the time of her death, she describes a friendship between two women, an heiress confined to an asylum by a husband who covets her fortune, and an asylum attendant who had earlier earned her living as a washerwoman, thief and prostitute. The solidarity between them, which Wollstonecraft commends, was meant to challenge social distinctions, recognise economic injustices and suggest to readers that they should consider economic injustice, not only the oppression that women experience at the hands of men.

In her account of the French Revolution, published in 1794, Wollstonecraft made it clear that even though she continued to believe that ‘a new spirit ha[d] gone forth, to organise the body politic [and] … Reason ha[d], at last, shown her captivating face …’ she was much less sanguine about finding a clear path to a better society. Wollstonecraft’s partnership with William Godwin might, if she had lived, have helped them both to develop and express their political ideas. Unfortunately, she was denied the opportunity to fulfil her great promise as a thinker and writer during a period of extraordinary change brought about by rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, and the political upheaval that accompanied it.

Key works

• A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) (also available as free audiobook)

• An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794)

• Maria, or The Wrongs of Women (1798)

Further reading

• Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (Virago Press, 2006)

• Janet Todd, Introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, and An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1993)

• Ralph M. Wardle, Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (Cornell University Press, 1979)

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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3 Comments

  • Liam Pennington 9th Dec '08 - 11:16am

    Someone get that woman on a banknote!

  • David Bidwell 6th Jan '09 - 2:47pm

    The current minister of Newington Green Church (Unitarian) is Andrew Pakula who issued the following statement:

    ‘The 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft occurs in April of this year! We will be celebrating this event and the bold positions that Mary W took regarding human, and especially women’s rights.’

    This will occur at Newington Green Church in London UK, where Mary often attended in the 1780’s. There she met and befriended Joseph Johnson, her publisher and the mininster Richard Price – a preacher who inspired many radicals. He supported the French Revolution and the Americans in their struggle for independence – considered as very sedicious acts in those days.

    The church web address is:

    http://www.new-unity. org

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