by Paul Meany
The core of Mary Wollstonecraft’s literary career was to envision a social and political order in which women were treated as rational, autonomous beings capable of independence and virtue. Many feminists consider Mary Wollstonecraft to be a foundational figure for feminist thought.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a middle-class family in England. While her father, Edward, had at one point been very comfortable financially, he eventually squandered a large portion of his wealth on a variety of projects that failed to yield returns. Frustrated at his prospects, Edward became an abusive drunk who viciously beat his wife Elizabeth. Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by the tyrannical nature of her abusive father who completely subjugated and emotionally destroyed his wife. During her teenage years, Wollstonecraft used to sleep outside of her mother’s bedroom to protect her from Edward’s beatings.
Tired of her home life of turmoil, Wollstonecraft decided to take up work. She began as an attendant to a widower and then as a governess to a rich Anglo-Irish family. Growing tired of being a governess, Wollstonecraft resolved to pursue her dream to become an author. She wrote to her sister that she wished to become “a new kind of genus”. Her literary career quickly took off and she became a respected intellectual. Today, Wollstonecraft is renowned for two works, in particular, A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.
The plight of women
To understand the radical nature of Wollstonecraft’s work we must understand how desperately subjugated women were in the past. The recognition of equality among genders is a relatively new political goal. For most of history, women were considered by many key thinkers to be irrational and intellectually hollow beings who merely existed for beauty and procreation. The subjection of women was considered to be justified due to women’s apparent lack of rationality and their physical and emotional frailty.
Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers on western thought believed that “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.”The demeaning of women was not merely an ancient phenomenon. One of Aristotle’s dedicated adherents, the medieval Church Father Thomas Aquinas, described women as defective men. Even the Enlightenment era had thinkers who did not think women were fit for much except as pretty distractions. Immanuel Kant thought women “need to know nothing more of the cosmos than is necessary to make the appearance of the heavens on a beautiful evening a stimulating sight to them”. Despite prevailing misogynistic attitudes towards women, there were nonetheless some thinkers who advocated for a more equal treatment of the sexes. For example, Christine De Pizan in her 1405 work The Treasure of the City of Ladies proposed a novel stance on education, namely that it should be available for women of all social standings. Sadly, Pizan’s radical views did not represent the traditional wisdom of her time.
Vindication of the rights of woman
In The Vindications of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft aimed to articulate an account of the natural equality and liberty that all women deserved. While this vindication bears a title containing the word rights, most of Wollstonecraft’s writings here are directed towards the education of women. Education was the key to women’s liberation. This was because Wollstonecraft adhered to the Lockean idea of people as blank slates. Locke posited that we are born without any prior knowledge and that everything we are is because of our upbringing and education which Locke believed were of great importance. Wollstonecraft, concurring with Locke, believed we are under the influence of “the effect of an early association of ideas”. Since we have no inherent qualities, all of what we are is simply learned through habit or education. This idea of humanity as a blank slate led Wollstonecraft to believe that there is no justification of hierarchies and that “God has made all things right”.
Women’s education was sharply different to men’s during Wollstonecraft’s life. They were taught skills such as sewing, small talk and being charming in conversation. This frustrated Wollstonecraft to no end who believed:“the most perfect education is an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent”. Since the mind can be shaped by education Wollstonecraft believed that women’s oppression was completely arbitrary as women had not been given a chance to pursue the same goals as men.
Vindication of the rights of men
Within the Vindication of the Rights of Man Wollstonecraft replied to Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke sternly believed that progress could be achieved by approaching it slowly and keeping in faith with tradition and ancestry. Like many political thinkers during the Enlightenment, Burke entertained the idea of a social contract theory, the idea that political obligations are formed due to agreements that create society. 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”.Because of this idea he adopted a cautious conservatism. He believed that the French Revolution was being orchestrated by intellectuals who had no real know how or experience. This could only result in disaster and “in the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows”.
In her Vindication, she aggressively argued against monarchy and hereditary privileges that the Ancien Regime upheld and believed that France should adopt a republican form of government. She argued that by abolishing hereditary privileges, France could become a fairer society in which all compete on an equal footing. Throughout her Vindications, Wollstonecraft cites the importance of self-discipline, hard work and principled morality that could be achieved through the adoption of a commercial society. She agreed with Adam Smith’s ideas that commerce would make a gentler and more equal world in which individuals treated equally by the law could cooperate on agreeable terms.
Under the influence of Richard Price, Wollstonecraft was part of the religious movement known as the rational dissenters, a sect of Protestantism. Rational Dissenters believed in the primacy of reason in tandem with scripture instead of tradition and what they believed to be superstition. Many Dissenters were committed to very radical opinions for their time. They argued for the separation of church and state, the rejection of church hierarchies and even the denial of original sin.
What makes humans special
Wollstonecraft believed there was a hierarchy of beings, with animals being the lowest and angels being the greatest being possible. On this spectrum humans lie between angels and animals, however, they share more with the former. This is because animals act on instinct, which is an involuntary reaction to their surroundings. Because of this, animals will always behave in the same manner with little variation. Humans are different due to their capacity for reason. She remarks, “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”.
Reason allows for thoughtful reflection and most importantly, self-improvement. Wollstonecraft described reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth”. Reason allows us to pursue and maintain virtue, what was for Wollstonecraft, the prime goal of life. Virtue is the following of reason unhindered by passions, others opinion or coercion. Wollstonecraft believed that “to be made virtuous by authority…is a contradiction in terms”. For a person to become virtuous they must be free to make use of their faculties without external coercion.
Virtue is the ultimate goal of human life, which can only be achieved by freedom. Therefore “political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man”. Because of this, the chief problem of politics for Wollstonecraft was how one secures a society that allows for the moral flourishing of individuals. The answer is by making a society of flourishing independent individuals.
Republicanism, a radical tradition
Wollstonecraft belongs to a tradition of Classical Republicanism. Republicanism is a nebulous and multi-faceted concept that can cause confusion at times. Broadly speaking, Republicanism aligned itself with a classical tradition of republican freedom articulated in the writings of Roman authors such as Livy, Polybius and Cicero which was developed upon by Italian, British and eventually, American thinkers. British authors such as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, James Harrington and the aforementioned Richard Price were all committed to the ideals of Republicanism. Republicanism can be defined as a varying commitment to three core ideas: the upholding of a mixed constitution, the importance of civic virtue and vigilance, and finally an idea of freedom as non-domination.
Freedom as non-domination
The third idea, freedom as non-domination, plays a prominent role in Wollstonecraft’s political thought. There are many different ideas of freedom in philosophy. The famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin articulated in his seminal work, Two