Mary Wollstonecraft died aged only 38, after giving birth to a girl, in 1797. She has been described as “England’s first feminist”. The ideas in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792, including that men and women have equal ability to reason, and an equal right to education were considered outlandish and extraordinary by her contemporaries, both men and women.
Wollstonecraft was at least a century ahead of her time. Her contribution to the cause of women’s equality was not widely recognised until the 1960s.
Advances in women’s rights in Western countries are still very recent. The words feminist and feminism were not coined until the 1890s. Take the crucial example of voting: women got the vote in the USA only in 1920; all women in UK in 1928; in France it was not until 1944; and in Switzerland it took until 1971.
Like many others who have challenged the accepted wisdom and standards of their age, Wollstonecraft paid dearly for it. In her case, she was the target of sustained misogynistic abuse. Horace Walpole, a leading Establishment figure of the time, described her, in one notorious example, as “a hyena in a petticoat”.
The abuse intensified after Wollstonecraft’s death. Her grieving husband of a few months, William Godwin, a radical philosopher who believed in the paramount importance of truth-telling, wrote a biography which was loving but revealed scandalous facts, including Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts. Godwin’s book provided the enemies of Wollstonecraft’s ideas with sufficient ammunition to blacken her name for decades.
In The Vindication, Wollstonecraft made the revolutionary claim that men and women were equal “in reason” and equal in their ability to be “fully human”. The fact that this appeared to many people not to be the case was, she said, because women were deprived of the education which men received. “Until women are given the tools of reason, their minds valued as well as their bodies, they cannot be free, or even fully human.”
In the words of Godwin, when Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication, “She stept forth boldly, and singly, in defence of that half of the human race, which by the usages of all society, whether savage or civilised, have been kept from attaining their proper dignity – their equal rank as rational beings.”
The key for Wollstonecraft was education. “I have a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore.”
Education is to be understood here as far wider than the classroom. It also means addressing the cultural conditioning imposed on girls and women.
Wollstonecraft is clear that The Vindication is particularly aimed at middle class women. She is scathing about rich women and hardly mentions poor women.
Wollstonecraft argues that women were being educated to be “convenient domestic slaves” or “alluring mistresses”. Society was using a disguise to “place on women the silken fetters which bribe her into endurance, and even love of slavery.”
In order to be “fully human” she argued, women had to be independent of a man. “I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”
She challenged women, as well as men. “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”.
Women, Wollstonecraft argued, could pursue careers should they so choose, "women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses . . . they might, also, study politics . . . Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue." It was not until 1876 that the first woman was admitted as a doctor in the UK and it was many decades after that before such a thing was common.
Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in London into a world in which it was accepted as the natural state of affairs that women were inferior to men. That had been the position for almost all of recorded history. As the leading twentieth century feminist, Simone De Beauvoir observed, “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”
It was generally accepted that women were too emotional, too hysterical to be capable of rational thought.
Wollstonecraft understood well the power of the consensus view. “Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task…”
Wollstonecraft had been born into a middle-class family which got steadily poorer throughout her childhood. She ended up supporting the family. Her father drank and could be violent and her mother gave her little attention or love. As Godwin wrote “Her father was a despot and her mother was one of his subjects”.
Her schooling was basic; she was effectively self-taught. She first left home to earn her way in the world at the age of 16. She tried a number of ways of making money including setting up a school and being a governess. However, aged 28, she found herself homeless, with no job and in debt.
It was at this stage that, in a life-changing move, Wollstonecraft was helped by Joseph Johnson, a radical publisher with a shop near St Paul’s Churchyard in central London. She began work as a reviewer, and editorial assistant. It was Johnson who later published The Vindication and who provided Wollstonecraft with an entry into the world of radical literary London.
The French Revolution of 1789 was a seismic event for the radicals in London. Once the French people had successfully attacked the “sacred majesty of kings”, anything seemed possible. It did not, however, live up to its initial heady expectations. Any hopes that the cry of liberte, egalite, fraternite would extend to the rights of women were dashed by the time Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication.
It was this failure of the Revolution that caused Wollstonecraft to write The Vindication in a remarkable period of only 6 weeks.
The book attacks at length the ideas on education of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had been the principle intellectual force behind the Revolution but his ideas about the place of women in society were anything but revolutionary. He argued that women should be educated for the pleasure of men, to be docile and sweet and to be good wives and mothers.
A few months after she wrote The Vindication, Wollstonecraft went to Paris, which was still very much in the grip of revolutionary turmoil. It was a characteristically independent step. In Paris, she saw the doomed King Louis XVI pass by in the street.
She also met a man there whom she fell passionately in love with. Gilbert Imlay was an American adventurer and businessman. Wollstonecraft and Imlay had a baby girl, but Imlay did not reciprocate Wollstonecraft’s passion and he deserted her. She left Paris to follow him. Time and again, in France and then in London, Imlay treated her, now with their baby girl, appallingly.
Twice, in despair over Imlay, Wollstonecraft made suicide attempts. In the first, she swallowed an overdose of opium. In the second, she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames.
Wollstonecraft’s critics were to later gleefully point out that the woman who in The Vindication had sternly advocated that women be independent of men had not lived up to her own advice.
Eventually Wollstonecraft moved on from Imlay and eventually married William Godwin. The couple had the baby girl whose birth led to Wollstonecraft’s death, and who grew up to be famous herself. She was Mary Shelley, who wrote the famous novel, Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft’s message resonates in the twenty first century far more than in the eighteenth. “Rights of man and rights of woman are the same.”
Wollstonecraft was clear eyed about the resistance her ideas would encounter. She wrote these lines of herself a few months before her death, "Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others... Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. - I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind - I rest on my own."
She urged women to be strong and independent, for their own sakes, “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
In the end, it was a matter of justice. “It is justice not charity that is wanting in the world!”