Mary Wollstonecraft 1759 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft studied the liberal ideas of rights, liberty and reason inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and asked, logically, why women did not have any of these rights and why these new ideas were seen as being for men only . Wollstonecraft was writing at a time when women were effectively the property of either their father or their husband and had no independent legal status . Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), arguing that legal and formal rights should apply to both men and women rather than just to men as women were clearly rational individuals, just like men .

While John Locke laid the foundations of liberal thought in the seventeenth century, one of those who developed classical liberal ideas in the eighteenth century was Mary Wollstonecraft. Her most important publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), remains a classic of political thought and is still strongly linked to feminist ideology. Yet, though gender was crucial to her work, her arguments were actually rooted in liberal philosophy.

Wollstonecraft’s primary claim was that the Enlightenment’s optimistic view of human nature, and the assumption that it was guided by reason, should apply to all human beings, male and female. She went on to argue that in eighteenth-century England, both society and state implied that women were not rational, and they were thus denied individual freedom and formal equality. Women, for example, were rarely allowed land ownership or remunerative employment and sacrificed what little individualism they had in order to become wives. Once married, a woman had little legal protection against violence infected by her spouse, and no recourse to divorce. Furthermore, women could not vote for those who governed them — a blatant violation, Wollstonecraft pointed out, of ‘government by consent’.

Yet Wollstonecraft was not simply a spokesperson for women’s interests. She argued that as a result of fettering female individualism, nations like England were limiting their stock of intelligence, wisdom and morality. As Wollstonecraft observed, ‘such arrangements are not conditions where reason and progress may prosper’. She asserted that the effective denial of liberty to an entire gender left society vulnerable to doctrines that threatened the whole spirit of the Enlightenment.

Like many upholders of ‘classical’ liberal ideals, Wollstonecraft welcomed both the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, her other major work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), attacked Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and his related defence of custom, history and aristocratic rule. Wollstonecraft thus stressed her support for republican government and formal equality, involving a constitutional defence of individual rights. But such formal equality, she restated, must be accorded to all individuals, and not just to men. For that reason, she applauded the French Revolution’s emphasis upon ‘citizens’ and its apparent indifference to gender differences.

Wollstonecraft conceded that women themselves were complicit in their subjugation, generally desiring only marriage and motherhood. For this to be corrected, she argued, formal education should be made available to as many women (and men) as possible. Without such formal tuition, she contested, individuals could never develop their rational faculties, never realise their individual potential and never recognise the ‘absurdity’ of illiberal principles such as the divine right of kings.