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Wollstonecraft, Mary

Page history last edited by Maraya Massin-Levey 15 years, 7 months ago

Mary Wollstonecraft ( 1759 – 1797) was an eighteenth-century British philosopher, writer, and feminist. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which is one of the earliest works of feminist theory.


     Mary Wollstonecraft believes that individuals should have the right to reason, and have the potential of reaching a state of perfection.  She has a vision of progress and represents the purest form of the Enlightenment ethos through her continuous critique and reflection. Wollstonecraft argues that if progress is to be made empirically, then society cannot be limited by culturally ingrained biases, such as those against women.  Women are human beings too and deserve to be educated rationally with the same natural rights as men. She argues that gender inequalities are not inherent, but socially constructed, and that Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau are relying not on empiricism, but rather anecdotes shaped by a priori values that systematically degrade women.

     It should be mentioned that Wollstonecraft was a supporter of Rousseau. She was engaged and excited about the ideals being forwarded by the French Revolution and often defended Rousseau against Edmund Burke who argued that the French Revolution was a disaster. However, while Rousseau had thought about the rights of man, Wollstonecraft attempted to point out that he had not even considered the rights of woman.  

Rousseau wrote that our future depended on how we educate our male youth, ignoring the potential of your girls and promoting a rigidly gendered division between public and private spheres. Wollstonecraft makes the reasonable argument that young males are raised by the women.  Even by their current system, it would advantageous for males to have better influences coming from the women in their lives. If women are denied a proper education than humanity will degenerate. By giving women greater rights and respect, they will be better citizens and men and women can have a rational companionship.


     Wollstonecraft criticized the limited views of Enlightenment thinkers, who failed to recognize the gender inequalities that limited women from attaining an education and becoming enlightened. Her criticism was in response to 18th century theorists like Rousseau, who wanted to deny women an education. In response to Rousseau, she defends his vision for a more egalitarian society, but highlighted gender inequalities as a major limit of his theory.   For society as a whole to be as equal and productive as possible, Rousseau should recognize the importance of education for all members of society. Becoming educated will not distract them from their responsibilities, it will allow them to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make them more productive members of society.

    Instead of being viewed as ornaments or treated as property to be traded in marriage, women should be valued as human beings and should have the same fundamental rights as men. She was a reformist, not a revolutionary, in her efforts and focused especially on the opportunity to acquire an education.  She mentions a critique of marriage as legalized prostitution and that keeping women uneducated holds together the exchange of sex and services within a social institution. However, she knows her 1760's audience and gears her argument towards the importance of motherhood, family and genuine, loving relationships for all. Primarily she is arguing that women should have an education commensurate with their position in society, and that men should recognize that society will degenerate without educated women. 

    Contrary to popular belief, women were not incapable of rational thought, it only appeared that way because men refused to educate them and encouraged them to be frivolous. Becoming educated would not only allow them to gain personal knowledge, but would help them become better wives, mothers, and productive members of society. As mothers, women are the primary educators of young children, if they were educated, they would have the necessary and knowledge to better prepare their children for their futures.   Also, they would provide men with a more interesting and intelligent companion not just a wife/object.

     On page 60 in her essay "A Vindication of the Right of Woman," Wollstonecraft quotes the following: "I do not with them (women) to have power over men; but over themselves." Although often pertaining a feminist approach to her theory, she essentially does not go too far in challenging the superiority of the male Rousseau presents in original enlightenment thought, but instead extends to it by arguing passionately for women's overall equal rights, to be equivalent to that of the male.

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