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Female philosophers from the sixteenth century are often overlooked for their ideas despite them laying the groundwork for some of the most influential concepts still talked about today. Mary Wollstonecraft is the perfect example of a woman whose writings and teachings of her core philosophy centering around gender equality tested the status quo especially during her time period and changed the way philosophy is talked about. She wrote several books, pamphlets, and journals that expressed her opinions on the topic and leave modern day philosophers still commenting on her work.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759 in London and over her thirty-eight years she became a widely known philosopher, journalist, scholar, educator, and activist (Peck 197). From a young age, she turned to writing to express her feelings as she was brought up by an abusive father and her mother became sick when she was relatively young; these tragedies along with her lack of education eventually drove her to leave home and pursue a career as a full-time professional writer.
In 1784, she established a school for girls and then became a governess in Ireland; she left shortly after to return to England where she worked as a translator for Joseph Johnson, a publisher of radical texts (Ferguson 427-430).
During this time, she wrote her first pamphlet that gained a decent amount of attention called “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”; it was published by Johnson who supported her and helped her for many years (Todd 723-725). In 1794, she met a man named Gilbert Imlay and became pregnant with her first daughter, but they separated shortly after due to her attempting suicide.
She then met another man named William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism, and they get married because Wollstonecraft got pregnant. Tragically, Wollstonecraft passed away ten days after she gives birth on September 10, 1797 (Peck 200-204). Wollstonecraft clearly had a troubling life, but in return she poured all of her passion into her philosophical writings. Wollstonecraft’s philosophy is preserved and referenced in her multiple writings and journals which she spent her life expressing. The first pamphlet she wrote in 1787 as mentioned previously is a conduct book called “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” and is about the enlightenment concept of educating women. In this she expressed that women and men were human beings before anything else and therefore should have equal rights to life, liberty, happiness, and education. She also explains etiquette, child-rearing instructions, and all of the benefits a woman can reap from receiving an education (Mellor 1719).
In the “Matrimony” section Wollstonecraft says, “Early marriages are, in my opinion, a stop to improvement. If we were born only ‘to draw nutrition, propagate and rot,’ the sooner the end of creation was answered the better; but as women are here allowed to have souls, the soul ought to be attended to…If she has had a tolerable education, the foundation only is laid, for the mind does not soon arrive at maturity, and should not be engrossed by domestic cares before any habits are fixed” (Wollstonecraft, Thoughts 94). She claims a woman who marries early is stopping her ability to grow and educate herself as a person, or “a stop to improvement”. By saying women have souls she is reminding the readers that women deserve to be treated like human beings and not just ignorant, child-bearing robots. Throughout this conduct book she argues a girl must start with education to lay a foundation for her life before she can worry about domestic duties and that this knowledge will improve their ability to eventually handle those tasks of marriage, children, and adulthood. According to Anne Mellor, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of California, said, “This collection of innocuous platitudes was tremendous at the time as it went against all of the social normalities at the time. She challenged all ideas and preached a woman’s right to be educated just like a man which made her philosophy very ahead of her time” (Mellor 1721).
Mellor is calling Wollstonecraft’s philosophy very modern and equality-based, which is a very effective way to summarize it. This was only her first work and as her life went by she wrote many other journals and writings that elaborated on her beliefs for equality. By 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her next major work called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which is a rebuttal against Edmund Burke’s book Reflections on the Revolution of France. In this work he defends the monarchy and aristocracy, and attacks natural rights which enrages Wollstonecraft. Her response is summarized as praising republicanism and denouncing aristocracy. She criticizes Burke for following, in her opinion, outdated customs, and creates a utopia where each person will have their needs met (Janes 293-294). She says in this work, “The birthright of man, to give you, Sir, a short definition of this disputed right, is such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of every other individual with whom he is united in a social compact…Liberty, in this simple, unsophisticated sense, I acknowledge, is a fair idea that has never yet received a form in the various governments that have been established on our beauteous globe” (Vindication of Men, 8).
In this quote she is expressing that she believes that every person is given a “birthright” of liberty which these governments he is supporting do not permit. Her philosophy is based on equality for all and Burke advocating for a monarchy where the few royals are drowning in wealth while the poor are starving on the streets upsets her greatly. Neven Leddy is a professor at Carleton University. He notes, “ Mary’s political and philosophical reflections were no longer just occupying her social sphere. We see this in her transition from reviewer for the Analytical Review to radical writer on an politically international level. Not only was Vindication an argument for the French Revolution, but Mary also included her thoughts on a variety of other political issues, not limited to: the slave trade, the treatment of the poor, and hunting laws” (Leddy 275). This work shows a true expansion of her philosophy from first just advocating for education of women to now calling for all kinds of social change; she is also beginning to be globally recognized as an advocate for these “enlightenment” views. This work is a wonderful example of Wollstonecraft’s passionate philosophy regarding equality of all mankind. Two years later, in 1792, Wollstonecraft wrote her most famous book which sold out within a year called A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. It is also considered the “First serious book to put forth feminist arguments” (Leddy 269).
The major issue advocated in this was women’s rights; more specifically women being constrained in society, double standards for the genders and sex, and education and careers for women. The first subtopic is Wollstonecraft’s belief that society and its prejudices are keeping women from utilizing their full potential. She tries to explain the injustice by saying, “To preserve personal beauty, womans glory! the limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands, and the sedentary life which they are condemned to live, whilst boys frolic in the open air” (Vindication of Woman, 48). She is comparing Chinese foot binding which constricts the size of women’s feet for beauty to the constriction of women’s minds in the current day. Men are able to think freely while women are silenced as intelligence and speaking out is not seen as attractive. Wollstonecraft bases her philosophy on the concept that women are oppressed and she must change people’s mind; so this comparison of physical torture chinese girls face is the same level of inhumanity that women suffer when they are not able to expand their mind and utilize their talents. Wollstonecraft also touches on her belief that women are taken advantage of by men for sex and then harshly punished because of it. She explains in her writing, “Still, highly as I respect marriage, as the foundation of almost every social virtue, I cannot avoid feeling the most likely compassion for those unfortunate females who are broken off from society, and by one error torn from all those affections and relationships that improve the heart and mind” (Vindication of Woman, 93).
In her opinion, marriage is very respected but if women do make a mistake and have sex, they are treated much too harshly. Men are not held to this same standard and will not be shamed as ruthlessly as women. Another major concept Wollstonecraft pushes is educating women in school and careers as she believed society was wasting it’s resources by not utilizing women’s talents. She declares, “It follows then, I think, that from their infancy women should either be shut up like eastern princes, or educated in such a manner as to be able to think and act for themselves” (Vindication of Woman, 55). She explains that there cannot be a middle ground, women must either be shut out from all of society or be given the tools to succeed as a rational being. Wollstonecraft’s philosophy includes the idea that women should be given all the same opportunities as men to engage in the world or they may as well disappear altogether. Eileen Hunt Botting and Christine Carey, professors at the University of Notre Dame, believe this is a wonderful encapsulation of Wollstonecraft’s years of work and her philosophy in general. Botting and Carey say: In Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft illustrates the way the private sphere becomes even smaller for women because they are denied all political privileges. The mighty business of female life is to please. In other words, women could not, theoretically, affect the same kind of influence on the “public” sphere as men, meaning that women do not speak with the same authority as men, as their “sphere” remains private, and even within the private sphere, their influence and authority are limited. This notion was personally unacceptable to Mary Wollstonecraft who fought to find her way to finally be heard and who eventually made her living in the public sphere as a literary reviewer and social commentator (715).
These two educators sum up Wollstonecraft’s entire mission in one small paragraph by explaining how she believed women are oppressed and spent her entire life trying to break them out of this “private sphere”. They also mention how it was extremely unacceptable for her to advocate for this during her time period but she did anyway which shows her bravery and passion. This work touched every person in one way or another and made people question how women are viewed which is exactly what Mary Wollstonecraft wanted. The last novel that received wide recognition as her most radical feminist work is Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman in 1798 which is the sequel to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It revolves around the a woman trapped inside an insane asylum by her husband and focuses on the overwhelming male control, the horrors of society that strip women of civil rights, and defending women’s sexual desires. She compares the horror story of being stuck in a mental hospital to being confined in a controlling marriage. In the beginning of the book she says, “Maria was not permitted to walk in the garden; but sometimes, from her window, she turned her eyes from the gloomy walls, in which she pined life away, on the poor wretches who strayed along the walks, and contemplated the most terrific of ruins — that of a human soul” (Maria, 9).
This is such a powerful statement to paint the picture of a woman who is miserable, trapped, and controlled. Wollstonecraft works her philosophy of the evils of female oppression intricately into this novel by describing narrative situations to help people understand how women are chained by society. Anne Mellor comments, “Wollstonecraft emphasizes the legal disadvantages of gender by depicting Maria’s incarceration as an effect of coverture, which excluded women from owning property and entering the legal professions. Maria’s written testimony at the end of the novel challenges women’s exclusion, based on property rights, from participation in the justice process (Mellor 1722). Mellor sums up the entire theme of the book by elaborating on the idea that she uses this story to portray women’s “legal disadvantages”, and reiterated my claim that she pushes her philosophy of the need for women to be treated equally and not be constricted in marriages. This work was never finished as she passed away before it’s completion, but luckily it was later published and her message was spread with the world Mary Wollstonecraft made an impact in the field of philosophy with her modern, feminist beliefs that were groundbreaking for her time. She was able to spread her ideas of the importance of gender equality, the evil of the monarchy, the need for utilization of women in society, and how marriage and society can imprison women. Her legacy lives on in several ways such as being the subject of multiple biographies such as her husband’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, established the roots for equality, and in 2011 her image was projected onto the Palace of Westminster to raise support for a permanent statue of the author.
In my opinion, I believe Mary Wollstonecraft was a remarkably intelligent and modern philosopher. She was able to spot the inequality in society and also brave enough to give women a voice in such oppressive times. The book that truly resonated with me was Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman because she took a horrific situation like being trapped in a mental asylum and compared it to women in their marriages. The way she expressed the similarities of the two was shocking and helps the reader realize how desperate women were to live their own lives. As a woman I strongly agree with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy and feminist ideas; if her and others like her never spoke up I would not be able to have all of the rights I sometimes take for granted. In conclusion, Mary Wollstonecraft laid the framework for this kind of feminist philosophy, and her writings and legacy will continue to impact the world for centuries to come.
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