Mary Wollstonecraft – Mother of Feminism and Mary Shelly
The being cannot be termed rational or virtuous, who obeys any authority, but that of reason. – Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (read online) Sect IV
An Introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication of the Rights. A look at False Gender differences and Wollstonecraft.
TIP: Wollstonecraft was the first in a long line of important mothers of feminism. Other important women leaders in history, who contributed to feminism and other causes, include Simone De Beauvoir, Ida B. Wells, Eleanor Rooselvelt, and Coretta Scott King. See the History of Feminism.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a response to the philosophy of the Enlightened Liberals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and their culmination of ideas in France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which although it is an important human rights document, explicitly excludes women.
Wollstonecraft argued that women were morally and intellectually equal to men, and should be educated and treated equally in the public sphere.
Some feminists don’t consider Wollstonecraft the first modern feminist, or only do after great consideration, as Wollstonecraft’s version of “feminism” (which had no such title at the time) predates many of the fundamental concepts pertaining to contemporary views on the equality of the sexes. With this in mind, the titles “mother of classical liberal feminism” and “mother of modern feminism” also work by most measures.
To put things in perspective, Jane Austin’s wrote her novel Sense and Sensibility in 1811 (nearly 20 years after the Rights of Woman). Sense (reason) and Sensibility (emotion) were main themes of the Rights of Woman and of the debate over women’s rights in Wollstonecraft and Austin’s time.
For other landmarks, the suffragettes didn’t begin their protest until 1881, black women couldn’t vote in America in the 1960’s, and today women are still oppressed in societies around the world.
I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. – Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft. A school project posted to YouTube, also the best Wollstonecraft video I could find on YouTube.
TIP: Mary Wollstonecraft is a founder of not only feminist philosophy, but also an important figure in liberal philosophy in general. Her thinking is rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and Liberalism. She used arguments of reason to debate the Enlightenment thinkers themselves. For example, see Mary Wollstonecraft Debates Jean-Jacque Rousseau, 1791.
FACT: Mary Wollstonecraft is Mary Shelly Wollstonecraft’s mother (Mary Shelly being the author of Frankenstein). I would submit that Frankenstein can be read as political a metaphor of the liberal theories modern governments were founded on and the ensuing revolutions.
. . . out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist.
— Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796)
Main Themes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft argued for the equality of the sexes in regards to morality, modesty, and reason. She felt the sexes should be equals in morals, intellect, politics, etc. She felt that only through education can equality be realized, allowing woman to play her rightful role in her duty to humankind.
The goal wasn’t for women to be better than men; it was for them to be equal but different partners, with each using their strengths, but respecting the equality of mind and soul.
Wollstonecraft imagined a social order founded on reason that treated women as rational and moral beings. She imagined a society that valued the education of women to make them better wives and friends. She thought both men and women should practice modesty, ensuring strong marriages even after looks had faded (rather than a society focused on a more modern type of women’s liberation; i.e. she was against sexual liberation, unlike later feminists like Victoria Woodhull).
The Impact of Wollstonecraft on Women’s Rights and Human Rights
The ideas in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman were influential not only to feminism, but to liberalism in general having far-reaching impacts into the suffragette era and beyond. Even the later existentialist thinkers, who saw marriage as being based on lust, and the related societal norms as being “meaningless” causes of much of the worlds depression, can be said to draw inspiration from the more optimistic views on marriage and relationships presented by Wollstonecraft.
Mary Wollstonecraft vs. Edmund Burke (Women and the French Revolution: Part 4). Wollstonecraft also debated Burke, a more conservative thinker in the Age of Reason. You can see that full story here The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate (Amazon) or read a little about Burke, Paine & Wollstonecraft here.
TIP: Wollstonecraft was also a pioneer in pushing for national education, a right that is still not widely realized today.
Today Mary Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers (essentially the first modern feminist philosopher).
With this in mind, we can give Wollstonecraft the honorary title of “the mother of feminism”. Coincidentally, Mary Wollstonecraft is also the mother of the mother of the Son of Frankenstein (i.e. Mary Shelly’s mother).
Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.
Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.
Women and the French Revolution (Introduction). Wollstonecraft is arguably the most influential of the mothers of feminism, but this series by Tom Richey points out a few more contenders (the remarkable women of the French Revolution).
TIP: For more information on the other “mothers of feminism” see Tom Richey’s playlist Women and the French Revolution.