Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a middle-class family in England. While her father Edward had at one point enjoyed significant financial comfort, he eventually squandered a large portion of his wealth on a variety of projects that failed to yield returns. Frustrated at his prospects, Edward became an abusive drunk who viciously beat his wife Elizabeth. Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by the tyrannical nature of her abusive father who completely subjugated and emotionally destroyed his wife. During her teenage years, Wollstonecraft used to sleep outside of her mother’s bedroom to protect her from Edward’s beatings.
Weary of her troubled home life, Wollstonecraft decided to take up work. She began her working life as an attendant to a widower and then as a governess to a rich Anglo-Irish family. Growing tired of being a governess, Wollstonecraft resolved to pursue her dream of becoming an author. She wrote to her sister that she wished to become “the first of a new genus.”1 Her literary career quickly took off and she became a respected intellectual. Today, Wollstonecraft is renowned for two main works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, written in 1790 in reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her most famous work, which followed in 1792. The primary focus of Wollstonecraft’s literary career was to envision and propose a social and political order in which women were treated as rational, autonomous beings capable of independence and virtue. For that reason, many feminists consider Mary Wollstonecraft to be a foundational figure in feminist thought.
The Plight of Women
To understand the radical nature of Wollstonecraft’s work, we must understand how desperately subjugated women were in the past. The recognition of equality among genders is a relatively new political idea. For most of history, women were considered by many thinkers to be irrational and intellectually hollow beings who merely existed for the sake of beauty and procreation. The subjection of women was considered justified, given women’s supposed lack of rationality and their physical and emotional frailty.
Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers in Western thought, believed that “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.”2 The debasement of women was not merely an ancient phenomenon, however. Medieval Church Father Thomas Aquinas, one of Aristotle’s dedicated adherents, described women as defective men.3 Even the Enlightenment era had thinkers who did not think women were fit for much except to be pretty distractions. Immanuel Kant thought that “laborious learning or painful pondering, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex.”4 Kant believed intellectual women “might as well even have a beard.”5
Despite prevailing misogynistic attitudes towards women throughout history, there were nonetheless some rebellious thinkers who advocated for a more equal treatment of the sexes. For example, Christine De Pizan, in her 1405 work The Treasure of the City of Ladies, proposed a novel stance on education, namely that it should be available to women of all social standings. Sadly, Pizan’s views did not represent the traditional wisdom of her time.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft articulated an account of the natural equality and liberty that all women deserved. Most of the piece is focused on the education of women. For Wollstonecraft, education was the key to women’s liberation.
This was because Wollstonecraft adhered to the Lockean idea of people as “blank slates.”6John Locke posited that we are born without any prior knowledge and that everything we become is a result of our upbringing and education, both of which Locke believed to be of great importance. Wollstonecraft, concurring with Locke, believed that we are under the influence of “the effect of an early association of ideas.”7 Since we have no innate qualities, all of what we are is simply learned through habit or education. This idea of humanity as a blank slate led Wollstonecraft to believe that there is no justification for hierarchies and that “God has made all things right.”8
During Wollstonecraft’s life, women’s education was starkly different from men’s. Women were taught skills such as sewing, singing, and being charming in conversation. This frustrated Wollstonecraft to no end. She believed “the most perfect education…is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent.”9 Since the mind can be shaped by education, Wollstonecraft believed that women’s oppression was not natural but rather completely arbitrary; women had not been given a chance to pursue the same goals as men.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men
In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft replied to Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke sternly believed that social and political progress could be achieved by approaching the matter slowly and adhering to traditions shared with our ancestors. Like many political thinkers during the Enlightenment, Burke entertained the idea of a social contract, the idea that political obligations are formed through a kind of mass bargain of each person in a society with everyone else. However, Burke argued that this contract was “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”10 Because of this idea, he adopted a cautious conservatism. He believed that the French Revolution was being orchestrated by intellectuals who had very little know-how or experience and no respect for society as a project spanning many generations. In Burke’s view, this could only result in disaster: “in the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”11
In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft aggressively argued against monarchy and hereditary privileges as upheld by the Ancien Regime. She believed that France should adopt a republican form of government.12 She argued that by abolishing hereditary privileges, France could become a fairer society in which all compete on an equal footing. Throughout both of her Vindications, Wollstonecraft cites the importance of self-discipline, hard work, and the principled morality that could be achieved through the adoption of a commercial society. She agreed with Adam Smith’s idea that commerce would make a gentler and more equal world in which individuals treated equally by the law could cooperate on agreeable terms.13
Under the influence of Richard Price, Wollstonecraft became part of the religious movement known as the Rational Dissenters, a sect of Protestantism. Rational Dissenters believed in the primacy of reason in tandem with scripture, instead of tradition and what they believed to be superstition. Many Dissenters were committed to very radical opinions for their time. They argued for the separation of church and state, the rejection of church hierarchies and even the denial of the doctrine of original sin.
What Makes Humans Special?
Wollstonecraft believed that there was a hierarchy of beings: animals were the lowest form of being and angels were the highest.14 On this spectrum, humans lie between angels and animals. However, they share more characteristics with the former. This is because animals act on instinct, which is an involuntary reaction to given surroundings. Consequently, animals will tend to behave in a uniform manner with little variation. Humans, with their capacity for reason, are different. Wollstonecraft explained: “In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason.”15
Reason allows for thoughtful reflection and, most importantly, self-improvement. Wollstonecraft described reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth.”16 Reason allows us to pursue and maintain virtue, which was, for Wollstonecraft, the primary goal of life. Virtue, for Wollstonecraft, is the adherence to reason unhindered by passions, coercion, or the opinions of others. Wollstonecraft believed that “to be made virtuous by authority…is a contradiction in terms”.17 For a person to become virtuous, they must be free to make use of their faculties without external coercion.
Because virtue can only be achieved by those who enjoy freedom, Wollstonecraft said, “political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.”18 The chief concern of politics, then, is the establishment of a society that allows for the moral flourishing of independent individuals—and for Wollstonecraft, that implied Republicanism.
Republicanism, a Radical Tradition
Wollstonecraft belongs to a tradition of Classical Republicanism.19 Republicanism is a nebulous and multi-faceted concept that can cause confusion at times. Broadly speaking, Republicanism aligned itself with a classical tradition of republican freedom as articulated in the writings of Roman authors such as Livy, Polybius, and Cicero. Their ideas were developed further by Italian, British, and (eventually) American thinkers.20 British authors including John Milton, Algernon Sidney, James Harrington, and the aforementioned Richard Price were all committed to Republican ideals. Republicanism in this sense of the word can be defined as a commitment to three core ideas: the upholding of a mixed constitution; the importance of civic virtue and vigilance; and finally, the idea of freedom as non-domination.21
Freedom as Non-Domination
In Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, the main character Nora is married to her loving husband Torvald in a 19th-century Norwegian town.22 According to the law, Torvald has great power over Nora; he can choose how she dresses, who she associates with, and how she runs the house. Luckily for Nora, Torvald worships his wife and imposes no restrictions on her except for a ban on eating macarons, a minor imposition at best. Even though Nora is allowed by Torvald to act as she wishes in most areas of her life, the lingering power Torvald has over her subtly denies Nora true freedom.
Republicans would say that Nora was not free because of the arbitrary power hanging over her head. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon aptly wrote that “liberty is to live upon one’s own terms, slavery is to live at the mere mercy of another”.23 Even if one has a benevolent or permissive master, they are not free. Algernon Sidney argued that “he is a slave who serves the best and gentlest man in the world as well as he who serves the worst”.24 The Republican ideal of freedom is an absence of arbitrary power, which is, by its very nature, unlimited and discretionary.25 For Republicans, freedom was to be ruled by reason, not by whim, an ideal embodied in James Harrington’s maxim “an empire of laws and not of men.”26
Wollstonecraft shared this conception of freedom as non-domination with other Republicans and it plays a major role in her political thought. Wollstonecraft concurs with Sidney, writing that “man is debased by servitude of any description”, because “to subjugate a rational being to the will of another…is a most cruel and undue stretch of power”.27 Our nature as rational beings entitles us to liberty which, in Wollstonecraft’s words, is “the birthright of every man.”28 Wollstonecraft believed in a society of equals, writing, “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”29
Arbitrary power creates dependence and subordination, while freedom from arbitrary power cultivates independence and equality. Throughout Wollstonecraft’s works, she often compares women’s situation to slavery.30 Dominated individuals are not in control of their own destiny, and therefore cannot achieve a semblance of virtue, even in the best of circumstances.31
Wollstonecraft believed that the life of a slave would produce slavish behaviour. Slaves trick their masters and attempt to curry favour with them in order to live comfortably. In her view, marriage was scarcely better than slavery. Because of this, women would act poorly; “whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, woman will be cunning, mean and selfish.”32 Wollstonecraft thought that it was “vain to expect virtue from women until they are in some degree independent of men.”33 There was no reason, she argued, to “expect virtue from a slave.”34
Independence: The Blessing of Life
Wollstonecraft called personal independence “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue.”35 But when Wollstonecraft said that women should be independent of men, she did not mean that they should be without men’s support or companionship. According to Wollstonecraft, there are two kinds of independence: independence of mind and civil independence.
Independence of Mind
Independence of mind is the ability to think freely and unhindered by others. As Wollstonecraft asserted, “it is the right use of reason alone which makes us independent of everything.”36 This kind of independence can only be achieved by gaining a proper, rigorous education, something most women had been denied for centuries.
Women, said Wollstonecraft, were “educated like a fanciful kind of half being,” taught to care about their looks, charm, and manners instead of learning how to discern truth, formulate ideas and arguments, and become resilient people.37 Life would always be a struggle, explained Wollstonecraft, and virtue could only ever be achieved by hardy people willing to test their minds and spirits. But because “men have increased the inferiority of women till they are almost sunk beneath the standard of rational creatures,” Wollstonecraft believed that women could not cultivate the independence of mind that virtue demands.38 Women could and would become rational, robust, and independent beings when allowed to partake in an education that promoted resilience and free thinking instead of dependence and frivolity.
However, this lofty ideal of independence of mind would all be for nought if women did not have the means by which to act upon their convictions. Our beliefs and thoughts are important, but virtue is achieved through action.39
At the time, women were forbidden to work most jobs, denied a proper education, excluded from politics and were wholly dependent on their husbands. This made it impossible for them to live virtuous lives. Wollstonecraft declared that “virtue can only flourish amongst equals…among unequals there can be no society”.40. She lamented that “many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry”.41
Since we are all born as blank slates, there is nothing innate in us that entitles any person to authority over another, explained Wollstonecraft. To submit to any authority other than reason is degrading to our character; thus all arbitrary power must be abolished. Women, Wollstonecraft said, must be given the same range of choices as men.
As such, Wollstonecraft argued both for women’s right to own property, as well as the ability to make contracts, in order to have the option to earn an income separate from their husbands. Wollstonecraft also wished to see women play a role in government, both as representatives and voters. She asked, “who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of reason?”42
The Legacy of a Trailblazer
Histories of political philosophy tend to be composed mostly of men, with few women featuring prominently. This has resulted in many philosophers articulating polities that completely ignore women’s existence.
Wollstonecraft is one of the founding feminists. Her inspiring vision of a world in which women are treated as rational and autonomous beings inspired a wide variety of thinkers within the early feminist movement. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized the first ever women’s rights convention in America, had both read and admired Wollstonecraft’s work. Diverse authors including Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and even Emma Goldman had positive opinions of Wollstonecraft.43
Even if we set aside Wollstonecraft’s massive influence on later thinkers, her works express a unique and compelling perspective on the essence of freedom. Virtue is life’s primary goal, but for virtue to exist, so must freedom. A lack of freedom also implies a lack of virtue, as servility degrades and corrupts our character. To cultivate virtue, one must have independence of mind and civil independence. Independence of mind is the ability to think and act for one’s own betterment by striving towards new ideas and opportunities. Civil independence is not only an absence of coercion, but also a guarantee that no arbitrary powers might encroach upon one’s rights. A robust intellectual and moral character can only be carved out by those who are allowed to enjoy their natural and just freedom.