“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures.” Mary Wollstonecraft’s words speak volumes even today about the treatment of women in society and particularly in academic fields. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a seminal work of feminist philosophy, published in 1792, which challenges outmoded attitudes surrounding the education and intellectual value of women. Women are of equal capability as their husbands, she argued, and should be educated accordingly – though it must also be acknowledged that she makes little to no provision for lower-class women who would have been unable to afford education.
Wollstonecraft argues that women are indoctrinated to behave as men’s subordinates: they aren’t naturally delicate creatures existing only to accompany man and never equal him. It is only through a lack of equal education and encouragement that women don’t exercise their mental faculties, she claims. Rational thought wouldn’t give women power over men, but rather over themselves.
The 18th-century values which insist that a woman’s accomplishments must be for the sake of a man, for the sake of marrying him, for the sake of his fortune: they, Wollstonecraft asserts, are what cause a discrepancy between the men and women – not an imbalance in innate intellectual power. Ideally, every woman would take advantage of her capacity for rational thought, for “every individual is in this respect a world in itself”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given her worldview, Wollstonecraft led an unorthodox lifestyle for a woman of her time. Though a teacher and governess in her youth, Wollstonecraft abandoned these traditionally feminine roles, becoming an author in 1787. Despite the overwhelming unlikelihood that a woman would be unable to support herself this way, Wollstonecraft did not write under a male pseudonym; she wrote to her sister that in this endeavour she hoped to become “the first of a new genus”.
The Rights of Women was written in the milieu of the French Revolution; Wollstonecraft ran away to Paris in 1792 after an affair with a married man. She aligned herself with the Girondin faction, for the more radical Jacobins refused to recognise equal rights for women. It was in Paris that she met the American Gilbert Imlay, a lover who she believed was her intellectual equal. To protect her from the French government’s wrath against supporters of the Girondins, he registered her as his wife – despite no intention of actually marrying her. With no obligation to the fake marriage, he left Wollstonecraft as the suicidal single mother of an illegitimate child.
Eventually returning to England, Wollstonecraft married the proto-anarchist William Godwin. Her untimely death following the birth of their child prompted him to release a memoir of her life. However, the public didn’t take kindly to the details of her affairs, her illegitimate children, and her two attempts at suicide. In complete ignorance of what she stood for, the particulars of Wollstonecraft’s personal life completely overshadowed her intellectual merit; her work was denounced. The Rights of Women would not be unearthed until its centenary edition, introduced by Millicent Garrett Fawcett – a renowned suffragist who eventually became the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Fawcett advocated the clearance of Wollstonecraft’s name, claiming her as the ancestor of women’s struggle for the vote.
It is important to remember that title now more than ever, 100 years since a select group of women were given the vote. Feminism has developed since the time of Mary Wollstonecraft, and International Women’s Day serves as the perfect opportunity to consider both past and future – to remember not just where feminism came from but where it’s headed. Maybe The Rights of Women is a bit bourgeois – written by and for the white middle classes. But that’s not to say that the ideas Wollstonecraft cultivated cannot empower all kinds of people all over the world: we are all capable of being rational thinkers, intellectual equals and advocates for our own rights.
Image: Gary Knight via Flickr.