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Libertarian women’s history month: Mary Wollstonecraft

12 Mar

Mary Wollstonecraft (/ˈwʊlstən.krɑːft/; 27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.  She is also the mother of the mother of science fiction.
Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships, received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the libertarian philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Wollstonecraft died at the age of thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, would become an accomplished writer herself (the inventor of the science fiction genre) as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
After Wollstonecraft’s death, her widower published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

Association of Libertarian Feminist founder Sharon Presley identifies Mary Wollstonecraft as a founding foremother of American feminism:


Libertarian feminism is part of an honorable individualist tradition in America. Contrary to what some may think, the first feminist activists were not socialists, they were individualists and libertarians. Though women have been resisting the State for centuries, the first explicit resistance to oppression of women started with individualist Mary Wollstonecraft in England and Judith Sargent Murray in 18th century America. Wollstonecraft was a big influence on the American individualist feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other suffragists. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote their 1881 history of the women’s movement, Wollstonecraft was the first of the “foremothers” to whom they dedicated it.


Before she wrote on women’s rights, Wollstonecraft wrote on human rights generally in her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Published in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, and an attack on Wollstonecraft’s friend, the Rev Richard Price at the Newington Green Unitarian Church, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. Hers was the first response in a pamphlet war that subsequently became known as the Revolution Controversy, in which Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1792) became the rallying cry for reformers and radicals.
Wollstonecraft attacked not only monarchy and hereditary privilege but also the language that Burke used to defend and elevate it. In a famous passage in the Reflections, Burke had lamented: “I had thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette] with insult.—But the age of chivalry is gone.”[78] Most of Burke’s detractors deplored what they viewed as theatrical pity for the French queen—a pity they felt was at the expense of the people. Wollstonecraft was unique in her attack on Burke’s gendered language. By redefining the sublime and the beautiful, terms first established by Burke himself in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), she undermined his rhetoric as well as his argument. Burke had associated the beautiful with weakness and femininity and the sublime with strength and masculinity; Wollstonecraft turns these definitions against him, arguing that his theatrical tableaux turn Burke’s readers—the citizens—into weak women who are swayed by show.[79] In her first unabashedly feminist critique, which Wollstonecraft scholar Claudia L. Johnson argues remains unsurpassed in its argumentative force,[80] Wollstonecraft indicts Burke’s defense of an unequal society founded on the passivity of women.
In her arguments for republican virtue, Wollstonecraft invokes an emerging middle-class ethos in opposition to what she views as the vice-ridden aristocratic code of manners.[81] Socialists have debated her value since she mainly addressed middle class people who were able to buy (and read) her books; others on the left have pointed out that only the middle class had the resources to be agents of the changes she was promoting.  Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, she believed in progress and derides Burke for relying on tradition and custom. She argues for rationality, pointing out that Burke’s system would lead to the continuation of slavery, simply because it had been an ancestral tradition.[82] She describes an idyllic country life in which each family can have a farm that will just suit its needs. Wollstonecraft contrasts her utopian picture of society, drawn with what she says is genuine feeling, to Burke’s false feeling.[83]
The Rights of Men was Wollstonecraft’s first overtly political work, as well as her first feminist work; as Johnson contends, “it seems that in the act of writing the later portions of Rights of Men she discovered the subject that would preoccupy her for the rest of her career”.[84] It was this text that made her a well-known writer.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society and then proceeds to redefine that position, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands rather than mere wives.[85] Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Large sections of the Rights of Woman respond vitriolically to conduct book writers such as James Fordyce and John Gregory and educational philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wanted to deny women an education. (Rousseau famously argues in Émile (1762) that women should be educated for the pleasure of men.)[86]
While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal.[90] What she does claim is that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. However, such claims of equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and valour.[91] Wollstonecraft famously and ambiguously writes: “Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequently, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.”[92] Her ambiguous statements regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist, particularly since the word and the concept were unavailable to her.[93]Wollstonecraft states that currently many women are silly and superficial (she refers to them, for example, as “spaniels” and “toys”[87]), but argues that this is not because of an innate deficiency of mind but rather because men have denied them access to education. Wollstonecraft is intent on illustrating the limitations that women’s deficient educations have placed on them; she writes: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”[88] She implies that, without the encouragement young women receive from an early age to focus their attention on beauty and outward accomplishments, women could achieve much more.[89]
One of Wollstonecraft’s most scathing critiques in the Rights of Woman is of false and excessive sensibility, particularly in women. She argues that women who succumb to sensibility are “blown about by every momentary gust of feeling” and because they are “the prey of their senses” they cannot think rationally.[94] In fact, she claims, they do harm not only to themselves but to the entire civilization: these are not women who can help refine a civilization—a popular eighteenth-century idea—but women who will destroy it. Wollstonecraft does not argue that reason and feeling should act independently of each other; rather, she believes that they should inform each other.[95]

Wollstonecraft today has about 10 times as many followers on Academia.org as her lesser known contemporary, Madame de Stael. as well as many more related titles on Amazon.com.  (Interestingly they have somewhat opposite valuations to the influential philosopher of their time, Jean Jacques Rousseau.) One well known contemporary libertarian activist  famously named his cat “Wollstonecraft.”  But like de Stael, her actual work doesn’t seem to have been studied closely by contemporary libertarians for any unique contributions she may have made to libertarian thought.