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Mary Wollstonecraft—fighting for women to be free

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The erection of a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft in north London has sparked controversy, Sarah Bates goes beyond the headlines to explore her life and legacy
Issue 2731
A portrait of Wollstonecraft painted by John Williamson
A portrait of Wollstonecraft painted by John Williamson

Mary Wollstonecraft is often credited as one of the pioneers of the fight for women’s liberation

She gave a voice to the reality of women’s lives in the 1790s and raged against an unequal society as a whole.

She argued that reducing women to sexual objects, to prisoners in unhappy marriages and to domestic servitude wasted their potential, and society suffered as well.

Wollstonecraft was highly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.

It was a philosophical school of thought that emphasised individual liberty and rational reason, rather than traditional social norms or societal hierarchies. 

But to truly understand Wollstonecraft, it is best to look at the revolutionary events that shaped her life.

She supported the American revolution in the 1770s but was completely transformed by the French Revolution of 1789.

She travelled to France during the revolution to see it for herself. 

It was the political event that had the greatest impact on Wollstonecraft’s life.

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution which deposed the king and aristocracy but solidified a new era of capitalism across the nation. 

However, it also saw an increase in freedom, a ­mushrooming of political organisation among the middle class and the poor, and the spread of progressive ideas. 

The call for “liberty, equality and fraternity” went across the land as ordinary people burst on the stage of history to demand more rights and an end to poverty.

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Many of the people at the heart of the revolution believed that equality would be delivered by an educated elite ­handing down ideas to those below them. 

But the era of revolution also encouraged radical thought. 

Wollstonecraft’s first political pamphlet—A Vindication of the Rights of Men—was a blistering defence of the uprising. 

It was written in response to politician Edmund Burke’s attack on the revolution. 

In Rights of Men she railed against unequal societies and defended women who led the charge in the revolution.

Wollstonecraft complained bitterly of the existing social order, of kings, queens, army generals and church bishops.

She described the revolution as a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe”. Her defence of it launched her as a celebrity. 

That’s not to say life in France was easy for Wollstonecraft. 

Repression against those trying to roll back the revolution was in full swing. As an English migrant, suspicion fell on her that she wasn’t a true supporter of the republic. 

But despite this, she told her sister Everina, “I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could else have had a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

So inspired, Wollstonecraft later wrote A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. It looked at how ordinary people played the critical role in the movement. 

Wollstonecraft’s defence of the revolution fed into the ­feeling of revolt growing in Britain.

The revolution had terrified the ruling class in Britain. They worried that ordinary people would be inspired and a growing working class would organise themselves. 


Wollstonecraft is best known for her groundbreaking 1794 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Biographer Claire Tomalin writes, “She made no attempt to study the history of the subject or do any special reading or research. In fact she spent something like six weeks in all upon A Vindication Of The Rights of Women.”

Like its predecessor Rights of Man, it was written as an intervention into a raging argument.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau, a prominent philosopher argued in his book Emile that women were less rational than men and less deserving of education. 

“Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not do the same things,” he wrote.

And he argued that although women relied on men, they held a seductive power over them and they would lose their charm if they were better educated. 

“This is the very point I aim it at,” Wollstonecraft fired back. “I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.”

In Rights of Women she argues that women should be treated not just as adjuncts of men, but as individuals within their own right.

She argued that equality would make women better “companions” to their husbands, rather than subservient wives. 

There is also an idealisation of family life. Wollstonecraft wanted a more equal relationship between man and wife, but one where the institution was fundamentally unchanged.

She was also uncompromising on how women’s looks are prized above anything else and they were forced to become “insignificant objects of desire.”

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“Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison,” she wrote.

Although she said women had been infantilised by a society that treated them like children, she also blasted them as being undereducated and obsessed with trivial matters.

She said society had turned women, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, into “a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched ­feelings” and suffering from “a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth”.

Wollstonecraft didn’t live the life of frivolity she scorned others for, taking jobs as a governess and a “lady’s companion” she was around the middle class but not entirely a part of it. 

Like many others, she was caught in a process where class positions were changing and being challenged. 

Her experience of family in her early life would go on to influence her writing for many years to come. 

A young Wollstonecraft used to sleep on the landing to try to protect her mother from her father’s beatings.

And her brother Ned was given high quality education while she only went to school for a few years.

Critically, rather than locate the social norms as some sort of “natural” order between the sexes, she said the differences were because of conditions within society. 

Wollstonecraft said that women’s oppression also harmed men and it “was as bad for men to be domestic tyrants as to be kings.”

She wanted women to have genuine financial independence for men. She also demanded that women should be trained properly for professions such as in medicine and shopkeeping. 

Some of her demands were less radical. 

For example, Wollstonecraft claimed that women should educate themselves into the middle class but that rich and poor children should be schooled separately. 


She didn’t develop an in-depth analysis of wider social, or economic factors affecting women. 

But that doesn’t detract from her grappling with how women could achieve independence from men, while forming emotional connections with them. 

The 223 years since her death has stirred up more controversy about Wollstonecraft than when she was alive. 

A memoir written by her husband William Godwin shortly after her death provoked moral outrage at her pregnancies out of marriage and romantic affairs. 

His revelations about her life turned the tide against Wollstonecraft among polite society. In 1799 the Historical Magazine said that her work should be read “With disgust by any female who has any pretensions to delicacy, with detestation by everyone attached to the interests of religion and morality”.

She faded from infamy into relative obscurity, but her ideas have been read and debated in every upsurge of the Women’s Liberation Movement since

She had fans in everyone from early suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett, to anarchist and activist Emma Goldman and authors Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. 

The 1970s saw a flourishing of analysis of Wollstonecraft’s work as a new generation of women looked for ideas. 

It is perhaps best to remember Wollstonecraft in her own words. 

She was someone who tirelessly campaigned for women to be able to choose her “own whims where they lead, ­without having a husband and half a hundred children at hand to tease and control a woman who wishes to be free.”

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