Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft

In both Britain and France the Revolution sparked a debate about women’s rights. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman made an impassioned plea for rational education. In her Rights of Men she had attacked Burke, in the Vindication she took issue with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In spite of its title, her book was more a conduct book than a political treatise. It did not focus on later feminist concerns such as the vote. She argued that women were human before they were feminine and that the soul was unsexed. She showed a distaste for marriage and for sex and (possibly?) a contempt for the preoccupations of most women. Women should think of themselves as rational mothers and good citizens rather than good wives. Society could not progress if half its members were kept backward. At present women had the vices of any oppressed group such as slaves.

The influence of Richard Price can be seen in her views on the perfectibility of human society, the equality of individuals and the natural right of each to determine his or her own destiny. In doing so she linked feminism to the general struggle for political and social reform, arguing that the abstract rights of men and the tyranny of husband, kind, primogeniture, and hereditary privilege must all cease in the name of reason.

The main thrust of her argument was on education. The Vindication was dedicated to Talleyrand, the architect of the French National Assembly’s policy of a system of free education for women. She insisted that boys and girls should be educated together, and that both should have physical exercise. Like her conservative opponent, Hannah More, she deplored the excesses of sensibility, believing that it led to amoral self-indulgence.

Following a crisis in her personal life, when she fell in love with the Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli (a married man) Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December 1792 - a dangerous time!