Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?