Wollstonecraft's Views by Subject

All references in this page refer to works on the sources page.

Human nature:

Wollstonecraft believed that all humans are essentially rational.  She believed that the fully developed human (nearest to the perfection of God) learns to use reason to control or to channel his/her passions.  According to Kate Lindemann: "Wollstonecraft is convinced that neither sex nor class are relevant to the initial birthright of human beings as reasonable.  To believe otherwise would be to believe either that human beings are not made in the image of God or that God is unreasonable" (157).

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"I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their [the sexes'] 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 consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they must have the same simple direction as that there is a God" (Rights of Woman, 26).

William Godwin, in his Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, stated that "Her religion was, in reality, little allied to any system of forms... and her religion was almost entirely of her own creation" (quoted in Ferguson, 121).  Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft viewed God as perfect and good, which equates to rational and wise.  In her view, humanity is constantly attempting to improve itself to achieve a more God-like state.  From this premise, she creates two arguments for equality.  The first is that oppressed people (most notably the uneducated) are incapable of achieving complete perfection, and that society has a duty to provide the tools they need to improve themselves.  The second argument is that society can not be perfect unless all its members are perfect, and is threatened by the immorality of the uneducated.  Thus, assisting the oppressed is beneficial to everyone in society and true to God's wishes.

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"By individual education, I mean... such an attention to a child as will slowly sharpen the senses, form the temper, regulate the passions as they begin to ferment, and set the understanding to work before the body arrives at maturity; so that the man may only have to proceed, not to begin, the important task of learning to think and reason." (Rights of Woman, 21)

Wollstonecraft believed that education is absolutely essential for the complete development of any individual.  Although she believed that all humans (male and female) have the same innate ability for reason, she did not claim that all humans are innately rational.  Instead, rationality must be cultivated and directed by education. "Shorn of indoctrination and rote learning, education would promote the human capacity to reason and hence to self- and social betterment" (Ferguson, 120). Many of her books, including Original Stories and the Female Reader were intended as education tools--stories which were fun to read as well and offered examples of people acting rationally according to clear moral principles.

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"Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to its body, and, roaming round its guilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison" (Rights of Woman, 44).

Wollstonecraft was extremely critical of the stereotypes of femininity and of the women who lived up to them.  She observed that many women were in fact irrational and concerned only with trivial things like fashion.  She also observed that many women manipulated men in order to get what they wanted; she referred to them as "capricious tyrants" (45).  However, she saw this state not as an indication of woman's true nature, but as a result of poor education.  In her view, women did not behave rationally because they were not taught how to be rational.

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"The divine right of husbands, like the divine rights of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger." (Rights of Woman)

Wollstonecraft only supported marriage of a very specific kind.  She held that marriages should be based on common affection and respect, which was not possible unless husbands and wives were equals, both rational and educated.  She believed that love would fade over time, and that only relationships based on friendship would remain tolerable into old age.  Wollstonecraft was absolutely against traditional marriages based on convenience, or "sentiment," where the husband patronizingly viewed his wife as a doll or toy for his enjoyment.

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Wollstonecraft was very opposed to monarchical systems of government.  She supported John Locke's theories of the social contract, which stated that humans have certain basic human rights (life, liberty, health and property) and that governments are only legitimate if they protect those rights. In her work on the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft supported the aims of the revolutionaries and criticized her own nation for not following suite. Consistent with the political position of the dissenters, Wollstonecraft called for England to reform its laws to allow more people involvement in the legislative process.  

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