Freedom and Feminism: The Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft

by Paul Meany

The core of Mary Wollstonecraft’s literary career was to envision a social and political order in which women were treated as rational, autonomous beings capable of independence and virtue. Many feminists consider Mary Wollstonecraft to be a foundational figure for feminist thought.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a middle-class family in England. While her father, Edward, had at one point been very comfortable financially, he eventually squandered a large portion of his wealth on a variety of projects that failed to yield returns. Frustrated at his prospects, Edward became an abusive drunk who viciously beat his wife Elizabeth. Wollstonecraft was deeply affected by the tyrannical nature of her abusive father who completely subjugated and emotionally destroyed his wife. During her teenage years, Wollstonecraft used to sleep outside of her mother’s bedroom to protect her from Edward’s beatings.

Tired of her home life of turmoil, Wollstonecraft decided to take up work. She began as an attendant to a widower and then as a governess to a rich Anglo-Irish family. Growing tired of being a governess, Wollstonecraft resolved to pursue her dream to become an author. She wrote to her sister that she wished to become “a new kind of genus”. Her literary career quickly took off and she became a respected intellectual. Today, Wollstonecraft is renowned for two works, in particular, A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

The plight of women

To understand the radical nature of Wollstonecraft’s work we must understand how desperately subjugated women were in the past. The recognition of equality among genders is a relatively new political goal. For most of history, women were considered by many key thinkers to be irrational and intellectually hollow beings who merely existed for beauty and procreation. The subjection of women was considered to be justified due to women’s apparent lack of rationality and their physical and emotional frailty.

Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers on western thought believed that the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” The demeaning of women was not merely an ancient phenomenon. One of Aristotle’s dedicated adherents, the medieval Church Father Thomas Aquinas, described women as defective men. Even the Enlightenment era had thinkers who did not think women were fit for much except as pretty distractions. Immanuel Kant thought women “need to know nothing more of the cosmos than is necessary to make the appearance of the heavens on a beautiful evening a stimulating sight to them”. Despite prevailing misogynistic attitudes towards women, there were nonetheless some thinkers who advocated for a more equal treatment of the sexes. For example, Christine De Pizan in her 1405 work The Treasure of the City of Ladies proposed a novel stance on education, namely that it should be available for women of all social standings. Sadly, Pizan’s radical views did not represent the traditional wisdom of her time.

Vindication of the rights of woman

In The Vindications of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft aimed to articulate an account of the natural equality and liberty that all women deserved. While this vindication bears a title containing the word rights, most of Wollstonecraft’s writings here are directed towards the education of women. Education was the key to women’s liberation. This was because Wollstonecraft adhered to the Lockean idea of people as blank slates. Locke posited that we are born without any prior knowledge and that everything we are is because of our upbringing and education which Locke believed were of great importance. Wollstonecraft, concurring with Locke, believed we are under the influence of “the effect of an early association of ideas”.  Since we have no inherent qualities, all of what we are is simply learned through habit or education. This idea of humanity as a blank slate led Wollstonecraft to believe that there is no justification of hierarchies and that “God has made all things right”.

Women’s education was sharply different to men’s during Wollstonecraft’s life. They were taught skills such as sewing, small talk and being charming in conversation. This frustrated Wollstonecraft to no end who believed:the most perfect education is an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent”. Since the mind can be shaped by education Wollstonecraft believed that women’s oppression was completely arbitrary as women had not been given a chance to pursue the same goals as men.

Vindication of the rights of men

Within the Vindication of the Rights of Man Wollstonecraft replied to Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke sternly believed that progress could be achieved by approaching it slowly and keeping in faith with tradition and ancestry. Like many political thinkers during the Enlightenment, Burke entertained the idea of a social contract theory, the idea that political obligations are formed due to agreements that create society. However, Burke argued that this contract was not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. Because of this idea he adopted a cautious conservatism. He believed that the French Revolution was being orchestrated by intellectuals who had no real know how or experience. This could only result in disaster and “in the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows”.

In her Vindication, she aggressively argued against monarchy and hereditary privileges that the Ancien Regime upheld and believed that France should adopt a republican form of government. She argued that by abolishing hereditary privileges, France could become a fairer society in which all compete on an equal footing. Throughout her Vindications, Wollstonecraft cites the importance of self-discipline, hard work and principled morality that could be achieved through the adoption of a commercial society. She agreed with Adam Smith’s ideas that commerce would make a gentler and more equal world in which individuals treated equally by the law could cooperate on agreeable terms.

Religious influences

Under the influence of Richard Price, Wollstonecraft was part of the religious movement known as the rational dissenters, a sect of Protestantism. Rational Dissenters believed in the primacy of reason in tandem with scripture instead of tradition and what they believed to be superstition. Many Dissenters were committed to very radical opinions for their time. They argued for the separation of church and state, the rejection of church hierarchies and even the denial of original sin.

What makes humans special

Wollstonecraft believed there was a hierarchy of beings, with animals being the lowest and angels being the greatest being possible. On this spectrum humans lie between angels and animals, however, they share more with the former. This is because animals act on instinct,  which is an involuntary reaction to their surroundings. Because of this, animals will always behave in the same manner with little variation. Humans are different due to their capacity for reason. She remarks, “In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason”.

Reason allows for thoughtful reflection and most importantly, self-improvement. Wollstonecraft described reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth”. Reason allows us to pursue and maintain virtue, what was for Wollstonecraft, the prime goal of life. Virtue is the following of reason unhindered by passions, others opinion or coercion. Wollstonecraft believed that “to be made virtuous by authority…is a contradiction in terms”. For a person to become virtuous they must be free to make use of their faculties without external coercion.

Virtue is the ultimate goal of human life, which can only be achieved by freedom. Therefore “political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man”. Because of this, the chief problem of politics for Wollstonecraft was how one secures a society that allows for the moral flourishing of individuals. The answer is by making a society of flourishing independent individuals.

Republicanism, a radical tradition

Wollstonecraft belongs to a tradition of Classical Republicanism. Republicanism is a nebulous and multi-faceted concept that can cause confusion at times. Broadly speaking, Republicanism aligned itself with a classical tradition of republican freedom articulated in the writings of Roman authors such as Livy, Polybius and Cicero which was developed upon by Italian, British and eventually, American thinkers.  British authors such as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, James Harrington and the aforementioned Richard Price were all committed to the ideals of Republicanism. Republicanism can be defined as a varying commitment to three core ideas: the upholding of a mixed constitution, the importance of civic virtue and vigilance, and finally an idea of freedom as non-domination.

Freedom as non-domination

The third idea, freedom as non-domination, plays a prominent role in Wollstonecraft’s political thought. There are many different ideas of freedom in philosophy. The famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin articulated in his seminal work, Two Concepts of Liberty, posited that the two kinds of freedom are termed as positive and negative freedoms. Positive freedom is the capacity to choose and act according to your own ends, to be your own master. On the other hand, negative freedom defines freedom as a lack of external constraints, to be the slave of none.

Freedom as non-domination posits a very different way of thinking about freedom. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House the main character Nora is married to her loving husband Torvald in a 19th-century Norwegian town. According to the law, Torvald has great power over Nora, he can choose how she dresses, who she associates with and how she runs the house. Luckily for Nora, Torvald worships his wife and imposes no restrictions on her except for a ban on eating macarons, a minor imposition at best. Even though Nora is free to act as she wishes in most areas of her life, the lingering power Torvald has over her subtly denies her freedom.

Republicans would say that Nora was no free because of the arbitrary power hanging over her head. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon aptly wrote “Liberty is, to live upon one’s own terms, slavery is to live at the mere mercy of another”. Even if one has a good benevolent or kind master they are not free. Algernon Sidney argued that “he is a slave who serves the best and gentlest man in the world as well as he who serves the worst”. The Republican ideal of freedom is an absence of arbitrary power, which is, by its very nature, unlimited and discretionary.  For Republicans, freedom was to be ruled by reason, not by whim, an ideal embodied by James Harrington’s maxim“an empire of laws and not of men”.

Wollstonecraft concurs with Sidney, writing that “Man is debased by servitude of any description,” because “to subjugate a rational being to the will of another… is a most cruel and undue stretch of power”. Our nature as rational beings entitles us to liberty which, in Wollstonecraft’s words, is “the birthright of every man”. Wollstonecraft believed in a society of equals as she stated herself, “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves. It is not an empire, but equality that they should contend for”.

Arbitrary power creates dependence and subordination, while freedom from arbitrary power cultivates independence and equality. Throughout Wollstonecraft’s works, she compares women’s situation to slavery, the most common analogy she uses consistently.  Dominated individuals are not in control of their own destiny, and therefore cannot achieve a semblance of virtue even in the best of circumstances.

Wollstonecraft believed that the life of a slave would produce slavish behaviour. Slaves trick their masters and attempt to curry favour with them in order to live comfortably. In her view, the marriage of her day was scarcely better than slavery. Because of this, women would act poorly,  “whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, woman will be cunning, mean and selfish”. Wollstonecraft thought it was “vain to expect virtue from women until they are… independent of men”. Until women were permitted to educate and work for themselves Wollstonecraft believed there was no reason to“expect virtue from a slave”.

The blessing of life, independence

Wollstonecraft believed that the only way to achieve virtue was by independence which she believed was “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue”. But when Wollstonecraft says that women should be independent of men she does not mean that they should be without their support. According to Wollstonecraft, there are two kinds of independence, independence of mind and civil independence.

Independence of mind

Independence of mind is the ability to think freely and unhindered by others,“ it is the right use of reason alone which makes us independent of everything”.  This kind of independence can only be achieved by gaining a proper rigorous education, something women had been denied for centuries. Wollstonecraft believed the main issue women faced was their lack of robust education. For Wollstonecraft, proper education would not “submit to any other authority than that of reason”…“whose service is perfect freedom”.

Instead of being taught how to formulate ideas and arguments women were being taught singing, small talk and sewing. By “being educated like a fanciful kind of half being”, women were being taught to care about their looks, charm and manners instead of how to discern truth and become resilient beings. According to Wollstonecraft, life would always be a struggle. Virtue can only be achieved by hardy people willing to test their minds and spirits. Because “men have increased the inferiority of women till they are almost sunk beneath the standard of rational creatures” Wollstonecraft believed women could not cultivate the independence of mind that virtue demands.

Civil Independence

However, this lofty ideal of independence of mind would all be for nought if women did not have the means to act upon their convictions. Our beliefs and thoughts are important, but virtue is achieved through actions.

For Wollstonecraft “it is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men”. Virtue isn’t about simply holding beliefs, it is about action and for this to be realised women must be given the same range of choices as men.

Committed to moral egalitarianism, Wollstonecraft exclaimed“virtue can only flourish amongst equals…among unequals there can be no society”.  Since we are all born as blank slates there is nothing inherent that entitles any person to authority over another. To submit to any authority other than reason is degrading to our character, all arbitrary power must be abolished. Wollstonecraft complained that “many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry”.  At the time Wollstonecraft women were forbidden to work a plethora of jobs, they were denied a proper education, were excluded from politics and wholly dependent on their husbands.

In order to become more independent, Wollstonecraft argued for women’s right to own property and make contracts in order to have the option to make an income separate from their husbands. Wollstonecraft also wished to see women play a role in government both as representatives and voters, she asked “who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of reason”.


Histories of political philosophies tend to be composed mostly of men with few women featuring prominently. This has resulted in many philosophers having systems that do not take women into account or completely ignore their existence.

Wollstonecraft is one of the Founding Feminists. Her work was deeply influential on the development of the early feminist movement. Her inspiring vision of a world in which women are treated as rational and autonomous beings inspired a wide variety of thinkers as ideologically diverse as Virginia Wolf and Emma Goldman.

Even if we do not take into account Wollstonecraft’s massive influence on later thinkers, her works express a unique and compelling perspective on the essence of freedom. Virtue is life’s primary goal, but for virtue to exist, so must freedom. A lack of freedom also implies a lack of virtue as servility degrades and corrupts our character. In order to cultivate virtue, one must have independence of mind and civil independence; the ability to think and act for one’s own betterment by striving towards new ideas and opportunities. Freedom is not only an absence of coercion but also a security that no arbitrary powers might encroach upon one’s rights. A robust intellectual and moral character can only be carved out by those who are allowed to enjoy their natural and just freedom.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

Image: Wikipedia


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