Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment Feminist

The Humanist, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment Feminist


"Let not men then in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so.... It is time to effect a revolution in female manners--time to restore to them their lost dignity.... It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners."--Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in London, England, where she later worked as a companion to a rich widow, as a governess, and as a proprietress of her own school. Her first published works were Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, a novel Mary, A Fiction, considered the first modern work of lesbianism; and a children's book Original Stories from Real Life.

Living in Paris with American Gilbert Imlay during the French Revolution, she was the first to pen a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France, the famous attack on the French and American Revolutions by British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Man thus preceded Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in upholding Enlightenment principles of human rights. She immediately followed with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered the first feminist document. It argues vigorously not only for women's rights but for the virtue of reason above organized religion and superstition. Part of the final chapter is even devoted to debunking fortune tellers and faith healers.

In her various writings Wollstonecraft stood firmly against slavery and monarchy and for children's rights, the value of breastfeeding, coeducational schools, animal rights, and other progressive ideas.

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