Mary Wollstonecraft: Challenges of Race and Class in Feminist Discourse

By Maoulidi, Salma | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Mary Wollstonecraft: Challenges of Race and Class in Feminist Discourse

Maoulidi, Salma, Women's Studies Quarterly

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote for revolutionary times, calling for revolutionary ideas to bring about new political and social relations. Human rights ideals put forth by the French Revolution and the American Constitution inform her social outlook. To reform the world, she calls for universality, instead of local manners and sensualist persuasions that present an image of women devoid of strength in character or virtue. However, her preoccupation is not solely with the place and rights of women but more fundamentally with the privilege men are accorded. Wollstonecraft asks, "In what does man's pre-eminence over the brute creation consists?" (12). She dismisses using bodily strength as the sole criteria to justify the superiority of man and implores the use of reason to challenge what she regards as the subjective opinions of writers of the day. Rather than according merit to these opinions she wants a common playing field where the intellectual abilities and virtues of women are judged on the same terms as those of men (36).

In her treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft boldly extends all rights due to men to women, arguing that the manner of times have changed, formed by more reasonable principles. For Wollstonecraft, equality of the sexes will ensure the emergence of a new social order, a virtuous society. How relevant are these arguments today?


Wollstonecraft bases her work on philosophical, literary, and religious texts, seeking to counter what she considers regressive viewpoints, in the process becoming perhaps one of the earliest women to interrogate religious text and dogma. She blames writers such as Rousseau and Dr. Gregory for advancing the notion that women are weak, devoid of solid virtues, and therefore useless members of society (22). The perception that women are slaves, playthings, loses them respect.

Wollstonecraft presents universal arguments that remain relevant for women today. She argues for an array of social, political, and economic rights, among them the right to self-determination, the right to an education, the right to choose a spouse, the right to participation, and the right to a livelihood and to property (168). The context of the debate, however, remains consonant with her times, as shown in her use of language and the basis for her analysis. For instance, to defend the rights of women, she uses moral arguments derived from biblical texts or romantic notions and, rather than employing a rights-based framework, appeals to reason.

Further, presenting a biased view of religion as it pertains to women, she mentions Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Ironically, Prophet Muhammad is generally seen by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to have been a strong advocate of women's rights in conservative Arabia. On the one hand, her remarks could suggest existing prejudices regarding foreign civilizations having different moral standards-that is, those that are not Christian or European. On the other, her assertion could represent widely available interpretations of sacred texts about women. Nevertheless, her readiness to engage with the cultural and religious is pivotal in advancing the discussion of rights, particularly in communities where culture or religion is the dominant framework in operation.

The discussion of rights with respect to women contrasts that which is transitory (the need for love and affection) and that which is permanent (the demand for respect and friendship).1 Wollstonecraft pushes for neutral criteria-that is, other than sex-that distinguishes one human being from another: virtue, reason, and knowledge. She demands a common standard for measuring virtues, necessitating that they be founded on the same principles and have the same aim. A common standard would ensure that all virtues are of the same quality and degree (26). Wollstonecraft asserts that women, like men, possess the ability to reason and thus to become virtuous.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Mary Wollstonecraft: Challenges of Race and Class in Feminist Discourse


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?