A Brief History of Feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft

 Feminism: A history and new voices

My first exposures to feminist ideas was way back in the 70’s, when my mother had a subscription to the iconic feminist magazine Spare Rib, which I read as a teenage Catholic schoolgirl. Much of it was both confusing and irrelevant to me. Vaginal sponges??? I hadn’t even started my periods yet.  Around this time my mother took my to  the Soho reclaim the night marches, which again I was vaguely confused as to what it was all about , although I do recall her insisting I wear my school uniform , which looking back on it , was very weird.

My alienation from the feminism on offer to me continued in my early adult years. I remember seeing a card in a whole food shop advertising a non -sexist gardening group and thinking how lucky people were to have a garden. My struggles always seemed to be concrete and material, rather than abstract and esoteric. Being homeless, struggling to survive financially on a student nurses wage, those were my struggles.

In the early 80’s I went to join the woman protesting at Greenham common to do my bit. The prevailing narrative on that is what a wonderful, powerful moment it was in English feminism’s history. I found it mostly cold , boring and frustrating , I certainly didn’t want to join in with  the woman twenty years my seniors singing Christmas carols , or tie  an expensive tampon to the fence ? what a waste. I wanted to tear down the fence, to act.

I find myself, almost forty years on feeling similarly confused and returning to those fundamental questions what does feminism mean to me?  Does anyone own the right to call themselves a feminist? Why am I, as a middle-aged woman, seemingly so out of step with my peers on what they see as the key battles of 21st century feminism? Why do I relate so much more to younger women’s position on trans women? How is it that in the apparently socially conservative American political climate , Joe Biden has recognised the struggle of trans people as a 21st century civil rights , and yet the Labour party fails to tackle the growing public transphobia amongst its own  MPs?

In an attempt to try and answer these questions I am embarking on two long term  projects .Firstly , I will be  interviewing  and giving  voice to a range  of women, asking them the  question,  what does feminism mean to them?,  The aim is to  get a sense from women what their struggles are, what is  important to them in 2020 . I am calling this the 100 women’s project

Secondly, I will be exploring women writers’ ideas, women who I believe are key, and often forgotten voices in the feminist  debate. As this is a historic journey, it makes sense for me to start with a brief overview and analysis of the seminal work of Mary Wollstonecraft.


Arguably, the origins of English feminism may be traced back to the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A vindication of the rights of women (1792)  

I have to confess, I’d not read  Wollstonecraft until a few weeks ago , I couldn’t even tell you before this moment what her main ideas were, which doesn’t mean that I , and perhaps you, haven’t been subconsciously influenced by them . In her relatively short 38year life, she achieved so much, not just her seminal work on the rights of women, but travel writing, novels. She experienced the French Revolution first-hand, which undoubtedly influenced her philosophical ideas and writings.

 Mary was born in Spitalfields London, an area associated with persecuted peoples, in Primrose street. In later years in keeping with her understanding of the importance of girls receiving an education and to make some money to ensure her own financial independence, she opened a girl’s school on Newington Green London.

So much of Mary’s short life was shaped by abuse from men, her father was a controlling alcoholic. Her love affair with Gilbert Imlay resulting in the birth of her daughter, Fanny Imlay , Imlay abandoned them both in Paris during the revolution. She later followed him back to London, where his constant betrayals and infidelities led to her suicide attempt at Putney Bridge. Sadly, when she finally found happiness with the anarchist William Godwin, she died ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, from a purpureal infection caused by the terrible lack of obstetric hygiene prevalent at the time.

 One of Wollstonecraft’s central arguments was that women were not inherently intellectually inferior to men, what held them back intellectually was that they lacked education. The idea that education is the key to equality and oppression has strong parallels in the 19th century American abolitionist and burgeoning civil rights movement as powerfully recorded in Angela Davis’s  “Women , race & class “ in which she devotes a fascinating chapter “ Education and liberation : black women’s perspective”

 18th century feminists were working in a legislative landscape were women had very few legal rights. The rule of Couverture meant that married women were in legal terms absorbed into their husbands, they had no rights to own property, pursue an education without husband’s permission or keep any money they had earned. What is little spoke of is that single women had the right to own property and make contracts in their own name. In effect, the state and church control of the marriage contract determined women’s legal subordination to men. Women therefore paid a heavy price for the right to legitimately bear children. Wollstonecraft herself rallied against marriage, describing it as “legalised prostitution”

Their ability to obtain a divorce was extremely limited and if their marriage did break down, they were unlikely to gain legal custody rights of their children.

In the 19th century the dominate theme of female activism was therefore the law , with a  particular emphasis on family law .Caroline Norton was a vociferous campaigner for women’s child custody rights , which culminated in the Custody of Infants Act 1839, which made it easier for women to petition to retain custody of their children after marital breakdown.

It is worth noting that these early struggles focussing on legislation were not only led by economically privileged women, they primarily benefited them to. Poorer women would not have had access to the funds to pursue their legal rights, without education or ready access to information it is doubtful that they would even know about these legal changes.

Reading “A Vindication of the Rights of woman” is not easy, for a start there is the obvious issue of language and a writing style that is over 200 years old. Mary wrote the book in six weeks, in response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of man. Another difficulty in reading it is that it is really a collection of separate essays, dipping in and out of themes and often repetitive and rambling. In many ways Mary is writing in riposte to the French enlightenment philosopher and influencer of the French revolution, Jean Jacques Rosseau, who she refers to many times. If you are not familiar with his work, again, it makes it difficult to appreciate Mary’s.

Returning to Mary’s central point that women would only begin to be taken as equals if they were educated, this put her in direct conflict with Rosseau. Rosseau very much supported the prevailing patriarchal norms of the times, the gendered prescribed behaviours that women should subscribe to This would  sadly become a dominant theme of the French Revolution , and one of Mary’s later disappointments was how quickly the revolution betrayed it’s ideals of equality for all, in its treatment of women.

  Rosseau’s views of women included legitimising the dominant narrative that women’s wiles and capricious behaviour gave them power over men. They    viewed as were viewed as inherently irrational, given to passion and flights of fancy. Their role was as adornments and objects of passion in counter to men’s rational life. Rousseau contended that it was a mistake for women to seek the same education as men, as then they would lose their feminine characterises, which he believed gave them power over men. Again, Mary’s view of these false gendered womanly attributes put her in direct opposition to Rousseau, who she responded to by saying “This is the very point I am at. I do not wish them to have power over men: but over themselves “.Wollstonecraft repeatedly refers to the current unequal nature of relationships between men and women as slavery , the bonds of which she believed would only be broken by education . “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it and their will be an end to blind obedience ;but as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep woman in the dark, because the former only want slaves , and the other,  a plaything “

Again we see the commonality in Mary’s ideas of freedom of oppression of the  bonds of patriarchal relationships and the importance of education as a tool of freedom and the pioneers of the American black  civil rights movement , who are fought to the right of equal education in their fight for equality and justice.

Although Mary was writing over 200 years ago and much has changed, much has not. Her arguments against gendered expectations of women’s behaviours are as relevant in 2020. Again railing against Rousseau and his views of the innate, natural characteristics of female behaviour she countered him thus .” His ridiculous stories, which tend to prove that girls are naturally attentive to their persons, without laying any stress on daily examples, are below contempt”.

Her observations of the constraints and expectations that were put upon women to behave as weak, vulnerable, only eating delicate amounts were very much taken from a class perspective .The ideal of the ornamental woman , who did very little , clearly didn’t apply to the majority of the women of the time, most of whom were engaged in heavy physical activity . As Mary observed these pampered women were reduced to the status of objects or pets, which she believed was demeaning and unfulfilling to both sexes in terms of their long-term happiness and quality of relationships.

It should be noted that Mary wrote Vindication before travelling to Paris to observe the revolution first hand and before her great love affair with Imlay resulting in her first pregnancy .The book has definite censory over tones , she believed that  notions of passion and romantic love were actually  harmful to relationships and warned against the sensualist “ The sensualist , indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants , and women have been duped by their lovers , as princes by their ministers , whilst dreaming that they reigned over them”.

In her approach to sexual relations, she argued for more pragmatism and less emotion. It is worth noting that this pragmatism extended to her views on prostitutes, who rather than the prevailing norm of being morally judged and condemned, Mary viewed them as being victims of their circumstances. Rejecting the prevailing punitive treatment of prostitutes, that labelled them as either mad or bad, Mary said this” Asylums and Magdalens are not the proper remedies for these abuses. It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world!”

Although in disagreement with Rosseau on his sexual politics , she was clearly influenced by his radical social theory on wealth and rank , and in fact applies these ideas of privilege and idleness to women, women are granted privileges , based not on what they do , but which men they are allied to and how they appear. “They are deprived of genuine rights and responsibilities, which are subjugated as the illusory power of sexual conquest which earns them lives of false refinement “.

Wollstonecraft was a remarkable and brave woman, who not only  deserves the honour of being viewed as the first English feminist writer , but whose ideas and thoughts still have a relevance today and are worthy of discussion and thought .

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