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Great Educator: Mary Wollstonecraft 1759 to 1797

Mary Wollstonecraftleft home after receiving a haphazard education in a miserable and unloving family situation. She spent the next nine years in some of the few occupations open to unmarried women at that time. First she was a companion to a widow in Bath. Next, with the help of a sister and close friend, she established and ran a school for girls; then when that venture had to close, she became a governess.

“The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such 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 attain such habits of virtue as well render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of it’s own reason”

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft

When she was dismissed from her last position, Joseph Johnson who had published her 1786 tract Thoughts on the Education of Daughters gave her housing, hired her to write for his new ‘Analytic Review’, and introduced her to an intimate circle of literary friends whose number included William Blake, William Godwin and Tom Paine.

In this environment she came into her own. Her great leap was to come in 1790 when Wollstonecraft published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’ in reply to Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ which made her a public figure. It was in 1792 that she published her opus ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which was a landmark in egalitarian literature.

Praised by radical thinkers of the time and damned by the conservatives, her treatise propelled her to fame both in England and abroad. When she arrived in revolutionary Paris in late 1792 she was to discover that a French translation of that work had preceded her. She went on to marry William Godwin, author of the acclaimed radical treatise ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’.

It was a loss to the world that she would not have the opportunity to repeat this achievement. In August 1797 Mary Wollstonecraft died after complications in childbirth. The child lived, and her portrait (as that of her mother’s), can be seen hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery after reaching fame herself when at the age of 19 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley wrote the great gothic novel Frankenstein.

Such an influence she had that great authors and feminists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, as well as Simone de Beauvoir are among the many thinkers who have paid tribute in their own writings to Wollstonecraft.

So often ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ has been compartmentalised and read only as a political or feminist text, but an intellect such as Wollstonecrafts must not be confined to pigeon holes. Just as she draws upon Rousseau’s text Emile, we can do so as well – ‘Read Plato’s Republic. It is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written’. In this spirit, the Republic is both a political and an educational treatise as can also be perceived of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

It is a celebration of the rationality of women. It constitutes an attack on the view of female education espoused by Rousseau and countless others which would render women artificial and weak by subordinating cultivation of understanding to the acquisition of some ‘corporeal accomplishment’.

To be a moral individual Wollstonecraft stated one must exercise one’s reason: ‘The being cannot be termed rational, or virtuous, who obeys any authority but that of reason’. The exercise of reason requires, in turn, that knowledge and understanding be cultivated. In other words an education of the mind is essential for the rationality that is the mark of the truly virtuous person.

One of her positions of argument was that if the requirements of morality and also of immortality demand that woman’s education develop her reason as fully as possible, so do the requirements of the wife-mother role. In vindicating women’s rights, she rejected the education in dependency that Rousseau prescribed. A woman must be intelligent in her own right, she argued, because she cannot assume that her husband will be intelligent. Moreover, ‘Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers’.

Wollstonecraft was a spirit of the Enlightenment. Reason served as the starting point for her philosophy as it did John Locke’s. She believed that there are rights that human beings inherit because they are rational creatures; that rationality forms the basis of these rights because reason, itself God-given, enables them to grasp truth and thus acquire knowledge of right and wrong; that the possession of reason raises humans above brute creation; and that through its exercise they became moral and ultimately political agents.

Wollstonecraft was someone who systematically argued for bringing women into the enfranchised world domain. The originality and profundity of her ideas are to be found in the extension of the Enlightenment philosophy to women. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft brings forth a threefold argument:

1: A rebutal of the presumption that woman are not rational but are slaves to their passions

2: A demonstration that if the rights of man are extended to females, women’s domestic duties will not suffer

3: The proposition of an education and upbringing for females that will sufficiently develop their ability to reason independently so that they will clearly deserve the same political rights as men

Approaching the first task she documented the details of what has come to be known as female socialisation displaying a sensitivity to the educative powers of the community on a par with Plato.

She proposed an experiment in living – since women have been denied the very education necessary for the development of reason, it is impossible, she said, to know if they are rational by nature; thus cultivate their understanding and then see if women are not rational creatures. By shifting the burden of proof onto those who deny female rationality, she turned a question about political rights into one about education.

Wollstonecraft’s approach to the second part of her great argument was to incorporate the characteristics of rationality and personal autonomy that the Enlightenment associated with the good citizen into her redefinition of the wife-mother role; she made the performance of women’s domestic duties dependent on the extension of the rights of man to woman.

To accomplish her third task it must be understand that although the idea of female education she put forward constituted a wholesale rejection of Rousseau’s recommendations for the education of girls, it incorporated the education Rousseau designed for males. She managed to appropriate the Enlightenment’s philosophy of men’s rights and bring them to more egalitarian terms. Needless to say, Rousseau would have been horrified, and he would have been all the more distressed to learn that she wanted men and women to receive identical educations but also to be educated together.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, reformers started translating Wollstonecraft’s coeducational philosophy into practice. By the end of that period coeducation had become a fact of life for millions and millions of people around the world. The problem that occurred was that in the reification of Wollstonecraft’s vision the inequities of the old paradigm were carried in to the new bringing with it the problems she had tried to resolve.

Unfortunately, as the official tracking system of separate schools with distinctive curricula for males and females became all but extinct, a de facto gender tracking system within coeducation developed to take it’s place. The coeducational classroom climate would be a chilly one for women.

In 1932 Virginia Woolf wrote that the originality of A Vindication of Womens Rights ‘has become our commonplace’; however, so far as Wollstonecraft’s educational vision is concerned this judgement was premature, as was brought into perspective in Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’; an extended essay on patriarchalism which dominated the literary and learning landscape.

All in all what Mary Wollstonecraft gifted in educational thought to the world has yet to reveal all it’s benefits and fruits. She was someone out of her time, someone who was relentless in her intellectual pursuit of rationality, and someone who had the high mindedness to see a truly equal landscape. As a great educator I think everyone should be familiar with her work.

Roberta Wedge has written an interesting blog on Mary Wollstonecraft pointing out some of the things that she managed to do in her relatively short live. You can find her blog here

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