Early in her life, Mary Wollstonecraft began making great contributions and brought forth new and not well-received views on women and society. When she was nineteen, she and her sister founded and taught in a school, an experience which led her to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. In this, she asserted her view that the young girls she taught had been "enslaved" by men through their social training. Wollstonecraft disagreed with the traditional teachings and believed that girls should study new topics.
Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel, and friend to Wollstonecraft preached a sermon praising the French Revolution. He believed that the French had a right to remove a bad king from the throne. Edmund Burke wrote a reply to this sermon called Reflections on the Revolution in France. In his reply he argued that there should be inherited rights of the monarchy. Wollstonecraft was upset by this and wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in defense of Price’s sermon. She not only defended Price but also included what she thought was wrong in society, including slave trade and the manner in which the poor were treated.
Wollstonecraft's most famous work, through which she gained her the reputation as a feminist, was A Vindication of the Rights of Women. This controversial work argued for the need for more civil rights for women, a cause which Wollstonecraft believed could only be furthered by permitting women better education .She asserted that a woman was capable of any intellectual feat that a man was--provided that her early training did not brainwash her into deference to man. Wollstonecraft believed that women's freedom should extend to their sexual lives. In her writings, she compared married life for a woman to prostitution. She pursued her own sexual freedom through an affair, and bore an illegitimate child.
The ideas in Wollstonecraft’s book were revolutionary and caused much controversy at the time. Her ideas that were once considered to be absurd are now what a majority of what the Western World believe. Later, she fell in love with William Godwin, the father of her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Tragically, Mary died from complications while delivering her child.
During her lifetime, Wollstonecraft raised arguments in support of women's rights that would figure prominently in the women's rights movements of the following two centuries. Her work in pursuit of equality for women led to her being dubbed the founder of the British Women's Rights Movement.
Mary Wollstonecraft on educationEdit
So why should Mary Wollstonecraft be of any great importance as an educational thinker?
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is more often than not regarded as a purely political treatise. However, like Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, it can be seen as both a political and an educational treatise.
It is above all a celebration of the rationality of women. It constitutes an attack on the view of female education put forward by Rousseau and countless others who regarded women as weak and artificial and not capable of reasoning effectively. Mary Wollstonecraft rejected the education in dependency that Rousseau advocated for them in Emile. A woman must be intelligent in her own right, she argued. She cannot assume that her husband will be intelligent! Mary Wollstonecraft maintained that this did not contradict the role of the woman as a mother or a carer or of the role of the woman in the home. She maintained that ‘meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers’.
Reason was her starting point. For Mary Wollstonecraft, rationality or reason formed the basis of our human rights as it was our ability to grasp truth and therefore acquire knowledge of right and wrong that separated us, as human beings, from the animal world. Through the exercise of reason we became moral and political agents. This world-view was acknowledged by all progressive thinkers of the time. However, it was essentially a man’s world and the work of Rousseau was typical of this. What Mary Wollstonecraft did was extend the basic ideas of Enlightenment philosophy to women and Rousseau’s educational ideas of how to educate boys to girls.
She set about arguing against the assumption that women were not rational creatures and were simply slaves to their passions. Mary Wollstonecraft argued that it was up to those who thought like this to prove it. She described the process by which parents brought their daughters up to be docile and domesticated. She maintained that if girls were encouraged from an early age to develop their minds, it would be seen that they were rational creatures and there was no reason whatsoever for them not to be given the same opportunities as boys with regard to education and training. Women could enter the professions and have careers just the same as men.
In proposing the same type of education for girls as that proposed for boys, Mary Wollstonecraft also went a step further and proposed that they be educated together which was even more radical than anything proposed before. The idea of co-educational schooling was simply regarded as nonsense by many educational thinkers of the time.
It was fashionable to contend that if women were educated and not docile creatures, they would lose any power they had over their husbands. Mary Wollstonecraft was furious about this and maintained that ‘This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men but over themselves’. 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 will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women.
Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft favoured co-educational day schools, lessons given by informal conversational methods, with lots of physical exercise both free and organised. She had a picture of an ideal family where the babies were nourished by an intelligent mother and not sent away to nurses and then to boarding school and fathers were friends to their children rather than tyrants. Essentially family members were all regarded as rational beings and children should be able to judge their parents like anyone else. Family relationships therefore became educational ones.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman covered a wide range of topics relating to the condition of women. Not only did she argue for women’s equality with men in education but she also called for their equality within the law as well as their right to parliamentary representation. As Jane Roland Martin has commented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reformers looked to coeducational schooling - and it became a 'fact of life' for many millions of people. The problem is that 'this great historical development turned out to be a carrier of old inequities and the creator of new problems for women' (2001: 71-2). Not only is it necessary to ensure that coeducation is 'girl and women friendly' it is also necessary to design education for both sexes that 'incorporates the virtues of rationality and self-governance that Rousseau attributed to men and also the virtue of patience and gentleness, zeal and affection, tenderness and care that he attributed to women' (op. cit.). Mary Wollstonecraft was a pioneer for women. She led the way for feminists and her book is a classic that still inspires many today.