100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 73


Mary Wollstonecraft On Women


Mary Wollstonecraft 


By the custom of entail in England of the eighteenth century a father who had no living son could—and in many cases did—bequeath his estate to a male relative, leaving his daughters dependent on friendship or courtesy. It was a man's world, and custom had inured most British women to these inequities, but the winds now blowing from Revolutionary France aroused some sufferers to protest. Mary Wollstonecraft felt them, and raised her voice in one of the ablest appeals ever made for women’s liberation.

    Her father was a Londoner who decided to try farming; he failed, lost his fortune and his wife, took to drink, and left his three daughters to earn their own living. They opened a school, won praise from Samuel Johnson, and went bankrupt. Mary became a governess, but was dismissed after a year because “the children loved their governess better than their mother.” Meanwhile she wrote several books, including, in 1792, at the age of thirty-three, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

    She dedicated it to “M. Talleyrand-Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun,” with a hint that since the Constituent Assembly had proclaimed the Rights of Man, it was morally obligated to issue a Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Perhaps to ease her way she took a high moral tone, professing loyalty to country, virtue, and God. She said little of woman suffrage, for “as the whole system of representation is now in this country only a convenient handle for despotism, they [women] need not complain; for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hardworking mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can scarcely stop their children’s mouths with bread.” Nevertheless, “I really think that women ought to have representatives [in Parliament], instead of being governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.” As an example of sexually based legislation she pointed to the laws of primogeniture and entail. And custom was even crueler than law, for it branded and punished a woman through life for one moment’s departure from chastity, “though men preserve their respectability during the indulgence of vice.”

    Probably some readers were shocked by Mary’s declaration of a woman’s right to feel, or to confess, physical satisfaction in coitus. But she warned both sexes that “love considered as an animal appetite cannot long feed itself without expiring”; indeed, in that sense “it is the most evanescent of all passions.” Love as a physical relationship should be gradually replaced by friendship. This requires mutual respect, and respect requires that each mate should find in the other an individual and developing character. Hence the best beginning of woman’s liberation lies in recognizing her faults, and realizing that her freedom will depend upon her education in mind and conduct.

    The Vindication proceeded to list some feminine faults of that time: the affectation of weakness and timidity, which feeds and pleases the male’s assumption of superiority; the addiction to cards, gossip, astrology, sentimentality, and literary trash; the absorption in dress and self-admiration.


    Nature, music, poetry, and gallantry all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, . . . and this overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain; . . . for the exercise of the understanding, as life advances, is the only method pointed out by Nature to calm the passions.


Nearly all these faults, Mary felt, were due to inequalities of education, and to man’s success in making women think that (as a lady authoress had told them), “Your best, your sweetest empire is to please.”

    Mary resented these fripperies and artifices, and looked with envy upon those Frenchwomen who insisted on getting an education, and who learned to write letters that are among the fairest products of the French mind. “In France there is understandably a more general diffusion of knowledge than in any other part of the European world, and I attribute it, in part measure, to the social intercourse that has long subsisted between the sexes.” A generation before Balzac, Mary Wollstonecraft noted that


the French, who admit more of mind into their notions of beauty, give the preference to women of thirty. . . . They allow women to be in their most perfect state when vivacity gives place to reason, and to that majestic seriousness of character which marks maturity. . . . In youth, till twenty, the body shoots out; till thirty the solids are attaining a degree of density, and the flexible muscles [of the face], growing daily more rigid, give character to the countenancethat is, they trace the operation of the mind with the iron pen of fate, and tell us not only what powers are within, but how they have been employed.


    The faults of women, Mary believed, were nearly all due to the denial of educational opportunities, and to the male’s success in getting women to think of themselves as sex toys before marriage, and as decorative ornaments, obedient servants, and maternity machines afterward. To give both sexes an

equal chance to develop mind and body, boys and girls—up to the time of technical vocation—should be educated together, with the same curriculum and, when possible, the same or equivalent sports. Every woman should be made sufficiently strong in body and competent in mind to earn her own living if necessary, but “whatever tends to incapacitate the maternal character takes woman out of her sphere”; sooner or later the biological functions and physiological differences will have their say. Maternal nursing is good for maternal health, and might make families smaller and stronger. The ideal of woman’s emancipation should be the educated mother in equal union with an educated male.

    Having seen her book through the press, the brilliant young author crossed the Channel to France, fascinated by the creative years of the Revolution, but just in time for the Massacres and the Terror. She fell in love with an American in Paris, Captain Gilbert Imlay, and agreed to live with him in unsanctioned union. After making her pregnant, Imlay took to absenting himself for months at a time, on business or otherwise. Her letters begging him to come back are almost as eloquent, and were as futile, as those of Julie de Lespinasse a generation before. In 1794 she bore her child, but this did not hold the father. He offered to send her a yearly fund for her support; she refused it, and returned to England (1795). She tried to drown herself in the Thames, but was dragged back to life by solicitous watermen.

    A year later she met William Godwin and became his common-law wife; neither of them believed in the right of the state to regulate marriage. However, for the sake of their expected child, they decided to submit to a religious ceremony (March 29, 1797). Ashamed of their legality, they concealed from their radical friends the fact that they were no longer living in sin. For a while she shone in the rebel circle that gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson: Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, Tom Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake (who illustrated some of her writings). On August 30, 1797, amid intense suffering, she gave birth to Shelley’s future wife. Ten days later she died.