Mary Wollstonecraft (born April 1759) is most famous for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an early work of feminist philosophy which argues for education for women. Wollstonecraft was heavily influenced by the French Revolution and was particularly interested in the relationship between the individual and the nation. She was married to William Godwin and the mother of Mary Shelley, who were also major Romanticists. Wollstonecraft's works were not studied until the late 20th century because of her controversial life, described in the memoir Godwin published after his wife's death ("Mary Wollstonecraft - Biography").
Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 in response to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, published only weeks before. In The Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft counters Burke's sentimentalized arguments about the cost of the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft disagrees with Burke's single-minded emphasis on the loss of culture and tradition of the French Revolution, and, instead, promotes sympathy for those suffering under an oppressive system. The Rights of Men argues that people would be more virtuous and lead more comfortable lives under a system of fluctuating wealth, rather than that of heredity.
Tradition and Inheritance
In the early stages of the French Revolution, the prospect of social reform in France excited many English writers. Edmund Burke, however, writes that reform would be disastrous. Through reform, the French replace a system of inheritance which is in a “just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world” (Burke 115). The system of inheritance, according to Burke, not only includes possessions, but also government. As such, a government should be “a permanent body composed of transitory parts,” which changes piece by piece only as necessary (Burke 115). Wollstonecraft argues not only that blindly following tradition is harmful, but that laws of heredity are not natural and should not be the basis of government.
Wollstonecraft suggests that to follow tradition would be to allow inhumanities like slavery and to halt progress. Under the system of inheritance, people become obsessed with securing their property, rather than helping others and improving the world. Heredity strains relationships between parents and children because the parents expect “due homage for all the property” the children receive, even though the younger children are often disenfranchised so as to maintain the inheritance of the eldest (Wollstonecraft 126). The problems of inheritance at the familial level reflect those of the national level, and explain poverty and immorality. Wollstonecraft's discussions of the family in relation to the government “challenges the very separation of public and private spheres” (Ferguson 428). Instead, humanity's natural rights are to enjoy their property, then pass it on as they choose.
While Wollstonecraft presents compelling counter arguments to Burke's ideas about heredity and tradition, she does not engage with his idea of a government of transitory parts. Burke's primary concern about the French Revolution is the speed at which change occurs and the chaos this causes, rather than the change itself. Burke suggests that it would be better to change one aspect of the government at a time. Although Wollstonecraft's arguments assume that the need for change is pressing, she does not present an alternative for Burke's gradual change, as Thomas Paine does. Paine writes that it is useless to change parts of a system when the whole of it is diseased.
One of Wollstonecraft's primary arguments is the suffering of the poor under the current inheritance-based system. Burke argues that the poor and rich only have a right to what they own, no matter how unequal the sum may be, and that the poor will be compensated for their suffering in Heaven. For Wollstonecraft, a person's birthright is “such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of every other individual with whom he is united in a social compact” (Wollstonecraft 123). This birthright has never taken hold because of property laws which encourage greed in the rich and leave the poor with nothing or money gained through immoral behavior. As a result, poverty and immorality spread throughout the nation, but the lives of the poor can and should be improved. Wollstonecraft points to game laws as the epitome of corruption in the economic system. These laws keep people from obtaining the food and products that they need, while allowing the rich to horde land and animals for which they have no need.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke laments the treatment of the queen during the French Revolution and what her treatment means for European chivalry. Burke worries that Europe will lose all of its aesthetics and grandeur, and that there will be nothing worthwhile left. He contrasts the queen with the “horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women” (Burke 127). Burke's contrast suggests that the revolution will place France in the hands of the demon-like poor, while Wollstonecraft argues that the revolution will give the poor a chance at an education. Under the new government, Burke worries that all traditions of the upper class will be lost—“all the decent drapery of life” that make life worth living (Burke 119). For Wollstonecraft, “continuing inequalities of wealth and rank make civilization... impossible” (Taylor 138). Both writers believe that this ornamentation covers human faults, but Burke considers the ornamentation to be the solution, while Wollstonecraft considers it only a mask.
Gender and Virtue
Wollstonecraft suggests that a nation's integrity influences that of its people, and that the effects differ for men and women. As an unjust system, chivalry and inheritance cause unproductive traits in women to be idealized, while poor women are demonized. Wollstonecraft argues that poor women should be seen with compassion, as they must work hard and don't have access to education. However, rich women focus on attracting wealthy husbands to advance their positions in the world. In doing so, they become “vain inconsiderate dolls” that focus on their beauty and manners, rather than real personal merit (Wollstonecraft 127). According to Wollstonecraft, proper educations for women will turn them into productive and virtuous members of society, an idea that she will expound upon in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Men under a traditional system of government tend towards greed rather than vanity, according to The Rights of Men. Because the oldest son inherits all of the family property and money, the younger sons must find another way to earn money. Some are “sent into exile, or confined in convents,” while others choose to take advantage of the rich that aren't careful with their money (Wollstonecraft 126). Men with stronger morals must face the difficulties of earning a living for their families along with the disdain of the rich. The solution to this problem, for Wollstonecraft, is to allow families to leave their money to all of their children, or to whomever else they choose.
For both genders, the state of the nation leads to immorality regarding relationships. Instead of getting married, as The Rights of Men suggests is proper, “young men become selfish coxcombs” and young women “coquet, without restraint” (Wollstonecraft 126). Wollstonecraft is very concerned about the state of families and their relationship to the nation. A healthy family relationship, in which the mother is able to educate her children, is necessary because those children will become the leaders of the nation in the future.
Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution
Wollstonecraft engages with the theme of revolution, important to Romanticism, in her writing, particularly in The Rights of Men. Through her response to Burke's Reflections, Wollstonecraft joins the conversation on the opportunities for social change the French Revolution presents. Although the early Romantic writers do not always agree on the meaning or necessity of revolution, their writing will influence later Romanticists, even as they venture into subjects like nature and the sublime.
Like Helen Maria Williams, Wollstonecraft regards the French Revolution and its ideals with optimism. Williams celebrates French aristocratic women for their selflessness “in sacrificing titles, fortune, and even [their] personal ornaments... for the common cause,” that of the revolution (Williams 112). While Wollstonecraft is not as generous to the nobility, she believes that revolution will cause changes that will benefit the rich and poor alike. Wollstonecraft's concern for the poor pervades The Rights of Men. Arthur Young, an agricultural economist, also writes of his experiences with the poor during his travels in France. Young considers the poverty of the French “an evil of the first magnitude,” and calls for economic change, although less radically than Wollstonecraft (Young 161). Wollstonecraft also uses imagery of slavery in her writing and was an abolitionist, like many of the Romantic writers, including Edmund Burke.
Although Wollstonecraft's exact politics are sometimes unclear because of her use of rhetorical strategies, her husband William Godwin expresses much more radical, and even anarchic, ideas in his writing. In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, Godwin writes that “the abolition of marriage will be attended with no evils” (Godwin 148). Wollstonecraft's writing about marriage is very traditional in contrast. However, both writers share a distrust of the current political system and a belief in education towards the betterment of humanity. Godwin writes that one day, revolutions will not shed any blood because people will be educated and able to solve conflicts through discussion. Wollstonecraft believes that education for women will grant them equality, make them better wives and mothers, and improve the nation.
Many Romanticists continue discussing revolution, although often in different contexts. In the face of the Enlightenment and growing belief in science, many Romantic writers urge for a more balanced philosophy. The writers don't condemn science, but the elevation of science above writing and imagination. In A Defense of Poetry, Percy Shelley argues that imagination and knowledge are both necessary for progress. Without imagination, there is no way to apply knowledge to real world problems. William Wordsworth condemns the loss of connection to nature that accompanies the Industrial Revolution in “The world is too much with us.” Gothic literature, a subset of Romanticism, comments on blind faith in revolutions through the theme of knowledge as the source of suffering. In Frankenstein, for example, Frankenstein's ability to create life only causes death and obsession.
Sources and Relevant Links
"Mary Wollstonecraft - Biography." The European Graduate School. n.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.egs.edu/library/mary-wollstonecraft/biography/>
Burke, Edmund. "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 113-122. Print.
Ferguson, Susan. "The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft." Journalism (1999): 427-450. Web. <http://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=brantford_jn>.
Godwin, William. "An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 144-149. Print.
Taylor, Barbara. "Feminists Versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain." Representations (2004): 125-148. Web. <http://roar.uel.ac.uk/735/1/Tayler,%20B%20(2004)%20Rep%2087%20125-148.pdf>.
Williams, Helen Maria. "Letters Written in France, in the Summer of 1790." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 109-113. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. "A Vindication of the Rights of Men." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 123-130. Print.
Young, Arthur. "Travels in France During the Years 1787-1788, and 1789." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 161-162. Print.