Thinkers for our time: Mary Wollstonecraft

738px-Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)By Professor Barbara Taylor

Mary Wollstonecraft was a great innovator: someone able to think inventively, to generate new and challenging ideas and express these in ways that made them highly influential in her own day,  and for centuries since. She was, as she described herself, a woman of ‘great imagination’, especially political imagination, capable of looking past the world as she found it to a better world, to a time when existing oppressions and injustices – especially but not exclusively gender injustices – would give way to a ‘democratical’ society of freedom and equality.

For many commentators, both past and present, these achievements make her a woman who was ‘ahead of her time’. In fact all these aspects of Wollstonecraft’s career make her very much a woman of her time – but then her times were extraordinary. She was a woman of revolution, not only the political revolutions of the last quarter of the 18th century, but also what she described as the ‘mental revolution’ of European Enlightenment, with its sustained challenge to intellectual orthodoxies of every kind: political, religious, moral. As an enlightened  philosopher – which was  how she saw herself – Wollstonecraft participated in one of history’s biggest intellectual experiments: a sustained, multi-faceted attempt to replace  ignorance, prejudice and superstition with reasoned argument, to overturn entrenched privilege and despotic government. Just as Wollstonecraft’s willingness – indeed eagerness – to break with tradition reflected her Enlightenment heritage, so were most of the intellectual tools she deployed drawn from her enlightened contemporaries and their predecessors. It is true that Wollstonecraft’s version of Enlightenment was more radical than most, but in this too she was a woman of her times, since her Enlightenment was a peculiarly British one forged out of a combination of Enlightenment ideas with leftwing Protestanism. When we think about Wollstonecraft’s contribution to political thought, especially to feminism, is it crucial to recognise that she was a religious thinker, that her emancipatory ideals and hopes – for women, for society as a whole – were framed by her religious commitments.   In this, we might think, she was quintessentially a woman of her times. But it is worth remembering that nearly all varieties of feminism – with the possible exception of the feminism of my generation, back in the 1970s and 80s – have had a strong religious element: something that deserves more consideration from historians than it has so far received.

This Protestant element in Wollstonecraft’s thought was at its strongest in the 1780s and early 1790s, including in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which in many respects is a classically Puritan text: sternly pious and stridently moralistic, especially on sexual matters where Wollstonecraft is fierce in her denunciation of erotic emotions and pleasures and the women who indulge in them (a view that changed later in her career).

But finally, of course, the most important way that Wollstonecraft reflected her times was in her embrace of the ideals of the French revolution: something that, unlike many British radicals, she never abandoned, even as the Revolution itself descended into terrorism. Wollstonecraft hated the Terror and its perpetrators, but she remained committed to what she regarded as the underlying principles of democratic revolution. Indeed in many respects her ideas became more rather than less radical in the course of her all-too-short intellectual career, especially in relation to women where her final writings were much more challenging of gender conventions, and much more uncompromising in their critique of male privilege and power, than the Rights of Woman. I’m thinking in particular here of her posthumous novel, The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. In fact it was not until the 20th century than any feminist dared to be quite so bold in her writings as Wollstonecraft was in the Wrongs of Woman – which gives some credence to the notion that Wollstonecraft was ‘ahead of her times’, even as we appreciate how deeply rooted she was in the age to which she belonged.

Barbara Taylor is Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London. 

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