"Women's rights" is no longer a strange term in these days. Even though it continues to develop in many parts of modern society, it has been accepted more than it was previously. Acceptance of "Women's rights" with its serious considerations and activities has developed considerably in the twentieth century. Within the span of human history before that time, women did not belong to the category of human beings. Women, who were as men's possessions, did not have any rights of politics or finance. Women in that time belonged within men's boundary. Assertion of women's rights by women was treated as madness. Men, even though with progressive ideas, like John Locke, shared the same view regarding women's matters.
Mary Wollstonecraft was the first woman who claimed that women are also humans having rights like men.
Mary Wollstonecraft's Life
'Mother of feminism', Mary Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in London and died on 10 September 1797 in London. Wollstonecraft was a writer, philosopher and feminist in the eighteenth century British Enlightenment. She also wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book and a children's book.
Her early life influenced her future activities. Young Wollstonecraft grew up with her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, who physically abused his wife. In those times, the meaning of wife was not an equal human being with her husband. Woman was the husband's property. For this reason, Wollstonecraft's mother was obliged to live with her husband. One of Wollstonecraft's sisters, Eliza, got married while young to escape her family, but failed in married life and became a mentally deranged person. Moreover, the sister suffered social condemnation and subsequently could not remarry, being doomed to a life of poverty and hard work.
Mary Wollstonecraft recognised that women must have the right to live as no men's possessions when she was a private tutor for an upper class family. Even though the upper class people possessed political and financial power, they thought that women were just like men's accessories, without personal rights. In that time, irrespective of social rank, women of society were treated as sexual objects, housekeepers and child breeders, being allowed to learn only of being these. Wollstonecraft insisted that educational inequality must be destroyed and women needed education to get back women's rights and equality through equal opportunity in education for men and women.
In the period which gave birth to the French Revolution, human rights were regarded as a significant concern. Mary Wollstonecraft published books which expressed concepts of women's rights, then coming to Paris- the mecca for development of human rights generally- she broadened her knowledge through argument and companionship with the intellectuals. At that time she met a man, Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. She fell in love with him but their relationship ended, leaving Wollstonecraft pregnant. Men leaving women while pregnant was not a matter of taboo at the time. However, such occurrences in conjunction with societal status, dealt a harsh blow to women. Mary Wollstonecraft was deserted with Imlay's baby. After returning to London, she tried to kill herself at the River Thames. Wollstonecraft was not to die that day, soon after entering deeply into the study of inequality and issues of love between men and women.
Mary Wollstonecraft met with William Godwin, an anarchist, who had friendly feelings towards her. Godwin consoled her, suggesting a rectified approach to relationships between men and women, henceforth the pair themselves, as equal human beings. They wed, both continuing to dwell separately, not interfering with each other's work. After their marriage, they continued to respect each other's personality and individuality.
Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September 1797, 10 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary. However, her thoughts regarding women's rights were handed down to her daughters. Her first daughter, Fanny, kept company with George Gordon Byron, an English poet and a leading figure in Romanticism, all her life. The second daughter, Mary, was the author of Frankenstein, a novel infused with elements of a Gothic nature and the Romantic Movement.
During the eighteenth century, in Britain, women were separated in 'function' and disposition from that of men. Separations occurred in both public and private domains. Men developed progressively in the public area while women stayed home, functioning as a support for their husbands, personifying a pure heart for the private domain. Through such imposed character functions, women were not independent human beings. Women were relative beings defined by their relationship to others. Moreover, women required their virginal purity, deviation from the expected purity being cruelly judged, where not so with men. As such, two distinctions in judging of sexual standards were reinforced and amplified in the societal psyche.
Marriage was a purpose of life for women, but by law it meant an end to a life of individual decision. Women's rights were limited. Women could not sign any contracts, institute any lawsuit or leave a personal will. Even though one's "home" was the private area of a woman as wife, the financial rights in the home were dominated by the husband. All property, income and children were also a husband's possessions.
In the late eighteenth century, the French Revolution brought many changes for women. Women's participation in the Revolution was unique and unprecedented, being involved individually and in combination with men more than ever before. Women became members of political clubs and established clubs of their own. In addition, women's ideals about rights were publicised, notably For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship for Women (1790) by Marquis de Condorcet, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) by Olympe de Gouges, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft.
Hyena in Petticoats
In Europe, the eighteenth century, there was a movement to recover human rights from the aristocratic class. Many people of progressive ideas published personal theories to accomplish the aim. The public supported these approaches, subsequently diffusing throughout the world. However, Wollstonecraft's book was not supported by the general public, being innovative thought at the time; few people then thought that women and men were equals. Furthermore, two of the most progressive thinkers, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also thought that women were naturally weaker than men, and as such women are never equal to men. Her ideas were truly revolutionary. One critic described Wollstonecraft as a "Hyena in Petticoats".
Wollstonecraft did not express thoughts as combatively as the French supporters of women's rights, such as Marquis de Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges. Her ideas focused on which women were not treated reasonably, being human beings in the society. Moreover, she claimed that both men and women were equal human beings and denying women equal rights treat them as worthless.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
One of her major books, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), presents a kind of report analysing sexual differences between men and women within each historical age. The book arranged well her argument, explaining the rights of men and the rights of women to be one and the same thing, stating that to obtain social equality, society must rid itself of the monarchist, church and military hierarchies (Simkin 1997, para. 7). The aim of this book was that women must be recognised as sharing with men the capacity and right to be regarded as autonomous beings, entitled to recognition as citizens in the civic sphere (Caine 1997, p. 24). This was conveyed as her main point, decidedly more important than specifically women's participation in politics the same as men. In addition, she emphasised that "Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks" (Wollstonecraft 1792, Ch. 3), and the young women they tried to teach had already been effectively enslaved by their social training in subordination to men (Kemerling 2006, para. 1).
"It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meanness, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion that they were created rather to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain, must be obtained by their charms and weakness" (Wollstonecraft 1792, Ch. 4).
The First Feminist
Through the French Revolution, liberalists declared that all human beings were considered to be equal, but all equal beings did not include women. Women had recognised their own rights since the French Revolution. In this historical background, Mary Wollstonecraft's book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), became the first declaration of feminism in Britain and the United States of America. This book is still very important, because it proclaimed women's rights, namely suffrage, education, occupation, whilst directing the Enlightenment campaign towards the realization of women's rights. This book can be defined as the beginning of feminism. As such, it can be said that the history of feminism spans 200 years, however, Wollstonecraft herself would never have referred to her text as feminist because the words feminist and feminism were not coined until the 1890s. Moreover, there was no feminist movement to speak of during Wollstonecraft's lifetime. According to Caine (1997, p. 24), a new dimension to political theory means stretching the liberal temperament so as to incorporate into political thinking explicit concern for the quality of personal relations and day-to-day conditions of the ordinary citizens. Although Wollstonecraft enunciated that women's independence in finance had to be reinstated from the hold of men, she did not suggest any substantial ways to implement this. However, she assisted in helping women achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands (Kreis 2004, para. 9).
In the late twentieth century, many books evaluating Mary Wollstonecraft were published when women's rights were reassessed more than ever before, namely One Woman's "Situation" (1970) by Margaret George, Mary Wollstonecraft (1972) by Eleanor Flexner, and The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) by Claire Tomalin. Interpretation of success aside, she remains the first feminist, having prepared the theory and paving the way of feminism.
... To represent women's hopes of a society free from misogyny and sexual injustice. However distant her ideas and imaginings may be from feminist thinking of the present -- very distant indeed in some cases.… -- as a symbol of what remains to be achieved. Mary Wollstonecraft remains as vital and necessary a presence today as she was in the 1700's… (Taylor 2003, p. 253).
Caine, B. 1997, English Feminism, 1780-1980, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
── This book organised well the history of feminism for 200 years. Also conveyed in this text was a chronological history of feminists. This allowed for an understanding of feminism which connected feminism and social histories.
Kemerling, G. 2006, 'Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)', viewed 8 January 2008, <http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/woll.htm
── Records of Wollstonecraft's two daughters’ were provided this text.
Kreis, S. 2004, 'Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797', The History Guide, viewed 8 January 2008, <http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/wollstonecraft.html>.
── Wollstonecraft's early life with her sister Eliza is referenced in this text. This provided her background and an understanding of how it affected her later activities.
Simkin J. 1997, 'Mary Wollstonecraft', Spartacus Educational, viewed 8 January 2008, <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wwollstonecraft.htm>
── Summarised well her major book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Also described simply how her book was received at that time.
Taylor, B. 2003, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
── Wollstonecraft's reputation at that time is contained within, additional to presenting her inspiration for other feminists.
Tims, M. 1976, Mary Wollstonecraft, Millington Books Ltd, London.
── This book contains Wollstonecraft's life in details, focusing on the meaning of her activities as a social pioneer.
Wikipedia 2007, 'Mary Wollstonecraft', viewed 8 January 2008, <
── This text in the Internet was very helpful to understand general information about Wollstonecraft, providing useful links to further informative texts.
Wollstonecraft, M. 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, London.
── Wollstonecraft's ideas are directly expressed through this book. This helps to recognise how women were treated at her time.