Pioneers of Education: Mary Wollstonecraft

Advocate for women’s education, prolific writer and early feminist intellectual.

It remains an uncomfortable truth that, for much of human history, the potential of half the species has been squandered.  For almost as long as civilization itself, the talents and potential of women have been systematically ignored and belittled, much to the detriment of the societies that practiced it.  Seen as naturally inferior to men, women were denied such basic rights as we take now for granted.  But arguably the single greatest disadvantage perpetuated from generation to generation was the denial of an education which meant that kept in ignorance, few women were ever in a position to truly realize their potential.

One such woman, a Mary Wollstonecraft, disputed the age old assumption of the inferiority of the female sex.  Though she was not to receive a formal education of her own she would, nevertheless, go on to become a prolific writer, recognized centuries later as amongst the earliest of feminine intellectuals and philosophers.  The second child of a family of six from London, through friendships made in her youth, self-educated herself to a respectable standard.  Her many works throughout the years suggest a keen understanding of the bible, classic Greek literature and even Shakespear and Milton.

Despite her obvious grasp of words and writing, she was constrained by her times and in seeking employment, was limited by her gender and background to the cultural demands of the day, meaning a life resigned as a domestic assistant and governess.  Frustrated by these limitations, Wollstonecraft would choose the life of a writer – a radical and uncertain choice in an age when very few women could hope to make a living from words and with no recourse to fall back on. 

Among her many works, perhaps the most notable is her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now regarded as one of the first works of feminist philosophy.  Written during the tumultuous background of the French revolution, it was written as an argument against the recommendations of of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, an influential figure who was advising the nascent revolutionary government on how it should educate its future citizens. 

Decrying the education of women as unnecessary, he prompted a response by Wollstonecraft whose Vindication would later go on to influence reformers over a century later in what would become known as the feminist movement.   Though its actual merit as feminist literature remains under debate, its central theme, that the education of women was a necessity and even desirable, was a radical step in the closing years of the 18th century even by the standards of Enlightenment thinkers. 

Beyond this, Wollstonecraft would also venture to write several novels, publish a political rebuttal to the leading English conservative thinker Edmund Burk’s criticism of the French revolution and would become the author of a famous travel narrative, Letter Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark about her journeys across Scandinavia that became one of the most popular written works in the 1790’s.

Sadly her contributions were cut short by her untimely death from complications following the birth of her second child Mary (who would go on to become Mary Shelley, author of the famous classic Frankenstein).  Her legacy was tainted by the unwise decision of her widowed husband, William Godwin, to publish a memoir of her life. 

It was intended as a homage to a woman he described with the words “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world”. However, it’s frank account of her life and the revelation of Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate children, love affairs and suicide attempts scandalized her memory in the minds of 19th century readers.

It would take decades for her to be rehabilitated, and it would take many years before the works and argument of Mary Wollstonecraft were the focus of discourse about her, rather than her personal life.

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