A brilliant pioneer: Mary Wollonstencraft

This entry is a mere translation (and to some extent an excerpt) into English of a previous entry published in the blog Apeiron by two former students of mine: Esmeralda Cañadas and María Martínez. You can see this entry here in Spanish. (I hope they don’t mind my recycling of it and don’t ask me for copyright).

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th in 1759 in Spitalfields, England. Although her family had a reasonable amount of money and good incomes, her father wasted all his fortune when she was still a child. That’s why she had to make a living by herself al 17, first as a nurse and then as a governess and a dressmaker among other jobs. At the same time, she started writing and stood out for her intelligence. She lived in Ireland, France and England and she could often be seen in several circles composed of artists, writers and philosophers. She was against marriage but this circumstance didn’t prevent her from having two daughters from two different men. Her second daughter, Mary Shelley, is considered a great writer in English literature; among some others works she wrote the novel Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus. Her last name comes from the great English writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was her husband. But, let’s get back to Mary Wollonstencraft.


She is considered a great figure of the Modern World, especially for her role as a pioneer in the field of Women Rights, through her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, a very unusual time to publish this kind of matter in the terms she wrote. (I expect to develop the awesome conservatism of the Enlightenment philosophies about Women Rights in a next entry I’m planning to do about Marquis of Condorcet, the only important man writer who wrote in favor of equal treatment towards women).

Her worries about women in the time in which she lived were not only thoughts from a brilliant inteligence but they were based on her life and her experiences. Especially the mistreatment suffered by her mother when her father drank.
The guideline of her arguments is that women weren’t inferior to men. They often seemed inferior due to their education. So, if the education were the same for men and women all the differences would peter out and we could see the plain thruth: we, women and men, are equal and, therefore, we should be equal before the law.

The following is a fragment of Mary’s work that I’ve mentioned above:

“The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them. It is acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves […] by marriage”.

(A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol 2, p. 216)

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I can’t help a feeling while I am copying these words – by the way they are written in wonderful direct and thoughtful style- if these words still make any sense nowadays. Well, I am thinking about advertising and the issue of fashion… all the attempts of publicity that are aimed at women as a market targer. What would Mary Wollenstencraft tell us about the cult of beauty in which a lot of women – many men too- are involved?



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