Inspiring Women, no 10: the proto-feminist philosopher, who had a deep sense of freedom, impresses Mary Midgley...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, special supplement
Dr Mary Midgley is a British moral philosopher and the author of 17 books, including a memoir, "The Owl of Minerva". Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) was a proto-feminist philosopher, novelist and historian of the French revolution.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a splendid figure. In 1792, she wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women", at a time when the rights of men were becoming a very serious topic. One of the people promulgating the idea was Jean-Jacques Rousseau—who said "Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains." Yet Rousseau had a ludicrously extreme view of women: they were to be kept in their place; they must never be free from the domination of their fathers and husbands; they were not to have opinions of their own. Wollstonecraft was a perfectly serious believer in Rousseau and the rights of man, but she couldn’t stand his inconsistency. In her book she expressed the bewilderment that women feel when they hear wonderful theories about freedom—and then suddenly find the theories don’t apply to them. She expressed this very clearly and her book was widely read, in spite of the resistance that there was to it.
And there was resistance. She was abused and vilified—Horace Walpole called her a "hyena in petticoats"—in an outpouring of the kind of indignation you see repeatedly throughout history whenever the members of some neglected class suddenly say "what about us?" and point out the gaping holes in theories which other people are taking up. When one reads 18th-century writers such as Dr Johnson—good, honest, lively thinkers—the remarks that they let fly from time to time about what is to be expected of women show a resistance to her ideas so deep it is extraordinary anyone was able to overcome it.
In some ways Wollstonecraft’s ability to resist and stand out impresses me even more than what it was she fought for. It’s one thing to see the need for change, but to actually do something about it is very splendid. Also, her Rousseauian love of freedom was absolutely genuine: she was so deeply dyed with the principles Rousseau expressed that she saw he hadn’t gone far enough. The fact that she agonised about criticising him makes her criticism all the stronger: she very much wanted to be in a position where she could agree with and support him, but it could not be done. She shows the value of thinking as carefully about your heroes as your opponents.
Editor's note: thanks to Roberta Wedge, who blogs about Mary Wollstonecraft, for correcting the illustration.
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