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Philosopher of the month: Mary Wollstonecraft [infographic]

This September, the OUP Philosophy team honors Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) as their Philosopher of the Month. Wollstonecraft was a novelist, a moral and political philosopher, an Enlightenment thinker and a key figure in the British republican milieu. She is often considered the foremother of western feminism, best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was written during the period of great social and political upheavals towards the end of the eighteenth century. This seminal work contains her reflections on the conditions of women and expounds powerful arguments for gender equality.

Wollstonecraft was born in London, Spitalfields, to a large family, the second eldest of the seven children.  Although she did not receive a proper education, she was a prolific writer whose work included fiction, translating and reviewing a range of genres including essays, poetry, fiction, travel narratives, educational treatises and sermons. She engaged with the works of her contemporaries such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Catherine McCauley, David Hume and Adam Smith, Madam de Stael, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and their circles, and so became acquainted with British, French and German Enlightenment, which informed her political writings. She participated in political debates, and went to Paris during the Terrors to witness the trial and execution of the French king, documenting the effects of the Revolution.

Wollstonecraft‘s first publication was a conduct book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct in the More Important Duties of Life (1787), dealing with the education of young girls. The book revealed strong influence from John Locke’s writing on the concept of morality and the need to instill it in children at an early age. Her anthology compilation The Female Reader (1789) is similarly moralistic in nature and contained excerpts from the Bible, Shakespeare and other eighteenth-century writers.

In her extraordinarily powerful work, A Vindication of The Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft found faults with the present state of female education. She upbraided writers such as Rousseau, Dr. Gregory, Lord Chesterfield, legislators and educators of her day for their roles in promulgating false and weak ideals of femininity, to which women have conformed. She was critical of the culture of luxury and materialism and the aristocracy who have reinforced these, and of Rousseau for his character of Sophie in Emile. Wollstonecraft argues that it is only through cultivating understanding and developing reason that women can become rational and independent beings.

For more on Wollstonecraft‘s life and work, read our infographic below:

Featured image: London Bridge. Public domain via Pixabay.

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