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Mary Wollstonecraft: Liberal or ConservativeFeminist?


As an enlightened thinker of the eighteenth-century, Mary Wollstonecraft held her own
with some of the top philosophes of the Enlightenment in written discussions on socially
or politically volatile topics. Her main adversary in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
was social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, specifically for his depiction of women in
his novel Emile (1762), and it is towards him that she vents her ire in the cause of rights
for women. Her argument for womens rights was unusual for its time and made her
notable for her liberal feminist views. She is still considered a liberal feminist by some
contemporary critics because of her radical views on education and independence for the
women of her time and her use of reason, considered a male trait, in her arguments. But
her focus on women in the home, in the private sphere, albeit rationally educated women,
seems to place her on the conservative side of feminism. Some modern feminists
advocate motherhood and marriage, family and home, as important factors for women,
especially those who had been antagonized by the radical feminism of the 1960s and
70s. These neo-conservative feminists view the ideals of family and career/equality as
either/or choices for women (Stacey 563). Judith Stacey explains the dilemma of
liberal feminism to include all women in the movement and the controversial solution of
some formerly radical feminists like Betty Friedan: Instead of antagonizing
conservatives by making claims upon the state, we should join with them to bridge the
liberal/conservative and the volunteer/professional chasms (564). Wollstonecraft gives
this same consideration to the women of her time by appeasing those who connected
women to home and family, both male and female. Although her appeasement seems to

make her a conservative feminist, her extensive use of reason and knowledge of
Enlightenment philosophy really makes her a liberal feminist.
In Rights of Woman, she lambastes Rousseau for his derogatory views such as a
woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, but, instead, a coquetish
slave to man (25). Women are subordinate to men, according to Rousseau, and should
remain in their subjective place, under the thumb of a man, be he father, brother, or
husband. Wollstonecraft took exception, quite strongly, to Rousseaus views. By
reinforcing her argument with enlightened views and ideas from the prominent thinkers
of her time, she strengthens her position that women can be reasonable, right-thinking
human beings worthy of respect and better, more equal treatment through the example of
her own writing. The rational, enlightened philosophy of the period was an attempt to
create a utopian world of rational thinking, virtuous individuals living harmoniously in a
civil society, and their writing was an attempt to bring about such a utopia. One of the
main tenets of the Enlightenment indicates this ideal: Both an individual and humanity
as a whole can progress to perfection (Honderich 236). Equal rights for women would
also be considered a utopian ideal by women of the eighteenth-century and
Wollstonecraft desired this state: It is time to effect a revolution in female manners
time to restore to them their lost dignityand make them, as part of the human species,
labour by reforming themselves to reform the world (45). Her feminist argument,
though, often comes across as harsh and condescending about the very women she is
trying to help. She derides them for their attention to personal appearance and sexual
appeal, as well as their simple, domestic education, and frivolous, artistic interests. What
she fails to consider as an excuse for these women is that they had very little recourse to

other means of improvement, and her lack of empathy gives a harsh edge to her feminist
philosophy. Instead of these vain pursuits that she sees as demeaning and unproductive,
she encourages a more masculine-styled education in worthy, reason-based academic
subjects, designed to make women viable citizens of their private worlds. This is where
she deviates from later liberal feminism and risks the label of conservative feminist.
Instead of public pursuits as equals to men as a future goal, she argues for domestic bliss
as rational-thinking partners for rational-thinking husbands who would enjoy their
improved conversation and company. Whether or not they should be considered equals in
marriage is unclear in her argument, but what fascinates me is the combination of liberal,
free-thinking ideas for personal improvement for women and conservative, safe, socially
acceptable suggestions for changing their lives and becoming more virtuous.
Wollstonecraft essentially advocates women being educated in reason in order to become
better wives and mothers.
As an intelligent product of her time, Wollstonecraft regards reason and virtue as
superior ideals for humanity, and the arguments of Enlightenment philosophers enhance
her argument for a womans right to a rational education to better her status in society and
render her a more virtuous being. She encourages, even implores, women to improve
their lives through rational thinking, self-education, and virtuous behavior: I wish to
persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body (9). She
warns that relying on passions or emotions leads to prejudiced treatment by men and
inferior status in a society of rational-thinking men: those beings who are only the
objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become
objects of contempt (9). The only power women of her time had over men was through

sexual influence, through artificial graces, in other words, keeping men interested
through their beauty and charms (37). She also claims that the pursuit of reason and
intellect lead to virtuous behavior. Wollstonecraft is seen as an originator of liberal
feminism. She is one of a core group, who Loretta Kensinger sees as having expanded
and applied concepts of Western Enlightenment thought to women (181). Referring to
this core group, Kensinger quotes Zillah R. Eisenstein when she says, they had to step
outside the boundaries of established liberal thought, which were intended for men only
Wollstonecraft quotes or refers to Enlightenment philosophers and writers to
support her argument for women becoming educated in reason, even if it depicts the
degraded state of women and their subjection to men. She uses Miltons example of
Adams superior position over Eve from Paradise Lost as an example of mans
dominance over woman in general. Miltons Adam compares his dominance over Eve to
Gods dominance over him: Hast thou not made me here thy substitute,/And these
inferior far beneath me set? (qtd. in Wollstonecraft 20). Women have long been
subordinate to men, in literature as well as real life. Wollstonecraft repeatedly points out
the inferior status of women according to Milton and other authors like Rousseau. In
quoting a particularly derisive passage from Rousseaus Emile, (so far from being
ashamed of their weakness, they glory in it), which echoes her own criticism of
submissive women, she says, seemingly incredulous and certain her audience feels the
same way, I have quoted this passage, lest my readers should suspect that I warped the
authors reasoning to support my own arguments (78). She does support her own
argument and explains the degraded state of eighteenth-century women: I have already

asserted that in educating women these fundamental principles lead to a system of
cunning and lasciviousness (78)..
Wollstonecraft argues that reason is the answer to the plight of women, which is
their subjection at the hands of men and their own false notions of beauty and pride.
Women were virtual slaves to men, at their mercy due to laws and social restrictions
which limited their options for a happy life free from the dominance of men. Women
were dependent on men for their support and protection, and, in order to keep their men
interested in and supportive of them, they resorted to self-improvement, not of their
minds, but of their physical and sexual appeal. Wollstonecraft derides these coquettish
arts as unnecessary, vain, and demeaning. She is also critical of the women who employ
such tactics. Educating themselves in rational academic subjects, such as philosophy,
science, and current events, she thought, would make women better wives and
companions to their husbands by giving them common ground on which to converse.
Such equality in a relationship creates friendship and mutual respect. A rational education
also promotes independence, self-esteem, and self-control, resulting in less dependence
on a man for emotional support and attention. And through reason, women would become
the virtuous leaders and guides of the family, promoting virtue and morality through
example. These liberal ideas found some supporters in Europe until her true life story was
revealed by her husband, William Godwin, who described his wifes promiscuous
peccadilloes as a young woman in Francean illicit affair and an illegitimate daughter.
Poston relates how the memoir of her husband, William Godwin, detailed these
indiscretions and damaged her reputation after her death: This proved to be the
incendiary material that future critics would use against her (224). In the twenty-first-

century, her lifestyle wouldnt seem scandalous; in the eighteenth-century, though, it was
shocking and even revolting to those who held conservative views.
Despite her emotional personal actions, she believed women should act and think
rationally. According to Wollstonecraft, reason is the ultimate goal for women, but is
often hampered or blocked by emotional states or self-interest known by Wollstonecraft
as sensibility. Relying on contemporary thinkers for support, she quotes from Dr. Samuel
Johnsons famous dictionary in giving the definition of sensibility: Quickness of
sensation; quickness of perception; delicacy, which she refers to as polished instinct
(63). No intellectual thought is associated with sensibility in this definition. Also called
passions or sensations by Wollstonecraft, her derision of such emotions dominates much
of the text of Rights of Woman. She claims that society, men in particular, encourage
emotions in women which prevents them from using their reason to improve their status.
Men of the eighteenth century want women they can dominate and feel superior to, which
is one reason why they encourage such sensibility in women. Another reason for it is to
make women objects of their sexual desire. They desire a woman who appeals to their
base desires or needs and fulfills such desires. Wollstonecraft argues that it should be
obvious that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, but
society nurtures its prejudices against women and keeps them from exercising their
reason (12). Society, men in particular, encouraged emotions in women, which prevented
them from using their reason to improve their status in society. Even artistic sensibility is
dangerous, Wollstonecraft claims: Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry, all tend to make
women the creatures of sensation (61). Sensibility makes women slaves to men by

cultivating unimportant vanities and pursuits, such as winning a husband or pleasing a
Wollstonecraft argues that women have the capability of rational thought, since
both men and women are Gods creation. She addresses her argument for a rational
education for women early on in Rights of Woman to men, particularly M. TallyrandPerigord, the former Bishop of Autun, using reason to argue for reasonable education for
women. She appeals to this Frenchman because she believes the French to be more
accepting of intelligent, rational women, possibly referring to the women-run salons of
Paris, as suggested in her words, the social intercourse which has long subsisted
between the sexes (3). She seeks to convince a man who has proposed a domestic
education for girls. She addresses him directly in her dedication: Do you not act a
similar part, when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to
remain immured in their families groping in the dark? For surely, Sir, you will not assert,
that a duty can be binding which is not founded on reason? (5). She goes on to argue that
if women are to be denied the natural rights of mankind, that men should prove first,
to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason (5). By
invoking the reason of men to prove that women have the capability to reason, she turns
their own argument against them. She also accedes mans superior physical strength as a
law of nature, an Enlightenment argument. Laws of nature were irrefutable and
accepted as such, but she accepts this one as their only superiority over women. This is
her one concession to men, their superior strength, and in return she expects them to
concede the ability of women to reason. She also distances herself from other women in
her argument, those who are ridiculed or pitied by men who seek to improve them

(10). She considers herself to have more reason than they have and insists on her present
and future independence from men.
The mistreatment of women by men is age-old and Wollstonecraft cites Milton to
make the point of its continuance in her time. She uses Paradise Lost and its depiction of
Eves plight as fallen woman to highlight this point. She states that men, like women,
are often ruled by their passions and notes that Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge just as
Eve did, because of his desire for her and wish to please her. As Eve was led by her
passions, so was Adam. Wollstonecraft states, into similar inconsistencies are great men
often led by their senses (20). Both men and women need to work on virtuous behavior,
but since women were denied a rational education in her time, Wollstonecraft asserts that
acquiring virtue is much more difficult. But, she asserts, every being may become
virtuous by the exercise of its own reason (21).
Because a rational education is the means to achieve virtue, she defines the most
perfect education as such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to
strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to
attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent (21). In her educational works,
Wollstonecraft offers her ideas of morality because of her focus on moral education. A
moral education, she states, asks the question, what is the difference between a good
and a bad person (or between virtue and vice)? (qtd. in Zaw 79). It is through reason,
she repeats over and over, that men and women become virtuous. And in arguing for a
moral education for women, she says, not only the virtue, but the knowledge of the two
sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that women, considered not only
as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavour to acquire human virtues (or

perfections) by the same means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of
half beingone of Rousseaus wild chimeras (39).
Wollstonecrafts disagreement with Rousseaus philosophy of women is biting
and fierce. She answers his critique of women as weak creatures who must be subjugated
by men and seek to please them. In Rights of Woman, she states, He carries his
arguments, which he pretends to draw from the indications of nature, still further, and
insinuates that truth and fortitude, the corner stones of all human virtue, should be
cultivated with certain restrictions, because, with respect to the female character,
obedience is the grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigour (25).
Her reply to this: What nonsense! (26). In his novel Emile, which she castigates for his
view of women, Rousseau offers Sophie as the perfect woman who was created to please
man (Emile). According to Rousseau, man and woman differ in significant ways: One
ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. One must necessarily will and
be able; it suffices that the other put up little resistance (Emile). Zaw maintains that
Rousseaus view of the perfect moral person is the social relation between man and
woman, whose eye is woman and whose arm is man, each so dependent on the other
that woman learns from man what she has to see, and man learns from woman what he
has to do. . . . But harmonized as they are, everything furthers the common end . . .
woman has more quickness of mind, man more genius; woman observes, man reasons
(qtd. in Zaw 83). Women are recognized by Rousseau for having some contribution to
morality, but he still sees them as without reason or intelligence.
The idea of virtue being connected to reason and knowledge was a prominent
Enlightenment view and one that enhances the utopian essence of the era.

Wollstonecrafts views on the subject are firmly grounded in the theories of many
prominent philosophers. Thinkers such as Locke, Kant, and Hume developed theories on
reason, feelings, and virtue that deeply influenced Western society in the eighteenthcentury. Ideas such as the foundation and acquisition of knowledge, the dichotomy of
reason and feelings in human beings, whether virtue stems from reason or passion, and
what mans natural state was according to the laws of nature. Also included in discussions
of the time, to a lesser extent, was the role and capabilities of women. Zaw notes that
opposition was a popular concept of the time with philosophers, such as masculinefeminine, reason-feeling, public-private, mind-body, and culture-nature (83). Thinkers
like Burke, Rousseau, and Kant assigned beauty, ease, feeling, instinct, particularity, and
concrete, practical thought to women, and sublimity, difficulty, reason, labor, generality,
and abstract, speculative thought to men (Zaw 83). Here again women are separated
from men through physical and mental capacities.
Lockes theories of knowledge and reason were widespread and well-known
throughout Europe and America in the eighteenth-century. He gives his distinction
between reason and passion in the following statement from Essay Concerning Human
Understanding: Sense and intuition reach but a very little way. The greatest part of our
knowledge depends upon deductions and intermediate ideas. . . . the faculty which finds
out the means, and rightly applies them, to discover certainty in the one, and probability
in the other, is that which we call reason (Locke).
Reason is influenced only slightly by feelings in the use and development of knowledge.
Wollstonecraft values and advocates the use and development of reason by women to
better their lives, and recommends they eschew the passions that drive them and pursue a

rational education. Wollstonecrafts position on reason resembles Lockes general view of
knowledge, but two other thinkers had more specific views on reason in relation to virtue
whom Wollstonecraft was probably familiar with, (since she was widely read), Kant and
Reason is connected to virtue either directly or indirectly, depending on which
philosopher you read. Kant asserted that reason rules over the passions and results in
virtuous conduct. This use of practical reason is what Kant calls autonomy of the will
(Honderich 438). The will is free to choose the right, moral behavior through use of
reason. Virtues are any behavior or trait that can be considered universally worthy and
results in happiness. Kant says the highest good is the union of virtue and happiness
(Honderich 437). Kants theory of reason and morality is known as rationalism, favoring
rational reasoning without feelings. In contrast, Humes philosophy of empiricism
stressed the influence of feelings on knowledge and virtues. In his ideal theory of the
mind, ideas represent sensory experience, but cause and effect cannot come from sense
experience alone. Virtues are the result of sympathy, which causes us to act in ways
useful or agreeable to ourselves or others. These acts result in virtues such as
benevolence, justice, and courage (Honderich 588-89). Hume believed that reason alone
is not a motive to action, but guides and instructs our actions.
According to Zaw, Wollstonecrafts position on reason and passion is closer to
Kants than Humes. For her, reason redirects the passions. . . . [I]ts function truly is not
simply to convince the intellect but to change the heart: exactly the outcome sought by
moral educators (Zaw 104). Zaw claims, For Wollstonecraft, the reason that aids virtue
is not, as for Kant, pure practical reason independent of experience and the sole source of

moral law, but application of the lessons of experience to action and judgment, including
moral judgment (105). Wollstonecrafts theory of character reflects Humes idea of
associationism. Poston claims Wollstonecraft probably got her ideas from Hume. She
says, Hume was less concerned with the mechanics of how ideas began to associate than
with the implications of their accumulation (n1 115). Wollstonecraft expresses this in her
view about how the mind stores and uses knowledge and how it affects character: The
association of our ideas is either habitual or instantaneous; and the latter mode seems
rather to depend on the original temperature of the mind than on the will (115). She goes
on to connect the association of ideas with morality: Education thus only supplies the
man of genius with knowledge to give variety and contrast to his associations; but there is
an habitual association of ideas, that grows with our growth, which has a great effect on
the moral character of mankind; and by which a turn is given to the mind that commonly
remains throughout life (116). These first impressions stored in ones memory come at
the mercy of the persons passions, when the intellectual powers are not employed to
cool our sensations and reason gives way to emotions (116). Wollstonecraft says that
women are especially vulnerable to such a state because they have so little intellectual
employments to distract them from such associations. Where Wollstonecraft differs with
Hume is in metaphysical beliefs. Hume was a religious skeptic, while Kant worked out a
philosophical theory to allow for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul in
his primacy of practical reason, which maintains belief in God and immortality as
conditions of the full realization of the goals of morality (Honderich 437). The
unattainable moral perfection in this life comes in the next and is the goal of a virtuous

Wollstonecraft, like many Enlightenment philosophers, sought an answer to the
question of morality and its source. The term virtue had an elevated meaning in that era
and was valued as highly as the word reason by intelligent thinkers. The classical
virtues of ancient times, according to Woodward, included prudence, justice, fortitude,
and temperance and encompassed the moral traits of practical wisdom, fairness and
honesty, courage, and self-discipline. In the Middle Ages, the Christian virtues of faith,
hope, and charity were added to the list and became known as the Seven Cardinal Virtues.
Wollstonecraft emphasizes the need for societys development of virtues through reason,
especially for women and the rich, of whom she says, education tends to render them
vain and helpless. . . . [E]legance is inferior to virtue (9). Zaw maintains that her method
of presentation of her ideas of morality is not polished and seems inconsistent, but, even
though she drew from the ideas of others, she is trying to elicit them in a new way,
inspired by a new conception of ideal human nature (80). Reason, Wollstonecraft felt, is
the root of knowledge and virtue and comes to us from God. Wollstonecraft uses the
popular Deist metaphor of God as a watchmaker who creates the world then sets it in
motion to explain the evil in the world (which God includes), as a response to Rousseaus
assertion that evil is man-made. Reason allows us to achieve a more godlike portion of
happiness, she claims (15).
Her argument for mankinds pre-eminence over the brute creation is reason and
that the acquirement of virtue exalts on being above another (12). She goes on to ask,
For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might
attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes (12). Reason and morality are what
lead adults to perfection of nature and makes them more godlike. Adult morality is

motivated . . . by love of God (Zaw 107). God is moral perfection, perfect love, perfect
reason; eighteenth-century religion unites feeling and reason.
Wollstonecrafts views on reason and morality and the Enlightenment term
virtue have meaning that resonate today. Her utopian vision of enlightened society still
garners interest and criticism. Many contemporary philosophers and theorists still study
and evaluate the Enlightenment Project, which considers the value and viability of
Enlightenment thinking and theories as compared to todays advancement of such
theories. Are the ideas still current and useful? Do they provide us with useful
information in contemporary society? Or has the opposite effect occurred? Are the
theories and utopian ideals too good to be true? Have they even caused detrimental
effects in reaction? Have we achieved the level of virtue sought after by Wollstonecraft
and other theorists? Most contemporary critics agree that the Enlightenment failed, as did
some critics of the time, such as Kant (in his essay What is Enlightenment). In fact,
they also see the Enlightenment as a threat to specific areas of todays societies in which
they influenced them. Also, the idea of virtue in contemporary society is a topic discussed
on many levels. What is modern virtue? Is it similar to the eighteenth-century view of the
term? Kenneth Woodward distinguishes between virtue and values (a term thrown about
by conservatives quite frequently in regards to family): Values is a morally neutral
term indicating preference. A virtue, by contrast, is a quality of character by which
individuals habitually recognize and do the right thing (39). This is the term
Wollstonecraft prefers to use to represent the specific utopian ideals which come as a
result of the use of reason. Rational individuals who live together as equals in a virtuous
society would come close to utopia for her.

To be educated in reason and intellectual areas should be the goal of society,
Wollstonecraft felt, for men and women both: Men and women must be educated, in a
great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in. . . . till society be
differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education. . . . It is . . . sufficient . .
. to assert, that, whatever effect circumstances have on abilities, every being may become
virtuous by the exercise of its own reason (21). The hope for the future success of
enlightened education for women and a measure of equality resonates in Wollstonecrafts
enthusiastic, elegant prose, and the references to enlightened thinkers and her rational
argument for such equality reinforces her reasoning for such success. Liberal, perhaps
even radical, for her time, Mary Wollstonecraft set the tone for later liberal feminists to
win the rights deserved for a part of society long neglected and oppressed, women.

Works Cited
Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
Kensinger, Loretta. (In)Quest of Liberal Feminism. Hypatia 12.4 (1997): 178-197.
Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 2 Nov 2007.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Trans. Allan Bloom. Google Books. 6 Nov 2007.
Stacey, Judith. The New Conservative Feminism. Feminist Studies 9.3 (1983):
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Carol H. Poston. 2nd ed.
New York: Norton, 1988.
Woodward, Kenneth L. What is Virtue? Newsweek 13 June 1994: 38-39.
Zaw, Susan Khin. The Reasonable Heart: Mary Wollstonecrafts View of the Relation
Between Reason and Feeling in Morality, Moral Psychology, and Moral
Development. Hypatia 13.1 (1998): 78-117.