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Just a feminist?

Wollstonecraft. Philosophy Passion and Politics
FREEDOM / Mary Wollstonecraft wanted a whole new society. Her demands for women's rights were only a consistent part of this. She put her trust in the French Revolution, and went on a red-hot attack on Edmund Burke, a former comrade-in-arms.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is very popular with young feminists. Historically, she has long been identified as an early champion of women's rights, and today she is a heroine and galleon figure in a wave that will emphasize women's contribution to history.

Author Sylvana Tomaselli teaches history at Cambridge. She believes the traditional interpretation of Mary Wollstonecraft is reducing and consequently wrong. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is not her most important text, it is rather an addition A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) as Wollstonecraft wrote as a red-hot reply to Edmund Burkes Reflections on the Revolutions in France (1790)

The philosopher and politician Burke had belonged to the same environment that Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin belonged to, the so-called "English radicals" – he had supported the revolution in America, but with the French Revolution he got enough, and turned to a defense of the old regime ̶ extremely well written and sarcastic. We must see Burke as a renegade in Mary's eyes. She read Burkes at full speed A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), not because she was particularly interested in the subject, but to find things she could use in her attack on Burke.

Freedom as a goal

She begins her pamphlet by saying that she wants to act systematically and philosophically, but that does not happen. Her text is a long series of outbursts against Burke from all possible angles, almost according to the approach method. The script was sent with running boys to the printing house while she was writing.

According to Wollstonecraft, the first distortions of human relationships occur at birth.

Burke believed that what was happening in France was not just a political revolution, but a civilizational one, without a forerunner or like one that would completely end all aspects of European society, right down to the relationship between the sexes. Wollstonecraft believed that this was exactly what had to happen for the revolution to reach its most important goal: freedom. What consequently makes her text startling is that it quite unexpectedly talks about interpersonal relationships and how these are distorted by power and possession of property. She thus connected the personal to the political. She talks about love, friendship, marriage and women ̶ none of this can be said to be the theme of Burke or others who attacked him.

In her dissection of Burke, she separates the private person from the public person, but attacks the two equally hard. She calls him "a good but vain man." She describes him as superficial, pretentious and witty, and "a weather vane of untamed emotions." This was how women were described. He was capricious, weak and manipulative. Given all this, and more, it was no surprise that his argument became passionate and his imagination aroused! So from the very beginning, she ornamented Burke with the characteristics of unstable femininity. And similarly, she draped herself in masculinity. She stood for simplicity, vitality and authenticity.

Distorted relationships

According to Wollstonecraft, the first distortions of human relationships occur at birth. Even before they were produced by education, men's birthright meant that inequality was fundamental from the moment the newborn came out of the mother's womb, which Wollstonecraft and her siblings knew all about. A set inheritance system distorted the relationship between adults and children, between siblings, and between other family members.

Burke defended this system. He was (now) more concerned with property rights than freedom, she thought. The desire to keep property within the family, and perhaps increase it through sensible marriage, turned parents into tyrants who cowed their children ̶ who were not free to choose the one they loved, but were forced into legalized prostitution. Only (supposedly) rich widows and the poor married out of love.

To be a struggle for women's rights, however, it is surprising how much insults and criticism of women Wollstonecraft brings.

The infidelity of such a marriage market made women careless mothers. One might think that Wollstonecraft would go into the effect this had on the children, since it was a topic she had been interested in. Thoughts on the education of daughters: with reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life (1787), but she stuck to the theme of women; their moral status, their views on themselves and life. In short: These were not respectable. Not so much because of their infidelity, as their obsessive preoccupation with their appearance.

Criticism of women

Women cultivated their appearance: “A woman never forgets to dress up so that she can make an impression on the senses of the opposite sex, and force the tribute that is gallant to give, and yet we wonder why women have such limited understanding! »

Edmund Burke. Photo: Wikimedia

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is an extension of the demands for justice and freedom that crystallized in the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft believed that the requirements must of course apply to women as they should apply to men. To be a struggle for women's rights, however, it is surprising how much insults and criticism of women Wollstonecraft brings. However, this is because society keeps women down, but also because women home Stay down by taking advantage of all the benefits gallantry and flattery can bring.

Women must step up, but at the same time women cannot be judged until they are given the same opportunities as men. Only then can we judge, says Wollstonecraft. Consequently, society must change from the ground up, and she saw the French Revolution as an opportunity for such a fresh start.

Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.

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