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These are wide-ranging works in which Wollstonecraft explores basic principles, far-reaching proposals and some concerns that were very immediate to her day. Presenting these works together gives an understanding of the breadth of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy.
She starts from a religious perspective. It is not a traditional, hierarchical perspective, however, but one based on an individual’s personal responsibility for the state of his or her soul. For each person to bear that responsibility, Wollstonecraft posits that God must have given each person the ability necessary to meet the challenge. Therefore, for the sake of his or her soul, each person must have the opportunity to develop such ability. Wollstonecraft focuses on the development of virtue and morals, as opposed to obedience and manners.
From such an egalitarian religious outlook, Wollstonecraft naturally proceeds to an egalitarian ideal of society. She criticizes all arbitrary distinctions that divide society—whether they be of wealth, title, class, sex or race—or that limit people’s opportunities. In her view, nobody was born to serve another. She sees discrimination against women as being similar to both slavery and the English class system that valued the property of the rich more than the lives of the poor.
She insists that each individual is entitled to respect, and that respect and esteem are the bases of the most meaningful relationships. Therefore, the institutionalization of disrespect, however instituted, is anathema to her.
Wollstonecraft acknowledges that men are generally stronger physically than are women, but denies that such advantage gives men any intellectual or moral superiority. She argues that men have used their physical strength to restrain women socially and intellectually, and she inveighs against all the rationalizations and excuses men have created to justify such abuse. As the title quote shows, she objects to all such abuses of power.
She spends much energy attacking those excuses, focusing especially on the harm that restraints cause to women, to their relationships with their husbands and children and to society in general. In these specific arguments, she is focusing mostly on upper class women, those who can afford idleness. She inveighs against the same restrictions and harms that Jane Austen satirized. Through Wollstonecraft’s arguments, however, one gets a much harsher view of the problems women faced than one gets from Austen’s lighter tough.
Wollstonecraft makes many far-reaching suggestions that still resonate today, including education for women; coeducation; paid, public education and a balance of school and home lives. She advocates for women in the professions, including medicine and politics.
These are groundbreaking works, rooted deeply in their times.