Mary Wollstonecraft's Fight for Women's Education

By Natacha Mourin - History and Spanish Student @ St Catharine's College, Cambridge

Mary Wollstonecraft is seen as a key pillar of British proto-feminist political thought. In her 1792 work A Vindication of Rights of Woman, she argued for the education of woman, a topic which was being hotly debated at the time, for example in Rousseau’s famous Emile. In fact, throughout this text she reviews a range of educational writings for women such as the aforementioned work by Rousseau.


Wollstonecraft saw the women of her time as corrupt and ignorant, but she thought this occurred through nurture rather than by nature. This was a large distinction she took from other authors of her time. Thus, by changing the way women were educatedl she believed they could become more virtuous.


A quick definition of virtue


Many writers of political thought talked about the idea of virtue. In short it is a concept related to the personal qualities individuals held and how these qualities went to make society better.


How would education help women and then society?


She opens the book in a letter to M. Talleyrand-Périgord, Late Bishop of Autun

where she argues ‘That if she [woman] not be prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.’


Throughout the book there is a thread that women’s lack of education only goes to bring down the rest of society, as seen in the above quote.


The issues with womens’ education


In her work, Wollstonecraft argues that men and women hold the same type of virtue as one another. Through the conditions society put on women, Wollstonecraft believed they were being forced into being weak of constitution and of mind; through the way they were socialised and educated.


She is very critical of the way women were being educated at the time, and pinpointing it as a large cause as to why women were the way many authors criticised. In Chapter XXX she states that education must be both physical and mental to bring women out of this state she calls weak repeatedly.

‘The most perfect education … an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart … to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent.’


The type of education women were receiving concluded Wollstonecraft was detrimental to society seeing as without bettering women’s educations, society as a whole could not move forward.


Societal change

In turn, what Wollstonecraft holds as an end goal with women’s education, is not only a change for women but rather a more virtuous society.


‘It is time to effect a revolution in female manners - time to restore to them to their lost dignity - and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.’


Education was seen as a tool to better women’s manners and virtue but also as the only way to truly completely reform the world, an interesting commentary taking into account the societal revolution that was taking place at the same time just across the channel.


Further reading:

  1. A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. S. Tomaselli, (Cambridge, 1995)

  2. S. Bergès and A. Coffee (eds), The Social and Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft (Oxford, 2016)

  3. R.M. Janes, ‘On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (1978), 293-302.

  4. D. Engster, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’s Nurturing Liberalism: Between an Ethic of Justice and Care’, American Political Science Review 95 (2001), 577-588.