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Mary Wollstonecraft | Proto-feminist, Writer & Philosopher

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, who lived and wrote during the 18th century. She argued for girls and boys to receive free and equal education, at a time when girls were seldom educated at all. Wollstonecraft is most famous for her essay on women’s rights published in 1792 – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

The First Feminist

Mary Wollstonecraft is often thought of as the first feminist as she wrote the first great feminist text. Although, the term feminism wasn’t used until the 1890’s – almost 100 years after Wollstonecraft wrote her feminist essay – A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman.

As Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor of Classics, once said:

Every woman who wants to make an impact on the way this country is run – from the House of Commons to the pub quiz – has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank.

Wollstonecraft’s Central Ideas

Mary Wollstonecraft advocated for the rights of women and held these central ideas:

  • That education should be available to all and that it should be free.
  • Women should be allowed to enter the world of medicine and politics.
  • Women should be able to speak their minds without being perceived as “masculine” or any other trait, seen as undesirable in women.
  • Differences between men and women are due to nurture, rather than nature – it is how they are raised.
  • It is essential for women to be given the right to earn their own living and to support themselves.

Wollstonecraft said:

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.

Get the Book

You can get a copy of *Mary Wollstonecraft’s A vindication of the Rights of Woman at Waterstones for £4.99

Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel *Mary and The Wrongs of Woman is also available at Waterstones for £7.99

*Memoirs of the Author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ written by Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, is available for £6.99

Education for Women

A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman is a trailblazing feminist work, from the 18th century. In the book, Wollstonecraft makes her case that girls should be educated.

Education for All

Wollstonecraft proposed that education should be available to all and that it should be free. She Advocates for a national public school system for girls and boys, just like the one we have in the UK today.

Nature vs Nurture

Wollstonecraft argued that the differences between men and women are caused by the way they are raised. Meaning that the ‘nurture’ girls and boys receive – their environment and upbringing – cause the differences between them.

The prevailing idea of the time was that men and women had different ‘natures’. That girls and boys were born with abilities based on whether they were male or female. It was thought that there was no point in educating girls, as they were not capable of logic or reason.

Wollstonecraft states in her book, that girls are treated as subordinate, less important beings and are raised to be incapable and submissive. She also thought that because of this, they lacked the tools to vindicate or defend their rights.

Wollstonecraft also states that girls learn early on that their looks are the most important thing and that they must appear pleasing to others. They are not taught to use reason or to think and act independently.

Wollstonecraft observed that young girls are taught to ignore reason and common sense in favour of emotion and sentiment. She argued that equal education for girls would benefit all of society. Enabling women to become better mothers and happier wives as well as capable workers and professionals.

Background | The Lives and Rights of Women in the 18th Century

Mary Wollstonecraft lived and wrote during the Georgian era. This time in history was in many ways, a step backwards for women, and a low point for women’s freedoms and education.


  • Wealthy families began to educate their sons and daughters separately.
  • The education of girls focused on their role as wives and mothers.
  • Education for girls did not focus on intellectual pursuits and neglected to teach logic and reason.
  • Women were not allowed to go to university during Mary Wollstonecraft’s lifetime. Women were not admitted to university until 1868 – 71 years after Wollstonecraft had died.


During the 18th century women had very little say and very little involvement in English society. Women could not vote, and if married, could not own property or work. Women were more or less confined to the home, where they would take care of all domestic duties. Women couldn’t even leave the house alone, or they were considered to be a prostitute.

Marriage and Coverture

Married women of the 18th century were considered feme covert, and were bound by the laws of coverture. This meant that a husband and wife were one person. The law only recognised the husband and not the wife, therefore, upon marriage the husband gained all of his wife’s personal and property rights.

It wasn’t until 1882, that married women were allowed to own and keep their property. Brought about by the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, a century later.

Childbirth and Children

In the 18th century pregnancy could be dangerous and women sometimes died in childbirth or of post-birth infections. Mary Wollstonecraft herself, sadly died of puerperal fever, a post-birth infection, just after the birth of her second child, Mary, in 1797.

Infant mortality was high – about 1 in every 4 children died before they turned 5. Mary Wollstonecraft’s best friend Fanny, died during childbirth and her baby sadly died soon after.


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