Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft

Originally published in the last ever issue of Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism (London, UK) No.30/31 [new series] Spring 1992, under the title “Two sexes,  yet one truth”. It was subject to some ‘subbing’ from the then editor so may not have been written (or published, due to re-subbing), exactly as it appears below. (L.W.)

Subheadings and quotations in boxes added.
“Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others. – I am not fond of vindication. – Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. – Nay, as we in general give others credit for worth, in proportion as we possess it – I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind. I rest on my own.”

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) rejected both marriage and the available ‘suitable’ jobs for women, to earn her living by writing and win fame or notoriety in her public life as “English miscellaneous writer”: pioneer of sexual liberation, champion of women’s rights, wife to William Godwin, and mother of Mary Shelley. While Godwin has always had a secure place in the history of (pre-)anarchist political thought, libertarians have tended to neglect or be ambivalent towards Wollstonecraft.

In recent years, the women’s movement has accorded her a deserved revival of attention and done much to counter the more negative, grudging, patronising and romanticising tendencies of earlier commentators. But in-depth analyses of what she actually said have remained fairly thin on the ground, There are still aspects of her work and thought to which her numerous friends and critics have done less than justice, including some of particular interest to libertarians – rejection of authority and received opinions, insistence on individual autonomy, and the recognition that the liberation of women had to be an integral part of an enlightened outlook. These are illustrated in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first feminist manifesto and her best known book.

This was not her first venture into the contemporary political fray. In 1970, her Vindication of the Rights of Men was one of the first published ripostes to;[Edmund] Burke’s notorious attack on the principles of the French Revolution, and she now proceeded to expound her conviction that “the rights of humanity have thus been confined to the male sex from Adam”. She saw the logical and moral necessity of rounding out the concept of full human emancipation, “to be free in a physical, moral and social sense”.

She undertook this new championship thoroughly and conscientiously, aware of its audacity and significance in “representing the whole sex, one half of mankind”, and also with passion against injustice, anger at suffering, and humour at the many absurdities she exposed. These qualities, and her unwavering commitment, make her still worth reading and eminently quotable. Confronting the question of what was wrong and why, and what could be done to put it right, she proceeded to develop a detailed critique of existing society and its coercion and/or persuasion of female children into the acceptance of traditional sex roles and values – the art of ‘pleasing’.

 “Asserting the rights which women, in common with men, ought to contend for,” she wrote, “I have not attempted to extenuate their faults; but to prove them to be the natural consequence of their education and station in society.” Education was the key to improvement, not only for the good of their souls but to break the chains of economic dependence. She outlined a system to replace the confinement, ignorance and affectation imposed on girls (and the differently pernicious alternative imposed on boys), which would have gone a long way to undermine the dominant ideology. At the same time, she recognised the importance of external restrictions, and intended to deal with the matter of legal disabilities in a second volume, which never appeared – although it has been observed that her unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman (1797) effectively fills the place of such a work by illustrating the fate of women in different classes in society.

She did not, however, regard women either with indulgence or despair as inevitably helpless, passive victims of circumstances; they had to take responsibility for their own behaviour, even granted that they were in many ways up against it from their earliest days, beset by double-think and double-binds at every turn. Wishing “to see women neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures” who did not “have power over men, but over themselves”, she addressed them directly and uncompromisingly. She pointed out the fallacies and dangers of prevailing attitudes towards them, however hypocritically flattering in appearance – as long as they fulfilled the desired stereotypical roles – but covering hostility and contempt: “This separate interest – this insidious state of warfare…”

Reason and Autonomy

Her project involved demolishing many prestigious theories of education and infant management as expounded by such luminaries as Rousseau, whose more absurd fantasies about female character she was ready to dismiss with a brisk “What nonsense!” despite her admiration for some of his other ideas. Her style was normally forthright – “What she thought, she scorned to qualify,” as Godwin observed – but always based on reasoned argument, reason being in her view a chief good and guiding principle, its exercise a right and duty for both sexes.

For modern readers, the placing of these concepts in the context of an overall deistic philosophy may be off-putting, but the point is that whatever the framework, men and women must be equally free to confront and come to terms with their own reality, and factors impeding their doing so must not be tolerated. Her religion was rationalist too; the admittedly paternalistic God was expected to act in a reasonable and humane manner – practically a mandated deity subject to recall. She had no time for the barbaric notions of eternal punishment of the hell-fire brigade and rejected the fall-of-man creation myth as an excuse for denigrating women.

Demonstrating how women were moulded into being “insignificant objects of desire – mere propagators of fools!” she was ready to take on just about anyone, male or female, obscure or famous, for “the books of instruction, written by men of genius, have had the same tendency as more frivolous productions… Viewing them [women] as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”. Such a view could be deeply internalised, and was all too often reinforced by women themselves imposing it on each other, as Mary well realised, understanding but pleading for rejection of the psychological mechanisms and motives involved.

She knew she was asking women to embark on what could be a painful process, but saw it as inevitable as well as ultimately desirable. “Why have we implanted in us an irresistible desire to think?” she exclaimed in [one of] her early letters, declaring that women should “struggle with any obstacle rather than go into a state of dependence”. She spoke from hard-won experience as well as observation and conviction – “The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng.” Her personal antipathy to her conventional role comes out more than once. “On many accounts I am averse to any matrimonial tie,” she explained:

“It is a happy thing to be a mere blank, and to be able to pursue one’s own whims, where they lead, without having a husband and half a hundred children at hand to teaze and controul a poor woman who wishes to be free.”

This did not indicate a dislike of children or disregard of their interests; on the contrary, their welfare was central to her emphasis on (conditional) duties and responsibilities of women as mothers: “Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives, and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”

For, even in its own terms, she pointed out, the existing system of female education was riddled with contradictions, and militated against “domestic virtue”. She insisted that men should also take responsibility for the children they propagated and relationships they undertook outside marriage – “When a man seduces a woman, it should, I think, be termed a left-handed marriage” – arguing cogently against the unfairness of the prevailing double standards of sexual morality (from which she herself was to suffer): “I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual [gendered] virtues... for men and women, truth... must be the same.”

In the public sphere likewise, she illustrated the evils of “blind obedience” and its corrupting effects in creating chains of despotism and debasing its victims. She can be said to have made some sort of connection between sexual repression, authoritarian conditioning and the irrational in politics. She takes an integrated view, trying to understand what is happening throughout society and why. Her themes include fear of freedom, authority relations, repression: “The being who patiently endures injustice, and silently bears insults, will soon become unjust, or unable to discern right from wrong”; and the refusal to think.

“Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they know not how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves…”

There is quite a lot in this vein, its implications largely unremarked by successive editors. 

“There seems to be an indolent propensity in man to make prescription always take the place of reason, and to place every duty on an arbitrary foundation.”
“The many would fain let others both work and think for them.”
“... [T]he fear of innovation, in this country, extends to everything...”

Class and Revolution

Our more class-conscious comrades may wonder whether her theories are mere bourgeois(e) complaints. It is true that Rights of Woman is addressed to the “middle” sort, but by contrast with the hopelessly effete aristocracy rather than in order to exclude the lower orders, who for practical reasons she evidently did not see as the agents of the sort of change she advocated, although according respect and consideration to working-class women as individuals – “with respect to virtue… I have seen most in low life…” Later, her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794) illustrated sympathy with and understanding of the revolutionary cause in spite of her profound misgivings about the turn events had taken. Realism did not make her pessimistic or reactionary, but she saw more clearly what preconditions were required:

“People thinking for themselves have more energy in their voice, than any government which it is possible for human wisdom to invent, and every government not aware of this sacred truth will, at some period, be suddenly overturned.”

And not only self-managed autonomy, but mutual aid: “Till men learn mutually to assist without governing each other, little can be done by political associations towards perfecting the condition of mankind.” 

Although her ‘class politics’ were inevitably circumscribed by her historical situation her perceptions were often strikingly sound:

“But one power should not be thrown down to exalt another – for all power inebriates weak man; and its abuse proves that the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.”

Of course this must all be seen in historical context, but it seems to have more to do with a libertarian tradition than either bourgeois liberalism or the authoritarian left.

Liberty, Equality, Comradeship

Mary would not necessarily make an automatic or comfortable conscript into some sections of the modern feminist movement either. One factor is her consistent denial of biological determinism/ sexual dimorphism (“Mind has no sex”). Rather than wallowing in imposed and alien ‘feminine’ attributes, and abdicating from whole swathes of human activity, or alternatively aping ‘masculine’ patterns, she saw the arrogating of certain qualities and propensities to the dominant sex as wholly unacceptable and at variance with reality.

Rejecting inhibiting assumptions, she asserted that the basic premise should be of equal potential, deserving and requiring equal opportunity to develop. Rather than branding females as by definition weak, illogical, childish, incompetent, and thereby preventing them from being anything else, both their minds and their bodies should be encouraged and preserved in health and knowledge. If they then turned out not to be able to attain the same heights as their male companions, so be it; but the experiment had never been tried, so the case was unproved – it was mere prejudice, Likewise they should not be confined to the domestic zone, but take their places in professional and public life: “I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint… that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed…”

Her methods would, she argued, have the effect of making better wives and others, but this was not the primary aim: “The great end of [women’s] exertions should be to unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.”

There are many digressions and repetitions in Rights of Woman as well as some engaging sidelights, such as concern for animal welfare and a recurrent antimilitarism. She was aware of [the book’s] faults: “… dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject – had I had more time I could have written a better book.” But she didn’t do so badly, religion, middle-class origins and bees-in-the-bonnet notwithstanding.  It is altogether a remarkable production, and many of her observations are highly relevant today.

Rather unfortunately, the book ends with an appeal to (enlightened) men to see the sense of what is being argued, and act on it, and is prefaced by an address to Talleyrand, the French politician who she thought had the power and capacity to introduce principles of sound education in revolutionary France. The idea, however, was to remove the multitudinous massive obstacles in the way of women’s autonomous action, rather than to substitute for it. She was not exactly pessimistic about what women could achieve, even though she took a dim view of what in the present state of society most of them had become. There were examples, including her own, to demonstrate an alternative, but she knew there was a long way to go.

Private Life and Public Persona

Mary’s eventual decision to marry seems to have been a rational though reluctant adaptation to circumstances and recognition of the realities of a social life from which she did not wish to be totally excluded – “The odium of society impedes usefulness”. (Ironically, [the decision] did lead to a measure of ostracism, by spelling out the fact that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of Fanny, her first child.) It is certainly unfair to blame her for Godwin’s apparent abandonment of long-held principles; they were both in the same boat, and acknowledged as much, even if society would not have penalised Godwin in the same way for defying its conventions.
[Marriage: “law and the worst of all laws... an affair of property and the worst of all properties” – William Godwin]

Some censorious commentators have maintained that it was the ‘scandalous’ dimension that ‘set back’ the cause of women’s emancipation, but the times had grown increasingly reactionary and theirs was not the only good cause to suffer. In any case, the principle (that she should have modified her behaviour for the sake of public relations), as well as the [supposed] fact, is dubious. Conversely, modern feminists may see the ‘romantic’ view of the relationship as somewhat detracting from Mary’s character and principles. This would be to ignore the context, and the innovative attempt to forge an equal partnership based on mutual respect, even if it did not work perfectly in practice every day: for example, Mary had occasion to point out that Godwin continued to assume priority for his sacrosanct ‘work’, while hers was supposed to be shelved in order to deal with domestic matters as required.

The events of her life have alwavs been difficult for observers to view in detachment from her writings, and many of the unreasoned critiques published in her lifetime and shortly after her death were frankly ad feminam attacks. Another effect of this was that her writings have seldom if ever been given due consideration. Even many comparatively favourable write-ups have an apologetic tone, while recent feminist commentators often tend to overlook her more generally political (libertarian) significance. In any case, she acted in accordance with her ideals in difficult circumstances with courage and honesty, and provided an example and inspiration, rater than an awful warning, to others in the next and subsequent generations.

“And who can tell, how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves?”

hedgehog reprints @ smothpubs

At the time of writing the above, the main modern source for Mary’s life was: Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.

There have been a number of useful publications about Mary Wollstonecraft in the past twenty years, including:

Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. (Little, Brown 2005) Virago 2006. Closely attentive to MW’s writings and sympathetic with her character.

Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft, a Revolutionary Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson,2000.

Janet Todd, ed. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Allen Lane 2003.

Claudia L. Johnson, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. CUP 2002.

Black Flag no. 227, Summer 2008, includes writing by Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other writings by MW herself can be found in various editions in libraries and/or currently in print.


  1. An article on MW's interactions with the medical profession, and her views on health and medicine, is available at: - also on this blog in two parts, posted 16th and 19th March 2015.

  2. And a pamphlet formed of the article as in above comment has just been published and is being stocked by AK,; Housmans took a few copies too.