The Enlightenment Period

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin

What did Wollstonecraft claim on behalf of women?

Mary Astell (1666–1731) and Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756) preceded Wollstonecraft in arguing for women’s recognition as thinking persons. Astell claimed that women were entitled to be educated. Her reason for this was that women had the same God-given capacity to reason as men. Her justification for educating women was that this could help them be better wives and mothers. Wollstonecraft shared Astell’s views and defended them more systematically. She also claimed that the current treatment of privileged women as “spaniels” and “toys” was demeaning to them. She took Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) to task for claiming in his hugely popular novel Émile (1762) that women should be educated to provide soothing pleasure to men. She wrote openly about female sexuality and the emotional vulnerability of women to “rakes,” arguing that women were educated to be impulsive, emotional, and gullible.


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