The Enlightenment Period

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin

What were Wollstonecraft’s theoretical innovations?

Mary Wollstonecraft developed the arguments of the seventeenth century anonymous writer who said in An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex: The “Usurpation of Man; and the Tyranny of Custom (Here in England, Especially)” that women had the traits they did because of the roles society assigned them. However, Wollstonecraft stopped short of condemning men for this or claiming that women were superior or equal to men in character or strength.

Wollstonecraft’s general contribution to political and social theory was twofold. First, in the case of women, she offered a detailed analysis of how their customary upbringing and assigned roles in society caused them to develop those traits that were considered “natural” to the female sex: emotionality, submissiveness, impulsiveness, vanity. Second, she pursued the assumption that reason could be used to improve human happiness. In both of her major works, she assumed that it was the obligation of rational people of both sexes to endorse social progress and human equality. Wollstonecraft’s progressiveness was focused on the life conditions of those who were disadvantaged and oppressed, which was not the case with leading male political philosophers in the seventeenth century, or even during the Enlightenment. In that sense, she was a revolutionary thinker.


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