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MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT AND WILLIAM GODWIN

Which of the other Enlightenment thinkers were most directly relevant to philosophy?

Among the other Enlightenment thinkers of note in the area of philosophy is Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), the mother of Frankenstein novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. She contributed the foundations for feminist thought. Her husband was anarchist and political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836), known for his determinist utilitarianism. The French philosophes, particularly the encyclopedists, contributed radical ideas about society and government. Voltaire (Frangois-Marie Arouet; 1694-1778) brought key philosophical ideas to a wider audience. Enlightenment thought in general had a powerful effect on the American colonies and the establishing principles of the United States of America.

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is considered the founder of modern feminism in the West. She wrote at the time of the French Revolution and contributed to democratic ideas, generally, in Vindication of the Rights of Men, as well as to arguments for the equality of women in Vindication of the Rights of Women. She also wrote novels, an autobiographical travel essay, and shorter works on education.

What were Wollstonecraft's main political ideas?

In Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) she argued against Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke's (1729-1797) conservative attack on the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity). Her claim that Burke's endorsement of custom and tradition implied that slavery was acceptable made her famous overnight. Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in which Wollstonecraft sounded a clarion call for the recognition of women as human beings, was innovative in its progressive thought.

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 £mile (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.

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.

Was Wollstonecraft opposed to marriage?

No. Mary Wollstonecraft believed that marriage should be reformed so that husbands and wives would be true friends. She did not think that the whole of women's virtue lay in their sexual chastity, but that they should have opportunities to develop their character, just as men did. Turning around the seventeenth-century belief that women were the sexually dangerous and aggressive sex, she wrote that the biggest danger to women's chastity was the failure of men to consider chastity a serious virtue of their own.

How did the facts of Wollstonecraft's life obscure her work?

Mary Wollstonecraft's life was tumultuous in a way that was shocking to her peers and many later thinkers. Her husband, the philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836), wrote The Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a year after Mary had died in childbirth at the age of 37. Godwin, the founder of modern anarchism, was vilified by the poet Robert Southey for "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked," and in a satire called The Unsexed Females, A Poem (1798) published by Richard Polwhele.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields, London, and her father squandered their money and took over her own small inheritance. He drank excessively and beat Mary's mother. Her sisters, Everina and Eliza, were also to have unhappy marriages. In her teens, Mary became friends with Jane Arden, whose family had intellectual interests, and Fanny Blood, with whom she later started a school in Newington Green, which was known as a "dissenting community."

Blood married, became ill, and died. The school fell apart, and Wollstonecraft worked as a governess, leaving after a year when she decided to support herself by writing. This was a very daring ambition for a woman at the time, and Wollstonecraft called herself "the first of a new genus." In London, she was assisted by the publisher Joseph Johnson; she became part of a circle that included Thomas Paine and William Godwin, and supported herself by translating French and German texts after learning those languages. She had an affair with the married artist Henry Fuseli, who rejected her when his wife refused a platonic ménage `trois.

She then wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), followed by Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and traveled to France a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There she fell in love with the adventurer Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had her daughter, Fanny. Imlay rejected Mary, and when she returned to England she twice tried to commit suicide. Eventually, she became romantically attached to Godwin and they married so that their child would be legitimate, though they lived in separate houses. Their daughter, Mary, became Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Fanny committed suicide at the age of 22.

Who was William Godwin?

Mary Wollstonecraft's husband, William Godwin (1756-1836), was well known as a novelist and political radical. In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) he advocated utilitarianism and anarchism. He believed that the institution of government has an artificially corrupting effect on individuals because it creates prejudices. He proposed that instead of large nation-states humans should live in small communities without government so that they can get to know each other as unique individuals. Only then will it be possible for human beings to feel sympathetic regard for their neighbors.

Godwin thought that, because there is no free will, there is no point in punishment. Virtue, according to Godwin, was based on sympathy, and sympathy motivates us to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of human beings. Godwin had no use for other values beyond this happiness principle. He also thought that rights were unnecessary because sympathy could do the work of protecting everyone.

 
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