Mary Wollstonecraft

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Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 175910 September 1797) was an English social philosopher and pioneering advocate of women's rights. She married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, but died soon after the birth of their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).

Quotes[edit]

Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world.
No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason
Till society is very differently constituted, parents, I fear, will still insist on being obeyed, because they will be obeyed, and constantly endeavour to settle that power on a Divine right, which will not bear the investigation of reason.
  • Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world; and this is not a woman's province in a married state. Her sphere of action is not large, and if she is not taught to look into her own heart, how trivial are her occupations and pursuits! What little arts engross and narrow her mind!
  • You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track — the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.
    • Letter to Everina Wollstonecraft (7 November 1787)
  • No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
    • A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
  • Virtue can only flourish amongst equals.
    • A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
  • Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason; but, as this task requires more judgment than generally falls to the lot of parents, substitutes must be sought for, and medicines given, when regimen would have answered the purpose much better. I believe those who examine their own minds, will readily agree with me, that reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.
    In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition.
  • I am a strange compound of weakness and resolution! However, if I must suffer, I will endeavour to suffer in silence. There is certainly a great defect in my mind — my wayward heart creates its own misery — Why I am made thus I cannot tell; and, till I can form some idea of the whole of my existence, I must be content to weep and dance like a child — long for a toy, and be tired of it as soon as I get it.
    • Undated letter to Joseph Johnson (October? 1792), published in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004), edited by Janet Todd, p. 206.
  • Every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil.
    • The French Revolution, Bk. V, ch. 4 (1794)
  • The endeavor to keep alive any hoary establishment beyond its natural date is often pernicious and always useless.
    • The French Revolution, Bk. V, ch. 4 (1794)
  • I write in a hurry, because the little one, who has been sleeping a long time, begins to call for me. Poor thing! when I am sad, I lament that all my affections grow on me, till they become too strong for my peace, though they all afford me snatches of exquisite enjoyment.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)[edit]

Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks.
It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.
  • Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.
    • Dedication
  • In the present state of society it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground. To clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions, and the answers will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on which reasoning is built; though, when entangled with various motives of action, they are formally contradicted either by the words or conduct of men.
    • Ch. 1, opening
  • The rights and duties of man thus simplified, it seems almost impertinent to attempt to illustrate truths that appear so incontrovertible: yet such deeply rooted prejudices have clouded reason, and such spurious qualities have assumed the name of virtues, that it is necessary to pursue the course of reason as it has been perplexed and involved in error, by various adventitious circumstances, comparing the simple axiom with casual deviations.
    Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace 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. Yet the imperfect conclusions thus drawn, are frequently very plausible, because they are built on partial experience, on just, though narrow, views.
    • Ch. 1
  • The civilization of the bulk of the people of Europe, is very partial; nay, it may be made a question, whether they have acquired any virtues in exchange for innocence, equivalent to the misery produced by the vices that have been plastered over unsightly ignorance, and the freedom which has been bartered for splendid slavery. The desire of dazzling by riches, the most certain pre-eminence that man can obtain, the pleasure of commanding flattering sycophants, and many other complicated low calculations of doting self-love, have all contributed to overwhelm the mass of mankind, and make liberty a convenient handle for mock patriotism. For whilst rank and titles are held of the utmost importance, before which Genius "must hide its diminished head," it is, with a few exceptions, very unfortunate for a nation when a man of abilities, without rank or property, pushes himself forward to notice. Alas! what unheard of misery have thousands suffered to purchase a cardinal's hat for an intriguing obscure adventurer, who longed to be ranked with princes, or lord it over them by seizing the triple crown!
    Such, indeed, has been the wretchedness that has flowed from hereditary honours, riches, and monarchy, that men of lively sensibility have almost uttered blasphemy in order to justify the dispensations of providence. Man has been held out as independent of his power who made him, or as a lawless planet darting from its orbit to steal the celestial fire of reason; and the vengeance of heaven, lurking in the subtile flame, sufficiently punished his temerity, by introducing evil into the world.
    • Ch. 1
  • It is impossible for any man, when the most favourable circumstances concur, to acquire sufficient knowledge and strength of mind to discharge the duties of a king, entrusted with uncontrolled power; how then must they be violated when his very elevation is an insuperable bar to the attainment of either wisdom or virtue; when all the feelings of a man are stifled by flattery, and reflection shut out by pleasure! Surely it is madness to make the fate of thousands depend on the caprice of a weak fellow creature, whose very station sinks him NECESSARILY below the meanest of his subjects! But one power should not be thrown down to exalt another--for all power intoxicates weak man; and its abuse proves, that the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.
    • Ch. 1
  • A standing army, for instance, is incompatible with freedom; because subordination and rigour are the very sinews of military discipline; and despotism is necessary to give vigour to enterprise that one will directs. A spirit inspired by romantic notions of honour, a kind of morality founded on the fashion of the age, can only be felt by a few officers, whilst the main body must be moved by command, like the waves of the sea; for the strong wind of authority pushes the crowd of subalterns forward, they scarcely know or care why, with headlong fury.
    • Ch. 1
  • It is of great importance to observe that the character of every man is, in some degree, formed by his profession. A man of sense may only have a cast of countenance that wears off as you trace his individuality, whist the weak, common man has scarcely ever any character, but what belongs to the body; at least, all his opinions have been so steeped in the vat consecrated by authority, that the faint spirit which the grape of his own vine yields, cannot be distinguished.
    • Ch. 1


  • Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks.
    • Ch. 3
  • Should it be proved that woman is naturally weaker than man, from whence does it follow that it is natural for her to labour to become still weaker than nature intended her to be? Arguments of this cast are an insult to common sense, and savour of passion. The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger, and though conviction may not silence many boisterous disputants, yet, when any prevailing prejudice is attacked, the wise will consider, and leave the narrow-minded to rail with thoughtless vehemence at innovation.
    • Ch. 3
  • Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.
    • Ch. 3
  • If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?
    • Ch. 3
  • How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained by its own exertions?
    • Ch. 3
  • Ah! why do women condescend to receive a degree of attention and respect from strangers different from that reciprocation of civility which the dictates of humanity and the politeness of civilization authorize between man and man? And why do they not discover, when, "in the noon of beauty's power", that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect. Confined, then, in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch.
    • Ch. 4
  • Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.
    • Ch. 4
  • It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion that they were created rather to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain, must be obtained by their charms and weakness.
    • Ch. 4
  • It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.
    • Ch. 4
  • Men have superior strength of body; but were it not for mistaken notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to earn their own subsistence, the true definitions of independence; and to bear those bodily inconveniences and exertions that are requisite to strengthen the mind. Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of body, that we may know how far the nation superiority of man extends . For what reason or virtue can be expected from a creature when the seed-time of life is neglected? None; did not the winds of heaven casually scatter many useful seeds in fallow ground.
    • Ch.5
  • A modest man is steady, an humble man timid, and a vain one presumptuous.
    • Ch. 7
  • Women becoming, consequently weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be...have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection...either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast if off when born. Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.
    • Ch. 8
  • It is a melancholy truth; yet such is the blessed effect of civilization! the most respectable women are the most oppressed; and, unless they have understandings far superiour to the common run of understandings, taking in both sexes, they must, from being treated like contemptible beings, become contemptible.
    • Ch. 9
  • It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish.
    • Ch. 9
  • The preposterous distinction of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people, because respectability is not attached to the discharge of the relative duties of life, but to the station, and when the duties are not fulfilled, the affections cannot gain sufficient strength to fortify the virtue of which they are the natural reward. Still there are some loop-holes out of which a man may creep, and dare to think and act for himself; but for a woman it is an herculean task, because she has difficulties peculiar to her sex to overcome, which require almost super-human powers.
    • Ch. 9
  • How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre.
    • Ch. 9
  • To be a good mother — a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow.
    • Ch. 10
  • Till society is very differently constituted, parents, I fear, will still insist on being obeyed, because they will be obeyed, and constantly endeavour to settle that power on a Divine right, which will not bear the investigation of reason.
    • Ch. 11
  • I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their [the sexes'] virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they must have the same simple direction as that there is a God.
    • (26)

Letters Written in Sweden (1796)[edit]

Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.
Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796)
An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alteration in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.
  • It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organised dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.
  • The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a variety which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations. Without the aid of the imagination all the pleasures of the senses must sink into grossness, unless continual novelty serve as a substitute for the imagination, which, being impossible, it was to this weariness, I suppose, that Solomon alluded when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun!
  • Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose. Besides, few like to be seen as they really are; and a degree of simplicity, and of undisguised confidence, which, to uninterested observers, would almost border on weakness, is the charm, nay the essence of love or friendship, all the bewitching graces of childhood again appearing.
  • Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.
  • Executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred anyone from the commission of a crime, because in committing it the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances.
  • The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized.
    • Letter 19
  • We reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.
    • Letter 19
  • It is the preservation of the species, not of individuals, which appears to be the design of Deity throughout the whole of nature.
  • Situation seems to be the mould in which men's characters are formed.
  • An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alteration in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.

Quotes about Wollstonecraft[edit]

I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. ~ William Godwin
Mary Wollstonecraft's reputation has suffered vicissitudes which, even in the history of genius, are unusual. ~ Camilla Jebb
Alphabetized by author
Even though Mary Wollstonecraft had little or no presence in history or literature curricula as recently as a generation ago, she has never exactly been a minor figure. Some, certainly, have wished her so. ~ Claudia L. Johnson
  • If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration. Affliction had tempered her heart to a softness, almost more than human; and the gentleness of her spirit seems precisely to accord with all the romance of unbounded attachment.
  • I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.
    • William Godwin, in a letter to Thomas Holcroft, after his wife's death, as quoted in William Godwin : His Friends and Contemporaries (1876) by Charles Kegan Paul
  • Mary Wollstonecraft's reputation has suffered vicissitudes which, even in the history of genius, are unusual. Her name, during her lifetime, was lauded to the skies by one half of the reading public, and — in exactly proportional measure — vituperated by the other half. Then, for more than half a century, it was wholly forgotten, or remembered only as suggesting certain vague associations of a grotesque and not altogether decorous kind. Within the last forty years, the mists have been gradually lifting, and she stands revealed for what she was — a woman singularly original in thought and noble in character.
    • Camilla Jebb, in Mary Wollstonecraft (1913)
  • Even though Mary Wollstonecraft had little or no presence in history or literature curricula as recently as a generation ago, she has never exactly been a minor figure. Some, certainly, have wished her so. A dauntless advocate of political reform, Wollstonecraft was one of the first to vindicate the "rights of man," but in her own — brief — lifetime and ever since, she achieved notoriety principally for her championship of women's rights. And while some of this notoriety took the particular form of scandal of the sort that often attends women directly involved in public affairs, some of it she directly sought in her writing and in her conduct. Controversy always inspired Wollstonecraft, always sharpened her sense of purpose.
  • According to the liberal tradition outlined by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), education is the key to social improvement, allowing a woman to develop her rational and moral capacities.
    • Sally Rowena Munt, in Murder by the Book?: Feminism and the Crime Novel (1994), p. 33
  • She strove to reconcile integrity and sexual desire, the duties and needs of women, motherhood and intellectual life, domesticity and fame.
    • Janet Todd in Mary Wollstonecraft : A Revolutionary Life (2000)
  • According to Wollstonecraft, "Independence is the grand blessing of life"… Wollstonecraft here refers to both economic independence and independent opinion. Education is the key to both.
    • Karen Warren and Duane L. Cady, in Bringing Peace Home Feminism, Violence, and Nature (1996), p. 120

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