Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment. She takes on the task of critiquing the ideals of Liberty, Equality Fraternity as being flawed in their proclaimed universality. She points to the gaping inconsistencies in the Liberal ideas of John Locke and others, which ignored the exclusion of women, the poor, and unpropertied men. In doing so Wollstonecraft set the agender for many of the liberation movements to come. Her method is to use the accepted principles of Rights of Man against the system itself: insisting that it follow its own principles: 'If the Rights of Man truly means the rights accorded by human nature, then either show that we are inhuman or accord us these rights, anything less is hypocrisy.'

Wollstonecraft life is extraordinary in its courage and determination. Unlike many others she did not just write about the French Revolution she went to join in this monumental historical event: this was not always easy as this quote attests: " I want to see something alive; death in so many frightful shapes have taken hold of my fancy- I am going to bed- and for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle". Her writings on sexuality are also mirrored in a life lived outside the social norms of her time. In this course we will study her philosophical concepts from both her most famous work Vindication of the Rights of Women, her novels and many essays written for her publisher and friend Joseph Johnson. Wollstonecraft’s early analysis of what has become known as the public/private split, is one of her most important contributions to the philosophy of society, economics, and law. Her work on virtue ethics and theory of education also influenced many subsequent philosophers. I will also make a rather unusual connection between Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen. I will consider their differences and similarities not only on the role of women, but also broader issues of epistemology and ethics.


  • Online


  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, London: Joseph Johnson, 1792; second edition 1792; reprinted 1796. Second imprint dedicated to M. Talleyrand-Périgord. Edited by Miriam Brody Kramnick, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  • Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, London: Joseph Johnson, 1796. Edited by Carol H. Poston, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
  • Ayres, Brenda, 2017, The Betwixt and Between: The Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, London: Anthem Press.
  • Sapiro, Virginia, 1992, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


  • Introduction to Wollstonecraft - A Courageous life: Her life reads like a novel: from her young determination to make her own way in the world; be economically independent; pursue her literary ambitions; and have sexual relations of her own choosing: it is an extraordinary adventure.
  • Wollstonecraft and the Philosophical World: Wollstonecraft engages with philosophers in the tradition such as Plato, but she is also involved with the contemporary debates around her: some of her most important debates were with Edmond Burke and Rousseau. All of these debates are informed by the political turmoil of the French Revolution, and Republicanism.
  • Wollstonecraft’s Politics - The Dissenters and Anarchists: In politics Wollstonecraft should be accounted as a republican, but she went further than many and her position is perhaps closest to the ‘Democratists’. She supported Thomas Paine’s position to extend franchise to working men and women.
  • The Public World and the Private Domain: We will look at this important is-sue in depth and track its progress to the present. Keeping in mind that the way this debate has come to be framed in contemporary philosophy is not the context in which it emerged.
  • Gender Issues: Wollstonecraft set different definitions of gender against each other in an attempt to destabilize the rigidity of the ideas of the time. In the Vindication of the Rights of Women she adapts gender definitions from the political discourse of civic humanism to counter the stereotypes of female conduct manuals.
  • Vindication of the Rights of Women: The Vindication of the Rights of Women, has many complex ideas in it, we will analyse and critique its historical but also its contemporary relevance.
  • The Novels - Mary A Fiction (1788), The Wrongs of Women (1798): In Mary Wollstonecraft undertakes to show how an unusual and gifted woman learns to think and act for herself and not to be an 'echo of others'. The work is also a meditation on 'genius'. The concept of the genius was a hot topic at the time, and her novel is seen as the first attempt by anyone to represent a female ‘genius’. Part of the prevailing idea of ‘genius’ was freedom from the conventional bourgeois ideas of sexuality and marriage.
  • Wollstonecraft's French Revolution: Unlike many others Wollstonecraft did not just write about the French Revolution she went to join in this monumental historical event. Her observations are invaluable.
  • Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen: I will also make a rather unusual connection between Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen. Austen does not belong to the Enlightenment period proper, and yet there are overlaps in their views. I will consider their differences and similarities not only on the role of women, but also broader issues of epistemology and ethics.
  • Later Influence: Wollstonecraft was a heroine for such disparate radicals as Virginia Woolf and the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman. In the 1970’s she was taken up by a new generation of feminists, and by the 1990’s her work received the philosophical attention which it required to understand its complexities.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Give the student an overview of the origins and complexities of the many theories developed by Wollstonecraft
  2. Make the connection between her personal history and the devel-opment of her ideas on ethics and politics and gender.
  3. Show the important role played by Wollstonecraft in our under-standing of human nature the human mind and education.
  4. Show the substantial contribution which Wollstonecraft made to later philosophy.

Want to be notified when this course is open for enrolments? Please join the waiting list by clicking .