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Mary Wollstonecraft’s “I have a dream” speech from 1792

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) dreams of the day when women are capable of acting like rational creatures and are not treated like so many slaves or brutes:

These may be termed utopian dreams. – Thanks to that Being who impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my own reason, till, becoming dependent only on him for the support of my virtue, I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.

I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man. In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?

If, I say, for I would not impress by declamation when Reason offers her sober light, if they be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves; or, like the brutes who are dependent on the reason of man, when they associate with him; but cultivate their minds, give them the salutary, sublime curb of principle, and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God. Teach them, in common with man, to submit to necessity, instead of giving, to render them more pleasing, a sex to morals.

Further, should experience prove that they cannot attain the same degree of strength of mind, perseverance, and fortitude, let their virtues be the same in kind, though they may vainly struggle for the same degree; and the superiority of man will be equally clear, if not clearer; and truth, as it is a simple principle, which admits of no modification, would be common to both. Nay, the order of society as it is at present regulated would not be inverted, for woman would then only have the rank that reason assigned her, and arts could not be practised to bring the balance even, much less to turn it.

These may be termed utopian dreams. – Thanks to that Being who impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my own reason, till, becoming dependent only on him for the support of my virtue, I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.

I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man. In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?

It appears to me necessary to dwell on these obvious truths, because females have been insulated, as it were; and, while they have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny. Love, in their bosoms, taking place of every nobler passion, their sole ambition is to be fair, to raise emotion instead of inspiring respect; and this ignoble desire, like the servility in absolute monarchies, destroys all strength of character Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws in nature.

About this Quotation:

This work is one of the founding documents of the modern feminist movement and came out of a spirited debate with conservatives like Edmund Burke who denounced the idea of natural rights and the corollary right to seek redress in a revolution if need be when the government refused to acknowledge those rights. What is intriguing about Wollstonecraft is that she continued the discussion in this later book in order to apply for the first time these ideas about individual liberty to women as well as men. Having established this to be the case to her satisfaction she then asked the further question why were women in the subordinate position they were in vis-à-vis men? Her answer was that they were held in this position by a combination of force (laws which discriminated against them in terms of property ownership, education, and marriage) and established opinion regarding the proper role of women in the home and in society. Her solution was to equalize women before the law and to encourage parents to devote the same effort in educating their daughters as they did their sons. Only when legal discrimination was ended and educational opportunities made available to young girls would women be able to find their true level in society. Wollstonecraft also argued that traditional ideas about education and the proper roles for each gender handicapped young boys as much as it it did young girls. Whereas young women were encouraged to be good wives and mothers, young men were encouraged to be heroic and obedient soldiers. Neither set of stereotypes encouraged individuals to find their own calling in life.

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