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

Mary Wollstonecraft

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?

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.