The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
This excerpt is from the first chapter of The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press (2021).
In 1785, John Adams, his wife, Abigail, and their two eldest children departed from his diplomatic post in Paris to Britain, where he served as the first U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. When they arrived in London, Adams and his family joined the congregation of Reverend Richard Price, a learned intellectual Adams had long admired. Twenty-six-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft was among Price’s most devoted congregants.
Price was a Unitarian minister, an old friend of Benjamin Franklin, and a stalwart supporter of the American Revolution. He had penned a number of important pamphlets in support of the American cause for freedom and corresponded with several American leaders, among them Adams himself, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. In a 1784 pamphlet, Price had declared that “next to the introduction of Christianity among mankind, the American Revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement.”
Years after the Revolution, as the debates at the Constitutional Convention raged, Price applauded the Americans’ desire to build a federal system. But Price also challenged his American peers on what he regarded as the working document’s two fundamental flaws: the failure to grant political equality to women and, more egregious still, the perpetuation of the slave trade, which Price decried as “cruel, wicked, and diabolical.” These deficiencies struck at the heart of the moral project Price believed the Americans had undertaken. The American founders obviously did not heed Price’s admonition.
But Wollstonecraft was listening. Although Anglican in religious practice at that time, she also attended Price’s political sermons during her two-year stay as a schoolmistress in Newington. A well-read and deeply intelligent woman, Wollstonecraft developed her thought from manifold influences throughout her life, but perhaps none was as foundational as that of Richard Price. Offering in both word and deed an account of God as the providential source of all goodness and truth, Price advocated political liberty as a means for all human beings to make moral progress through the imitation of divine attributes, a calling befitting rational creatures dignified by the divine image. In a letter to her son John Quincy, Abigail Adams wrote of Price: “He has a Charity which embraces all mankind.”
The young Wollstonecraft found no reason women ought not be included in Price’s ennobling mission: they were, after all, rational creatures made in the divine image. Eight years later, after Wollstonecraft published her groundbreaking treatise on women, Abigail Adams, who, as Price did, had impressed upon her husband to “remember the ladies,” declared herself a “pupil of Wollstonecraft.” Neither Price nor Abigail convinced John Adams (or the other American founders) of the import of women’s civil and political equality with men. But, happily for Abigail and the American women who followed her, Wollstonecraft was to develop Price’s moral and political philosophy into her own magnificent treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The work was to have a singular influence upon early women’s rights advocates in the United States in the mid to late nineteenth century.
Wollstonecraft began her political writings with hope in the progressive potential of politics. The American Revolution, with its inspired Declaration of Independence and written Constitution, had offered a humanizing picture of governance, extolling both liberty and, in the speeches and letters of many of the founders, the virtue needed to sustain it. In Price’s and Wollstonecraft’s view, the Americans were building, however imperfectly, upon the tradition of ordered liberty rooted in the constitutional traditions of their British ancestors: the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which limited the absolute power of the British monarch, had represented a first reforming stage. The French Revolution was still in its early stage when she published the Rights of Woman in 1792; the Reign of Terror, which she witnessed with disgust in Paris, was months away. For republicans such as Wollstonecraft, hope was in the air.
Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman represented, at the political level, an extended plea to expand on the revolution in political thinking that had taken root in America and then in France: to include women in political efforts to secure “the rights of man.” But, even a cursory reading of the Rights of Woman reveals it is scarcely about rights at all. Rather, Wollstonecraft’s political argument, like that of Price before her, was most centrally concerned with the advance of intellectual and moral virtue, an advance they believed would be enabled by a universal share in liberty and equality among all men and women. “Unless virtue be nursed by liberty, it will never attain due strength,” she writes in the Rights of Woman. Human beings’ progress in virtue — not their attainment of property, wealth, or status — would guarantee personal, familial, and societal happiness. This was her claim.
Her philosophical case was robust, grounded in what she took to be the unalterable truth about God and the wondrous capacities of his human creation. Human beings are endowed with the ennobling capacity to reason, “to rise in excellence by the exercise of powers implanted for that purpose.” This capacity is what makes them distinct from the animals. Thus, the ultimate purpose of every human life is to use one’s own reason to submit to the “unerring reason” of God, to conform oneself to the nature of things as God has designed them, and thus to unfold one’s human faculties in order to better oneself and to be of service to others. Goodness has but one eternal standard — God — thus, all of his creatures, regardless of sex, are to seek to attain to that standard.
In Wollstonecraft’s view, women in her time had been discouraged from “unfold[ing] their faculties” by their lack of intellectual and moral formation and by social conventions that had rendered their minds dependent and their cares frivolous. Women had been kept from attaining the very purpose Providence had ordained: to make all human creatures wise and virtuous, seeking after truth, understanding, generosity, modesty, and humanity, instead of vain beauty, elegance, and worldly recognition. Such was the nature of Wollstonecraft’s charge.
Wollstonecraft well understood that not all human beings would attain an equal share of wisdom and virtue; for her, the only truly just hierarchy was one based on these merited attainments. But she did believe that all human beings — male or female, rich or poor — were equally capable of trying. Indeed, it was their common nature as creatures endowed with rational powers capable of moral development that gave human beings their equal worth. Their common rational nature was also what enabled them to discern God’s existence and the nature of the moral order. The existence of God and of the human soul were then not matters of blind religious faith for Wollstonecraft. She believed them to be discernable by the reasonable person’s observation of the dynamic coherence and unity in nature and of the internal order and fitness of things, both natural and moral. God’s harmonious design could be seen in his creation; the faculties of the human mind, as they reflected and sought truth, also revealed for her a single source. She writes in a prior work that, “the more man discovers of the nature of his mind and body, the more clearly he is convinced, that to act according to the dictates of reason is to conform to the will of God.”
Reason for Wollstonecraft, as for Price, was not mechanistic or calculating, nor was the intellect disconnected in any way from the body through which it worked, Descartes’s increasingly popular theories notwithstanding. Those various views of reason, held by leading Enlightenment thinkers, promoted far too reductive a view of human capabilities. Rather, the human mind ceaselessly sought after truth and so was properly open to all of reality, including what transcended the merely visible. The reasoning power had the capacity to draw principles from the nature of things as they were impressed upon the mind through embodied experience, acquired knowledge, and contemplation of God. Hers was a far more ancient view.
Cultivating one’s reason was “an arduous task,” because the intellect represented the governing power of the person by regulating the emotions, passions, and appetites so these might become “necessary auxiliaries of reason.” The passions were neither good nor evil for Wollstonecraft; they were human dispositions that “push . . . us forward,” but they must receive proper direction toward benevolence and imitation of the highest good, God. In a well-integrated person, then, human appetites provided motivation and inspiration to seek the goods of life, but they did not direct it. Reason, naturally ordered to goodness and truth, and properly instructed in sound principles inculcated by high-minded parents and teachers, provided that direction. Wollstonecraft would have agreed with Cicero that virtue is “fully developed reason.” But without reason directing the passions toward virtue, one’s animal instincts could “run wild,” rendering a person impulsive, selfish, even brutal. Not governing passions the way one should, he or she becomes a slave to those passions, and thus not independent and free.
Wollstonecraft was not naïve to the fragility and fallibility of human reason; she well knew even well-disciplined human beings could err, and often do. Her view of the human reason’s propensity to err, especially when swept up in vengeful emotion, grew in its political manifestation as the Reign of Terror in Paris erupted. But until that life-changing experience, she did not believe human beings acted out of purely evil motives. Indeed, here is Wollstonecraft writing in an especially Aristotelian vein, quite contrary to the deeply pessimistic Calvinist anthropology that, in post-Reformation Europe, had taken hold of many Christians’ sensibilities: “It may be confidently asserted that no man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”
With more hopeful a view still, Wollstonecraft believed that reason, if accompanied by humility, also had the capacity for self-correction: with reflection and much guidance from wise teachers, and a faith-filled disposition, one could learn from one’s experiences and gain wisdom to choose better the next time. Wollstonecraft believed that the inculcation of good intellectual and moral habits at a young age would allow the person to become free, with earned independence of mind. He or she then would possess an intellect capable of critical judgment, not merely imitative of groupthink or blindly obedient to prevailing authority. But independence of mind and good habits do not spring forth organically from the child: one must be taught, desires must be schooled, the familial environment and society in which he or she lives must encourage each child’s intellectual and moral development. Her advice in this regard to parents was plentiful: “If you wish to make your son rich, pursue one course — if you are only anxious to make him virtuous, you must take another; but do not imagine that you can bound from one road to the other without losing your way.”
Despite her own difficult upbringing with an abusive and alcoholic father, she thoroughly imbibed Price’s view of the goodness of God’s providential design, drawn from deep within the Christian tradition. Suffering thus was not a punishment from on high but was permitted for one’s edification: “Why should he lead us from love of ourselves to the sublime emotions which the discovery of his wisdom and goodness excites, if these feelings were not set in motion to improve our nature, of which they make a part, and render us capable of enjoying a more godlike portion of happiness? Firmly persuaded that no evil exists in the world that God did not design to take place, I build my belief on the perfection of God.” Wollstonecraft’s moral norms were philosophically grounded in God’s perfection, of which all human goods are but a participation or a “shadow.” The protagonist of one of her novels states, “The same turn of mind which leads me to adore the Author of all Perfection — which leads me to conclude that he only can fill my soul; forces me to admire the faint image — the shadows of his attributes here below.”
Humility was especially important in an ethic that sought to imitate God’s goodness. Wollstonecraft believed that “the humble mind that seek[s] to find favor in His sight” will recognize one’s own propensity to fall short of God’s loving standard and so be quicker to forgive the failings of others: “I . . . have vices, hid, perhaps, from human eye, that bend me to the dust before God, and loudly tell me, when all is mute, that we are formed of the same earth, and breathe the same element. Humanity thus rises naturally out of humility, and twists the cords of love that in various convolutions entangle the heart.”
Wollstonecraft, again following Price, rejected voluntarism outright. Rather than a pronouncement of God’s arbitrary will, the moral law is a participation in God’s goodness, discernable through contemplation and right reason. For Wollstonecraft, God’s unerring reason commanded submission: “I submit to the moral laws which my reason deduces from this view of my dependence on him. — It is not his power that I fear — it is not to an arbitrary will, but to unerring reason I submit.” Were God’s goodness not sought as the “eternal rule of right,” that by which we should judge all other claims of right, expediency and power would be all that remains to guide human actions.
Indeed, man’s arbitrary claims of power, heeding not the higher authority of God, were the source of every oppression, in Wollstonecraft’s view. And it was here that she made an important advance for women, articulating an ancient truth that still admonishes today: were there no higher standard of truth or virtue, human beings would base their actions on what is most useful, pleasing, or convenient to them, and the weak would fall prey to the strong. Wollstonecraft concludes: “For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet . . . virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience.”♦
Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Her latest book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, was published in 2021 by Notre Dame University Press.
Bachiochi, Erika. “The Rights of Women.” Canopy Forum, January 3, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/01/03/the-rights-of-women/