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  • Susan Stoderl

Women Writers | Mary Wollstonecraft

Painting by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), an 18th-century British woman writer and early feminist, wrote about the place of women within society. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life, was published in 1787. It is a “conduct” book, part of a new genre that became popular in Britain between 1760 and 1820, that advised on social norms and ideals.

Thoughts informed women and girls of the new middle class about proper female education, emphasizing morality and etiquette, and providing basic child-rearing instructions. The target audience was mothers, young women, and teachers, and discusses a woman's education from infancy through marriage.

The book has twenty-one chapters in no particular order and covers many topics. She advises on shaping a child physically, as well as the child’s temperament. Work should begin early in a girl’s education to form a rational mind. She criticizes teaching women artificial manners, playing cards, going to the theater, and emphasizing fashion. Instead, the money squandered on fashion could better serve society by aiding poor families. Wollstonecraft emphasizes the virtue of hard work and learning useful skills. Women possessing valuable skills could shape the social and political life of society rather than being a social ornament.

Wollstonecraft has been criticized by modern feminists because she gives no other life course than a woman being a mother or teacher. In Thoughts, she states that if a woman must provide for herself, she has little chance of being fulfilled. Paraphrased, "As a companion to an old rich cousin, the servants think she is a spy, while those above her always remind her of her inferiority. Teachers are treated as upper servants, only with more work, and being a governess is no better."


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