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To Women Who Changed the World: The Ethics of Mary Wollstonecraft

A liberal feminist view of ethics and the good life.

Mike Austin
Source: Mike Austin

Several years ago, I made the drive to Pittsburgh to see my favorite band, U2, in concert at Heinz Field. It was a great show!

As a philosopher, I was pleasantly surprised to see a picture of an actual philosopher scrolled across the giant video screen behind the stage. In an homage to women who've changed the world, a picture of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was included.

I often teach some of Wollstonecraft's views during the historical survey of ethical thought in my classes. Wollstonecraft was a liberal feminist, in the classical sense.1 This means that she believed that there are no morally significant differences between men and women. The problem is that women have wrongly been thought of as being unable to obtain the ideal of exemplary virtue and flourishing, and they've been denied the opportunity to do so. Her view is a gender-neutral view of the good life for all humans. Why did she hold this view? The answers are interesting.

She criticized both the traditions of philosophy and of society for seeking to exclude women from virtue and fulfillment. These traditions held that women were not as rational as men, and as such, they cannot obtain full virtue, as men can.

Men were thought to be more like God, who is perfectly rational. Women were thought to be more like lower animals. While women weren't thought to be governed by instinct, like animals, they were thought to be more emotional and so not controlled by reason. Women were not only physically outfitted to gestate and give birth, but they were also psychologically outfitted for raising children rather than leading in the public square. They were seen as more cooperative, nurturing, and emotional. This view of the psychological nature of women was used to support limiting their freedom and opportunities, often in very stark ways.

Wollstonecraft challenged all of this. She argued that it is not women's physical or psychological nature that is the issue, but rather their exclusion from educational opportunities.

Wollstonecraft argued that women are just as rational as men. Her argument, however, depends on some theological premises. She contended that reason helps us to see moral truth and then do what is morally good. Why think women are equally rational? It is because they also are created in God's image. If the ultimate end is eternal life with God; and this requires growth in moral virtue; and reason is needed to become virtuous; then women are equally rational and capable of a fulfilled life of moral virtue, as bearers of the image of God. (i, ii, iii, iv)

Of course, one need not depend on theological premises to conclude that women are just as rational as men. There are many other arguments for what we should see as an obvious fact. But it is interesting that the woman who many think of as the first feminist philosopher employed this argument for that conclusion.


1. Kelly James Clark and Anne Poortenga. The Story of Ethics. Pearson, 2002.