The French Revolution and its Influence on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Opinions on Educational Rights

Photo from circe 1780 of English feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797). She was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the rights of Women and also the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This is a drawing by A.S. Merritt based on the painting by Opie. Copyright by ©Hulton Archive

Photo from circe 1780 of English feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797). She was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the rights of Women and also the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This is a drawing by A.S. Merritt based on the painting by Opie. Copyright by ©Hulton Archive

During the late 1700’s the place currently known for their pastries, love, and the Eiffel tower underwent a radical social and political revolution. This revolution was known as the French Revolution that last from 1789-1799. France at this time was considered to be full of corruption and was I need of much change. To a lot of people from this period it was a devastating time, but reflecting back on this revolution it should be noted that due to it many great literary texts emerged from beneath the crumbling monarch. Among those texts were writers such as: Edmund Burke, William Blake, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and Leticia Barbauld. With the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France a spark was ignited concerning ideas and opinions on the change needed in France especially on the natural rights concerning mankind.  From this text also emerged wonderfully written texts over the rights of women, education of women and the potential role women could play in the society. Among these texts, standing tall, is Mary Wollstonecraft. Without her opinions and radical ideas, the educational, social, and political role of women would have never changed. Wollstonecraft gave women a voice that needed to be heard.

The French Revolution all began with the King of France, Louis XVI. Due to all the debt from various wars during the 18th century, the King decided to create a tax to help bring this debt down. In creating this tax, the King decided that all clergy and nobility were exempted from paying this tax. Having this exemption did not please French citizens which then lead to the French Revolution.  Most working class citizens spent over half their pay on bread, which was now not affordable. Due to the cost of bread and the tax exemptions, a rebellion against the monarch broke out and the March to Versailles took place. During this march over 6,000 women made their way to Versailles. Upon arriving to Versailles the King was taken aback by the group of women demanding bread he gave into all their demands. This march lead by women was considered the most violent and controversial episode during the French Revolution. Women at this time were only expected to be domesticated, prim, and a sign of fragility women. It was after the march and during the French Revolutionary Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man that Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women which was meant for Charles M. Talleyrand-Perigord, the late bishop of Autun and also the Prime Minister of France. Through this text Wollstonecraft gives her opinions on how the revolution in France needs to include reformation of the political and social structures/expectations of women not only in society but in their personal lives as well. During the time that this piece was being written the French Revolution was in full motion with the publication of the 1791 report to the French National Assembly. This report stated that women should only receive education in the domesticated setting. With women having no voice or voting rights, Mary Wollstonecraft spoke out for women and their rights.

Wollstonecraft begins her letter to Talleyrand with “Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influences on general practice” (Anthology pg. 304). Here Wollstonecraft addresses Talleyrand’s idea that public education should only be offered to men but not women. He claims that women only need education within the household. Opposing Talleyrand’s idea, she poses the question that if women are to only be domestic, which includes being a wife and mother, how can a woman properly do that and pass on necessary knowledge if she, herself, is not educated with that knowledge? She goes on to describe the current state of women as

“…pretty superlatives, dropping glibly from the tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth; and a deluge of false sentiments and over-stretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of that heart, render the domestic pleasures insipid, that ought to sweeten the exercise of those severe duties, which educate the rational and immortal being for a noble field of action” (Anothology pg.308

Within this quote she labels women as basically being stupid because of their lack of education which leads to them not having a proper role in society. If women had this education then they would not need to feel that they need to act assuch “pretty superlatives”. Wollstonecraft argues that emotion and logic are two components that need to be incorporated together in order for a woman to reach her full potential and gain a place in society. This idea is best described by Inna Volkova in her piece, “I Have Looked Steadily Around Me”: The Power Of Examples In Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman.” Here Volkova addresses the idea that Wollstonecraft practices what she preaches:

“…there is also another component of getting to the truth: a balance between reason and passion… Wollstonecraft calibrates reason and passion in her rhetoric to show that her examples are instances where she is perhaps at her best balancing between rational persuasion and emotional influence upon her readers. She seems to find a way to put rationality and feeling together to the service of her rhetoric.”

Volkova perfectly describes how Wollstonecraft holds a balanced comparison of reason and passion through her text.

It was through the course of the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing that varied opinions were shared concerning the political and social role of women. She believed the education should be equal for everyone regardless of their race, sex, or class. Wollstonecraft believed that women should have an equal place in society with men. That giving women that place will allow for them to develop on an individual basis and deliver them from being the stereotypical women concerned only with themselves and vanity. Without her wise words the reformation of how women were treated and look upon would never have begun.

Works Cited

Keough, Sandra. “March to Versailles.” March to Versailles. University of Arkansas Phillips Community College, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

“Liberty Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution.” Chapter 5 Page 1. Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

Merritt, A S. Mary Woll

stonecraft Godwin (1759 – 1797). 1780. Hulton Archive, United Kingdom. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

Volkova, Inna. ““I Have Looked Steadily Around Me”: The Power Of Examples In Mary Wollstonecraft’S A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman.” Women’s Studies 43.7 (2014): 892-910. Historical Abstracts. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.