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A Century Before the Suffragette Movement Mary Wollstonecraft Blazed a Trail for Women’s Right to Education

While debates were raging in France, Britain and America about equal rights for men, a woman’s lot was not considered. Wollstonecraft changed that.

  • A Century Before the Suffragette Movement Mary Wollstonecraft Blazed a Trail for Women’s Right to Education

“Who has made the most important impact on education?” This is the very question being put to education big hitters such as Dr Joanna Williams, Tom Bennett and Martin Robinson at the Institute of Ideas Education Forum’s very first Xmas social event. If you want to hear them fight it out, entry is free – just turn up to the CIEE Global Institute in London (46-47 Russell Square, London WC1B 4JP), bring a bottle and be prepared to say who you think is the most important person in education.

To help get things warmed up, this week on Teachwire, members of the Education Forum committee will say who they think deserves the accolade. Today Louise Burton makes a stand for the woman who made a stand for all women – Mary Wollstonecraft.


“I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties.”

Thus spoke Mary Wollstonecraft almost 100 years before the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and more than a century before the rise of the Suffragette movement.

In an era of ‘Safe Spaces’ and a preponderance to value emotions more highly than reason, I would like to nominate Wollstonecraft for her outspokenness and her refusal to accept the status quo.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, was both a political and an educational treatise.

Having been a strong defender of the ideas of the French Revolution in A Vindication of the Rights of Man, Wollstonecraft quickly realised that the revolutionaries were not using the word ‘man’ to mean all humanity.

When, in 1791, Talleyrand declared that government education for girls would cease at eighth grade but continue for boys, she planned and wrote her most famous work in response.

For me, the importance of her work lies in its arguments about the rationality of women. While debates were raging in France, Britain and America about equal rights for men, a woman’s lot was not considered.

Wollstonecraft argued that women were capable of reason but were being denied an education. It is through the exercise of reason we become moral and political agents.  Wollstonecraft broke new ground in her arguments for female education.

Previous books had often argued for education reform to enable women to be better companions to men.

She didn’t deny that women would still be wives and mothers but she believed that the marriage laws, placing men in a dominant position over their wives, reduced a woman to a ‘mere cipher’.

In fact, receiving an education allowed women to be wives and mothers on an equal footing with their husbands: “meek wives are, in general foolish mothers” and she was vociferously against the ‘accomplishment’- based education that girls received, believing it to be useless and decadent.

Taking issue with Rousseau’s distinctions of the sexes in Emile, in which he wrote: “The education of the women should always be relative to the men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them…”, she contended that men and women should all enjoy the benefits of reason.

She argued that girls should be taught reading, writing, arithmetic and subjects ranging from natural history, botany and moral philosophy as well as physical education, to stimulate the mind.

She also radically argued for co-education; girls and boys should be schooled together. This belief that girls could learn alongside boys and hold their own is something that would still be controversial in some quarters today.

Wollstonecraft’s work inspired American education campaigners such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman appears on the Guardian’s ‘100 best non-fiction books’ list and Virginia Woolf said of her: “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living”.

We should uphold the values that Wollstonecraft championed and embodied. She took responsibility for her life, showed how a woman can succeed through hard work and through using her intellect, and she believed in the emancipatory nature of knowledge and reason.

Louise Burton is a history teacher and has worked in secondary education for over 20 years. She is a member of the IoI Education Forum.

Check back with us tomorrow when Gareth Sturdy champions the rebel school inspector who pushed the idea of education for all in Victorian Britain.

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