Mary Wollstonecraft quotes

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Birthdate: 27. April 1759
Date of death: 10. September 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.

Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships, received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay , Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, became an accomplished writer herself, as Mary Shelley, whose best known work was Frankenstein.

After Wollstonecraft's death, her widower published a Memoir of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft's advocacy of women's equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

Photo: John Opie / Public domain

Works

„The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a variety which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Letter 2
Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a variety which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations. Without the aid of the imagination all the pleasures of the senses must sink into grossness, unless continual novelty serve as a substitute for the imagination, which, being impossible, it was to this weariness, I suppose, that Solomon alluded when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun!

„To be a good mother — a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Source: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Ch. 10
Context: To be a good mother — a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow.

„Executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Letter 19
Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: Executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred anyone from the commission of a crime, because in committing it the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances.

„I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Letter 17
Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.

„Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world; and this is not a woman's province in a married state.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), "Matrimony", p. 100
Context: Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world; and this is not a woman's province in a married state. Her sphere of action is not large, and if she is not taught to look into her own heart, how trivial are her occupations and pursuits! What little arts engross and narrow her mind!

„Should it be proved that woman is naturally weaker than man, from whence does it follow that it is natural for her to labour to become still weaker than nature intended her to be?“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Source: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Ch. 3
Context: Should it be proved that woman is naturally weaker than man, from whence does it follow that it is natural for her to labour to become still weaker than nature intended her to be? Arguments of this cast are an insult to common sense, and savour of passion. The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger, and though conviction may not silence many boisterous disputants, yet, when any prevailing prejudice is attacked, the wise will consider, and leave the narrow-minded to rail with thoughtless vehemence at innovation.

„Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Original Stories from Real Life

Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788; 1791)
Context: Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason; but, as this task requires more judgment than generally falls to the lot of parents, substitutes must be sought for, and medicines given, when regimen would have answered the purpose much better. I believe those who examine their own minds, will readily agree with me, that reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.
In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition.

„An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alteration in laws and governments prematurely.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Appendix
Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alteration in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.

„Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organised dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.

„Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

Letter 12
Letters Written in Sweden (1796)
Context: Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose. Besides, few like to be seen as they really are; and a degree of simplicity, and of undisguised confidence, which, to uninterested observers, would almost border on weakness, is the charm, nay the essence of love or friendship, all the bewitching graces of childhood again appearing.

„By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book Original Stories from Real Life

Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788; 1791)
Context: Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason; but, as this task requires more judgment than generally falls to the lot of parents, substitutes must be sought for, and medicines given, when regimen would have answered the purpose much better. I believe those who examine their own minds, will readily agree with me, that reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.
In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition.

„Virtue can only flourish amongst equals.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Men

A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)

„It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Source: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Ch. 4

„How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained by its own exertions?“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Source: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Ch. 3

„A modest man is steady, an humble man timid, and a vain one presumptuous.“

—  Mary Wollstonecraft, book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Source: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Ch. 7

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