Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2023, from

3. Political philosophy

For Wollstonecraft, human beings were created to perfect their nature as rational and moral beings (see Perfectionism). Natural humanity is not unsocialized humanity, as in Rousseau, but humanity freely developing its capacity for self-improvement, which includes the capacity for socialization. The function of society is further improvement of humankind. Social and political arrangements which thwart or fail to recognize this corrupt human nature.

Eighteenth-century society and politics are corrupted by artificial distinctions of rank (such as the aristocracy), the products of historical accident, which impede the development of all ranks towards human perfection; relations between the sexes are similarly corrupted by artificial distinctions of character and capability, such as the association of reason and moral strength with men, and feeling or sensibility and moral weakness with women. These artificial distinctions impede the development of both sexes towards full flowering of their human faculties.

Such corrupted environmental influences produce social injustice, along with vice in the aristocracy and brutish insensibility in the poor; the best hope of virtue lies with the middle classes. But even among these, artificial rank and gender distinctions are maintained by factitious interests such as social snobbery, male interest in the reduction of women to docile sexual objects, and female enjoyment of the opportunity this affords for sexual tyranny over men.

Thus the effect of artificial distinctions on social relations and public and private morality is, in the public sphere, political tyranny, social enmity, and a distorted conventional morality assigning different virtues to the two sexes; in the private sphere, domestic tyranny and the degradation of both male and female nature, to the detriment of physical health, moral development and parenthood.

The remedy is the abolition of artificial distinctions through political and social reform and the education of potential future citizens of both sexes into a radically revised, gender-neutral morality, based on religious but rationally derived principles. This new morality will redescribe conventionally gendered and sexualized virtues such as courage and modesty in forms applicable to both sexes, enabling women to become independent moral agents and rational wives and mothers.

Moral re-education, however, will be effective only in a context of gradual institutional, cultural and political evolution towards a republican meritocracy. Political revolution without moral evolution is dangerous (though it may sometimes be necessary as the lesser evil), since individual and social moral development are interdependent; private virtue will be difficult and therefore rare unless supported by the appropriate social and political structures, which will in turn be unstable without private virtue. For instance, the destructive passions aroused by oppression are likely to wreak havoc if released from social and political control before development of the capacity for rational management of the passions in the oppressed. Hence the later excesses of the initially benign and rational French Revolution of 1789.

Citing this article:
Zaw, Susan Khin. Political philosophy. Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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