Reinterpreting a feminist pioneer

Enlightenment philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft believed that living in hierarchies destroyed and corrupted people deep down in their souls.
“For her, inequality was the greatest threat to democracy and liberty. It is still dynamite today, as the gulf between rich and poor widens and the world is divided into lords and servants”, says Professor of Human Rights Studies Lena Halldenius. She has just published a new political analysis of the English feminist pioneer.

Lena Halldenius

Lena Halldenius began reading Wollstonecraft as a PhD student. Her thesis was about the concept of freedom and Wollstonecraft’s definition attracted her as a feminist.

Mary Wollstonecraft lived in England at the end of the 18th century, a time of revolutions and new ideas. She wrote novels and essays and earned her living as a reviewer. She had love affairs without getting married, had children out of wedlock and started a school for girls. She died in childbirth at the age of 38 with her second daughter – Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

“Mary Wollstonecraft could not have existed at any other time. The late 18th century was like a small window of madness. Of course she lived in the margins, was regarded as loose-living and was mocked as a ‘hyena in petticoats’. Nonetheless, she managed to live an independent life and earn a living from her writing”, says Lena Halldenius, Professor of Human Rights Studies.

Wollstonecraft is regarded as a feminist pioneer and her short and dramatic life story has attracted a lot of attention, as well as to a certain extent her novels. However, Lena Halldenius’ new book is the first for several decades to take a comprehensive look at Wollstonecraft’s political philosophy.

She began reading Wollstonecraft as a PhD student. Her thesis was about the concept of freedom and Wollstonecraft’s definition attracted her as a feminist.

Only the one who is not personally dependent on another is free, said Mary Wollstonecraft.

What does that mean?

“It means that people are not free if they live in a society that does not have democratic representation of the people that defends equality and freedom for all. It also means that married women who are subordinate to and dependent on their husbands are not free – regardless of whether they live in a political dictatorship or a democracy.”

It has been said that Wollstonecraft lacks a class perspective, but Lena Halldenius says this is wrong and hopes that her new book will correct this misunderstanding.

“Wollstonecraft criticises all hierarchies, whether it is women or the working class who are subordinate. It is the subordination and dependence that are key. Freedom is not about what you can or cannot do. Freedom is about relationships and requires relationships of equality.”

In the late 18th century, women could not study, but as a reviewer for a radical London publisher, Mary Wollstonecraft came into contact with the thinkers of her day. Their writing became her university, explains Lena Halldenius. Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French revolution found its way onto Wollstonecraft’s desk early on. She entered into controversy with the well-known philosopher and politician in defence of the ideas of the revolution, but she also criticised the new bourgeois aristocracy that was developing in France.

“Not everyone became a citizen with the right to vote. Only men with property could receive this right – they were considered to be able to think freely enough to earn citizenship, unlike women and people without property.”

Wollstonecraft understood this reasoning but felt that the conclusion was wrong. Instead of being excluded from citizenship, women should be given freedom and a voice by being assured control over their own money. The value of work should also be upgraded so that even those without property could become citizens, vote and have democratic representation.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas were revolutionary and radical, to an extent that cannot be comprehended without an understanding of the period in which she lived. She was alone, with no support from either a women’s movement or a workers’ movement. She addressed men of power, but could not say directly that women should have the right to vote, rather she had to cushion her message: “I may excite laughter… for I really think that women ought to have representatives”.

Even if Mary Wollstonecraft has been misinterpreted when it comes to her views on class, she thought that the middle classes from which she came were the least corrupted in the hierarchy of society. Wollstonecraft’s argument was that people are shaped by the circumstances in which they grow up and live, and living in hierarchies destroys them. Inequality gets into their heads and perverts their relationships and understanding of themselves and others, regardless of whether they are living at the top or bottom of the hierarchy. Those who live as slaves begin to think like slaves. Those who live in luxury are treated with respect, but for the wrong reasons, which is morally destructive.

The middle classes represent a middle way. They do not work themselves to death, but neither do they live in luxury. This offers a certain amount of freedom and the space for reflection that is necessary to live a respectable life. Mary Wollstonecraft was a moralist and thought that people were not only responsible for their own needs but that they had a duty to try and be useful to others.

What can her analysis contribute to today’s political debate? A lot, according to Lena Halldenius. Her ideas on the destructive impact of inequality on people are highly relevant in the light of rapidly increasing gulfs in society. We see them daily in the form of beggars on the streets.

“The degrading spectacle of begging can prompt us to give, but the help is triggered by compassion, not respect for the needs of an equal. This is part of the dynamics of oppression and only exists in a hierarchical society. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, charity is never a solution; it maintains the dependent relationship.”

As Lena Halldenius interprets her, everyone is corrupted in today’s globalised society. Even if things are gradually improving for those who are worst off in the world, the focus is not on defending the equal value of all people. On the contrary, focus has shifted to what can be regarded as a minimum level of respectability for exploiting the weak.

“Take the example of those in Bangladesh who sew our clothes. H&M defend themselves by saying that they pay decent wages, relatively. However, the factory worker’s daily salary of SEK 10 is still exploitation.”

In Mary Wollstonecraft’s day, neither the gulfs nor the prosperity were as great by far as they are today. At that time, it would not have been possible to eradicate poverty even if all the riches had been divided fairly.

“Today we could eradicate poverty, but it seems that we don’t want to”, says Lena Halldenius.

Britta Collberg

Photo: Gunnar Menander

Footnote: Lena Halldenius’ new book is entitled Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminist Republicanism. Independence, Rights and the Experience of Unfreedom and is published by Pickering & Chatto.

Mary Wollstonecraft – a misunderstood feminist

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women are not subordinate to men by nature, but only appear to be so because they lack formal education.

However, she did not question the fact that most women devoted their lives to the role of mother and wife. She was religious and favoured the middle classes. This has led many modern feminists to view her as irrelevant to our time.

In Lena Halldenius’ view, Wollstonecraft must be understood in the context of her day. She also saw men’s role as fathers and husbands as unquestionable.

“A couple enter marriage as equal companions and each fulfils his or her role. She wanted to erase gender differences in society and her feminism is a radical criticism of hierarchies in the family, politics and working life.”