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Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman

The firmly-argued book, written in the tumultuous period following the French Revolution, was one of the first great works of female emancipation - but the goals she advocated took many decades to attain

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of Rights of Woman, 1792

Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
523.g.3 vi-vii
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Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) was one of the first great feminist writers. She wrote in various genres (history, novels, travel, even a children's book) but is best known for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The title clearly echoes that of Thomas Paine's clarion call for social justice and liberty, Rights of Man.

Her personal life was equally wide-ranging: she had two intense affairs, and attempted suicide more than once, before marrying the radical philosopher William Godwin. (Their daughter Mary later became Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) Wollstonecraft died aged just 38, of septicaemia contracted as a result of childbirth, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. Thanks to the exposure of her personal life, she was not well-regarded after her death, but the emergence of the feminist movement saw her reputation in the 20th century elevated to that of major founding feminist philosopher.

What did her book say?

She maintained - counter to the assumption of many people at the time - that women only appeared intellectually inferior to men because they did not receive as good an education, and she emphasised how much women could contribute to society if only they were allowed. She wrote: "Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship, instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers - in a word, better citizens."

What were women's rights in Wollstonecraft's time?

Essentially, none. In the eyes of the law, a married woman had no property, no vote, no money of her own, nor any rights to her children. By the 18th century the feudal state of 'coverture' was enshrined as common law. It regarded a husband and wife as a single entity, but all rights belonged to the husband. While single, or widowed women could own money, property and run businesses, married women had no equivalent right without pursuing expensive legal settlements. It was not until the Married Woman's Property Act of 1870, and subsequent legislation, that married women were allowed to keep money they earned directly and have ownership of property acquired before or after marriage.

What about education?

University education was also denied women, who could thus not pursue professional careers. It was not discovered until after her death that the army surgeon James Barry was in fact a woman, the Irish-born Margaret Bulkley. She was disguised as a boy from the age of 10, and passed her whole adult life as a man, studying at medical school in Edinburgh and qualifying as a doctor in 1812 and as a surgeon in 1813. It would be another century before Eleanor Davies-Colley became the first recognised woman surgeon in 1911.

In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett found a loophole to take the examination for the Society of Apothecaries. Despite many obstacles, she qualified as a doctor, though the Society rapidly closed the loophole. In 1869 Emily Davies established Girton College, the first university college for women, relocated to Cambridge in 1873. The London School of Medicine for Women was founded in 1874, chiefly through the determination of Sophia Jex-Blake who had been frustrated at her attempts to gain a medical education. London University was the first to award women degrees on the same terms as men in 1878.

The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote and serve on School Boards, and the 1894 Local Government Act allowed married women the right to vote and sit on municipal councils. In 1919 the Sex Disqualifications (Removals) Act allowed women, including married women, to hold certain professional posts. The first woman magistrate, Ada Summers, was sworn in on 31 December 1919; the first woman barrister, Helena Normanton, took up her practice in 1922, as did the first woman solicitor, Carrie Morrison.

How did equal pay come about?

Although there were a few elite businesswomen, most jobs held by women in the nineteenth century were either as domestic servants, in agriculture or in the textile industry. Unions argued that it was men who earned the family wage, and women working in similar jobs undercut men's wages.

In 1943, the Equal Pay Campaign Committee (EPCC) was established under Mavis Tate and Edith Summerskill. Their research revealed that women were paid half as much as men for the same jobs. The government set up a Royal Commission which advocated equal pay in 1946 for teachers and certain civil servants, but nothing was done. Women teachers did not receive equal pay until 1961, while equal pay for civil servants was phased in over seven years starting in 1955.

Barbara Castle became the first female Minister of State in 1965 when she became Minister of Transport. In 1970, as Employment Secretary, she introduced the Equal Pay Act, which was fully implemented from January 1976, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act.

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