Acton Institute Powerblog

Women’s History Month: Mary Wollstonecraft And ‘I Have A Dream’

Most of us associate the words “I have a dream” with the iconic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there was a woman, nearly 200 years earlier, who wrote of her own impassioned dreams of liberty.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in England and championed social and educational equality for women. The daughter of a farmer, Wollstonecraft came to debate the likes of Edmund Burke regarding natural law, revolution and individual liberty.

What is intriguing about Wollstonecraft is that she continued the discussion in this later book in order to apply for the first time these ideas about individual liberty to women as well as men. Having established this to be the case to her satisfaction she then asked the further question why were women in the subordinate position they were in vis-à-vis men? Her answer was that they were held in this position by a combination of force (laws which discriminated against them in terms of property ownership, education, and marriage) and established opinion regarding the proper role of women in the home and in society. Her solution was to equalize women before the law and to encourage parents to devote the same effort in educating their daughters as they did their sons.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which is considered to be one of the first true feminist writings. In it, Wollstonecraft denounced the frivolous subjects that passed as “education” for girls at the time (things like sketching and needlework), and argued that women – if properly educated – could join any worthy profession.

It was in this same publication that Wollstonecraft wrote of her “I have a dream” ideals:

These may be termed utopian dreams. – Thanks to that Being who impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my own reason, till, becoming dependent only on him for the support of my virtue, I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.

I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man. In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?

Wollstonecraft’s personal life was tumultuous and her work didn’t take hold in her lifetime. However, suffragettes of the 1800s came to rely on her work as a foundation for their own.

Read more on Mary Wollstonecraft here.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.