What Role Did Mary Wollstonecraft Play in the European Enlightenment?

Mary Wollstonecraft was influential in developing one of the first feminist agendas. She is considered one of the premier minds of social and political philosophy to emerge within the Enlightenment.

Wollstonecraft, like many Enlightenment thinkers, was concerned with the nature and implications of individualism, particularly how they applied to the condition of women in society. In her view, women were relegated largely to the role of domestic slaves and lacked substantive economic and political recourse. In contrast, men enjoyed uncontested inheritance rights, held all voting privileges, and had the ability to explore intellectual and vocational opportunities unavailable to women. Wollstonecraft argued for women's access to professional training and for their legal and economic emancipation. As such, Wollstonecraft did not want women to have the prerogative of controlling men but of controlling themselves.

Wollstonecraft tried her hand at a number of different genres, including philosophical treatises, critical reviews, translations, pamphlets, novels and travel narratives. Her most famous work, "Vindication of the Rights of Women," proved as influential as it did shocking. Some conservatives rebuked her, even charging her with blasphemy. Wollstonecraft also wrote an account of her journeys through Scandinavia, a work that later became influential in establishing travel writing as a legitimate literary genre and in contributing to the literary foundations of Romanticism.

Despite her outspoken defense of liberal feminism, Wollstonecraft never abandoned support for women's traditional commitment to domestic roles.