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Mary Wollstonecraft

Murphy’s Law: Mary Wollstonecraft


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) started it all–she ignited the notion that women were the equals of men. She was a revolutionary for women, when they were chattels. In her day women were barred from universities, professions, the vote, owning property, and had only the rights of those the law classified as an idiot. There were no custody battles in divorce cases as the men won them all because women could not own property (children), and the probate courts placed the husband in control of the wife’s inheritance. It was all so consistent with the Bible that one could only deduce these were godly laws. Besides, the courts were not so crowded when only half the population could sue, be sued, or enter into a contract.

In her brief life she would attempt to change all that by becoming the grandmother of the movement to free her sex from the dogmas and traditions and laws grounded to “our barbaric past.” She had a time taking on both church and state in an era when women were not supposed to speak in public, much less speak as she spoke. The clergy called her a “hyena in petticoats” and claimed she was “lower than a prostitute” as she urged women and men to realize that women were “rational creatures” and therefore “must only bow to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion.”

She was the second of seven born to a family with a dissolute father who left them to fend for themselves after he dissipated his sizable inheritance in London pubs. Her mother would die young, leaving her lonely children to care for themselves. Mary did that and more. She spent her short life fending for her gender, and children and animals. She was a freethinker who championed the supremacy of reason over any tradition or dogma that was unjust.  Mary educated herself and then started a school as a model for early education for all children. Her seminal book, AVindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was the first book of any consequence to be published in English advancing equality of the sexes. It was the bible and treasure of two freethinking women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, generations later. But it all started with a freethinker who refused to be treated like an idiot. She detested the biblical precepts of the Divine Right of Kings and condemned the ministers who perpetuated the myth. Then she worked over the Pauline principle of what she called “The Divine Right of Husbands” to have a submissive wife.

This young fighter took on the clergy whom she saw as magicians who could place a “ceremonial veil” over morality and then, when the veil is quietly lifted, morality has vanished, replaced with sanctified immorality: “in a word, was not the separation of religion from morality the work of priests…?” She called the priests “rapacious” and thought they were the only ones who used reason when it came to religion, using it to “secure such vast property to the church, when a man gave his perishable substance to save himself from the dark torments of purgatory.” She thought it was cunning of the clergy to convince their “ignorant flock [to] think that merely going to church is meritorious.”  She thought it was incumbent on the pulpits to encourage the pews to think for themselves and use reason, our greatest tool, as the only path to virtue. She claimed ignoring reason and common sense and listening to the preachers, who claim they can absolve sin, time and time again, has resulted in more sinning and  “the world is almost, literally speaking, a den of sharpers or oppressors.”

She hammered hard against the encrusted traditions, barbaric laws, and the miserable barnacled customs that were considered “moral” in her time.  She used her reason to defend herself and her gender.  She was met with the condescending smirk of righteousness that comes from religious certainty–that volcano, which percolates bigotry and rumbles out pronouncements from those who are so certain, and claim to know what god wants.


“Mary Wollstonecraft” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.

The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.

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