On this day in 1759, a prominent thinker of the Enlightenment period, Mary Wollstonecraft, was born.
She was a committed advocate of democracy, limited government, individual liberties and meritocracy in the face of the reaction of the European monarchies against the challenges of the American and the French revolutions in the late 18th century.
Influenced by John Locke’s theory of private property, she defended a free market economic system in which each person would have equal opportunities to engage in private commercial enterprise. She saw this as a force that would result in greater social equality and freedom, contrasted with the Old Regime economy based on estates, aristocratic privileges and feudal agrarianism.
Most noteworthy, Wollstonecraft took these ideas of equality of rights and individual liberties to apply to women, too. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, she believed that all human beings, both men and women, had the faculty of reason and could engage in rational thought. She believed that everybody could to lead free, autonomous lives. To facilitate this, she was a big proponent of education for girls and women, so that they could actively participate in all aspects of life.
The concept of equal rights for women, and the treatment of women with respect as individuals, was a logical consequence of the European Enlightenment with its commitment to individual autonomy, human reason and equality before the law.
Today, women are seen as equals in many parts the world, but far from everywhere – there are still places where women don’t have the same rights as men and often experience mistreatment. It’s not surprising that most of these places also have bad human rights records and little respect for individual liberties in general. If Mary Wollstonecraft could see our world today, perhaps she would be happy to see some of the great advances we made, but would also want us to keep working so that women are recognized as fully capable and equal beings in all parts of the world. What do you think?