Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) believed in equal access to education for women and, as such, became one of the earliest advocates of liberal feminism. She embodied the ideals of her time, pursuing the Enlightenment views of reason and rational thought.
In Wollstonecraft’s view, the education offered to girls during the eighteenth century ill-equipped them for the world, and, worse than that, left them weak and cunning. She acknowledged in her seminal book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that she was largely addressing a middle-class audience (with the unspoken assumption that this audience would also have been white and heterosexual), but nevertheless, her work did much to influence the development of feminism and liberalism over the years.
Below are some quotations from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
“I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body.”
“I wish to shew [sic] that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex.”
“If then women are not such a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence?”
“The most perfect education, in my opinion, is… to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent.”
“Why do [men] expect virtue from a slave, from a being whom the constitution of civil society has rendered weak, if not vicious.”
“Let women share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grown more perfect when emancipated.”
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
I really recommend reading this book first hand. It’s enlightening to read the passion with which she writes and, although it’s easy to see the failings of her argument now, it would have been a revelation at the time.