Mary Wollstonecraft was the most famous woman among the Enlightenment philosophers of the 1700s AD. Like Damaris Masham and Mary Astell in the 1600s, Wollstonecraft mainly argued that men should not prevent women from getting a good education. You think this is obvious? But Rousseau, just a few years earlier, had argued that men should not let women go to school, except to learn how to keep house and take care of children.
Wollstonecraft’s brother had been sent to school, but she had not. She realized that if women got good educations, they would be able to reason as well as men. Educating both men and women would help create a society based on reason rather than superstition or faith.
Wollstonecraft first supported herself with work as a governess. Then she started and ran a school, and then she worked as a translator and writer. Like other Enlightenment philosophers, she did not marry, though she had several boyfriends. She wrote against the laws that gave some people – aristocrats or nobles – special privileges just because of who their parents were and how rich they were. Wollstonecraft argued that all people should be equal under the law. And instead of some people being rich while others are poor, she thought each family should have a small farm that could support them.
When the French Revolution began in 1792, Wollstonecraft was so excited about it that she left England and went to France (along with Thomas Paine) to be part of the revolution there. But she was disappointed when it turned out that men got control of the revolution. They did not end up allowing women to participate as equals. Wollstonecraft left France, where she had had her first child, and came back to England with the baby. She got pregnant again, and then decided to get married. But she died of an infection only a few days after her second baby was born. She was only 38 years old.