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Was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Defense Of Human Rights Only (White) Skin Deep?

*PhD, Bilkent Üniversitesi Felsefe Bölümü

In a recent book on what decolonial and intersectional feminism should look like, Françoise Vergès criticized eighteenth-century women philosophers for appropriating the language of slavery in order to argue for women’s rights:

By drawing an analogy between their situation and that of slaves, European feminists denounced a position of dependence, a status of minors-for-life. But in doing so they erased the central elements of slavery—capture, deportation, sale, trafficking, torture, denial of social and family ties, rape, exhaustion, racism, sexism, and death that framed the lives of female slaves appropriating through analogy a condition that was not theirs. (London: Pluto Press, 2021, p.28)

Vergès adds that even feminist authors from that period who looked at slavery directly tended to romantize it, and expected the enslaved to be submissive and patient, while the white heroes or heroines saved them. She takes Olympe de Gouges as an example. Gouges was one of the few 18th century authors to defend abolitionism entirely, without any reservation, or any requirement that the enslaved be educated first. Nonetheless she did not escape certain racist prejudices, such as that the enslaved should be more patient, and less violent than their white oppressors. She also poised herself as the enslaved’s white saviour, and felt she could berate them when, through their violent upheavals, they did not live up to her conceptions of what they should be like.

Olympe de Gouges much more openly argued for the abolition of slavery than Wollstonecraft did. She wrote two plays and several pamphlets on the topic. Wollstonecraft did not write a single text on the question of slavery, but discussed it in several texts. How deep did her defense of abolition go?

Wollstonecraft certainly did use the analogy between women and slavery that Vergès refers to, perhaps more than some. Moira Fergusson, in her article ‘Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery’ notes that while in the Vindication of the Rights of Men, there are only five references to slavery, in the Rights of Woman there are eighty. She adds ‘the constituency Wollstonecraft champions – white, middle-class women – is constantly characterized as slaves. For her major polemic, that is, Mary Wollstonecraft decided to adopt and adapt the terms of contemporary political debate’ (Fergusson 1992, 82). This sounds almost as though Wollstonecraft is jumping on the abolitionist bandwagon, appropriating its vocabulary and arguments in order to push her own agenda, that of the emancipation of white middle-class British women. This not what Fergusson is saying – she argues that Wollstonecraft was part of the abolitionist movement and that her references to it in the Rights of Woman are intended to strengthen arguments against slavery, rather than appropriate them and erase their original target.

Even before she wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft’s references to the practice of slavery in the Americas shows that she did not either seek to diminish the plight of the enslaved or assimilate it to that of white middle class women in England. In fact it is clear that she sees white women as full participants in the practice of slavery. In the Rights of Men, she shows off Burke’s characterization of aristocratic women as virtuous and decorous by refering to the well-document cruel behaviour of white women in plantations:

Where is the dignity, the infallibility of sensibility, in the fair ladies, whom, if the voice of rumour is to be credited, the captive negroes curse in all the agony of bodily pain, for the unheard of tortures they invent? It is probable that some of them, after the sight of a flagellation, compose their ruffled spirits and exercise their tender feelings by the perusal of the last imported novel.–How true these tears are to nature, I leave you to determine. 

Abolitionism was an important part of her circle’s concerns. The rational dissenters, like the members of the Clapham sect, were activists as well as intellectuals. They sought to help the oppressed all over the world and helped circulate the testimonies of individuals who had been enslaved and wrote about it, such as Ottobah Coguano and Olaudah Equiano. The abolitionist movement itself was developing and the Abolition Committee was formed in May 1787.

Equiano spoke at the Unitarian church at Newington Green, at a time when Wollstonecraft attended sermons there. His book, published in 1789, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, was reviewed by Johnson’s Analytical Review in May of that year, and at least in some accounts, Wollstonecraft was the reviewer. Although she found the chapters on his religious faith rather dull (she writes that ‘the narrative should have closed when he became his own master’), she was more enthusiastic about his account of his ‘endeavours to obtain his freedom’, which appealed to many of the same neo-republican principles she herself deployed in her writing. 

The review of Equiano’s book was the first of several reviews attributed to Wollstonecraft that dealt with the question of slavery in the Americas. Another title she reviewed was French journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot’s account of his travels to America. She found much to admire in that book and wrote ‘he writes like an enlightened citizen of the world, whose zeal for liberty appears to arise from the purest moral principles and most expansive humanity’ and then added ‘But his humanity is particularly conspicuous in the long account he gives of the treatment of slaves and the attempts made by the Quakers to abolish that infamous traffic’.

Wollstonecraft was also aware of the developments in the French colonies, in particular of Saint Domingue (later Haiti). She was an early reader of Brissot and he was was the co-founder of the Société des Amis des Noirs, engaged in disputes with the French planters from America about the abolition of slavery, but also the rights of citizenship of free men of colour, which was being disputed. During her stay in Paris, she met Brissot, and it is likely that he and his wife, Félicité Brissot were responsible for the well-received translation of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in France shortly before Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris in the winter 1792.

One legitimate question was how deep Wollstonecraft’s concern for enslaved Africans was. In the case of Olympe de Gouges, even though she declared herself entirely won over to the cause of the enslaved Africans from childhood, she was offended when they rebelled against the white planters, and started a revolution which proved as violent as the one that had happened (and was still happening in France). With a level of disingenuity, it seems, Gouges complained that the Africans should have waited for the new French government to grant them their freedom. Why was it disingenuous? Because already, she was questioning the effectiveness of that government, the motives of the men behind it, and the virtue of the people who had fought for the revolution in the streets. She also seems to have had unrealistic expectations of the enslaved Africans, arguing that they must be more virtuous than the French because they were ‘closer to nature’ and thus further away from the corrupting influence of civil society. So while Gouges did not at any point recant her views that slavery was an evil that needed to be abolished immediately (contrary to many of her contemporaries who thought it should be abolished slowly, in Condorcet’s case, over a period of seventy years), she nonetheless showed that her commitment to black Africans as people was tainted by a form of racism which held them up to higher standards than white people and gave her the right to judge them when they fell from these standards.

There were other ways to be Eurocentric or racist in the eighteenth century than express the wrong views about transatlantic slavery. And here it is easier to catch Wollstonecraft wrongfooted. She speaks, following her mentor and model Catharine Macaulay of the oppression of ‘eastern women’ without bothering, it seems, to find out much, if anything, about their actual lives. Wollstonecraft’s references to the ‘eastern women’ living in a ‘haram’ are, on the whole, citations from Rousseau. Rousseau claims that a European woman should “cultivate her agreeable talents, in order to please her future husband, with as much care and assiduity as a young Circassian cultivates hers, to fit her for the Haram of an Eastern bashaw”. Wollstonecraft disagrees, but without questioning Rousseau’s characterization of the Circassian woman.

When Wollstonecraft refers to women in the Muslim world, she portrays them as the victims of the worst sort of patriarchy which has rendered them ‘mere animals’ who are ‘only fit for a seraglio’ (harem) and as women who ‘supinely dream life away in the lap of pleasure’. This is not seen as the effect of chance, but blamed on the religion itself: in her introduction she complains that in recent books “in the true style of Mahometanism, [women] are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species, when improveable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation, and puts a natural scepter in a feeble hand.”  Later, commenting on Milton, she wonders whether “in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation”.

Wollstonecraft’s very negative (and ignorant) take on Islam may have been influenced, not only by Rousseau, but also Catharine Macaulay who wrote, in her Letters on Education, that “I intend to breed my pupils up to act a rational part in the world, and not to fill up a niche in the seraglio of a sultan, I shall certainly give them leave to use their reason in all matters which concern their duty and happiness, and shall spare no pains in the cultivation of this only sure guide to virtue” .

Wollstonecraft saw oriental women as beyond help – much as English aristocratic women were. She also, perhaps, did not feel that saving them from their enervating harems was her responsibility. People were enslaved in the Carribeans because the British had brought them there, and relied on their free labour controlled by torture to ‘sweeten their cups’ with sugar and other luxuries. Wollstonecraft had reason, as a British woman who benefitted from the economical advantages of slavery for Britain, to fight for the emancipation of those who were exploited for it. So it is understandable that she would make more of an effort when writing about enslaved African men and women than she did when writing about Ottoman women. But why did she not do more? Why, as someone who cared for justice, did she choose to privilege the cause of white women over that of enslaved Africans? This may be a somewhat unfair criticism given that she died at the age of thirty-eight. For a quick comparison: Simone de Beauvoir did not even begin to think about feminism until she was forty. Given Wollstonecraft’s record, it is likely she would have taken up more causes to fight for had she lived longer.

SUGGESTED CITATION: Berges, Sandrine: Was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Defense of Human Rights Only (White) Skin Deep?, IHMBilkent, 2022/10/18,

Sandrine Bergès
Sandrine Bergès

Sandrine Bergès works on the history of moral and political philosophy, ancient (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics), Medieval (Heloise, Christine de Pizan), early modern (Cavendish) and Eighteenth Century (Wollstonecraft, Sophie de Grouchy, Marie-Jeanne Roland, Olympe de Gouges). She also works on contemporary social and political philosophy, with an emphasis on the capability approach and feminism.