From “A Vindication of the Rights of Man”
The birthright of man, to give you, Sir, a short definition of this disputed right, is such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of every other individual...
Liberty, in this simple, unsophisticated sense, I acknowledge, is a fair idea that has never yet received a form in the various governments that have been established on our beauteous globe; the demon of property has ever been at hand to encroach on the sacred rights of men, and to fence round with awful pomp laws that war with justice. But that it results from the eternal foundation of right--from immutable truth--who will presume to deny…?
From “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”
If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of women, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test. The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger...
Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. Virtue can only flourish among equals...
Consider […] whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves, respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?
Two hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, a baby girl was born in Spitalfields, London, to Elizabeth Wollstonecraft and her husband, Edward John.
At the time of this child’s birth, the options and opportunities available to girls were limited. Women were not expected to be well-educated. A woman’s identity was chiefly determined by who she married and – once married – any rights she had were given up to her husband, who would be the lord and master of the family.
But, the baby girl born in Spitalfields that late April day would not simply acquiesce to these oppressive expectations. In fact, she would challenge them at every opportunity in her personal and public life. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft. She has fairly been called ‘the mother of feminism’ and she continues to inspire women’s rights struggles to this day.
At the age of 25, Wollstonecraft made a move that would prove decisive. She came here, to Newington Green to open a school with the help of two of her sisters and a close friend. It was in Newington Green that Mary first met and befriended Dr. Richard Price – who was then minister of this very church – and who preached just above where I stand today. [There was a wall here then] Price could look to his right and there, in number 19, would be the brilliant young Mary. The school that Mary started failed only two years later, but the friendship Mary formed with Richard Price would prove to have great consequences for them and for centuries to come.
After the failure of the school, Mary devoted her attention to writing. She soon became a significant author, writing and publishing translations, anthologies, novels, books on education, and even a children’s book.
And then, in 1789, just after French revolutionaries successfully stormed the Bastille, Dr. Richard Price preached a fateful sermon called “On the Love of Country.” In this sermon, my illustrious predecessor spoke in support of the French Revolution. He congratulated the French National Assembly, praising what he saw as the great new possibilities for religious and civil freedom that the revolution had created. In Price’s words:
“Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom and writers in its defence! …Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes and warms and illuminates Europe!”
Price’s sermon was widely distributed and, not surprisingly, there were many who were angered by his egalitarian views. Philosopher Edmund Burke, wrote a response, published November 1790, entitled “Reflections on the Revolution in France” in which he defended the hereditary rights of the monarchy and harshly derided Price, saying of Price’s sermon: “Few harangues from the pulpit […] have ever breathed less of the spirit of moderation than this lecture...”
Burke aimed at us more broadly in later critiques. He described the… Unitarian Society as "loathsome insects that might, if they were allowed, grow into giant spiders as large as oxen".
Burke’s comments also spurred Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790 to write “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” – an angry rebuttal of Burke and a passionate defence of her friend Richard Price. And Mary was not genteel and ladylike in her comments and she accused Burke of what she thought to be the greatest sin of all – being irrational:
“[Sir,] it is natural to conclude, that all your pretty flights arise from your pampered sensibility; and that, vain of this fancied preeminence of organs, you foster every emotion till the fumes, mounting to your brain, dispel the sober suggestions of reason.” But Wollstonecraft went far beyond an attack on Burke or his conservatism. The central point of her argument was, as you heard earlier, the identification of a universal right to civil and religious liberty.
Two years after the publication of “A Vindication of the Rights of Man,” Wollstonecraft published the work for which she is best remembered: “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Here, Wollstonecraft stepped boldly forward to extend the universal rights of men to the other half of humanity – women!
Mary Wollstonecraft’s words earned her some acclaim in her own time, but also widespread and severe condemnation. For daring to suggest that women deserved rights as men do, one critic famously branded her “a hyena in petticoats.”
In her position on women’ rights, in particular, Mary Wollstonecraft was far ahead of her own time and courageously out of alignment with the society in which she lived. And this daring changed the future.
It is fascinating to me is how people like Mary Wollstonecraft develop the confidence to proclaim what they believe to be true, even when it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. How can they know that they are right when everyone around them is saying something different?
Personally, I am never quite sure that I am on the right track. In fact, sometimes - usually after dismissing someone else’s words as the ravings of a crank – I wonder if maybe I am just such an old crank myself. I suspect I am not the only one who suffers from such doubts.
And when we question our own opinions and convictions – when we ask ‘am I ok?’ – how do we make that judgment? Surely, it is mostly by looking to those around us.
Human beings are social animals. Evolution exerted strong pressure on us to fit in to whatever group we are in – to conform. Back in the wilds of Africa a couple of million years ago when the major work was being done on our genetic instructions, survival depended on fitting in with the group.
If you were hungry, you needed to work together to get food. For defence, you needed to work together. To raise young successfully, you needed to work together.
So, is it any surprise that we copy each other’s hairstyles, clothing, cars, and style of speech? Despite all our talk about individuality, most of us crave acceptance and the feeling of simply fitting in.
There is a special word we use for people who do not fit in. They are called crazy.
Or they are called prophets. And rarely the latter without the former...
You may remember the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures - perhaps only vaguely. We think about the word prophesy in the sense of telling the future. Yes, the prophets did speak about the future, but this was secondary to their true purpose. They were inspired men and women who dared to speak out against the wrongs in their own societies – they criticised the powerful and the comfortable. They spoke words like these from Amos, as he warned against empty religious observance that obscured the true calling of the divine order: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Prophets spoke out against hypocrisy, when the pious words of their people were unmatched by their unjust deeds and way of life. They cried out for justice – for the poor, for the hungry, for the downtrodden.
And for their trouble, for their scolding and badgering they got exactly the kind of reaction you would expect. They were despised by most – especially those in power who wanted nothing to do with seeing the injustice that their way of life was causing.
Prophets were not so much people who could see the future as people who could see the present, but from a different perspective. They had awakened from the illusions and assumptions woven by culture and saw the ugly truth behind the veil laid bare. Amid wealth and power, they were the ones who notice the poor and the hungry and they cried out ‘injustice.’
Mary Wollstonecraft was a unique individual – brilliant and strong. She was one who would not be swept along in stream of the common beliefs and understandings of her time. Hers was a keener sight – a vision that saw beyond what most people take for granted. She saw, contrary to the assumptions of her time, that women were the equals of men.
Her bold stance – a position that proved to be many years ahead of her time – was met with broad condemnation. Today, we recognise that Mary Wollstonecraft spoke with the voice of prophesy. We honour her for her courage and for the gifts she has given to future generations of women and men.
Change requires some who, like Mary Wollstonecraft, will stand up despite the risks and shout ‘injustice!’ And change also requires those who will listen to these prophets – those who will look beyond the wild look in their eyes and the jeers of the crowd – to hear the truth in their words.
Let there be no doubt that there are prophets walking among us today. They are probably not popular. They may be despised. They are almost certainly dismissed by most. Perhaps you know of some. What have people like his awakened to see today? The destruction of the environment? Human trafficking? Injustice toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? Remember that our own eyes are yet closed to many issues of which present and future prophets will warn.
Most of us will not be prophets ourselves – for your own sakes, I hope that you will not. But we can be the ones who listen, the ones willing to hear with ears and hearts open to their message of justice. We can be the ones who give a second thought before dismissing their speech as the ravings of an old crank.
In the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft, let us widen our vision. Let us look past the social norms and habits that hide the truth of this world from us. Let us continue the struggle for justice that she so ably advanced.
In Mary Wollstonecraft’s own words, “The beginning is always today.”