Comparing Mary Wollstonecraft and Edmund Burke

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Comparing Mary Wollstonecraft and Edmund Burke’s perspectives on quality is like comparing the light of the sun and a bulb. Each is distinct, each is right, and each serves its function in the bigger picture of society. On the one hand, we have Edmund Burke. He was conservative in all of his writing. On the other side, there is Mary Wollstonecraft, the fiery feminist that rocked the boat with her perspectives on the equality of genders. The discussion will go into how these two scholars conceived the subject. It makes for a revealing discourse since it is clear that each had a set of facts to rely on in their positions. That is the beauty of jurisprudence and philosophy; conflicting views enrich the body of literature rather than jostle for supremacy as is the case in the applied sciences.

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Her piece de resistance was ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’ It was a 1792 book that took up where Joh Stuart Mill left off with’ the Subjection of Women’ with an unnerving intensity. Wollstonecraft firmly believed that men and women were created human beings. Consequently, each gender possesses a right to live that is inalienable. To her, life has no meaning if it is devoid of liberty. Therefore, the patriarchal hegemony was committing a grave injustice by continuing to deny women civil liberties that men themselves considered a part of the pursuit of happiness. It is clear that her thesis bore a heavy accent from Stuart Mill’s utilitarian ethics. To her,” freedom to pursue happiness was the reason why liberty exists.” (Wollstonecraft and Godwin 8) Since men and women are equal, women too should be free to pursue their happiness,; whatever that may be. Society was rapidly evolving in her time; she advocated for women to pursue education to know what pleasure the political, social and cultural economy could give them.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke stands out like a sore thumb in his stoicism of the enlightenment age. In fact, it is that resolve that has seen him thought of as the father of modern conservatism. The age of enlightenment came with a heavy dose of what Burke shrugged off as a utopian way of thinking. The French legion of scholars and others like John Locke had had a lot of publicity saying that reason had the potential to order society. They garrisoned the position around suppositions on human nature and how understanding it could make the world a better place. Burke would have none of that. He doused their theories with an objective barrage of rejoinders. These arguments have stood the test of time and form the basis of conservative thinking today.

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Comparing Wollstonecraft and Burke

The first point of divergence between these two scholars is on their appreciation of equality. Wollstonecraft and Burke were only in agreement as far as God considers human beings to be equal. Wollstonecraft goes on to say that it is hypocritical to say that men and women are equal yet institute measures that subjugate women for no logical, legal or moral reason. That equality entitles both genders to pursue happiness in their ways. But then Burke separates the idea of equality before God and before society. While he accepted that God creates us equally, he takes on a realist position for the latter matter. He felt and pointed out that here on earth, people are not equal. To him, that was a fact. He pointed to physiological, sociological, economic and political realities to show the apparent inequalities between people even of the same gender.

That did not mean that Burke was some kind of pseudo-atheist, or even a hypocrite, for conceding God’s philosophy. That was a realistic compromise that he had to make so that his theory of realism could gain the eminent audiences at the time. Everything about this thinker has realistic undertones. He conceded the ground he had to for the audience of his opponents. He did not hide behind some aspirational values that would create this utopia that the enlightenment thinkers craved.

That is not to mean that Wollstonecraft and Burke argued for different ideas. They flowed in one direction, only that they did it for entirely different reasons. And therefore, their justifications hinge on different pivots. Wollstonecraft was a liberal feminist. She posited that women could only maintain equality through the choices that they make and the actions that they take. The target of liberal feminists at the time was to gain socio-political and culture economic recognition as autonomous beings capable of meaningful engagement. Burke, on the other hand, argued that it was impossible for women to demand some form of equality. To him, it was simply impossible in the current social contract.

Edmund Burke convincingly argues that the conscience of a person (male or female) is directed by presumption, prejudice (as in, a notorious/logical judgment of an outcome) and prescription.  Therefore, ”gender relations ought to be prescribed through norms, presumed to work using propensities of each gender (physical strength for women and child-bearing for women) and prejudice.” (Sagar and Bromwich) It means that men would make better soldiers than nurses of suckling infants; and that suckling mothers would make better caregivers of babies.

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  1. Sagar, Paul, and David Bromwich. “The Intellectual Life Of Edmund Burke: From The Sublime And Beautiful To American Independence..” Political Theory: Harvard University Press, (2014): 1977-240. Web.
  2. Wollstonecraft, Mary, and William Godwin. Posthumous Works Of The Author Of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. Clifton [N.J.]: A.M. Kelley, 1972. Print.
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