Mary Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary feminist writer of 18th century England. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women is now standard reading for most English majors, especially those whose studies emphasize 18th century British writers or feminist literature. Wollstonecraft's writings were particularly admired by 19th century American feminist Susan B. Anthony.
Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wife of poet Percy Shelley, is the author of Frankenstein, also a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys literature that examines the relationship between man, science, nature, and God.
The central premise of Vindication is that women should be allowed equal educational opportunities, so that they might be able to use their own unique abilities to make intelligent contributions to society. It is also her contention that the high moral standards to which women were held should apply equally to men, especially where propriety, modesty, and chastity were considered. She believed it to be the equal duty of both men and women to make a conscious effort to ennoble each other. Also notable is her clear opposition to abortion and infanticide, despite the high maternal mortality rates of the time (about 1 in every 200 births, according to this article.) She argues that separating fertility and its possibilities from the sexual act makes in all the easier for women to become dehumanized as sex objects. Given the era in which she wrote, it is not surprising that she makes frequent appeals to natural law to support her argument.
The excerpt below is taken from Chapter V.
...For I will venture to assert, that all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity, which I have already enlarged on, branch out of one grand cause--want of chastity in men.
This intemperance, so prevalent, depraves the appetite to such a degree, that a wanton stimulus is necessary to rouse it; but the parental design of Nature is forgotten, and the mere person, and that for a moment, alone engrosses the thoughts. So voluptuous, indeed, often grows the lustful prowler, that he refines on female softness. Something more soft than women is then sought for; till, in Italy and Portugal, men attend the levees of equivocal beings, to sigh for more than female languor.
To satisfy this genus of men, women are made systematically voluptuous, and though they may not all carry their libertinism to the same height, yet this heartless intercourse with the sex, which they allow themselves, depraves both sexes, because the taste of men is vitiated; and women, of all classes, naturally square their behaviour to gratify the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power. Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into the account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity. The weak enervated women who particularly catch the attention of libertines, are unfit to be mothers, though they may conceive; so that the rich sensualist, who has rioted among women, spreading depravity and misery, when he wishes to perpetuate his name, receives from his wife only an half-formed being that inherits both its father's and mother's weakness.
Contrasting the humanity of the present age with the barbarism of antiquity, great stress has been laid on the savage custom of exposing the children whom their parents could not maintain; whilst the man of sensibility, who thus, perhaps, complains, by his promiscuous amours produces a most destructive barrenness and contagious flagitiousness of manners. Surely nature never intended that women, by satisfying an appetite, should frustrate the very purpose for which it was implanted?
For literary examples of why Wollstonecraft's standards were (and are) worth serious consideration, I can think of no better references than the novels of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey contain particularly good examples of what can occur when a woman is systematically discouraged from pursuing serious education, and pushed toward "catching" a man, or at the very least fulfilling no other purpose than making herself physically attractive. Austen's works offer a fairly lighthearted satirical take on society as she knew it. For a more bitter critique from the same time period as Austen's later works, try Thackeray's Vanity Fair.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is widely available in its entirety both online and in print.