Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminist Critique of Property. On Becoming a Thief From Principle
Philosophy, Ethics and Religion
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AbstractThe scholarship on Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is divided concerning her views on women’s role in public life, property rights and distribution of wealth. Her critique of inequality of wealth is undisputed, but is it a complaint only of inequality or does it strike more forcefully at the institution of property? The argument in this article is that Wollstonecraft’s feminism is partly defined by a radical critique of property, intertwined with her conception of rights. Dissociating herself from the conceptualization of rights in terms of self-ownership, she casts economic independence – a necessary political criterion for personal freedom – in terms of fair reward for work, not ownership. Her critique of property moves beyond issues of redistribution to a feminist appraisal of a property structure that turns people into either owners or owned, rights holders or things acquired. The main characters in Wollstonecraft’s last novel – Maria who is rich but has nothing, and Jemima, who steals as a matter of principle – illustrate the commodification of women in a society where even rights are regarded as possessions.