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  • "Made Women of When They are Mere Children":Mary Wollstonecraft's Critique of Eighteenth-Century Girlhood
  • Corinne Field (bio)

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Edwin Rosskam, "Adolescent boys dressed up for the Easter parade, Chicago, Illinois," 1941. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF33-005147-M4.

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It is time for historians of childhood and youth to claim Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) as a key source for understanding the intersection of age and gender in eighteenth-century Britain and France.1 Historians agree that attention to gender difference is essential to understanding how ideas about childhood changed in the eighteenth century. Yet, despite productive attention to the history of girls and girlhood, historians of childhood continue to overlook Wollstonecraft's writings in favor of canonical texts by men such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.2 This is understandable since historians of women claim Wollstonecraft as the founder of liberal feminism and treat feminism as a movement focused on the rights of adults. While noting that early feminists regarded girls as an object of concern—for example, in campaigns for expanded educational opportunities, improved leisure, or relief from child labor—historians have not analyzed how ideas about girlhood structured feminist goals and strategies.3

It was not always such, however. Mary Wollstonecraft placed girls and girlhood at the very center of feminist concerns. Wollstonecraft was deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinkers who linked childrearing and education to the proper functioning of democratic government.4 Yet, she critiqued these writers for distorting the nature of girlhood. Specifically, she charged that leading political theorists in Britain and France confused the natural stages of girlhood and womanhood because they found girlishness sexually attractive and female maturity repellant. Ministers, literary figures, and advice writers treated girls as prematurely sexual and adult women as perpetually infantile. Parents and educators forced young girls into a precocious desire to please men at the expense of developing their intellects and capacity for virtue.5 As a result, Wollstonecraft argued, women failed to develop their natural capacities and became artificial [End Page 199] beings. "Females," she wrote, "who are made women of when they are mere children, and brought back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart for ever, have not sufficient strength of mind to efface the superinductions of art that have smothered nature."6

Wollstonecraft agreed with eighteenth-century moralists who maintained that women should lay the foundation for civic virtue by educating young children in the home and inspiring men to pursue the common good. But she insisted that women could not adequately perform these functions as long as girls behaved like coquettes and adult women like overgrown children. Such immature women, according to Wollstonecraft, "act as such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures.—Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!" Though pleasing to men, they could not be "expected to govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world." The result was that these women were "taken out of their sphere of duties, and made ridiculous when the short-lived bloom of beauty is over."7 What these immature women failed to develop was the capacity to rely on their own reason to discern their moral duty. If they happened to be good mothers or wives, it was only through the accident of a childlike obedience to external authority rather than through the conscious determination of mature understanding. Wollstonecraft insisted that "if women be ever allowed to walk without leading strings" they must be "taught to respect themselves as rational creatures."8

Wollstonecraft was not unique in lamenting what her friend Mary Hays underlined as women's "state of PERPETUAL BABYISM."9 Wollstonecraft joined a chorus of female pedagogues who advised girls to cultivate mature virtue. Even Wollstonecraft's staunchest critic, the evangelical Hannah More, proposed educational reforms that would encourage girls to develop the capacity for moral autonomy. What set Wollstonecraft apart was that she linked female maturity to a defense of...