They Led The Way

25 March 2024
They Led The Way - Featured image

The vision of education and rights for women outlined by Mary Wollstonecraft was taken up with enthusiasm in Australia’s colonial democracy, writes IPA Adjunct Fellow Brad Bowden.

Since time immemorial, most of Europe’s population had lived in country cottages and rural hamlets. By 1841, this rural mode of existence was in retreat across north-western Europe as industrialisation took hold. In Britain, only 22 per cent of the workforce laboured on the land. Less than half the German workforce was engaged in rural pursuits. France was also increasingly urbanised.

Industrialisation changed different people’s lives in different ways. Abandoning the countryside, the poor flooded into towns and cities. As they moved in, the upper and middle classes moved out.

People’s working lives were also transformed. In the slums of Birmingham, Dusseldorf and New York, traditional activities such as spinning and weaving were well-nigh impossible. Instead, women found work in factories. In 1834, Britain’s 102,812 female textile-mill workers easily outnumbered the 88,859 male employees. By 1851, London boasted 84,000 female clothing workers but only 28,000 men.

Despite the growth in female employment there was an unwillingness to concede women political and social rights. Prior to marriage, women were under the command of their fathers. After marriage, they were at the behest of husbands. “By marriage,” the great English jurist William Blackstone recorded,

… the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is … incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband …

Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), whose understandings of ‘liberty’ inspired the French Revolution, bluntly rejected female equality.

In his opinion,

… men and women are not, nor ought to be, constituted alike in temperament and character, it

follows … that they should not be educated in the same manner … they should not be engaged in the same employments.

Similarly, Thomas Paine (1737–1809), the most revolutionary thinker of the American Revolution whose Rights of Man was a British best-seller, never even hinted at the possibility that the ‘rights of man’ might extend to women.


Born into rural poverty in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was a woman of energy and courage. Largely self-educated, she published prodigiously during her short life, advocating female equality long before it was popular. Participating in the French Revolution, she was honest enough to repudiate many of her earlier enthusiasms in her eye-witness study, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution.

A mother of two daughters to two different fathers, she scandalised polite society before dying at the age of 38 from septicaemia several days after giving birth to her second daughter, the future Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein). Declaring in her greatest work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that “independence” was “the grand blessing of life”, Wollstonecraft maintained her own independence of spirit in the face of social ostracism.

There were three formative influences in Wollstonecraft’s life. The first was her youthful involvement with a group of Nonconformist Christians. Advocating education and moral purity, this sect also supported a wider electoral franchise. A passionate Christian, Wollstonecraft’s early works are infused with puritanical professions about chastity and the sanctity of marriage that belied her own subsequent private life. Equally important to Wollstonecraft’s future theorising was a period spent as governess to a wealthy Irish family. Biographer Miriam Brody observed this was Wollstonecraft’s “first close encounter with a leisured, frivolous style of life”. Wollstonecraft was unimpressed. Her subsequent work is pervaded with a disdain for the sort of women who were the staple for Jane Austen’s novels. The lifestyles of “the rich”, Wollstonecraft states in the introduction to her Vindication, “tends to render them vain and helpless … They only live to amuse themselves”.

Wollstonecraft conveyed a bleak picture of British society.

The third and decisive influence on Wollstonecraft’s thinking came from her association with a group of radical London intellectuals she met after abandoning her career as a governess. Gathered around the printing business of Joseph Johnson—who published nearly all of Wollstonecraft’s work—this group included William Blake, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley (a noted chemist and political radical), and William Godwin (a political philosopher). Initially employed as a translator of French polemics, Wollstonecraft was soon publishing polemics of her own. The first of these, published in 1790, was A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. An attack on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, this book predated Thomas Paine’s more widely read Rights of Man (1791). The fact both made broadly similar criticisms of Burke, and mounted similar defences of the French Revolution, can be attributed to the fact they moved within the same small radical circle rather than plagiarism. Within her book, Wollstonecraft conveyed a particularly bleak picture of British society. The “rich” were sunk in “luxury” and “polished vices”, she argued, whereas “the poor” were “scarcely above the brutes”.

If Wollstonecraft’s first polemic lacked originality, the same could not be said of her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Published in 1792, it provided the foundation stone for modern feminism. At the time, however, it evoked a hostile reaction. Moving to France, she received a warm welcome from people who appreciated her earlier defence of the Revolution. Feted, she was soon the de facto wife of an American fortune-seeker, Gilbert Imlay. Leading an increasingly bohemian lifestyle, Wollstonecraft had a daughter, Fanny, by Imlay in 1794. With their relationship falling apart, she followed Imlay to Britain and Scandinavia in the hope of reviving his affections. Attempting suicide in 1795, Wollstonecraft then commenced a new relationship, this time with William Godwin, a member of the old London radical circle. This too was an unconventional relationship, the pair only marrying when Wollstonecraft was pregnant with the future Mary Shelley. Tragically, Wollstonecraft was dead within a few days of Mary’s birth. Wollstonecraft’s private life was thus a paradox. Praising the institution of marriage in her most significant study, she lived outside conventional norms. Castigating women who were “only anxious to inspire men”, she desperately sought romantic affection.

An undistinguished writer, Wollstonecraft’s reputation largely rests on her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which asserted women’s claim to an equal share “in the natural rights of mankind”. In Wollstonecraft’s estimation, the inability of women to achieve their proper place in the world owed as much to them—and their education—as to men. The biggest problem, Wollstonecraft argued, was the expectation that women should devote themselves to the pursuit of a husband. This limited both their activities and ambition. “Confined then in cages like the feathered race,” she bemoaned, “they have nothing to do but plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch.”

Australian women obtained voting rights in 1902.

From this conclusion, Wollstonecraft argued that the solution to the female condition was a remodelled education system of public “day-schools” where “boys and girls, the rich and poor … might be educated together”. Wollstonecraft argued a winnowing needed to occur at the “age of nine” and those destined “for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed”. Those possessing “superior abilities” were then to be taught “the dead and living languages”, alongside science, history, and politics. Equipped with the same education as men, females would then occupy an equal place in politics and at work. Wollstonecraft’s call for equality in education received the same response as her demand for political equality: it was ignored. It did, nevertheless, speak to middle-class ambitions that were to become pronounced in the latter half of the 19th century. In France, the number of female lycées went from zero to 138 between 1880 and 1913. In Britain, the number of publicly funded female secondary schools rose from 99 in 1904-05 to almost 400 on the eve of World War I. Political emancipation, however, was slower to arrive. In Britain, full female voting rights were not obtained until 1928. By contrast, Australian women obtained the same rights as men under the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902.

If Wollstonecraft’s Vindication attracted few readers, her study of the French Revolution garnered even less. This is unfortunate given its analysis of the conditions that make liberty possible—for men and women alike. Having experienced the French Revolution at first hand and heard “the snap of the guillotine”, Wollstonecraft repudiated most of the anti-Burkean positions she had argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Man. Whereas she had previously condemned the Westminster system as a sham, she now argued it provided a near-perfect balance. She also cautioned against revolutionary extremism, arguing “Every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil”.


A frontier society, colonial Australia is generally perceived as a “man’s world”. There is some truth to such observations. Australian women, however, had access to free state-run schools from the 1870s, whereas free primary school education was only introduced in England in the 1890s. For woman, education opened up new employment opportunities. By 1890, nursing was effectively a female preserve. Primary school teachers were also increasingly female. Australian women also pursued careers as journalists, authors, shopkeepers, merchants, and a myriad of other pursuits. Across Australia, 266,895 women were in paid work in 1891, a figure that equated to a quarter of the male total.

In seeking to advance their own circumstances and that of women more generally, some followed in the footsteps of Wollstonecraft by pursuing a career of feminist activism. Others, most notably Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946) and Miles Franklin (1879-1954), trod the literary path pioneered in Britain by Austen.

Foremost among Australia’s feminist activists in the colonial era were Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) and Louisa Lawson (1848-1920). As the person whose portrait features on the Australian $10 note, Gilmore’s face is known to most of us even if her story is not. Like Wollstonecraft, Gilmore (nee Cameron) was a person whose life was torn between an independence of spirit and a search for romantic affection. A country schoolteacher by training, Gilmore rose to prominence in the early 1890s when she became part of the “radical” literary school associated with the Bulletin magazine. After a failed relationship with Henry Lawson, a fellow poet at the Bulletin, Cameron as she was then known followed the utopian socialist William Lane to Paraguay in the hope of creating a communist paradise. Marrying fellow utopian Will Gilmore, she eventually returned to Australia with a two-year-old son in tow. Returning to work at the Bulletin, Gilmore’s marital relationship slowly collapsed as she became editor of the ‘Woman’s Page’ for the Worker newspaper. Among her many poems, her ‘Life-story’ perhaps best sums up the constant tension women experience as they try to balance careers and family duties. As Gilmore expressed it:

My hands have baked your bread, They fed you when you hungered, They laid the pillow for your bed, Sickness and sorrow comforted Without complaint, ungrudgingly; My eyes have bled their tears for you: What have you done for me?’

The mother of Henry Lawson, Louisa Lawson would have rubbed shoulders with the young Mary Cameron as they mingled among Sydney’s literary circle. After co-publishing the Republican newspaper with her son, Louisa began publishing The Dawn in 1888. In addition to advocating women’s suffrage, The Dawn also devoted pages to fashion and household activities. A commercial success, The Dawn provided jobs for women compositors, a development that was viewed with alarm by the union representing male printers. When one of Lawson’s workers applied for membership, her application was perfunctorily refused. The union also sought to subvert The Dawn’s success by pressuring advertisers to withdraw support. Lawson, however, remained undeterred. When the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales was established in 1891, she published its material free of charge.

They speak to not only female circumstances but also the wider Australian experience.

Significant figures in their own time, neither Gilmore nor Lawson command the enduring place in the Australian literary canon that Richardson and Franklin demanded. Like Austen, Richardson and Franklin boasted a polished, elegant command of the English language. In Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, as in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, education is key to the transformation of the female condition. When a female teacher admonishes a student for having “a real female brain … interested only in the personal aspect of things”, the central character in The Getting of Wisdom sees in this condemnation a summary of her own failings. Chastened, she dedicates herself to intellectual achievement. Growing up on a dairy farm, Franklin’s education was hard fought. Before going to school, she “had to feed thirty cows”. On returning, she “had the same duties over again”.

What makes The Getting of Wisdom and My Brilliant Career enduring classics, however, is the way in which they speak to not only female circumstances but also the wider Australian experience. In Richardson’s descriptions of Melbourne in the 1880s, we find ourselves in a streetscape that has barely changed between her time and ours. Like Richardson, we can imagine ourselves walking the “broad streets of East Melbourne” and amid the “exotic greenery of the Fitzroy Gardens”. Similarly, in Franklin’s “first recollection of life” we can imagine ourselves in the bush with “the majestic gumtrees surrounding us, the sun glinting on their straight white trunks, and falling on the gurgling fern-banked stream”. Richardson and Franklin were not simply inheritors of a Western literary tradition. They also pioneered a distinctively Australian canon.

This is an extract from Democracy, Communism and The Female Experience (1776-1850), a publication of the IPA’s Centre for the Australian Way of Life written by IPA Adjunct Fellow Bradley Bowden and IPA Executive Director Scott Hargreaves. To be released in essay form early in 2024, this is the second in a series titled How Australia Was Made: A History of Western Civilisation for Australians.

To learn more, look in the ‘Research’ section of

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Adjunct Fellow Brad Bowden.

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