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The pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is shown as though distracted momentarily from her studies. The sombre colours of her costume and the cloistered, darkened setting convey a sense of seriousness Iand dedication.

Painting a woman in such a role would have been more controversial in an earlier age. It was generally thought that only wealthy men could possess intellectual power. By stressing universal human values, Sensibility inadvertently helped pave the way for claims that women – at least middle-class women – might have as much moral and mental strength as men.

September 2004