A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft
The following entry provides criticism of Wollstonecraft's political treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). See also, Mary Wollstonecraft Criticism.
Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a declaration of the rights of women to equality of education and to civil opportunities. The book-length essay, written in simple and direct language, was the first great feminist treatise. In it Wollstonecraft argues that true freedom necessitates equality of the sexes; claims that intellect, or reason, is superior to emotion, or passion; seeks to persuade women to acquire strength of mind and body; and aims to convince women that what had traditionally been regarded as soft, “womanly” virtues are synonymous with weakness. Wollstonecraft advocates education as the key for women to achieve a sense of self-respect and a new self-image that can enable them to live to their full capabilities. The work attacks Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau who, even while espousing the revolutionary notion that men should not have power over each other, denied women the basic rights claimed for men. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman created an uproar upon its publication but was then largely ignored until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today it is regarded as one of the foundational texts of liberal feminism.
Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759, the second of six children. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a tyrannical man, and as she was growing up Wollstonecraft watched her mother bullied and mistreated by him. At the age of nineteen Wollstonecraft left home to make her own way in the world. In 1783 she aided her sister, Eliza, escape an abusive marriage by hiding her from her husband until a legal separation was arranged. Wollstonecraft and her sister later established a school at Newington Green before she moved to Ireland to work as a governess to the family of Lord Kingsborough. In 1787 she returned to London and embarked on a literary career. The following year Wollstonecraft was hired as translator and literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, a publisher of radical texts. She soon became acquainted with prominent intellectuals in radical political circles. When Johnson launched the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft became a regular contributor of articles.
In 1790, in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she disputed Burke's conservative position and advocated for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. In 1791 two events took place that prompted Wollstonecraft to write her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The first was the writing of the new French Constitution, which excluded women from all areas of public life and granted citizenship rights only to men over the age of twenty-five. The second was the report on education given by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to the French National Assembly recommending that girls' education should be directed to more subservient activities. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to Talleyrand, and Wollstonecraft appeals to him to rethink his views. While she was working on the treatise, Wollstonecraft fell in love with the married painter and philosopher Henry Fuseli. When she was rejected by him, and after her newly published treatise caused a stir in England, she moved to France. There she witnessed Robespierre's Reign of Terror; she would later criticize the violence of the French Revolution in her history, An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). In Paris Wollstonecraft met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant, with whom she later had a daughter, Fanny. When Imlay deserted her, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Soon after she lived with the philosopher William Godwin, whom she eventually married. In August 1797 she gave birth to their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), and less than a month later she died.
Plot and Major Characters
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman begins with a dedication to Talleyrand-Périgord, the Late Bishop of Autun, asking him to reconsider some of his ideas about the education of girls and women. In her dedication Wollstonecraft states that the main idea in her book is based on the simple principle that if woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue. Her argument in the thirteen chapters that follow is that rights are based on human reason and common human virtues, which are empowered by God. Because people have tended to use reason to justify injustice rather than promote equality, a vindication of the rights of women is needed. Her work begins with a discussion of sexual character, then offers observations on the state of degradation to which woman is reduced by various causes; presents critiques of writers who have rendered women objects of pity or contempt; shows the effect that an early association of ideas has upon the character; discusses the notion of modesty as it is applied to women; shows how morality is undermined by sexual notions of the importance of a good reputation; outlines the pernicious effects that arise from the unnatural distinctions established in society; discusses parental affection and one's duty to parents; comments on national education; presents examples of the folly that the ignorance of women generates; and concludes with reflections on the moral improvement that a revolution in female manners would produce.
In the course of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft criticizes the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, she judges, has an inadequate understanding of rights and is wrong when he claims that humans are essentially solitary. Indeed, one of the principal projects and strategies of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is to turn Rousseau's egalitarian principles against his negative characterization of women in Emile (1762). She challenges Burke also, who she views as having a mistaken conception of the nature of power. A great deal of her treatise attacks the educational restrictions and “mistaken notions of female excellence” that keep women in a state of “ignorance and slavish dependence.” She argues that girls are forced into passivity, vanity, and credulity by lack of physical and mental stimulus and by a constant insistence on the need to please, and ridicules notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. She sees women as too often sentimental and foolish, gentle domestic “brutes” whose fondness for pleasure has been allowed to take the place of ambition. Wollstonecraft suggests that it is only by encouraging the moral development of every individual to success and independence that a true civilization will work.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argues for equality for women and girls not only in the political sphere but in the social realm as well. It asks readers to reconsider prevailing notions about women's abilities. Some of the main issues that Wollstonecraft emphasizes are education, virtues, passion versus reason, and power. She argues that the current roles and education of women do women more harm than good and urges reform that would provide women with broader and deeper learning. She also discusses the virtues that will develop a “true” civilization. However, she rejects traditional notions of feminine “virtue” and sees virtues not as sexual traits but as human qualities. She also insists that intellect, or reason, and not emotion, or passion, be the guiding force in human conduct. Society's association of women with emotionality and thus vulnerability must to be countered, she argues, by the use of reason and engagement in strenuous mental activity. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft talks a great deal about power—in terms of the status quo, in regards to women's position in society, and so on—but ultimately what she urges is for women to have power not over men but over themselves.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was much acclaimed in radical political circles when it was published, but it also attracted considerable hostility. The statesman Horace Walpole, for example, called Wollstonecraft “a hyena in petticoats,” and for most of the nineteenth century the book was ignored because of its scandalous reputation. Beginning in the late twentieth century, literary critics and philosophers began to take great interest in Wollstonecraft's treatise as one of the founding works of feminism. Some issues discussed by commentators of Wollstonecraft's treatise are the author's attitude toward sexuality, ideas about education, the role of reason versus passion, attitudes toward slavery, the relevance of the work to contemporary struggles for rights, the unflattering portrayal of women, and the status of the work as a foundational feminist text.
Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (essay) 1787
Mary: A Fiction (novel) 1788
Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (children's stories) 1788
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 (essay) 1790
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (essay) 1792
An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (essay) 1794
Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (letters) 1796
The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (unfinished novel) 1798; published in Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman; also published as Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, 1975
A Wollstonecraft Anthology [edited by by Janet M. Todd] (essays, novels, children's stories, and letters) 1977
Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft [edited by Ralph M. Wardle] (letters) 1979
(The entire section is 179 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, James L. and Sheila McIsaac Cooper. “Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment Rebel.” In The Roots of American Feminist Thought, pp. 15-24. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973.
[In the following essay, Cooper and Cooper offer a general introduction to Wollstonecraft's background and her interest in sexual equality before discussing the significance of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a foundational text for American feminist thought.]
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) shocked genteel Englishmen and Americans “with the most indecent rhapsody … ever penned by man or woman.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was nonetheless “so run after” that on occasion there was “no keeping it long enough to read it leisurely.”1 It attracted immediate public notice that ensured its author's fame and notoriety as a champion of women's equality through a “revolution in female education and manners.”2
Shaken by the republican thought and revolutionary action of the emerging middle classes, British and American conservatives of the late eighteenth century had “had enough of new systems” proposed by “philosophizing serpents,” such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Conservatives felt that attacks on tradition had promoted disruption of the British Empire in the American Revolution and demolition of established European...
(The entire section is 3876 words.)
SOURCE: Guralnick, Elissa S. “Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Studies in Burke and His Time 18, no. 3 (autumn 1977): 155-66.
[In the following essay, Guralnick argues that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is much more than a feminist tract, and is a statement of extreme political radicalism that extends to criticizing, for example, the monarchy and the British educational system.]
Since its publication in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been treated almost exclusively as a feminist manifesto, a simple defense of women's rights. Although critics have generally allowed that the Rights of Woman enlarges upon the political tenets expounded in the Rights of Men, little attention has been paid to the relationship between the two documents. It has been as if the warning implied in the March 1792 issue of the Analytical Review has been carefully and universally heeded: “It might be supposed that Miss W. had taken advantage of the popular topic of the ‘Rights of Man’ in calling her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ had she not already published a work, one of the first answers that appeared to Mr. Burke, under the title of, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men.’ But in reality the present work is an elaborate treatise of female education.”1 As the...
(The entire section is 4844 words.)
SOURCE: James, R. M. “On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 2 (April-June 1978): 293-302.
[In the following essay, James discusses the early reviews of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which were largely favorable, and compares them to the later reviews after Wollstonecraft's reputation had collapsed.]
It is popularly assumed that Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was greeted with shock, horror, and derision when it appeared early in 1792, that the forces of reaction massed against this bold attempt to assert the equality of woman and spattered the Amazon with their pens. Her biographers have repeatedly asserted that the first reviews and recorded reactions to the work were generally favorable, but they have had little impact on the popular misconception. The reasons for that scholarly ineffectuality are obvious enough. Later in the decade, Wollstonecraft was vilified by the press, and for much of the nineteenth century hers was a name to brandish at feminists as evidence of the horrific consequences of female emancipation. The furious clamorings of 1798 quite overwhelmed the calm approbation of 1792 in both intensity and duration. Since most writers on Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman are concerned primarily with the tardy progress of female emancipation,...
(The entire section is 5385 words.)
SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mark of Reason in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Dalhousie Review 60, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 462-71.
[In the following essay, Vlasopolos claims that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written for “men of reason,” whom Wollstonecraft recognized as being the owners of power and able to implement the ideals she espoused.]
Underneath the tough talk of the speaking voice in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman hides a number of concessions to male readers and covert strategies for the defense of Wollstonecraft's sex and person. In a century in which philosophers and artists dissociated Reason and Sensibility and in which the upholders of Reason began to win important political victories, Wollstonecraft's awareness of audience shows astuteness. Moreover, her emphasis on Reason to the virtual exclusion of passions from human faculties serves to strengthen her credentials as thinker, to separate her from the general run of women, and to mask her own vulnerability to passionate impulses.
To an extent surprising for those of us primed to look upon A Vindication as a feminist manifesto, the book proves to be written for men. Its revolutionary import remains unquestionable (note Wollstonecraft's rapid overthrow of monarchy, army, navy, and clergy as institutions necessary for society1), yet A...
(The entire section is 4392 words.)
SOURCE: Wang, Orrin N. C. “The Other Reasons: Female Alterity and Enlightenment Discourse in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 1 (fall 1991): 129-49.
[In the following essay, Wang argues against readings of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a text that represses female imagination in favor of male reason, seeing the work as a complex study about repression, reason, gender, and imagination.]
It is uncannily fitting that Mary Shelley should dedicate her famous Romantic novel, Frankenstein, to her father, William Godwin, and not to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The literal—and literary—gap between mother and daughter is an appropriate emblem for the discontinuity between Wollstonecraft's theoretical writing and the work of contemporary feminist literary critics. This discontinuity is largely due to a public monumentalization and disfigurement of Wollstonecraft by her contemporaries that is similar, I would suggest, to the posthumous process that afflicted the writer she both admired and criticized, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.1 Much of the initial hostility toward both figures was associated with English horror at the French Revolution. Just as counterrevolutionaries viewed Rousseau's social thought and the politics of the French Revolution as one and the same, so too did many people view...
(The entire section is 9415 words.)
SOURCE: Blakemore, Steven. “Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft's Subversion of Paradise Lost.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 4 (winter 1992): 451-80.
[In the following essay, Blakemore argues that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft engages in a radical, systematic subversion of John Milton's Paradise Lost and, further, that she subverts the feminist myth she herself creates.]
In 1784 Immanuel Kant published his famous essay in which he defined “enlightenment” as man's emergence from self-imposed nonage and challenged people to begin liberating themselves by pursuing knowledge instead of relying on tradition: “Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”1 Kant's paradigmatic equation of childhood with ignorance and knowledge with liberation was one of the great cultural commonplaces celebrated by a variety of Enlightenment writers and repeated with special resonance by radical writers during the revolutionary era (1789-1815). Indeed, the French Revolution consummated a preexistent cleavage in Western thought. Revolutionary representations of knowledge, for instance, aggressively contested traditional texts that stressed the satanic dangers of epistemological curiosity. Mary Wollstonecraft and other...
(The entire section is 12224 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Amy Elizabeth. “Roles for Readers in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Studies in English Literature 32, no. 3 (summer, 1992): 555-70.
[In the following essay, Smith examines A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to determine the intended audience of the work and argues that the treatise addresses both male and female readers.]
Critics who have sought to characterize the implied audience for Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) have been unable to reach a consensus. Most take one of two positions, arguing either for a primarily male or a primarily female audience.1 Elissa S. Guralnick claims that the work's “rambling, uneven” nature results from being aimed at an audience “unused and unreceptive to rational discourse—an audience of middle-class women,” and Cora Kaplan shares this position.2 Having assessed Wollstonecraft's tone, textual examples, and the rhetorical distance she creates between herself and other women, Anca Vlasopolos argues instead that the work “proves to be written for men” and her argument has also been adopted by other critics.3 In a political text a characterization of the implied audience is central for understanding the goals of the work. One must always exert caution when discussing an author's intentions, but questions of purpose and...
(The entire section is 5920 words.)
SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery.” Feminist Review 42 (autumn 1992): 82-102.
[In the following essay, Ferguson examines Wollstonecraft's discourse on slavery in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other works as it pertains to the “enslavement” of women as well as to colonial slavery.]
A traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion … [an] inhuman custom.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
I love most people best when they are in adversity, for pity is one of my prevailing passions.
Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft
HISTORY AND TEXTS BEFORE A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN
In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft became a major participant in contemporary political debate for the first time, due to her evolving political analysis and social milieu. In contrast to A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 which drew primarily on the language of natural rights for its political argument, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) favoured a discourse on slavery that highlighted female subjugation. Whereas the Rights of Men refers to slavery in a variety of contexts only four or five times, the Rights of...
(The entire section is 9216 words.)
SOURCE: Furniss, Tom. “Nasty Tricks and Tropes: Sexuality and Language in Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman. Studies in Romanticism 32, no. 2 (summer 1993): 177-209.
[In the following essay, Furniss offers a deconstructionist reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and questions its relevance for modern struggles for rights.]
The following discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman necessarily raises general questions about the textual analysis of texts which have become important in the history of a political movement. It is intended as a deconstructive reading of Rights of Woman which traces and analyzes the contradictions of its project by situating it within a network of texts which constitutes one of its discursive contexts. In this way, it attempts to restage the text's crucial intervention in the Revolution Controversy and its bid to influence the deliberations of the National Assembly. But although the reading thereby suggests that Wollstonecraft's feminism can be partly understood as an extension of an essentially middle-class struggle for, and theory about, the “rights of man,” this is not to judge the text from a historical moment which “knows better” (for one thing, “middle class” means differently now than it did at the end of the eighteenth century). One of the consequences of the following reading, therefore, is implicitly to...
(The entire section is 13798 words.)
SOURCE: MacKenzie, Catriona. “Reason and Sensibility: The Ideal of Women's Self-Governance in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 8, no. 4 (fall 1993): 35-55.
[In the following essay, MacKenzie argues against interpretations of Wollstonecraft that stress her commitment to a liberal philosophical framework and valuation of reason over passion, claiming that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts Wollstonecraft exposes the inadequacies of traditional liberalism.]
When morality shall be settled on a more solid basis, then, without being gifted with a prophetic spirit, I will venture to predict that woman will be either the friend or slave of man. We shall not, as at present, doubt whether she is a moral agent, or the link which unites man with brutes.
(Wollstonecraft 1975, 120)
In a letter written in 1795 while she was traveling in Scandinavia doing business on behalf of Gilbert Imlay, the man who had recently abandoned both her and her child by him, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of herself: “For years have I endeavored to calm an impetuous tide—laboring to keep my feelings to an orderly course.—It was striving against the stream.—I must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness” (Wollstonecraft 1977, 160). It is reflections such as these, as well as the...
(The entire section is 9987 words.)
SOURCE: Kitts, Sally-Ann. “Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: A Judicious Response from the Eighteenth-Century Spain.” Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 351-59.
[In the following essay, Kitts discusses a 1792 review of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a Spanish periodical that was very favorable but which played down the work's more revolutionary aspects.]
Those familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft's radical feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, may be surprised to discover that it received a lengthy and favourable review in a periodical published in the reactionary Spain of 1792. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789, the government of Charles IV, headed by the Count of Floridablanca, had taken increasingly severe measures to curb the spread of revolutionary ideas from France, a country which had exerted a great influence on the development of Spanish culture and ideas throughout the eighteenth century. Beginning on a small scale with border seizures of books and prints, restrictive measures soon became more institutionalized: exactly a year after the storming of the Bastille, an updated index of prohibited and expurgated books, including revolutionary writings, was published; a severe press law was promulgated on 24 February 1791 forbidding the publication of any periodicals except the two official...
(The entire section is 5545 words.)
SOURCE: Gubar, Susan. “Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One.’” Feminist Studies 20, no. 3 (fall 1994): 453-73.
[In the following essay, Gubar analyzes Wollstonecraft's feminism and her often unflattering portraits of women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts.]
In a self-reflexive essay representative of current feminist thinking, Ann Snitow recalls a memory of the early seventies, a moment when a friend “sympathetic to the [women's] movement but not active [in it] asked what motivated” Snitow's fervor.
I tried to explain the excitement I felt at the idea that I didn't have to be a woman. She was shocked, confused. This was the motor of my activism? She asked, “How can someone who doesn't like being a woman be a feminist?” To which I could only answer, “Why would anyone who likes being a woman need to be a feminist?”
Quite properly my colleague feared woman-hating. … Was this, as [she] thought, just a new kind of misogyny?
Although Snitow eventually finds “woman-hating—or loving—… beside the point,” she admits that she “wouldn't dare say self-hatred played no part in what I wanted from feminism,” a remark that takes on added resonance in terms of her first...
(The entire section is 9065 words.)
SOURCE: Guest, Harriet. “The Dream of a Common Language: Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Textual Practice 9, no. 2 (summer 1995): 303-23.
[In the following essay, Guest considers the similarities between the arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hannah More's Structure, noting especially the representation of the corruption perceived to be endemic among middle-class women.]
‘Have you read that wonderful book, The Rights of Woman’, wrote Anna Seward to Mr Whalley, on 26 February 1792. ‘It has, by turns, pleased and displeased, startled and half-convinced me that its author is oftener right than wrong.’1 Seward's enthusiasm for Wollstonecraft's work, and sympathy for the trials of her life, seem to have endured despite her passionate antagonism to political radicalism in England. By August of 1792, she writes, with what is clearly a deeply felt sense of personal as well as political alarm, of:
Paine's pernicious and impossible system of equal rights, [which] is calculated to captivate and dazzle the vulgar; to make them spurn the restraints of legislation, and to spread anarchy, murder, and ruin over the earth.2
But neither Wollstonecraft's use of the discourse of natural rights, nor the scandal of her personal career, seem to have dismayed...
(The entire section is 8130 words.)
SOURCE: Griffin, Cindy L. “A Web of Reasons: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Re-weaving of Form.” Communication Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 1996): 272-88.
[In the following essay, Griffin proposes a nonlinear form of argument, based on the form of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she believes will assist readers in recognizing the complexity of the work and the need to reconsider notions of effective rhetorical form.]
Mary Wollstonecraft, recognized as one of the most influential feminists in history, strived to express her views in an age when the opinions and thoughts of women were seen as insignificant. At a time when the White, male, upper-class perspective was the dominant one and when women writers were scarce, Wollstonecraft emerged as a serious writer, philosopher, and advocate of the equality of women and men. Throughout her career in England in the late 18th century, Wollstonecraft challenged and ridiculed the common sentiment that women naturally were inferior to men, arguing that the prevailing system of reasoning and education, not women's “natural” subservience, kept them in positions of dependence and inferiority. In response to the common belief in women's lack of intelligence, their submissiveness, and their passivity, Wollstonecraft wrote and published her most influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:...
(The entire section is 9864 words.)
SOURCE: Badowska, Ewa. “The Anorexic Body of Liberal Feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 283-303.
[In the following essay, Badowska analyzes the image of the “appetitive body” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and explores how Wollstonecraft links the image with notions of femininity in her work.]
Every day [Wollstonecraft] made theories by which life should be lived. … Every day too—for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist—something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh. … She whose sense of her own existence was so intense … died at the age of thirty six. But she has her revenge. … [A]s we … listen to her arguments and consider her experiments … and realise the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.
Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader1
While we have always been willing to remember Mary Wollstonecraft as one who “made theories by which life should be lived,” while we have described her as a defender of “rights,”...
(The entire section is 9293 words.)
SOURCE: Abbey, Ruth. “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 14, no. 3 (summer 1999): 78-95.
[In the following essay, Abbey analyzes Wollstonecraft's views on the political nature of the family and marriage in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her attitude toward sexuality in her unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman.]
According to the feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin, the challenge facing liberal thinkers is to incorporate fully issues of gender and the family into their thinking about justice. She insists that “We can have a liberalism that fully includes women only if we can devise a theoretical basis for public policies that, recognizing the family as a fundamental political institution, extends standards of justice to life within it” (Okin 1989, 53). Those who share Okin's belief that for liberal theory to move forward it must take the political nature of family relations seriously should return to Mary Wollstonecraft's work to find the beginnings of such a liberalism. Wollstonecraft not only depicts the family as a fundamentally political institution but also applies liberal notions of justice to it. It is argued here that she brings the values that liberals believe should govern the public realm to the private world of love, romance, and family life by promoting the ideal of marriage as friendship....
(The entire section is 7626 words.)
SOURCE: Davidson, Jenny. “‘Professed Enemies of Politeness’: Sincerity and the Problem of Gender in Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 599-615.
[In the following essay, Davidson compares Wollstonecraft's treatment of insincerity in politics and social life in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with William Godwin's less gendered political arguments in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.]
Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) identifies dissimulation as a specifically female problem. Attacking modesty as the embodiment of insincerity, Wollstonecraft aligns femininity with deceptiveness and suggests that as a consequence, women have an obligation to be not less but more truthful than their male counterparts: this is the ultimate “revolution in female manners” for which she calls.1 Her call emerges from a historical moment characterized not just by its perception of a crisis in the manners and situation of women, however, but by what was widely understood to be a crisis of sincerity in the nation at large. The breakdown of honest and open communication between men and women is linked by Wollstonecraft to other failures—of political representation, of individual rights—and Wollstonecraft's call for women to...
(The entire section is 7774 words.)
SOURCE: Crafton, Lisa Plummer. “‘Insipid Decency’: Modesty and Female Sexuality in Wollstonecraft.” European Romantic Review 11, no. 3 (summer 2000): 277-99.
[In the following essay, Crafton explores Wollstonecraft's attitude toward female sexuality and her condemnation of artificial decorum and propriety in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.]
Modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes or it will ever remain a sickly hothouse plant whilst the affectation of it, the fig leaf borrowed by wantonness, may give a zest to voluptuous enjoyments.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
And does my Theotormon seek this hypocrite modesty! This knowing, artful, secret, fearful, cautious, trembling hypocrite.
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Modest Concealments please a Lover's Eye The Charms you hide, his Fancy will supply.
Thomas Marriott, Female Conduct
“The finest bosom in nature is not so fine as what imagination forms.” With these words, Dr. Gregory, in giving A Father's Legacy to His Daughters (1774), typifies the kind of legacy of hypocrisy that paternalistic writers of the eighteenth century offered to all of whom Blake called the “daughters of Albion.” Gregory's text parallels Thomas...
(The entire section is 8974 words.)
SOURCE: Engster, Daniel. “Mary Wollstonecraft's Nurturing Liberalism: Between an Ethic of Justice and Care.” The American Political Science Review 95, no. 3 (September 2001): 577-88.
[In the following essay, Engster examines A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men and shows how Wollstonecraft's ideas bear on the current debate in political and moral philosophy about justice and care.]
In recent years, feminist scholars have proposed political theories based upon an ethic of care as an alternative to liberal theories of justice.1 Although these scholars have paid little attention to the ideas of historical feminist authors, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) provides important insights into the relationship between liberal justice and feminist care. In this article, I explore Wollstonecraft's views on the relationship between justice and care and outline her proposal for creating a nurturing form of liberalism based upon a synthesis of these concepts.
While contemporary scholars continue to debate the precise nature of justice and care theories, and some even question whether the two concepts are analytically distinct, most recognize certain distinguishing features between them (Gatens 1998; Held 1995a).2 Justice theories are organized around formal and abstract rights and rules, whereas care theories emphasize the...
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Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Penguin Books, 1972, 307 p.
Scholarly account of Wollstonecraft's life that emphasizes her early years.
George, Margaret. “One Woman's Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970, 174 p.
Political and psychological study of Wollstonecraft that explores the connection between her life experience and her political ideas.
Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1798. Reprint. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987, 224 p.
Memoir of Wollstonecraft, written by her husband, that outlines the relation between Wollstonecraft's writings and her personal history, and offers candid analyses of her various relationships, including that with her husband.
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000, 538 p.
Vivid portrayal of Wollstonecraft that quotes extensively from her correspondence and notes the difference between the author's emotion-laden writing about her personal life and her reasoned tone in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974, 316 p.
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