PO3012 Political Theory
Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Life and Context

Born April 1759. Her father inherited land from his father, a prosperous silk manufacturer, and became farmer. Family moved round the country a lot. Father was alcoholic and possibly abusive.
In Yorkshire, she was friendly with a clergyman neighbour and began to develop intellectually. Taught herself French and German. Met Fanny Blood in 1775. Settled in London 1777
1778 Worked as lady's companion to Mrs Dawson,
1781-2 Moved back home to nurse her mother until her death
1782 Moved in with Blood family - helped to support the family through needlework
1784 Father married again. Moved in with sister Eliza, who was suffering from post-natal depression - possibly abused by husband - both left to set up school with Fanny Blood.
Met Richard Price, liberal clergyman and attended his church.
1785 Fanny Blood got married - MW went to Portugal to help her when her child was born. Fanny and baby died.
1786 School closed. Met Joseph Johnson, publisher of radical texts - went to work as governess to Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Ireland.
1787 With Kingsboroughs to Bristol, where she was dismissed. Decided to support herself with her writing. Moved to London. Johnson gave her work as translator.
Read and admired Rousseau. Published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.
1788 Published Mary: A Fiction - the novel was critical of marriage and treatment of women within it.
Publication of Original Stories from Real Life - back to theme of girls' education. Worked as reviewer for Johnson at Analytical Review.
1789 14 July: Fall of Bastille begins French Revolution.
November: Richard Price delivered sermon published as Discourse on the Love of Our Country
1790 November: Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.
November: A Vindication of the Rights of Men published anonymously
December: A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 2nd ed., published under MW's name
1791 Paine, Rights of Man Part 1.
April: Death of Richard Price.
November: MW met Godwin at Johnson's dinner party for Paine.
1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman published by Johnson
December: MW went alone to Paris.
Paine, Rights of Man Part 2. (Paine living in Paris)
1793 21 January: Execution of Louis XVI.
1 February: France declared war on England
?April: MW met Gilbert Imlay, American businessman - begins relationship.
June: Reign of Terror began. MW moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine.
August: MW became pregnant, moved back to Paris - registered by Imlay as his wife at American Embassy
16 October: Execution of Marie Antoinette
1794 Moved to Le Havre - began writing An Historical and Moral View of the origin and progress of the French Revolution.
14 May: Birth of Fanny Imlay
July: Death of Robespierre -- Reign of Terror ended
1795 April: Moved back to London. Discovered Imlay's infidelity. 1st suicide attempt.
June: Went to Scandinavia with Marguerite, her maid, and Fanny on behalf of Imlay.
August: Returned to London, found Imlay still unfaithful.
October: MW's second suicide attempt.
1796 MW revised and published (January) Letters Written During a Short Residence in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
March: MW met Imlay by chance -- their final meeting
14 April: MW called on Godwin and begins relationship with Godwin around July.
1797 February: MW pregnant. 2 illegitimate babies by 2 different men would mean social ruin.
March: MW married Godwin. 30 August: Birth of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
10 September: MW died of puerperal fever.
1798 Godwin publishes Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Wollstonecraft's Posthumous Works
Godwin cared for daughter Mary and MW's older daughter, Fanny.
Mary later married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.

Sources used

'Wollstonecraft used the rationalist and egalitarian ideas of late eighteenth-century radical liberalism to attack the subjugation of women and to display its roots in the social construction of gender. Her political philosophy draws on Rousseau's philosophical anthropology, rational religion, and an original moral psychology which integrates reason and feeling in the production of virtue.'
Susan Khin Zaw http://www.rep.routledge.com/index.html

'Wollstonecraft is especially associated with Enlightenment thought that put "reason" at the center of human identity and as the justification for rights. But these ideas seemed in stark contrast to the continuing realities of women's lives. Wollstonecraft could look to her own life history and to the lives of women in her family. Abuse of women was close to home. She saw little legal recourse for the victims of abuse. For women in the rising middle-class, those who did not have husbands -- or at least reliable husbands -- had to find ways to earn their own living or a living for their families. Mary's experience and her work were intimately tied together, and illustrate her own conviction that experience cannot be neglected in philosophy and literature.'
J J. Lewis http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa082099.htm

'From 1782 until 1785 Wollstonecraft was a congregant at the Unitarian chapel at Newington Green, during which time she was influenced by its minister, Richard Price. Through her friendship with Dr. Price she entered a circle of intellectuals and radicals, including Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and William Godwin.'

'In 1790 Wollstonecraft boldly entered the revolution debate with her political polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Hers was the first of over fifty replies to Edmund Burke's influential Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which in its turn had attacked Price's 1789 sermon on the anniversary of the 1688 Revolution, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, which had welcomed the fall of the Bastille and envisioned the further progress of liberty in Britain and the erosion of hereditary power.'

'Many male and female Enlightenment historians had studied the role of women in society, for this was commonly taken as a measure of the progress of civilization, but the French Revolution controversy on the requirements of citizenship provided a context for urgent debate.'

'Wollstonecraft's early life exercised an important influence on the books she would write and predisposed her to find the radical politics of the 1780s and 1790s appealing. From her family experience as the second of seven children born to an abusive father, she learned first-hand the limits of her gendered social position. The young Wollstonecraft attempted all of the respectable employment options for unmarried middle-class women.'


'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was controversial but widely read and discussed, and it made Wollstonecraft internationally famous, being translated into French and German.'

'She achieved fame with two political tracts: A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), attacking Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most substantial work. She also published educational works, a novel, an account of the French Revolution, and a travel book; a second novel was unfinished at her death. All the work published in her lifetime was written for money, the two Vindications extremely rapidly, without revision.'
Susan Khin Zaw http://www.rep.routledge.com/index.html

'Paine and Wollstonecraft were accused in the press of seeking to "poison and inflame the minds of the lower class of his Majesty's subjects to violate their subordination." When Paine was later burnt in effigy for his support of Revolutionary France, there was public talk of subjecting Wollstonecraft to the same treatment.'

'Rights of Woman reached a wide audience in its day. It went into two editions in Britain, and was shortly available in America. It was often reviewed. Some reviewers thought the book "unfeminine," judgment with which Wollstonecraft did not, perhaps, disagree. Others thought that her views on education were sensible. One reader declared that the book "first induced me to think." '

'During her life, the popular press attacked her "radical" views; after her death, Wollstonecraft served as an example to women of the 19th century, either as an "unsex'd female" or, to an important few, as a model author in the male-dominated world of letters. The 20th century has witnessed Wollstonecraft's emergence as a seminal figure in feminist writing.'

'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was, in part, her response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in Emile (1762), had recommended that girls be given a different education from boys, one that would train them to be submissive and manipulative.'

'A hostile notice of the second edition in the Critical Review bears testament to just how unconventional her work was considered.'

'Dedicated to Tallyrand, one of the principle figures behind reform of education in revolutionary France.'

'Stimulated a new debate on sexual injustice and earned her the moral condemnation of conservative men and women alike.'

'Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical in the sense that she desired to bridge the gap between mankind's present circumstances and ultimate perfection. She was truly a child of the French Revolution and saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand. Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands.'
Steven Kreis http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/wollstonecraft.html

The Ideas in Vindication

'What makes Wollstonecraft's book original and radical is less her specific feminist agenda than her philosophical and ideological analysis of 'female manners': her assertion that traits associated with femininity are not innate but culturally acquired, and reflect strategies utilized by the powerless; and that idealization of the feminine in European society is contingent on that powerlessness and is therefore degrading. She brings a newly politicized consciousness to the world of the conduct book. Education is not advocated as a method of regulating female behaviour but as emancipating the individual from what Blake called 'mind-forg'd manacles' and thus bringing about political change. The oppression of women is always linked in her rhetoric with other irrational forms of tyranny and hereditary privilege, and their liberation is envisaged as an integral part of the revolutionary agenda.

Wollstonecraft again adopts the standpoint of a female rationalist attacking a male sentimentalist but now her target is the father of the French Revolution himself, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As with her onslaught on Burke, she emphasizes the internal contradiction in a political thinker famous for championing human rights but who nevertheless represented women as a separate category of merely sexual beings. Her own educational theory had been strongly influenced by Rousseau's Émile, but she angrily rejected as demeaning the notion explored in his fifth chapter of a limited education for women designed to produce entertaining, infantilized companions for men. Women themselves are castigated by Wollstonecraft for being seduced by the cult of sensibility fuelled by novels like Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, and placing too much importance on romantic love or sexual passion, portrayed by her as degrading even within marriage. On the other hand, middle-class women are also warned against attempting to emulate the luxury and idleness of the aristocracy by allowing themselves to become merely decorative objects of consumption in the newly commercialized society with its marriage market.'

'Although acknowledging certain differences between men and women from the outset, Vindication of the Rights of Woman bases its argument on the spiritual equality of all human beings. From this first principle, she ridicules the contemporary gender construction of females as weak and modest, attractive and shallow playthings for men, reinforced by an education based in sentiment and focused on luring a suitable mate, however deceptively. Wollstonecraft reasons that if women are indeed capable of being moral beings, then their education should be designed to help them achieve a moral and intellectual development equal (or very nearly so) to men's. In marriage, she maintains, women should be the equal partners of their husbands, not merely attractive and desirable objects of male passion. As the basis of relations between the sexes, education, as Wollstonecraft envisions it, can become an agent for a change in power relations within the family and society at large. The implications of considering women as "human creatures," Wollstonecraft clearly understands, include a challenge to the double standard of sexual behavior and artificial social distinctions. If her book is not explicitly subversive in political terms, reactions to her thinking leave little doubt that conservatives, from Horace Walpole and Hannah More to Richard Polwhele, considered it nothing less than revolutionary.'

'Furthermore, Wollstonecraft illuminates her analysis of the patriarchal ideology of her peers by discussing the socio-economic reasons behind this ideology. In a fierce attack on the British class system, and the economic basis of this system, she argues that "the preposterous distinctions of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people." In relation to this, she claims that the focus on reason and virtue has been lost as a result of our society's obsession with wealth and beauty. The wealth of the upper classes has created a culture of indulgence and vanity, and in this culture, the role of women will never change. Thus, Wollstonecraft's demand for change toward equality takes on a more politically radical tone.'
By Lars Andersson The Feminist Reader Part 1 http://www.girlplusboy.com/wolls-vrw.asp

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: overview of the life and work of England's early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft by Jone Johnson Lewis, Women's History Guide (Extracts)

The contrast of the heady talk of "rights of man" with the realities of the "life of woman" motivated Wollstonecraft to write her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Tracts and ideological books had been exchanged in the war of ideas around rights and liberty and freedom and reason for several years. Writings on the "rights of man" including one by Wollstonecraft were part of the general intellectual discussion in England and France before, during, and after the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft moved in the same circles as Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake and William Godwin. It was in that atmosphere that Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication, taking chapters to the printer as she wrote them (she was still writing the end after the first chapters had been printed).

In her 1791-92 Vindication, now considered a classic of feminist history, Wollstonecraft argued primarily for the rights of woman to be educated. Through education would come emancipation. In defending this right, she accepts the definition of her time that women's sphere is the home, but she does not isolate the home from public life as many others did and as many still do. For Wollstonecraft, the public life and domestic life are not separate, but connected. The home is important to Wollstonecraft because it forms a foundation for the social life, the public life. The state, the public life, enhances and serves both individuals and the family. Men have duties in the family, too, and women have duties to the state.

She also argues for the right of woman to be educated, because she is primarily responsible for the education of the young. Before 1789 and her Vindication of the Rights of Man, she was known primarily as a writer about education of children, and she still accepts this role as a primary role for woman as distinct from man. Wollstonecraft also argues that educating women will strengthen the marriage relationship. Her concept of marriage underlies this argument. A stable marriage, she believes, is a partnership between a husband and a wife -- a marriage is a social contract between two individuals. A woman thus needs to have equal knowledge and sense, to maintain the partnership. A stable marriage also provides for the proper education of children.

She also acknowledges that women are sexual beings -- but so are men. Thus female chastity and fidelity, necessary for a stable marriage, require male chastity and fidelity too. Men are required, as much as women, to put duty over sexual pleasure. Control over family size, for instance, serves the individuals in the family, strengthens the family, and thus serves the public interest through raising better citizens. But putting duty above pleasure did not mean that feelings are not important. The goal, for Wollstonecraft's ethics, is to bring feeling and thought into harmony. The harmony of feeling and thought reason. Reason was of primary importance to the Enlightenment philosophers, a company to which Wollstonecraft belongs. But her celebration of nature, of feelings, of "sympathy," also make her a bridge to the Romantic philosophy and literary movements which follow.

Wollstonecraft sees women's absorption in such purely sensing and feeling activities as fashion and beauty denigrates their reason, makes them less able to maintain their part in the marriage partnership and reduces their effectiveness as educators of children -- and thus makes them less dutiful as citizens.In bringing together feeling and thought, rather than separating them and dividing one for woman and one for man, Wollstonecraft was also providing a critique of Rousseau, another defender of personal rights but one who did not believe that such individual liberty was for women. Woman, for Rousseau, was incapable of reason, and only man could be trusted to exercise thought and reason. Thus, for Rousseau, women could not be citizens, only men could.

Her exploration -- cut short by her death -- of the integration of sense and reason, imagination and thought -- looks toward 19th century thought, and was part of the movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism. Her ideas on public versus private life, politics and domestic spheres, and men and women, were, though too often neglected, nevertheless important influences on the thought and development of philosophy and political ideas that resonate even today.

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-97) by Susan Khin Zaw Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 'Relations between men and women are corrupted by artificial gender distinctions, just as political relations are corrupted by artificial distinctions of rank, wealth and power. Conventional, artificial morality distinguishes between male and female virtue; true virtue is gender-neutral, consists in the imitation of God, and depends on the unimpeded development of natural faculties common to both sexes, including both reason and passion. Political justice and private virtue are interdependent: neither can advance without an advance in the other.'


'Wollstonecraft was not a systematic political philosopher aiming primarily at theoretical rigour, but something more like a philosophe as defined in Diderot's Encyclopedie (see Diderot, D. §1) For the philosophe, reasoning consisted in speculative generalization from experience, applied to the social issues of the day with an eye to practical improvement. Wollstonecraft combined ideas drawn from a variety of Enlightenment philosophies, from contemporary science, and from prevailing political, cultural and social movements into an explanation and evaluation of the current condition of women, of the state of society, and of her personal and professional experience within it. Her object was a rational programme of reform; her political works use philosophy only incidentally, to support political polemic.'
Susan Khin Zaw http://www.rep.routledge.com/index.html

'In this work Wollstonecraft's belief in rationalist feminism was at its height and strongly articulated in the appropriate form of a philosophical treatise, yet her personal tone, loose structure of incremental repetitions, and disturbingly insistent figuring of femininity in erotic terms of passivity and voluptuousness qualify the overt argument to an extent.'

'Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), a revolutionary advocate of equal rights for women, was an inspiration for both the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century women's movements. Wollstonecraft was not merely a woman's rights advocate. She asserted the innate rights of all people, whom she thought victims of a society that assigned people their roles, comforts, and satisfactions according to the false distinctions of class, age, and gender.'

'The historian Henry Noel Brailsford, in Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle (1913), considered the Rights of Woman "perhaps the most original book of its century." "What was absolutely new in the world's history," he thought, "was that for the first time a woman dared to sit down to write a book which was not an echo of men's thinking, nor an attempt to do rather well what some man had done a little better, but a first exploration of the problems of society and morals from a standpoint which recognised humanity without ignoring sex."'

Nearly a century later Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated their History of Women's Suffrage (1881) to her.

J J Lewis says A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a classic of feminist thought and important for the history of feminism.

Writings have retrospectively been seen to some extent as the philosophical birth of modern feminism.


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