A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is a work of crucial importance in intellectual history. Considered by most as Western feminism’s central heroine, Wollstonecraft argues that women must be educated to develop their reason in order to throw off the frivolous, debilitating role of man’s plaything. Rather than cultivating power from sexual allure, women should be honest, intelligent, and independent. Her concern about how women’s innate worth is denigrated by improper definitions of the feminine in novels, in advice literature, and in educational systems has inspired women for over two centuries to contemplate the connections between power and femininity.
About the Author:
As a young woman Mary Wollstonecraft worked in most of the few acceptable occupations for genteel women: lady’s companion, governess, seamstress, and schoolteacher. Unsatisfied by these conventional positions, Wollstonecraft carved out a career as a female polemicist, publishing in a wide range of genres: articles, reviews, novels, children’s stories, educational tracts, histories, travel writing, and textbooks.
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About the Author
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was a writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights, best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
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The Rights and Involved Duties of Mankind Considered
In the present state of society it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground. To clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions, and the answers will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on which reasoning is built; though, when entangled with various motives of action, they are formally contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men.
In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole, in Reason.
What acquirement exalts one being above another? Virtue, we spontaneously reply.
For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes, whispers Experience.
Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society: and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively.
The rights and duties of man thus simplified, it seems almost impertinent to attempt to illustrate truths that appear so incontrovertible; yet such deeply rooted prejudices have clouded reason, and such spurious qualities have assumed the name of virtues, that it is necessary to pursue the course of reason as it has been perplexed and involved in error, by various adventitious circumstances, comparingthe simple axiom with casual deviations.
Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they can scarcely trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves. Yet the imperfect conclusions thus drawn, are frequently very plausible, because they are built on partial experience, on just, though narrow, views.
Going back to first principles, vice skulks, with all its native deformity, from close investigation; but a set of shallow reasoners are always exclaiming that these arguments prove too much, and that a measure rotten at the core may be expedient. Thus expediency is continually contrasted with simple principles, till truth is lost in a mist of words, virtue, in forms, and knowledge rendered a sounding nothing, by the specious prejudices that assume its name.
That the society is formed in the wisest manner, whose constitution is founded on the nature of man, strikes, in the abstract, every thinking being so forcibly, that it looks like presumption to endeavour to bring forward proofs; though proof must be brought, or the strong hold of prescription will never be forced by reason; yet to urge prescription as an argument to justify the depriving men (or women) of their natural rights, is one of the absurd sophisms which daily insult common sense.
The civilization of the bulk of the people of Europe is very partial; nay, it may be made a question, whether they have acquired any virtues in exchange for innocence, equivalent to the misery produced by the vices that have been plastered over unsightly ignorance, and the freedom which has been bartered for splendid slavery. The desire of dazzling by riches, the most certain pre-eminence that man can obtain, the pleasure of commanding flattering sycophants, and many other complicated low calculations of doting self-love, have all contributed to overwhelm the mass of mankind, and make liberty a convenient handle for mock patriotism. For whilst rank and titles are held of the utmost importance, before which Genius “must hide its diminished head,” it is, with a few exceptions, very unfortunate for a nation when a man of abilities, without rank or property, pushes himself forward to notice. Alas! what unheard-of misery have thousands suffered to purchase a cardinal’s hat for an intriguing obscure adventurer, who longed to be ranked with princes, or lord it over them by seizing the triple crown!
Table of Contents
Preface to the Third Edition vii
Note on the Text x
The Text of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects 1
Backgrounds and Contexts 205
Legacies of English Radicalism 207
From Paradise Lost John Milton 208
From Second Treatise of Civil Government John Locke 211
From Reflections upon Marriage Mary Astell 214
From Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke 222
From A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Mary Astell 225
From Emilius and Sophia; or, A New System of Education Jean-Jacques Rousseau 229
From A Father's Legacy to His Daughters John Gregory 236
From Letters on Education Catharine Macaulay 239
From Strctures on the Modern System of Female Education Hannah More 244
Wollstonecraft's Revolutionary Moment 248
From A Discourse on the Love of Our Country Richard Price 249
From Reflections on the Revolution in France Edmund Burke 253
From A Vindication of the Rights of Men Mary Wollstonecraft 258
From An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution Mary Wollstonecraft 265
The Wollstonecraft Controversy 271
From Review of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Anonymous 272
From Review of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman William Enfield 275
The Rights of Woman Anna Laetitia Barbauld 277
From A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes Thomas Taylor 278
From Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous Mary Hays 281
From Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman William Godwin 282
From the Unsex'd Females Richard Polwhele 288
From Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Mary Hays 291
From Belinda Maria Edgeworth 294
From The Letters ofShahcoolen Benjamin Silliman 297
From Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men William Thompson 300
Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Elissa S. Guralnick 309
Reform or Ruin: "A Revolution in Female Manners" Mitzi Myers 319
From Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism Cora Kaplan 335
[A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Female Sexuality] Mary Poovey 349
From The Distinction of the Sexes Claudia L. Johnson 363
The Religious Foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's Feminism Barbara Taylor 375
A Chronology Mary Wollstonecraft 396
Selected Bibliography 400
To fully comprehend Wollstonecraft, one of England's first full-time women writers, it is necessary to understand her unhappy childhood. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalsfield, London, on April 27, 1759, to John Edward Wollstonecraft, an alcoholic, and to the Irish-born Elizabeth Dickson, who favored Wollstonecraft's older brother Edward ("Ned"). She also had five younger siblings - Henry, James, Charles, Eliza, and Everina - to whom she played mother throughout much of her short life. The Wollstonecraft's home was chaotic and unstable. Her father was wrathful one day, solicitous the next. Her mother, the family martyr, also treated her inconsistently. And although Wollstonecraft shielded her mother from her father's drunken rages, hermother never gave her the love she craved. Her father, in remorseful moments, was her only source of affection.
Until she was about five, she lived in London with her paternal grandfather, a master silk weaver, who had amassed a fortune by renting houses he had built on thirty blocks of a leased property. When her grandfather died, her father inherited part of this estate. In his attempt to rise from the rank of wealthy artisan to that of gentleman farmer, he squandered his legacy because of his extravagance and alcoholism and uprooted the family seven times in the first decade of Wollstonecraft's life. In 1768, the young girl found some stability when they moved to yet another farm near Beverley, Yorkshire. But six years later, the family left for Hoxton, just outside London.
Until then, her education had been limited to the inadequate female education (basic arithmetic, reading, sewing, etc.) available at country day schools and to occasional lessons from the scholarly father of a friend from Beverley. In Hoxton, she came under the intellectual guidance of a neighboring clergyman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Clare. In their home, she read aloud prescribed books to the Clares. Through this second family, she met Frances "Fanny" Blood, a bright, pretty girl the Clares also tutored. Fanny, two years older than Wollstonecraft, became her best friend and role model.
In 1778, the rebellious teenager left home to work as a live-in lady's companion, one of the few jobs open to educated gentlewomen. Her employer was Mrs. Dawson, a rich widow in the fashionable town of Bath. Although she called this experience "a nightmare of tyranny and humiliation," she was able to travel in England and had access to books and time to read them. Two years later she was called home because her mother's health was failing. She ran the household, cared for the younger children, and nursed her mother until she died in 1782. The family then dispersed. Her father married his mistress and took Charles to Wales; Eliza married shipbuilder Meredith Bishop; Everina went to Ned's to keep house; and Wollstonecraft moved in with the poverty-stricken Bloods and contributed toward her keep by doing needlework.
It is an understatement to say Wollstonecraft's childhood affected her. If her parents had been healthy, secure people with good parenting skills, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may have never been written. Because of her erratic, violent father and her submissive yet cold, controlling, and verbally abusive mother, she developed character defects associated with alcoholism: rigidity, insecurity, self-pity, selfishness, rebelliousness, and resentment. Some of her flaws (needing constant approval and disliking authority figures) probably led her to the world of writing, and positive traits, such as intelligence, energy, ambition, imagination, and curiosity, helped her succeed. Above all, Wollstonecraft was determined not to become a passive victim like her mother. Instead, she was a fighter, who craved independence and took risks.
However, not all women raised in similar situations fight back. Using a quote from Locke in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she pointed out that "if the mind be curbed and humbled too much in children; if their spirits be abased and broken much by too strict an [sic] hand over them; they lose all their vigour [sic] and industry." She added that such parenting perhaps accounted "for the weakness of women; for girls . . . are more kept down by their parents, in every sense of the word, than boys." She reasoned that girls, taught mindlessly to submit to parents, were prepared for the slavery of matrimony.
Her sister Eliza's unhappy marriage was a case in point. In 1784, twenty-five-year-old Wollstonecraft had been called to nurse Eliza Bishop, who had had a mental breakdown, bordering on insanity, due either to severe postpartum depression or to her husband's abuse. Wollstonecraft, torn between her brother-in-law's version and her sister's insistence that she would go mad if she had to stay with him, eventually helped her sister escape. While their flight was daring for the times, it proved to Wollstonecraft that women could defy social conventions and survive.
Because they had little money, the three Wollstonecraft sisters, along with Fanny Blood, opened a day school for girls at the suggestion of Sarah Burgh, widow of a well-known educator. Burgh found them twenty pupils, and they rented a large house in Newington Green, a Dissenting community north of London. Soon the school and the lodgers they took in supported the four women. Through Burgh, Wollstonecraft also met Dr. Richard Price, a celebrated Unitarian preacher and philosopher, and became part of Price's circle of friends, which included naturalist and artist James Sowery; poet Samuel Rogers; the Reverend John Hewlett; and radical publisher Joseph Johnson, who eventually published all Wollstonecraft's works. These liberal thinkers helped shape the bright, young teacher's political and social philosophy.
Although her newfound friends stimulated her, educated her, and exposed her to new ideas, she lost the friend who meant most to her when Fanny married Hugh Skeys in Lisbon in 1785. When Wollstonecraft learned that Fanny was pregnant, she borrowed money to travel to Portugal and arrived hours before Fanny went into labor. The child died, and Fanny, weakened by tuberculosis, died a few days later in her friend's arms.
When Wollstonecraft returned from Lisbon in 1786, she found the school struggling financially. With pupils and lodgers leaving and debts growing, she closed the school. At Hewlett's suggestion, she began writing her first work - Thoughts on the Education of Daughters - a so-called conduct book popular with the middle class. Her teaching experiences, including her observation that her students' traditional upbringing was preventing them from excelling, prepared her to write this series of short essays about forming girls' moral character. Although the book wasn't earth shattering, it was the first time she suggested that women were as rational and intelligent as men and that female education should be included in Enlightenment goals.
Hewlett took her book to Johnson, who published it in 1787. Although she was working as a governess in Ireland to pay her debts, she sent her pay for the book to the Bloods. Excited about being an author and disliking her employer, Lady Caroline Kingsborough, she began dreaming about the possibility of writing full time. In the meantime, she enjoyed the children, lived in Dublin and on a two-thousand-acre estate in County Cork, and traveled to England. She also had leisure time to read and to write her first novel, Mary, a Fiction, a mix of autobiography and thinly disguised condemnation of her enemies, including Lady Kingsborough, who Wollstonecraft said was more interested in her dogs than in her children. After ten months, her ladyship dismissed Wollstonecraft for supposedly becoming too close to her daughters.
On her return to London in 1788, the twenty-nine-year-old showed up on Johnson's doorstep, asking for help in achieving her latest goal. She wanted to be "the first of a new genus" - a professional woman writer. Johnson decided to publish her novel Mary, invited Wollstonecraft to join his staff, and put her up for several weeks until she found her own place. The same year he launched a liberal journal, Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft was soon steadily writing articles and reviews for the journal. The gentle bookseller/publisher soon developed a close connection with his young protégé. She told him he was the father she never had, and he frequently talked her through bouts of depression. They worked together during the day and socialized during the evening. Through Johnson, she met London intellectual and radical thinkers, who accepted her into a circle that included political philosopher Tom Paine, chemist Joseph Priestley, Romantic artist Henry Fuseli, and political reformer and future husband Godwin.
The period between 1788 and 1792 was amazingly productive for her. In 1788, her novel was published; she wrote a children's book, Original Stories from Real Life, illustrated by William Blake; and translated two books. In 1789, Johnson published Wollstonecraft's The Female Reader, and in 1790, Wollstonecraft, who followed developments in revolutionary France, wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, a book that made her famous. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, still remembered by posterity, followed it in 1792.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was an angry, speedy response to Whig MP Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which attacked her friend Dr. Price and his sermon On the Love of Country. Burke, who had once backed American revolutionists, defended the rights of kings instead of the rights of man and assailed Price for congratulating the French Assembly on its attempts to create religious and civil freedoms. Wollstonecraft's rejoinder berated Burke for libeling Price, for defending aristocratic privilege, and for assaulting the French Revolution. Her anonymous tract, which argued for civil and religious liberty, was an instant success. When a second edition appeared with her name on the title page, the public was shocked that a woman and a novice to politics had written it.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her next book, catapulted her into literary stardom in Europe and America. Buoyed by recent successes, a newly confident Wollstonecraft finished this natural follow-up in six weeks. During the time she worked on the book, she met Godwin socially several times, but neither was attracted to the other. Instead, Wollstonecraft was interested in Fuseli, a married bisexual writer and artist. She claimed their relationship was platonic, but he countered that she was interested in sex. "If I thought my passion criminal," she wrote Fuseli, "I would conquer it, or die in the attempt." The relationship came to a halt when Wollstonecraft approached Sophia, Fuseli's beautiful former model and wife, with the suggestion that they live together. Wollstonecraft told Sophia she could not live without "the satisfaction of seeing and conversing with [Fuseli] daily." Sophia demanded that Fuseli stop seeing the writer, and Fuseli, who is said to have referred to Mary as an "intellectual sloven" and to women in general as "insect-like victims," complied.
After she finished A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft went to revolutionary France and became romantically entangled with an American merchant, Captain Gilbert Imlay. They did not marry him, but she registered as his wife at the American Embassy in Paris for her protection. In 1793, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. By the time their daughter, Fanny, was born the following year, Wollstonecraft realized Imlay was incapable of being faithful and contemplated suicide. To distract her, Imlay sent Wollstonecraft, Fanny, and a nursemaid on a business trip to Scandinavia. The trip resulted in a book, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Finding Imlay involved with a young actress on her return to England, Wollstonecraft jumped off Putney Bridge but was rescued.
Wollstonecraft's attraction to unavailable men like Fuseli and Imlay shouldn't be surprising, considering her family background. However, her later romance with Godwin seemingly resolved this tension between head and heart. The two had been friends since 1791, but she started seeing him socially when she returned in 1795. By 1796, they were lovers. Although both had criticized the institution of marriage, they married shortly before the birth of a daughter, who would be as famous as her mother and father.
This union of equals finally reflected her philosophy, and by 1797, Wollstonecraft's life was finally coming together. The thirty-eight-year-old intellectual rebel and celebrated author had put a lifetime of emotional trauma behind her and now seemed to have it all - public acclaim for her writing; recognition by her intellectual peers; a career she loved; a brilliant husband, who loved her illegitimate daughter as his own; and a baby on the way.
But Wollstonecraft's happiness was ephemeral. She died September 10, 1797, ten days after giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. When she had gone into labor on August 30, 1797, Godwin had called a midwife to their home. Three hours after the delivery, the midwife informed Godwin that her patient's placenta had not been expelled. A well-known physician was called in and surgically removed the afterbirth piece by piece. Despite his efforts or because of them, Wollstonecraft developed puerperal fever. Although the number of women dying in childbirth in the late eighteenth century had decreased dramatically, there was no known cure for fever.
Wollstonecraft remained calm, tender, and brave to the end, calling her husband "the kindest man in the world." The day she died Godwin wrote, "There does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." The children, however, brought him happiness. Godwin adopted three-year-old Fanny and raised her with her baby sister, Mary. Both were educated as the equals of men.
Sixteen years after her mother died giving birth to her, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin stood in front of her mother's grave in St. Pancras churchyard in London with her married lover, twenty-one-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, as he pledged his love and asked her to run away with him. It's impossible to know what Mary Wollstonecraft would have thought about her daughter's situation. However, her father tried everything in his power to stop Shelley. Two years earlier Shelley, heir to a great estate and a seat in Parliament, began writing Godwin because of his admiration of Godwin's An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Eventually Shelley became a frequent guest in Godwin's home, where he fell in love with his hero's daughter. Despite her father's objections, Mary Godwin and Shelley ran off on July 28, 1814.
Two years later the couple spent part of the summer in Geneva, socializing with the famous poet Lord Byron. One stormy evening, as they sat around a roaring fire at Byron's villa telling German ghost stories, nineteen-year-old Mary decided to write a similar story. When she was working on her Gothic novel, Frankenstein, in England, she received terrible news. Her twenty-two-year-old sister, Fanny, was found on October 9, 1816, in an inn in Swansea with a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note on the nightstand next to her bed; unlike her mother, Fanny had succeeded in suicide. Shortly thereafter, Shelley's first wife, Harriet, who was carrying her lover's child, was found drowned. These tragedies unsettled Mary and may have influenced the development of Frankenstein, as was the case of her mother's life influencing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Fanny and Mary's mother, a flawed genius, fought for mothers who had no rights to their children, for women who had no control over their money, and for unmarried women left with few alternatives. Women's rights have improved dramatically since Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but problems remain. Her book, hailed by one historian as "perhaps the most original [book] of the eighteenth century," continues to inspire women to push for full equality. And the book's author, as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, "is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."
Alisha Siebers, Ph.D.,Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County, lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and three sons. She is the recent author of Marie Corelli's Magnetic Revitalizing Power.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The style is less than captivating, and the frame of reference is a little outdated. Some of the things she advocated for we now take for granted but not all. The author's ideas are still relevant. She spends alot of time talking about the education of women ( we are not just talking about going to school here) and about the concepts of independence, being respected, etc. Some of the things she wrote over 200 years ago could still be considered visionary. Definitely worth reading.
Wollstonecraft presents a brilliant philosophy in all of her work, written in beautiful prose that it pleasing to the eye and engaging for the mind.