Wollstonecraft Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

English writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and published the first recognized political work advocating gender equality, especially in education.

Summary of Event

In 1791, the second edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Man Vindication of the Rights of Man, A (Wollstonecraft) appeared—the first edition was published without her name. This book-length response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke) (1790), which focused upon the living conditions of the British lower class, was an immediate success and provided a place for Wollstonecraft among the London literati, which included such luminaries as publisher Joseph Johnson, poet William Blake, and Swiss-born painter Henry Fuseli. [kw]Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) [kw]Woman, Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of (1792) [kw]Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the (1792) [kw]Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft Publishes A (1792) [kw]Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft (1792) Vindication of the Rights of Woman, A (Wollstonecraft) Women;civil rights [g]England;1792: Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman[2990] [c]Women’s rights;1792: Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman[2990] [c]Social issues and reform;1792: Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman[2990] [c]Literature;1792: Wollstonecraft Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman[2990] Wollstonecraft, Mary Burke, Edmund Godwin, William

A year later, in 1792, Wollstonecraft highlighted underprivileged women in her most popular work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this radical pioneering work, produced in an amazing six weeks time, Wollstonecraft analyzes the social conditions of the period, painting women as an oppressed class, repudiated of any sort of rights, political and domestic. As a result of this oppression, women, she maintains, have no chance to develop into responsible and reasonable human beings:

Hapless woman! what can be expected from thee when the beings on whom thou art said naturally to depend for reason and support, have all an interest in deceiving thee!

Since they must depend totally on men for sustenance, she argues, women are forced to be deceptive. Therefore, marriages cannot be truly happy unions. Primarily, she attacks the educational Education;women and girls Women;education restrictions, that “grand source of misery,” that keeps women in “ignorance and slavish dependency.” A feminine weakness of character is brought about by a “confined education,” she strongly asserts.

Upper-class women, she also argues, do not have enough physical and mental stimulus. They are kept in a perpetual state of idleness, like hothouse flowers, with beauty their only purpose. This passivity instills in women an overblown sense of vanity and an insistent need to please. The protecting and sheltering of women, she maintains, in an effort to keep them “innocent,” results only in keeping them childish and enfeebles them with a sense of “false refinement.” As a result, she argues, women’s “minds are not in a healthy state.” This social situation oppresses not only women but also men. Women should not be placed on thrones, she admonishes, but should be educated to enable them to become “more respectable members of society.” In short, young women should be educated in the same manner as young men. In an effort to improve the lives of both genders and to provide happier marriages, boys and girls—rich and poor—should be educated together and, in order to avoid vanity, dressed in uniforms. She breaks new ground by strongly advocating sex education Education;sex : “truth may always be told to children,” she writes, “if it be told gravely, but it is the immodesty of affected modesty, that does all the mischief.” The author believed that true freedom could only occur with gender equality.

Wollstonecraft’s early life experiences provide an effective backdrop for her famous treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which includes in particular the concurring themes of women’s lack of education, resultant poverty, and “unhealthy minds.” Her own personal history provided her with firsthand observations of the impediments and indignities suffered by women. This sense of injustice, coupled with an indomitable spirit and gifted writing ability, furnished the fuel for this first classic on equal rights.

Born in Spitalfields, London, the second of seven children born to a middle-class weaver and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft received little education. The family lived in a variety of places, falling down the social ladder with each new move. As the oldest girl, Wollstonecraft tried to protect her mother from the physical abuse of a drunken tyrannical father. After her mother’s death and her sister Eliza Bishop’s marriage, she lived with her friend, Fanny Blood, and helped to support the faltering Blood family through needlecraft. Wollstonecraft found her sister Eliza mentally irrational after the birth of a daughter, and suspecting the nervous breakdown to be the result of ill treatment by the husband, removed her sister to safety.

Women at this time had no political rights: Wives were prohibited from leaving their husbands and mothers from gaining custody of their children. Eliza’s child died before age one while her mother, in hiding, awaited a legal separation. Penniless, Wollstonecraft, Bishop, and Blood started a school at a time when women’s occupations were limited to nurses, servants, and minor shop-clerk positions. The school, however, was short-lived because of Blood’s marriage and move to Portugal, her subsequent death after childbirth, and Wollstonecraft’s absence from the school during these crises. Wollstonecraft resided briefly at Eton, where she observed one of the oldest private schools, before taking a job as a governess to an aristocratic family in Ireland. After ten months there, she returned to London in 1788, determined to make a living through her pen.

After the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft traveled to France, where she became deeply involved in the French political cause and lived through the French Revolution, French Revolution (1789-1796);Mary Wollstonecraft[Wollstonecraft] reported later in her A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, A (Wollstonecraft) (1794). While in Paris, Wollstonecraft became passionately involved with the American businessman Gilbert Imlay, Imlay, Gilbert with whom she had a daughter, Fanny, in 1794. Despondent over Imlay’s decision to end their affair, Wollstonecraft twice attempted suicide in 1795. Concerned about Wollstonecraft’s health, Imlay encouraged her to travel to Scandinavia as his business representative; her journals and letters to him were later published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Wollstonecraft) Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). In 1797, she married William Godwin. She died soon after giving birth to their daughter Mary.

Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman was not the first book advocating equal rights. Wollstonecraft herself was inspired by, and indeed, very favorably reviewed, Catherine Macaulay’s Macaulay, Catherine Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (Macaulay) (1790). Wollstonecraft’s passionate work, however, originating in firsthand knowledge, cried out to a readership deeply aware of social injustice. It was both acclaimed and denigrated. On one hand, popular poets Robert Southey and William Blake wrote poems praising her: “To Mary Wollstonecraft” and “Mary,” respectively. On the other hand, she was castigated for her masculine attitude and roughness and, in particular, for her views that women should receive sex education.

Significance

Soon after her death, Wollstonecraft’s husband Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (Godwin)[Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] in which he divulged details of the author’s life including her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her subsequent suicide attempts, and her religious doubts. As a result of Godwin’s publication, Wollstonecraft’s reputation suffered severely, with more attention being paid to her scandalous life than to her written work. As a result, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was mostly neglected during the Victorian era. In the United States, however, Wollstonecraft’s tract played an important role in the nineteenth century women’s movement. Although she was acknowledged by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the 1881 History of Women Suffrage as someone who demanded for women “the widest opportunities of education, industry and political knowledge, and the right of representation,” her treatise did not receive full recognition as a classic in feminist literature until the late twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972. An approachable analysis and discussion of Wollstonecraft’s life and philosophy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, Caroline. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Describes the influences that led Wollstonecraft to become a writer. For Franklin, Wollstonecraft exemplifies many women of her time who spread literacy and used print culture to advocate reform. By the 1790’s, the role of women as educators and reformers assumed a more political dimension.
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    xlink:type="simple">Gunther-Canada, Wendy. “The Politics of Sense and Sensibility: Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay Graham on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.” In Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, edited by Hilda L. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Analyzes Wollstonecraft’s and Macaulay’s rhetorical and argumentative strategies in response to Edmund Burke’s classic conservative treatise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Rebel Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft and Enlightenment Politics. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001. Places Wollstonecraft’s writing within the context of the political writing of her time. Describes her interpretation of women’s images in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other eighteenth century writers, her views of women’s place in society, her relation to the work of Edmund Burke, and how A Vindication of the Rights of Woman exemplifies women’s writing on education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. A comprehensive biography, generally more sympathetic toward Wollstonecraft than many other biographies. Jacobs relates Wollstonecraft’s personal shortcomings to her frustration with society’s limited expectations for women.
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    xlink:type="simple">Paulson, Ronald. Representations of Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Chapter 3 of this scholarly work provides an in-depth discussion of Wollstonecraft’s work in relation to the French Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwood, Frances. Vindication. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993. A novel based on Wollstonecraft’s life and work, with many excerpts.
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    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Examines how Wollstonecraft’s ideas about feminism were influenced by British Enlightenment theories on universal equality and moral perfection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. A well-crafted and comprehensive biography, providing an analysis of Wollstonecraft’s life and writing. Despite Wollstonecraft’s rational feminist ideas, Todd portrays her subject as a creature of sensibility—as someone needy, self-absorbed, and self-dramatizing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Edited by Carol H. Poston. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Part of the Norton Critical Edition series, this authoritative text includes historical background from such sources as John Locke and Mary Astell; contributions to the Wollstonecraft debate from (among thirteen sources) William Godwin, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf; and seven critical essays.

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