Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a ground-breaking work of literature which still resonates in feminism and human rights movements of today.
Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) wrote the book in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790. Burke saw the French Revolution as a movement which would inevitably fail, as society needed traditional structures such as inherited positions and property in order to strengthen it. Wollstonecraft’s initial response was to write A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a rebuttal of Burke that argued in favour of parliamentary reform, and stating that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right, with corruption caused in the main by ignorance. This argument for men’s rights wasn’t unique – Thomas Paine published his Rights of Man in 1791, also arguing against Burke – but Wollstonecraft proceeded to go one step further, and, for the first time, a book was published that argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written in 1791 and published in 1792, with a second edition appearing that same year. It was sold as volume 1 of the work, but Wollstonecraft never wrote any subsequent volumes. Before this date there had been books that argued for the reform of female education, often for moral reasons or to better befit women for their role as companions for men. In contrast, in her introduction Wollstonecraft criticizes women’s education thus:
I attribute [these problems] to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers … the civilised women of this present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.
She goes on to say, revolutionarily, that 'I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties …'.
Wollstonecraft’s arguments were often far ahead of our time. For example, in Chapter 12 ‘On National Education’, she recommends the establishment of a national education system, to operate mixed sex schools. She also argues that it is essential for women’s dignity that they be given the right and the ability to earn their own living and support themselves.
The chapters of the book cover a wide range of topics, and the many digressions in the text support William Godwin’s report that Wollstonecraft wrote the book quickly over the course of only six weeks. Wollstonecraft’s tone conveys both her own sense of humour but also her anger at the enfeebled situation that the majority of women were forced into:
My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.
How did contemporary readers react to Vindication?
The reaction to Vindication in Wollstonecraft’s lifetime was positive in her own liberal intellectual dissenting circle, but otherwise very negative. Horace Walpole notably referred to her in one of his letters as a ‘hyena in petticoats’. In 1798, after Wollstonecraft’s death, her husband William Godwin published her memoirs which he had written as part of his grieving process. In these he was open and truthful in his description not only of his own premarital relationship with Mary, but also about her previous relationship with Gilbert Imlay and the birth of their illegitimate child, Fanny Imlay. The scandal this created meant that Wollstonecraft’s literary legacy was disregarded, and when, many years later, Fanny Imlay committed suicide as a result of an unhappy relationship, and Mary Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s daughter with William Godwin) eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, society was quick to blame Wollstonecraft’s feminist principles.
What is unique about this copy?
This copy of the second edition of Vindication has been marked up by an editor for a later, abridged edition, which planned to omit the dedication and most of chapter 5. There were no new English editions of the work published between 1796 and 1844, evidence of the reputational damage that was inflicted on Wollstonecraft’s legacy by conservative critics, but Strange’s preface to the 1844 edition also contains a note of hope:
During the last few years, however, the public mind has made considerable progress towards the attainment of juster views on this subject … We may indulge the hope, that, ere long, women will be in some degree emancipated from the degraded and demoralized condition to which the caprices or the passions of the opposite sex have hitherto condemned them.