A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Mary Wollstonecraft was a woman well ahead of her times. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she attacked gender-based double standards—though she never explicitly stated in the text that men and women are equal. She argues that women should receive thorough, practical educations and should try not to be at the mercy of their feelings, sexual or otherwise. Excessive passion, she believed, undermined women's ability to think rationally.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman evoked strong passions—both among her supporters and detractors. After Wollstonecraft's death in 1797, however, her husband, philosopher William Godwin, published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The memoir included startling revelations about Wollstonecraft's private life. Shocked, writers and readers turned against Wollstonecraft. Her work languished for a century, until suffragists of the late 19th century took her up as a symbol of their struggle.

1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is considered the first feminist manifesto.

Wollstonecraft's pamphlet attested to the importance of a good education for women so they could use reason to gain a sense of their individuality. This, she claimed, would lead to self-respect. These ideas are taken for granted in many societies today, but at the time they were new and startling. Though her concepts weren't put into practice for a century or more, later feminists consider her work groundbreaking. As English writer Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, "We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."

2. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was part of a "pamphlet war" during the French Revolution.

In 1790 Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote a pamphlet titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, criticizing aspects of the revolution in France that had just taken place. He claimed it was the overthrow of a legitimate government and that the revolutionaries' challenge to traditional rights could result in anarchy. Hundreds of pamphlets and other works were published in response to Burke's, including Wollstonecraft's. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was in part an argument against Burke's contention that men's rights in society are based on tradition. Wollstonecraft argued that rights should extend to both men and women and should be justly based on reason.

3. Wollstonecraft wrote her text in a fury after reading a French speech stating that women's education should be limited.

In 1791 French politician Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord delivered a report to the French National Assembly about education. He recommended a public education system for both boys and girls, in which boys would be taught on topics of general knowledge and intellectual inquiry and girls would be taught domestic arts. Infuriated, Wollstonecraft responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, arguing that Talleyrand-Périgord's plan would "force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark." Wollstonecraft dedicated her response to Talleyrand-Périgord.

4. Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary Shelley—author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft conceived a child with her lover, William Godwin. The two married after she became pregnant, and in August 1797, after 18 hours of labor, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary. Complications caused Wollstonecraft's death 11 days later. Godwin raised Mary, who went on to marry Percy Bysshe Shelley, a renowned poet, after his first wife drowned herself. In 1818 Mary Shelley published the novel Frankenstein.

5. Wollstonecraft rescued her sister from an abusive husband.

In 1782 at age 19, Wollstonecraft's sister Eliza married Meredith Bishop, a wealthy man. She had a child not long after and apparently suffered a severe case of postpartum depression. When Wollstonecraft came to stay with the couple to help out, Eliza accused her husband of abuse. The sisters planned an escape. At that time, separation without proof of cruelty was illegal. Eliza had to leave her child behind, and both sisters could have been arrested. However, the escape was successful, and the two, along with their sister Everina and friend Fanny, opened a school in order to support themselves.

6. Wollstonecraft tried to kill herself twice in despair over her philandering lover.

In 1793 when Wollstonecraft was 34, she fell in love with American businessman Gilbert Imlay. They began a love affair, and a year later Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby daughter, Fanny. At the time having a child out of wedlock was considered immoral and highly shocking, but Wollstonecraft wanted a relationship in which the parties were equals, and marriage at that time made equality impossible. However, a few months later Imlay did not return from a business trip. Wollstonecraft tracked him down in London and begged him to return to her. When he refused, she took an overdose of laudanum, liquid opium. Imlay found her and revived her. Not long after she discovered Imlay's involvement with a beautiful young actress, and she flung herself into the River Thames in despair. A nearby fisherman pulled her out.

7. Before writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft penned A Vindication of the Rights of Men.

In 1790 statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote a pamphlet criticizing the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published anonymously, was the first of many responses. She composed it as a letter to Burke. In it she dismissed his defense of traditional class distinctions, charging that differences in class should be based on education rather than inherited status, an argument she later expanded to include women. She also critiqued his writing style, calling it "turgid bombast."

8. In 2011 Wollstonecraft's image was projected onto the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to raise money for a statue of the writer.

A group called Mary on the Green projected an enormous image of Wollstonecraft onto the side of the Palace of Westminster in 2011. The projection was an attempt to raise money to fund a statue of the writer to be placed in North London, near her home and the school where she taught. When the statue had not gone up six years later, more than 80 well-known British women signed a letter in 2017 calling for the statue to be built. Among them were two baronesses and the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

9. English writer Horace Walpole called Wollstonecraft "a hyena in petticoats."

While Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published anonymously, she put her name on A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the response was swift and strong. American president John Adams claimed that his wife, Abigail, was a "disciple" of Wollstonecraft, and American vice president Aaron Burr, who later shot American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, called it "a work of genius." But English writer Horace Walpole was appalled at her claims and arguments, calling her "a hyena in petticoats," and Edmund Burke said she was one of a "Clan of desperate, Wicked, and mischievously ingenious Women, who have brought, or are likely to bring Ruin and shame upon all those who listen to them."

10. Satirist Thomas Taylor responded to Wollstonecraft's work with a pamphlet titled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.

In 1792 English writer Thomas Taylor responded to Wollstonecraft's essay with his own, a satire he titled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. In it he extended Wollstonecraft's arguments about the rights of women to the rights of animals and of children, ideas that were received as laughable at its publication. Both of these absurdities, of course, became social movements in later years.

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