Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication for Women's Rights
Mary Wollstonecraft – mother of feminism
Mary Wollstonecraft lived during the Age of Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), an era when traditional institutions, values, customs, morals and ideas were being questioned. This era gave rise to the “rights of man” and the American and French Revolutions. Often called the “mother of feminism,” her Vindication on the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, advocated for equality of the sexes and was influential in the doctrine of the women’s movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Born in 1759 in London, Wollstonecraft was the second of six children. Her family suffered financially when her father wasted an inheritance. When she was 19, she started a school with her sister. Her experience led her to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787).
The beginning of her radicalization
When Wollstonecraft was a member of the Unitarian chapel at Newington Green, she became friends with its minister, Richard Price. Through him, she met many of the leading intellectuals and radicals of the day, including Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley and Joseph Johnson.
In 1788, she became a translator and literary advisor to Johnson and was a frequent contributor to his Analytical Review. A year later, her friend, Richard Price, gave a sermon that would spark a debate between Edmund Burke and Wollstonecraft.
In his sermon, Price congratulated the French National Assembly, arguing that the French Revolution had opened up the potential for religious and civil freedom with its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Price also believed the world could be made better through human effort.
At least one man disagreed with his views. Although an earlier defender of the American Revolution, Burke argued in Reflections on the French Revolution that the Revolution would bring chaos and disorder. Angry that Burke turned his back on what she considered God-given rights of civil and religious liberty, Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Man as a rebuttal. She also criticized Burke for what she felt was misplaced sympathy for the women of the displaced French aristocracy and said he ignored the many more thousands of women who had suffered under the old regime.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Her next treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), expanded on the plight of women, including the lack of education available to them. The book explored women’s equality, women’s status, women’s rights and the role of public/private, and political/domestic life, all of which had not been addressed before. Rights of Woman reached a wide audience, making its way to America, where it was read by Judith Sargent Murray and Abigail Adams.
Wollstonecraft went on to write Maria, or the Wrongs of a Woman (1798), in which she argued that women had strong sexual desires and An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution which was criticized the violence of the French Revolution.
While in Paris, Wollstonecraft met and agreed to become Gilbert Imlay’s common law wife and in1794, she bore him a daughter, Fanny. After Imlay deserted her, she returned to London where, flouting social convention of the time, called upon fellow Analytical Review writer William Godwin at his home.
Although both rejected marriage as a form of tyranny because women had no legal rights after marriage, they eventually married in spring 1797 because Wollstonecraft was pregnant. A daughter, Mary, was born at the end of August and on September 10 Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicimia.
Nearly a century later, in 1881, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated their History of Women’s Suffrage to her.
Books by and about Mary Wollstonecraft
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