Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) is best known as a forerunner of modern feminism. Her extensive body of work participated in contemporary debates in education, social mores, philosophy, and theology. Wollstonecraft's works include educational texts, two novels, book translations, an account of the French Revolution, a travelogue of her journey in Scandinavia, and the political tracts A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In addition, Wollstonecraft was one of the first women to support herself by means of professional reviewing. Her work for the Analytical Review, a periodical sympathetic to radical causes, is a key part of her opus. In her reviews of hundreds of texts, we see the development of Wollstonecraft's distinct combination of political argument and cultural criticism, primarily in the form of literary criticism.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft's first explicitly political work, was written as a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was in turn a rebuke of British radicals and reformists. Although it was completed in six weeks, this text represents a mature engagement with Burke's complex politics and rhetoric (in comparison, Burke's text was composed in less than a year and Thomas Paine's well-known Rights of Man i n approximately two months). Burke's primary target was Richard Price, the prominent Dissenting minister, moral philosopher, and political writer who had previously supported the American revolutionary cause. Price was known as a Rational Dissenter. Dissenters in general were members of religious groups who refused to swear to Anglican articles of faith that were required of all who wished to attend Cambridge and Oxford, and subsequently to make a living as clergy or to take up civic posts. Rational Dissenters in particular developed a theology that was antimystical and anti-Calvinistic and that encouraged a high level of intellectual and worldly activity. The Rational Dissenters ran a number of educational academies and were deeply engaged in the politics of the day, generally drawing from a rhetoric of classical republicanism in support of their criticisms of corruption in the representational system of Britain and the colonies. Wollstonecraft met Price when she came to Newington Green in London—where the Dissenters had established a school and chapel—to start a girls’ school in 1783. There, she was introduced to a community with a rich intellectual and political heritage. Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, and James Burgh were three of the more influential Dissenters and were crucial to Wollstonecraft's intellectual development. They added their voices to the reformist and radical movements in Britain during the years of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, through the 1790s. The reform schemes developed by a diverse array of groups at this time shared some common features: that the franchise be expanded, that taxation for military expenditures be subject to review, and that irregularities in parliamentary representation—such as “rotten boroughs” and unrepresented population centers such as Manchester—be addressed.
Burke's Reflections, ostensibly an epistle concerning the danger of the French Revolution, is a substantive reaction to British radicals and reformists. Burke argues for the prerogatives of the state church and the king, the socially stabilizing mechanisms of hereditary titles and property, and the preservation of the (unwritten) constitution. Burke characterizes the constitution of the British state as essentially conservative in the sense that property and legal precedent are the foundations of a stable society. Legal practices, laws of inheritance, and the representational scheme are reformed slowly if at all, for these constitute the accumulated wisdom of ages. Burke makes these arguments with the assistance of a particularly emotive rhetoric, suffused with a staged nostalgia for chivalry, and with gendered images of the nation and its protectors. A famous passage in Reflections depicts Marie Antoinette as an almost angelic figure whose feet barely touched the ground, while the revolutionaries who rousted her out of Versailles are “brutish” and might have raped her had they had the chance. Burke laments that in the old days of high chivalry, 10,000 swords might have leapt to her defense. Burke drew on the language of “sensibility” more frequently found in novels, poetry, and dramatic literature than in political treatises.
Wollstonecraft directly confronts Burke's rhetoric, employing irony to expose his postures of solicitude for the compromised Marie Antoinette, and his breathless admiration for a quickly vanishing European chivalry. As a self-described philosopher—a term that she uses to mean she is an erudite and analytical writer—Wollstonecraft goes further and deeper than her apparent mockery of Burke's writing. Wollstonecraft recognizes the source of Burke's highly gendered images in his earlier work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), an influential treatise on what would later be called aesthetics, which categorizes sense perceptions as male or female. Beneath the ironic and personal tone that was typical of political tracts of the eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft's Rights of Men undermines the rhetoric of Reflections by addressing its philosophical underpinnings.
Wollstonecraft does not restrict herself to a cultural critique of Burke's work. For Wollstonecraft, Burke's ultimate concern is the preservation of property. Against this, she advocates for “natural rights,” on the one hand, and the principle of civic duty, on the other. The slave trade and the “pressing” of poor and usually propertyless men—something Burke seems prepared to rationalize within his account of the constitution—would not occur if natural rights were prioritized. Moreover, Burke's exaltation of local interest in family and property is an abdication of duty to society at large. Thus, Rights of Men contains both prototypical ideas of modern liberalism as well as elements of classical republicanism. The text ends by returning to the issue of gender, arguing that exaggerated modes of femininity prevent women from pursuing a robust program of self-development.
In her more extensive political work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft did not press for an extension of the rights found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Republic or the Bill of Rights attached to the American Constitution. Instead, she asked that women be educated equally. This would allow them to fulfill their traditional domestic duties more effectively but could also potentially prepare them for a life of worldly activity in commerce, literature, or even as single heads of households. The disruption this implied to the patriarchal structure of most Western societies at this point—whether monarchist or republican—was still in the realm of political fantasy for many of her readers. Rights of Woman makes its case by means of an acute cultural analysis. Wollstonecraft describes how gender roles are established through a double standard in education and childrearing in which little girls are debilitated from the start, cut off from the more rigorous physical and intellectual activities that boys took part in, and thus losing a chance at developing their full potential. These practices had been condoned and reinforced by generations of writers in education, philosophy, and theology, among other genres. Wollstonecraft's role as a reviewer for the Analytical Review put her in an ideal position to approach her subject in this way. By 1792, she had written more than 300 reviews, and Rights of Woman contains many of the elements found in these reviews, including close reading, comparison of passages, and discussions of the intent of the author and social context of a text. This background translates directly into politically charged criticism of texts in Rights of Woman, where her primary targets are the works of John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Gregory, a selection that represents different periods, genres, and nationalities. The range of this selection implies that a patriarchal regime that keeps women from attaining their full development persists over time, in different cultures, and across categories of writing.
One of Wollstonecraft's central ideals is a society that allows for the self-determination of the individual, a concept later associated with modern liberalism. Wollstonecraft—nominally an Anglican but greatly influenced by Dissenting religious writing—was practically alone among the reformist and radical thinkers of her time first in extending this ideal to women and second in grounding her argument on religious principles. The presence of religious principles in Rights of Woman has only begun to be investigated. The influence of anti-Calvinist thought, primarily as it was expressed by Rational Dissenters such as Richard Price and the Latitudinarian thinker Joseph Butler, led her to adopt the principle of “earthly probation,” that is, the idea that life on Earth is a period of trial and the fate of the soul is not predestined. Wollstonecraft argued explicitly and directly from this principle to demand that women be allowed the fullest possible liberty in pursuing worldly activities. It is through worldly engagement that women can encounter the challenges that ultimately improve the soul. To block women's access to the larger world of activity, as Barbara Taylor explains, is tantamount to denying them heaven. Although some cultural historians have long argued that Protestant hermeneutics lie at the roots of modern conceptions of political and economic identity, it is unusual to find a contemporary of Wollstonecraft who makes this explicit, and it is even more unusual to see individual liberty extended to women on this basis.
The placement of Rights of Woman in its historical and political context has been a controversial topic among historians. One widespread theory states that Rights of Woman was not considered genuinely radical when it was first published. A strong reaction to her ideas set in only after the publication of William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), published after Wollstonecraft's premature death following the delivery of her second child, the future writer of Frankenstein. In Godwin's Memoirs, readers discovered that Wollstonecraft had had a child out of wedlock and became pregnant with another before marrying Godwin. They also read of her two suicide attempts after being rejected by the father of her first child. The revelations in Memoirs may have provided encouragement to her opponents, but her stature as a political and social thinker rested on the subversive nature of her ideas. This is clear in the many responses to Wollstonecraft in the years following her death, responses that may have been somewhat hysterical and vehement but also intellectually thorough. Wollstonecraft was a writer to be reckoned with. Although it is true that other writers before Wollstonecraft called for better education for women, and even declared the intellectual equality of women, these schemes were usually gendered; that is, education for women was to be distinct from that of men because it was considered a preparation for a domestic life. Conversely, Wollstonecraft's definition of woman as a social and political being is more progressive than that of many of her predecessors: In Rights of Woman, she writes that women's “first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of mother.” This was an inversion of priorities that only a few of Wollstonecraft's contemporaries, and indeed generations of readers afterward, could accept.
Wollstonecraft's politics have also been identified with one strand of classical republican discourse, but she adapted this line of thinking to a pro-woman agenda that had not appeared in the works of her predecessors. For Wollstonecraft, women should cultivate physical robustness, stoic courage under hardship, and most significant, a sense of civic duty. In the writings of Burgh and Price, an individual develops a sense of civic duty from education in politics and history, and from the fact of being the head of a household, where mutual duties and obligations within the family are a basic training in those duties and obligations incumbent on every citizen. Here is the point, however, where Wollstonecraft breaks new ground. In many social models grounded in republican thought, women's role in the polity consisted in remaining within the family as the primary educator of future (male) citizens and providing stout support to their husband. This is the ideal of “republican motherhood” that formed an important part of the culture of the early American republic for instance. Although Wollstonecraft agrees that domestic relationships are the proper matrix for civic identity, and that motherhood is a desirable and natural role for women, she insisted that public and domestic roles for women were not mutually exclusive. Even though many women of her time found the means to overcome the barrier between domestic and public spheres of activity, Wollstonecraft argued for the utter reformation of social models that envisioned women's primary sphere of activity outside of the public. Throughout her work, Wollstonecraft is concerned with women's potential public functions. This, as well as her analysis of gender, and how it profoundly influences the establishment and stability of sociopolitical systems, places Wollstonecraft among the key founders of modern political thought.
See also Autonomy; Citizenship; Civil Society; Equality and Egalitarianism; Feminism; French Revolution, Political Thought of the; Religion and Western Political Thought; Republicanism; Rights, Natural and Human
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