Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


I.                    Mary Wollstonecraft’s Short, Unhappy Life (1759-1797)

A.     Childhood and Career

1.      She was the daughter of a handkerchief weaver who moved from place to place throughout her childhood.

2.      She founded a school in Newington Green in 1784 with two friends, and soon met Richard Price, the author of the work on the FR that Burke was responding to in Reflections, and Joseph Priestly. Later on, she met and became friends with some other famous radicals, including William Godwin, William Blake, Thomas Paine, and even Wordsworth.

3.      This group called itself the Rational Dissenters, who believed that moral choice came from individual conscience and reason, and that original sin and damnation were fictions. Anglicans called them atheists.

4.      She spent a short time after the collapse of the school in 1786 as a governess to Lady Kingsboro, and she hated it.

B.     Two Vindications: Her Politics

1.      She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Burke’s attack on Price, but felt that both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the current debate lacked attention to the status of women.

2.      A Vindication of the Rights Woman, published in 1792, contained an elaboration on many ideas she had already expressed in a pamphlet on the education of girls, but this time, since she had come to the notice of many people, the book caused an enormous controversy—she even calls marriage “legal prostitution” and a kind of slavery.

C.     Imlay and France: 1793

1.      She moved to France to observe the FR in 1793, and became involved with Gilbert Imlay, an American.

2.      She had a daughter by him soon afterward, and followed him from place to place, discovering his infidelities along the way, and twice attempting suicide.

3.      While on a business trip for Imlay, she wrote Letters from Sweden, describing her life and the breakdown of her relationship.

D.     Return and Godwin: 1796-1797

1.      William Godwin, who had not been all that impressed with her before, liked the Letters from Sweden, and the two became friends and lovers. She convinced him to marry her when she became pregnant.

2.      She gave birth to her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would later become Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and died 11 days later.

II.                 The Principles of the Vindication

A.     Reason

B.     Self-Improvement

C.     Divine Perfection

D.     Equality

E.      Virtue

III.               The Feminist Legacy

A.     Women’s Education

B.     Consciousness

C.     Opportunity