Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” (1790) and “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) – “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” exists simultaneously as a proto-feminist work and a reminder of historical avenues not taken. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote these essays during the French Revolution, when radical possibilities were flowering and before the reactionary fury against them set in in full force across Europe. By the time she died in 1797, both the revolutionary momentum in France was petering out and reaction in Britain was ascendant. I wonder if she would have found a publisher had she written much later.
Wollstonecraft’s vindications rest on the foundation of Enlightenment faith in reason and education, with a certain soupçon of the romantic ideas starting to arise at the time thrown in. Wollstonecraft is largely in agreement with misogynistic writers of the time in their depiction of women as useless and silly.In her telling, education (or lack thereof), not nature, produces the weak women of the upper and middle classes. Education is the solution, as far as she’s concerned, and what women are due as creatures with souls equal to those of men’s, if not bodies or minds (she’s agnostic about whether women are equally as intelligent as men). This is the diametric opposite of what Rousseau and other writers thought, that education is worse than useless for women, making them less “feminine.”
People go back and forth as to whether to call Wollstonecraft a feminist. On the one hand, she was an unstinting early voice for women’s equality in at least some spheres of life. On the other, she was not full-throated for the idea that women are equal in terms of intelligence to men, and seemed rather to despise women and the feminine in general as they presently existed in her time. I’m hardly the best judge of what’s feminist and what isn’t. What I will say is that by rejecting the idea that women have a special sphere — love, romance, domesticity, the subjective, whatever has meant to go into it over the centuries — Wollstonecraft avoided the gigantic cul de sac that contained women’s collective self-assertion for well over a century after her death. Feminists of the Seneca Falls generation and after picked up on many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments about education, but incorporated the Victorian gender ideology that placed women on a pedestal as naturally equipped to be guardians of morality and the home. Pedestals, as they say, are small, confining spaces, and feminists struggled with how to work within, expand, or explode that space. We still see echoes of that struggle today.
For her part, Wollstonecraft was apparently pretty prominent in life, and part of an important English radical family that included her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Her husband, noted proto-anarchist William Godwin, published her diaries after her death, and the reaction that was setting in across English life reacted poorly to the revelation that Wollstonecraft — gasp! — had premarital sex with men she didn’t marry. This, and her dismissal of the feminine, made her largely persona non grata in nineteenth century thought. It’s too bad. I wouldn’t say that her rejection of everything feminine — up to and including romantic love, which she thought should be indulged briefly and then swapped for nice, rational friendship betwixt married couples — holds up that well to scrutiny, though again, I say this from the cheap seats of manhood. It doesn’t seem popular with the feminist women I know. In keeping with the tropes of radical republican thought at the time, she paid little attention to the economic elements of liberation. But her basic points were important, she was among the first to articulate them at a critical time, and she got some solid, if Enlightenment-era-wordy, burns in on people who deserved it, like Burke and Rousseau. ****