A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
One of the earliest of feminist political statements, Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the political rights of women and investment in women’s education sought to extend the principles of republican democracy associated with the French and American revolutions to the question of gender relations, and proved a foundational text not only of early feminism but of democratic theory more generally.
Much of the basis of Wollstonecraft’s argument is the common good – women, excluded from education and public life, can not adequately educate their own children nor contribute fully to the society at large; indeed, to not educate women poses a fundamental danger, weakening their ability to reason and making them a problem men must manage rather than a citizenry capable of managing its own affairs. But a moral argument is provided as well – that women and men are equally human in the eyes of God, both endowed with the capacity for rational thought, and therefore subject to the same moral laws.
An active player, with her husband William Godwin, in the debates around democracy and republicanism that raged at the time, Mary Wollstonecraft was well-placed to influence some of the leading liberal thinkers and politicians of the day. And her book was indeed well-received at first, becoming a central reference point in the wider debate around sex and gender that was a regular part of political discussion. Following her death, however, Godwin published his own memoirs of life with Mary Wollstonecraft, celebrating (he thought) her unorthodoxy and revealing in the process her multiple love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her struggles with depression. The result was a backlash against Wollstonecraft’s work as the revelations of her personal behaviour overshadowed the arguments she had put forward. For decades Vindication remained out of print, and it was only in the twentieth century, as the suffrage movement grew and writers such as Virginia Wolfe began returning to Wollstonecraft for inspiration, that her memory was rehabilitated and her historical importance recognized.