A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

Welcome to our Year of Feminist Classics project. We begin today with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.

I read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in March 2010 and thought it was a fantastic book. I wrote a short review of it here. At the time I thought it was a book with a lot in it to discuss and contemplate and so am very happy that we are starting with it for our project. The text is considered the first document of feminism by many, so what better one to start with?

I apologize that this month may be a little less structured than the ones to come. I am still figuring out how best to do this. I have a degree in business and mathematics, so don’t feel like you need any grounding in literary theory or criticism to join in with us – these discussions will be for anyone who is a fan of the written word!

This month, if you recall from our reading list, we are also reading Mariama Bâ‘s So Long a Letter. As it is a much shorter text (and I forgot that I had lent my copy to a friend!) I thought we would start looking at it in the second half of the month.

An Introduction to the Text

Image from Wikipedia of the First American Edition of the book.

The book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, calls for women to have greater autonomy and a greater role in their lives. It specifically attacked the double standard that was exhibited and legislated in Europe. It was well received when it was published, and it wasn’t until later that the author and her works fell into disrepute (see the biography below). The book was as a direct response to current events with a second volume planned. Unfortunately the author died before a second volume could be written – just think of how fascinating that could have been!

Many have said that Wollstonecraft isn’t a feminist and didn’t consider herself a feminist. Her ideas are clearly not the feminist ideas that we have today. To that I point out that history is always progressing. As one of the earliest advocates in writing of equality and removing the sexual double standard, Wollstonecraft was clearly working toward the feminist ideas we hold today. If it were not for her and others like her, we wouldn’t have the ideas that we have today. I look forward to discussing this in more detail through the month.

My version is the Broadview Press Anthology which includes a few introductions, a chronology of the author’s life, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and a number of appendices that include additional information about the revolution, the education debate, and reviews. I’m a little bit geeked out by it all!

Whatever version you have, through the next few weeks we will be reading it and I will be coming up with some discussion questions. If you have any questions or comments that you would like to be part of the discussion send us an email at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com.

A Quick Biography of the Author

Image from Wikipedia of the author.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759 in London. Her biography on Wikipedia is fascinating reading and I highly suggest checking it out.  She was always had a strong woman and protected her mother, sisters, and friends growing up. She convinced her sister to leave her husband, they and a friend set up a school together, she worked as a governess for some time, until eventually embarking upon a career as a writer. Wollstonecraft translated a number of texts as well as writing her own. The most famous of these is A Vindication of the Rights of Women (in 1792) which was written shortly after she wrote Vindication of the Rights of Man in response to the French revolution in 1790.

After writing the book Wollstonecraft went to France to try living out her ideas. While there she fell in love with Gilbert Imlay and ended up having his child. She was registered as his wife to avoid being put in danger after Britain declared war on France in 1793. Despite this they were never actually married and he showed no interest in marriage or their child. Over the next few years she tried to kill herself twice (in 1795 and 1796) in response to her situation supporting herself and her child alone.

Eventually Wollstonecraft got back in to writing in London and met William Goodwin who fell in love with her and they were eventually married after she again became pregnant in 1797. They lived in separate houses to retain their independence and appeared to have a very happy relationship. She died on September 10, 1797 due to complications resulting from childbirth.

After her death Goodwin was devastated and wrote a memoir of her which laid bare her illegitimate child, love affairs and suicide attempts which of course, given the time, resulted in her reputation being torn to shreds and her writing seemed to lose credibility. Her work was then tied with her person, and she was vilified through the years until finally the early feminists in America revived her legacy beginning in 1884. New biographies have come out numerous times since coinciding with new feminist thought.

I hope that many of you will join with us in reading and discussing this text. I look forward to hearing your opinions and thoughts on it. Again, if you have any contributions in terms of discussion points, questions, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to email us at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com.

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35 responses to “Introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

  1. Jillian January 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks so much for the information, and for organizing this discussion.

    I posted on Wollstonecraft today, as I begin A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:

    http://jillianisreading.wordpress.com/2011/01/01/mary-wollstonecraft-%e2%80%93-a-%e2%80%9cbitch%e2%80%9d/

    Are we allowed/supposed to post our discussion links? If not, feel free to delete. 🙂

    • amymckie January 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

      I loved your post Jillian!! Definitely feel free to link to your posts. When I write up the first discussion post I’ll be sure to link it in there as well (ahem I hope I remember!). I can’t wait to hear more people’s thoughts and get some discussion going here. I am only just about to start the book here myself.

  2. Nymeth January 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    An excellent introduction, Amy! My copy of the book is in the UK and so I can’t start until the 7th, but I can’t wait to dive in. Also, I’m seriously considering complementing my reading with Claire Tomalin’s bio of her… it sounds so so good! We’ll see if I manage to get to it this month.

    • Iris January 2, 2011 at 9:50 am

      I said the same to Amy yesterday, about how I wish I could combine reading this text with Tomalin’s biography. I have a feeling that I will not get around to it, but I hope you do.

      • amymckie January 2, 2011 at 10:46 pm

        That sounds like a fantastic addition / complementary reading. Now I wish I had a copy 😉 I have the book with me but am out home doing family stuff. I hope to get a chunk of reading done tomorrow.

  3. Carmen January 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Looking forward to join this great project! Congratulations! I will start it a little late, but hope I can catch you 🙂

  4. christina January 1, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    I’m currently reading another book right now where seeks her identity and ever changing role of Female through the feminine classics. It’s (so far) been really enjoyable. Not surprisingly, the first text she reads is also Vindication. After her brief pages of biographical information on Wollstonecraft I immediately put on my list to pick up a more detailed biography. What a fascinating woman!

    • amymckie January 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      That sounds really interesting Christina – may I ask what book?? I definitely want to know more about Wollstonecraft. The wikipedia article was really interesting.

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  7. chasing bawa January 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    What a great introductory post, Amy! I don’t think I’ll have the time to join you all this month as I’m preparing for my holiday home in 2.5 weeks (cannot wait) and will be trying to read more Sri Lankan literature, but I’ll make sure to join in later in the year. Looking forward to reading the discussions though!

    • amymckie January 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Thank you so much chasing bawa. Too bad you won’t be able to join but understandable! It is a busy time of the year. And Sri Lankan lit also sounds fantastic.

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  9. dangermom January 3, 2011 at 3:55 am

    I have finished chapter 2! I’m having to read it on a rotten e-reader app on an aged handheld, so it’s slow going. Can you believe my public library doesn’t own a copy? I had one, but it seems to have disappeared. I’m quite enjoying it; it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around just how uneducated and discounted women were at that time, even though I’ve read plenty and am supposed to know it by now. I’m surprised anyone would try to say that Mary Wollstonecraft was not a feminist; by that definition, neither is Susan B. Anthony.

    • amymckie January 3, 2011 at 4:11 am

      Wow! I actually can’t believe your library doesn’t have a copy dangermom, that is unfortunate. It is really hard to believe isn’t it. And yes, some people have odd definitions 🙂

  10. SilverSeason January 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    If you don’t have a copy, you can probably find a free text on the Internet. I downloaded it (free) to my Kindle from Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle look for an app called Kindle for PC. It is free and lets you read Kindle downloads on your computer.

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  12. Stephanie January 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Just found this site through the F-word. I’ve read bits of A Vindication but never the whole thing, and I loved So Long a Letter when I read it a few years ago. I’m very excited about this, what a great idea!

    • amymckie January 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you Stephanie! I am still slightly shocked we were featured on the F-word – so incredible! I’m glad you like the idea of the project. We’d love to have you follow along with us 🙂

  13. Patti Smith January 9, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    I downloaded my copy on my Kindle for either .89 or .99…and also just ordered the Tomalin bio to read along with Vindication…so excited about this project 🙂

  14. Rebecca Reid January 13, 2011 at 2:03 am

    I loved the introduction she wrote — I love this:

    “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

    I haven’t made much progress beyond the introduction as I MUST finish War and Peace this week but I am very excited to dive in after my book club meets next week!

    • amymckie January 20, 2011 at 3:53 am

      Yes, I haven’t been making a huge amount of progress either Rebecca which is why I’ve been so slacking on the discussion :S Hopefully soon! And I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on War and Peace as well 🙂

  15. Trisha January 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I found the insightful commentary by Wollstonecraft on the elevation of beauty over intellect fascinating in the first portion of the book. I actually posted about it here. I am a bit behind but catching up. 🙂

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  17. Nana Fredua-Agyeman January 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Interesting. I have read mixed reviews of this work.

  18. Kathleen February 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    You probably mostly know this already, but the baby that Woolstonecraft died giving birth to was Mary Shelley (née Godwin) the author of Frankenstein. She was brought up by her father and given the liberal education her mother advocated for in the Vindicaton before falling in love with one of her father’s radical associates (the poet Percy Byce Shelley) at 19, running off with him to the Alps and replaying the whole oh so wrong but oh so right tragically inapropriate love affair again.

    I’m very late to the party, but in the hopes that others will be even later, I’m going to read (re read) these texts slowly and hopefully post something insightful before Easter!

  19. E. J. Roberts June 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    It is interesting to teach this book and track how students respond to this book, and how differently male and female students respond to the issues Wollstonecraft raises and discusses. We contextualize the book, and then extract it from its time and place and try to place the issues in our own time and place. A lot of great questions can be raised as we contemplate how far we have and have not come, and what can or should be done about that. . .and who shall do it. It is also an arresting exercise to ask students to apply different literary theories as they discuss this text. The idea is to encourage them to step out of their own shoes and into someone else’s as they consider these issues. And it gives great opportunity to ask students to try to separate themselves from their own assumptions and stereotypes about gender and gender behavior, and reassess the issues in Wollstonecraft’s time and place, and in light of today’s assumptions and stereotypes, which can be harder to quantify than some presume.

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