We are approaching the 220th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
, generally agreed to mark the start of the struggle for women's rights, at least in the English-speaking world. It seems a good moment to recap the resources around this land-mark book.
Some modern readers still praise the vigour and directness of her writing, but it is fair to say that many others, unused to eighteenth century literary conventions, find it convoluted. One readability calculator estimated that you'd need 32 years of formal education before you could understand her 1792 magnum opus
on first reading. High school and undergraduate students are understandably put off by this, as I can attest after a few years on Twitter, running a permanent search for her name. A typical tweet is along the lines of: "Essay due tomorrow. I hate Wollstonecraft." I reach out, as @1759MaryWol1797
, linking to this blog: "Madam, you called my name. Are you more interested in my life (link)
or my book (link)
?" Which often provokes responses rich in initialisms: "OMG Mary Wollstonecraft is on Twitter LOL!!!"
Fortunately, alternative versions of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
are available. I tried to "translate" an excerpt
, and one of my readers kindly pointed out in
the comments that the exercise has been done before, and more thoroughly. Thus
did I discover the delights of the erudite and benevolent Jonathan
Bennett, who is donating his retirement to the
world by translating Early Modern philosophy
, including the Vindication
. He doesn't simplify or shorten the classics, though; he limits his blue pencil to modernising the written style. Throughout February, I will be bringing you other versions, some of them quite ... drastic.
If you prefer your Vindication
on video, we've looked at an amateur version of the Three-Minute Philosophy
series, and the professional 30-minute Dutch Humanist "Dare to Think"
episode. For those who haven't read the text itself, or who perhaps would like a refresher, I recommend Ian Johnston's 1998 lecture
, kindly released to the public domain*. He is very strong on context, and on the intellectual relationship with Rousseau. He lays out the case for her as a liberal feminist -- and as a radical socialist: "
I would not put it beyond the realm of possibility that Wollstonecraft is a
radical wolf in the guise of a liberal sheep." He devotes the final long section to her attitudes towards sexuality.
There are conferences on two continents commemorating the 220nd anniversary of the publication. One, in the United States
, looks broadly at Mary Wollstonecraft's legacies. The keynote speaker
was going to be biographer Janet Todd. The other, in Sweden,
focuses more specifically on her philosophy, and not just that of women's rights. Sandrine Berges, this blog's resident philosopher
and zombie-chaser extraordinaire
, will be speaking there. (As she was at last summer's knowingly titled Man and Nature: From Descartes to Wollstonecraft
As I've said before, I am very glad to see Mary Wollstonecraft's work, including books other than the second Vindication
, given the light well beyond the field of women's studies. It is good to see modern philosophers engage
and a Nobel Prize winner, addressing lawyers on international human rights
, call her "the most neglected thinker of the Enlightenment".
Tomorrow: a heads-up for International Women's Day, in New York
. And, over the month, several more entries on the Vindication
*I admire the breadth of work and the huge generosity behind Ian Johnston's offer:
This section lists the texts of
various introductory and public lectures and supplementary notes prepared for
college courses, particularly for Liberal Studies at Vancouver Island
University (once Malaspina College). These are not
scholarly studies of the works listed but rather initial introductions designed
for readers who are encountering these texts for the first time. These
materials are in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by
anyone without permission and without charge, provided the source is
I note that his visible site stats claim over 17 million page views, and am reminded of Cory Doctorow's dicutm that while it may be difficult to monetise fame, it is impossible to monetise obscurity. This university instructor is giving away a large chunk of of the fruits of his labour. An awful lot of people value what he has to offer, and that means a lot of eyeballs on his site. There are a few discreet Google ads, which did not distract from my enjoyment of the content. I hope they generate enough revenue to keep the author in first editions, if not second homes. Win, win, win.