Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Vindication: new resources

If I estimate that perhaps one in a hundred Britons could tell you who Mary Wollstonecraft is, not one in a hundred of those cognoscenti would know that the Vindication that she is remembered for was her second. Fourteen months before, she had published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a response to Edmund Burke's essay attacking her mentor Richard Price, the minister to the Dissenters of Newington Green. It was that book that made her an intellectual celebrity, placing her name firmly on the map of lettered London, and hence A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published exactly 220 years ago, was received with interest and widely read; even if many disagreed with its conclusions, they paid the book and its author the respect of engaging with the arguments.

Now for some resources not covered in our recent recap: Taking Liberties, "the 900-year struggle for Britain's freedoms and rights in key documents", was the winter 2008/09 temporary exhibition at the British Library. It situates the Vindication in what it calls the human rights group, stretching back to 1690 Locke's Treatises, via the Minutes of the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery (1787),  and forward to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights (an obvious choice) and, its last entry, the 1957 Wolfenden Report (a braver choice). The exhibition website (as good in its way as the one of Shelley's Ghost) describes the Vindication thus: "The firmly-argued book, written in the tumultuous period following the French Revolution, was one of the first great works of female emancipation - but the goals she advocated took many decades to attain."

A Vindication draws on the parallels between women's position and that of slaves. It is worth mentioning the environment in which the author developed these ideas. The 1787 committee had a dozen members, all men: nine Quakers and three Anglicans, including William Wilberforce. A non-denominational (or multi-denominational) pressure group was thought to be more effective than one composed exclusively of those outside the establishment: Quakers could not stand for Parliament, and suffered other civil disabilities. It is only fair to remember, however, that abolitionism began with the Society of Friends - a lesser known committee, entirely of Quakers, preceded this famous one by three years. Not surprisingly, some of its members, such as Joseph Woods senior and Samuel Hoare junior, lived at Stoke Newington, a village popular with that sect and due north of the City of London, an easy journey for merchants who wanted the benefit of fresh country air for their growing families. It also happens to be the neighbouring village to Newington Green. This was the environment in which Mary was radicalised; from her childhood she knew that the world could be a harsh and unjust place, but there she learned to see its injustices through political eyes.

One final resource: the avid readers at A Year of Feminist Classics devoted January 2011 to reading A Vindication, and their comments are preserved. Their year proved so productive that they are continuing into 2013, according to the reading list.

Coming up are some interpretations -- or, you could say, translations -- of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


  1. In the mid 1970s, I was part of a men's study group in New York City focusing on early feminist literature. We ended up spending about six months on Mary Wollstonecraft. First we studied various biographies; each of us read at least two of them. Then we worked on A Vindication of the Rights of Woman... for months! I came to love that book, but I found it difficult and I greatly benefited from having others to work with as we tried to sort through issues like what exactly did Wollstonecraft mean when she spoke of "chastity" and "modesty" in 1792.

  2. I think it is a book that repays reading in a group, for mutual reflection. There is now the internet option of online reading groups, such as the Year of Feminist Classics, which you didn't have then, of course. Sandrine Berges, the full-time philosopher, will be exploring themes of chastity and modesty in her paper at the Swedish symposium in a fortnight. See her abstract here.