Monday, February 6, 2012

Vindication: a recap of resources

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 is 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 acknowledged.
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.


  1. Thank you for posting the link to Ian Johnston's lecture. I am currently reading Vindication and, if thruth be told, it is challenging. But, I am enjoying it tremendoulsy. :)

  2. Hi Roberta

    How are you doing ! What a busy and fascinating week you must be having. Would you like me to post the links to Fragments & Monuments film and performance company on the blog or is there somewhere else on the site for links to artists and projects which focus on Wollstonecraft and her legacy ? all best Anna

  3. Kathryn, thanks for getting in touch. Can you tell us how you are using these resources?

    Vertigo, you too are very welcome. If you have any specific questions about the Vindication, feel free to ask.

    Anna, nice to hear from you here; I'll be in touch by email. If you have any comments about this or other posts, please let us know your thoughts.

  4. Fragments & Monuments has joined now!

    your readers might be interested to hear about our artists book which shares the collaboration between Taey ( and the company, focussing on being a neighbor of Mary on Newington Green, East london but with a global perspective reaching to Seoul, South Korea: Birch, A and Iohe, T (2011) The Wollstonecraft Live Experience! Fragments and Monuments ISBN 978-0-9568008-0-0 artists book is available from
    recently re published and in a limited number to celebrate 220 years since 'vindication' was first published this book is the exact same dimensions with a cover whose design is a photographic print of the original book (published on 1793 in this case) found in Hackney Archives