Mary Wollstonecraft: Revolution & Vindication
With her school gone and her governess job on the brink, Wollstonecraft was in dire need of income. Her publisher friend Joseph Johnson gave her an advance on a book about girls' education. The result, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was an early foreshadowing of themes Wollstonecraft would develop later in the Vindication, her most famous work. Rather than coddling daughters, Wollstonecraft urged parents to help them develop the inner strength to handle the challenges of life. Having learned early how difficult life could be, Wollstonecraft was adamant that girls as much as boys needed the mental resilience to handle problems independently. The book received a little attention, but not enough to put Wollstonecraft on the radar of important new writers.
Her next works were her first and only completed novel, Mary, A Fiction, and a children's book entitled Original Stories from Real Life. Ironically, though critics later chastised Wollstonecraft for her allegedly scandalous personal life, her writing was fiercely moralistic. Her two books of 1788 hammered on her most frequent theme: parents had a duty to teach their children (boys and girls) the skills necessary to be virtuous citizens. This important task should begin as soon as possible in a child's education, Wollstonecraft argued, and not be farmed out to sub-par servants.
Thanks to the assignments Johnson gave her, Wollstonecraft had a busy writing career. She translated books by French philosophers, wrote literary reviews for Johnson's Analytical Review magazine, and penned numerous essays on a variety of subjects. In 1789, the French Revolution got underway in nearby France. Like many English intellectuals, Wollstonecraft was captivated by the Romantic idealism being put into practice across the English Channel. (This was before things got crazy and they started chopping heads off.) She kept a close eye on the debates surrounding the revolution. In 1790, the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke published a treatise called Reflections on the Revolution in France. It contained an attack on Richard Price, Wollstonecraft's friend from Newington Green. Price, like Wollstonecraft, supported the revolution. Outraged, Wollstonecraft picked up her pen and wrote a long rebuttal to Burke's arguments entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Man. The pamphlet brought her first real notoriety as a writer. William Godwin, a political philosopher who later became her husband, noted the "vehemence and impetuousness of its eloquence."10
Spurred by the success of her response to Burke, Wollstonecraft set to work on her next big project. The conversation over human rights inspired by the French Revolution had been mostly dominated by men - what about the other half of the population? Did these issues not affect them too? Why were they not clamoring for their own liberation? "She considered herself as standing forth in defence of one half of the human species, labouring under a toke which, through all the records of time, had degraded them from the station of rational beings, and almost sunk them to the level of brutes," Godwin wrote.11
In 1792, Wollstonecraft published her most famous work. A Vindication of the Rights of Women argued that the learned helplessness women were encouraged to acquire made them ill-suited for life. Women needed to take charge of their own brains, Wollstonecraft wrote, and stop being satisfied with flattery and coddling. "The conclusion which I wish to draw is obvious; make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives, and mothers; that is - if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers,"12 Wollstonecraft wrote. In other words, Wollstonecraft was saying, adults needed to stop acting like children in order to get the society they wanted.
It was a controversial document. The critic Horace Walpole called her a "hyena in petticoats."13 Wollstonecraft wasn't surprised. "The pretty, soft creatures that are so often to be found in the female sex, and that class of men who believe they could not exist without such pretty, soft creatures to resort to, were in arms against the author of so heretical and blasphemous a doctrine,"14 Godwin wrote. (It seems only fair to note that even he described his wife as possessing a "rigid, and somewhat amazonian temper."15) It seemed that people's opinions of Vindication hinged less on Wollstonecraft's arguments and more on whether they thought it appropriate for a woman to write such a thing at all.
By today's standards, however, Wollstonecraft was hardly calling for the overthrow of gender relations. She readily offered that women were inferior to men in all physical contests. She also emphasized that the roles of wife and mother were among the most important in society, and that women should better themselves first in order to better serve those roles. "Speaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures," Wollstonecraft wrote, "and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother."16