A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft is best remembered as a moral and political philosopher. She was the second of seven children. Though her family was not wealthy and her education was haphazard, she read widely in the Bible, ancient philosophers, Shakespeare, and Milton. Wollstonecraft, with her sisters Eliza and Everina, ran a short-lived girls’ school near London, where she developed many of her ideas about female education, summed up in her earliest work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786). After a brief, unhappy stint as a governess, she became a reviewer and translator for the critical journal, Analytical Review—an unusual role for a woman at the time—and through this work became acquainted with an intellectual circle including American revolutionary Thomas Paine, philosopher William Godwin, and poet William Blake. In 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men as part of the pamphlet war sparked by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she wrote in six weeks in 1792, was a sequel of sorts. While living alone in revolutionary Paris, she had a relationship with an American entrepreneur, Gilbert Imlay, which resulted in the birth of her first daughter, Fanny. Imlay was unfaithful, and after moving back to England, a heartbroken Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice. By 1797, however, she had found happiness with William Godwin; they were married in March, and in August, she gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Tragically, she died eleven days after her daughter’s birth, at just thirty-eight years old.
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Historical Context of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft was strongly influenced by the eighteenth-century philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, which celebrated the primacy of human reason and critiqued monarchy and tradition in favor of political liberty and progress. Wollstonecraft also had an avid interest in the French Revolution of 1789, which, in accordance with many Enlightenment principles, overthrew the monarchy and established a republic. She even lived in France from 1792–1795, enduring some of the worst of Paris’s upheaval in the post-Revolutionary Reign of Terror while she wrote A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Later, she wrote her two Vindication texts as part of the so-called pamphlet war following the Revolution, touched off by Edmund Burke’s defense of tradition and critique of perceived excesses in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, she critiqued Burke’s support of aristocracy, championing republican government and middle-class virtue. Finally, Wollstonecraft was not the only female writer to respond to Talleyrand-Périgord’s report rejecting the importance of women’s education; a French playwright named Olympe de Gouges wrote her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791, but was executed during the Reign of Terror a few years later.

Other Books Related to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft critiques the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—especially Emile, or On Education (1762), which inspired new educational approaches during the French Revolution—and John Milton, particularly his characterization of the biblical Eve, and hence of women in general, in Paradise Lost (1667). Some of Wollstonecraft’s arguments about the dignity and potential of women were anticipated in the lesser-known treatise, On Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated (1648), by pioneering Dutch scholar Anna Maria van Schurman. Wollstonecraft also critiques the model of feminine virtue portrayed in Samuel Richardson’s popular novel Clarissa (1748). Finally, though Jane Austen never names Wollstonecraft, readers have noted places, particularly in Pride and Prejudice (1813), where she appears to take up certain of Wollstonecraft’s critiques of the education of both women and soldiers.
Key Facts about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • Full Title: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • When Written: 1792
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1792
  • Literary Period: Enlightenment
  • Genre: Moral/political treatise, non-fiction

Extra Credit for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Fictional Follow-Up. In the opening “Advertisement” of A Vindication, Wollstonecraft mentions that she plans to write a second volume, focusing especially on “laws relative to women, and the consideration of their peculiar duties.” Such a work was never published. However, her novel The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (published by William Godwin after her death) has been considered a “fictionalized sequel” of sorts.

Literary Legacy. Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Godwin Shelley, was the author of Frankenstein.