Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is often referred to as the founding text or manifesto of Western feminism. Nineteenth-century American feminists revered its author as their founding mother and read and spoke about her works ubiquitously.
Wollstonecraft’s first major work, The Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), was a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by Edmund Burke. Burke was one of many British writers and polemicists who entered the impassioned dialogue on the French Revolution, but his work was particularly galvanizing to people like Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine for its espousal of the view that citizens should not rebel against their government in order to revolutionize its traditions. Wollstonecraft averred that rights cannot be based on tradition, only reason and rationality.
Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman continued these themes and applied them to women. She dedicated the volume to Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord, whose recently delivered speech on education to the National Assembly in France had suggested that women must only concern themselves with domestic affairs and stay out of the political arena.
As she rushed while writing the text, she worried that she did not do the subject justice when she presented the work to her publisher, and indeed, planned on writing a second volume but never did so; she wrote to her friend William Roscoe, “I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject. – Do not suspect me of false modesty – I mean to say that had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book, in every sense of the word ... I intend to finish the next volume before I begin to print, for it is not pleasant to have the Devil coming for the conclusion of a sheet fore it is written.”
In terms of the reception of the work, most students and scholars commonly assume—derroneously—that it received mostly hostile reviews. That perspective has recently been debunked by multiple scholarly articles and biographies. R.M. Janes’s insightful article on the subject tells a more complex story: “The progressive intellectual circles represented by the leading reviews reacted positively to demands for intellectual equality, improved education, and reformed manners. Demands for political participation by women or for changes in women’s social behavior were regarded as unessential and absurd. Those elements of the works in question that corresponded to changes that had been in train for half a century were approved; those that marked out the direction of more drastic social transformations were rightly though disapprovingly remarked as revolutionary and visionary, if they were seen at all.” Except for one review by a conservative publication, all early views were largely positive. Many reviewers focused on Vindication as an educational tract and remarked upon it approvingly. Political concerns were ignored by liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative publication The Critical Review showed the most awareness of the political implications of Wollstonecraft’s writing.
The later hostility that the work garnered was related to the demise of Wollstonecraft’s reputation in the unflattering light of her husband’s memoirs published about her life and her frequent disregard for traditional 18th-century morality. Her reputation was still problematic throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries but has since been demonstrably less necessary to the analysis of her theories and ideas. Indeed, Vindication of the Rights of Woman stands on its own as a mainstay in university courses on women’s history and feminism, political science, and the history of the 18th century and the Age of Reason. This text has become one of the most influential points of departure in the Western canon.