A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

What features make this text a product of the Enlightenment while pointing forward to Romanticism?

The Enlightenment bit is quite obvious, but what about the Romanticism in the text?

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Born April 27, 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft became one of the most influential intellectuals of late eighteenth-century Britain. In her short but turbulent career, she worked as a governess, a teacher, a book reviewer, a political essayist, a historical and travel writer, and a novelist. Her most widely known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Women. A product of the Enlightenment tradition, which stressed the importance of reason, Wollstonecraft sought to elevate women from their dependence on men through “a revolution in female manners” (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, p. 192). Inspired by the rational ideals put forth by the supporters of the French Revolution and her own life experiences, Wollstonecraft wrote passionately throughout the 1790s about the suffering of women and men of various classes. In 1790 she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which, like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-92), asserted that there are “rights” that “men inherit at their birth” (Wollstonecraft, Vindications: Rights of Men, p. 43). In A Vindication of the Rights of Women she shifts the focus to women. Women, she argues, have to become more independent and rational, and better educated. Such changes will make them finer companions for men, better tutors to their children, and generally more useful in society. Influenced by personal as well as political events, Wollstonecraft reached these conclusions based on her own experience and on turbulent developments in France and England during the early 1790s.




Romanticism. The movement that served as a backdrop for Wollstonecraft's work is referred to as "Romanticism," a European cultural trend that took place roughly from 1770 to 1848. Romanticism was a reaction to the focus on reason and skepticism in the movement known as the Enlightenment. In contrast, Romantics focused on emotions, personal reactions, nature, and the imagination. Excited by the revolutions in America and France as well as wars of independence elsewhere, members of the movement championed new attitudes and standards of behavior in society. Proponents aimed to inspire social progress.

The writer-especially the poet-frequently appears in Romantic literature and philosophy as a figure of social and political salvation, a being of a higher order whose passion and imagination have the power to transform the world. Leading Romantic writers, who were primarily men, included the poets William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron.

Female writers were also very active during this period, however. They began the long struggle for gender equality through their writing. Mary Wollstonecraft's philosophy, as presented in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was in many ways the model that other women of the period followed in their own work. Like her, they attempted to effect social progress. Above all, female Romantic writers took the community (generally the family) as their most important subject. Their works, as one authority noted, "insisted on the equal value and rational capacities of women" (Mellor, p. 210).