A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Reception and legacy

When it was first published in 1792, the Rights of Woman was reviewed favourably by the Analytical Review, the General Magazine, the Literary Magazine, New York Magazine, and the Monthly Review, although the assumption persists even today that Rights of Woman received hostile reviews.[75] It was almost immediately released in a second edition in 1792, several American editions appeared, and it was translated into French. Taylor writes that "it was an immediate success".[76] Moreover, other writers such as Mary Hays and Mary Robinson specifically alluded to Wollstonecraft's text in their own works. Hays cited the Rights of Woman in her novel Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and modelled her female characters after Wollstonecraft's ideal woman.[77] Although female conservatives such as Hannah More excoriated Wollstonecraft personally, they actually shared many of the same values. As the scholar Anne Mellor has shown, both More and Wollstonecraft wanted a society founded on "Christian virtues of rational benevolence, honesty, personal virtue, the fulfillment of social duty, thrift, sobriety, and hard work".[78] During the early 1790s, many writers within British society were engaged in an intense debate regarding the position of women in society. For example, the respected poet and essayist Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Wollstonecraft sparred back and forth; Barbauld published several poems responding to Wollstonecraft's work and Wollstonecraft commented on them in footnotes to the Rights of Woman.[79] The work also provoked outright hostility. The bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was unimpressed with the work.[80] Thomas Taylor, the Neoplatonist translator who had been a landlord to the Wollstonecraft family in the late 1770s, swiftly wrote a satire called A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes: if women have rights, why not animals too?[80]

After Wollstonecraft died in 1797, her husband William Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). He revealed much about her private life that had previously not been known to the public: her illegitimate child, her love affairs, and her attempts at suicide. While Godwin believed he was portraying his wife with love, sincerity, and compassion, contemporary readers were shocked by Wollstonecraft's unorthodox lifestyle and she became a reviled figure. Richard Polwhele targeted her in particular in his anonymous long poem The Unsex'd Females (1798), a defensive reaction to women's literary self-assertion: Hannah More is Christ to Wollstonecraft's Satan. His poem was "well known" among the responses A Vindication.[81] One reviewer comments this "ingenious poem" with its "playful sallies of sarcastic wit" against "our modern ladies,"[82] though others found it "a tedious, lifeless piece of writing."[83] Critical responses largely fell along clear-cut political lines.

Wollstonecraft's ideas became associated with her life story and women writers felt that it was dangerous to mention her in their texts. Hays, who had previously been a close friend[84] and an outspoken advocate for Wollstonecraft and her Rights of Woman, for example, did not include her in the collection of Illustrious and Celebrated Women she published in 1803.[85] Maria Edgeworth specifically distances herself from Wollstonecraft in her novel Belinda (1802); she caricatures Wollstonecraft as a radical feminist in the character of Harriet Freke.[86] But, like Jane Austen, she does not reject Wollstonecraft's ideas. Both Edgeworth and Austen argue that women are crucial to the development of the nation; moreover, they portray women as rational beings who should choose companionate marriage.[87]

The negative views towards Wollstonecraft persisted for over a century. The Rights of Woman was not reprinted until the middle of the 19th century and it still retained an aura of ill-repute. George Eliot wrote "there is in some quarters a vague prejudice against the Rights of Woman as in some way or other a reprehensible book, but readers who go to it with this impression will be surprised to find it eminently serious, severely moral, and withal rather heavy".[88] The suffragist (i.e. moderate reformer, as opposed to suffragette) Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote the introduction to the centenary edition of the Rights of Woman, cleansing the memory of Wollstonecraft and claiming her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote.[89] While the Rights of Woman may have paved the way for feminist arguments, 20th century feminists have tended to use Wollstonecraft's life story, rather than her texts, for inspiration;[90] her unorthodox lifestyle convinced them to try new "experiments in living", as Virginia Woolf termed it in her famous essay on Wollstonecraft.[91] However, there is some evidence that the Rights of Woman may be influencing current feminists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist who is critical of Islam's dictates regarding women, cites the Rights of Woman in her autobiography Infidel, writing that she was "inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights".[92]

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