by Simon Court
Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the first recognisably feminist texts. Yet earlier, in December 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which introduces some of the arguments extended in Woman, and which also anticipates some of the beliefs expressed in the highly influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) by the anarchist thinker William Godwin, who was later to become her husband.
Although Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was relatively short (she died in 1797, aged only thirty-eight), it was both extraordinary and controversial. Independent-minded and often courageous, her adventures included: setting up (unsuccessfully) a school in London; entertaining a doomed passion for the artist Henry Fuseli and proposing co-habitation with him and his (appalled) wife; travelling to Paris alone in December 1792 to witness the French Revolution, and staying there as Louis XVI was guillotined and the ‘Reign of Terror’ unfolded, and having a turbulent affair with the American businessman, Gilbert Imlay.
Mary became pregnant by Imlay, who abandoned her in France before the birth of their illegitimate child, Fanny. Imlay remained indifferent to both Mary and Fanny on their return to London in 1795, and this led to two unsuccessful suicide attempts by Mary in that year, one by laudanum overdose, and the other by jumping into the Thames. (Sadly, Fanny proved to be more successful in her own suicide attempt by laudanum overdose, dying aged just twenty-two, in 1816).
Wollstonecraft started an affair with William Godwin in 1796 and, despite his principled objections to the institution of marriage, they married in March 1797, after Mary discovered she was pregnant. Yet this domestic tranquillity was tragically short-lived: Mary died on 10 September 1797, after complications from giving birth eleven days earlier to her second child, Mary (later author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).
In 1790, the Whig politician Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France: a famous critique of the abstract ‘metaphysical’ reasoning of the French Revolutionaries, and the murderous tyranny which it produced, and a staunch defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England. Wollstonecraft, who was a regular contributor to the Analytical Review, took up her pen (with the encouragement of her publisher, Joseph Johnson) and produced the first of many critical responses to Burke’s Reflections in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Initially published anonymously, it was reviewed extensively and sold out in weeks, the second edition bearing her name, and establishing her reputation as a political thinker.
It is wholly unsurprising that Burke’s Reflections irked Wollstonecraft, because the political principles upon which the Reflections is based contrasts dramatically from her own. In a nutshell, Burke was, in political ideological terms, a conservative. He had a pessimistic view of human nature, and believed the virtues of tradition and custom preserved the continuity of society, and controlled the citizens within it. He denounced as futile and dangerous any attempt to artificially impose ‘metaphysical’ rational principles upon society – in other words, abstract principles which are not derived from practical political experience. For Burke, this would always lead to failure, tyranny, and the wilful destruction of society, and the French Revolution in 1789 was the latest, most horrifying example.
Wollstonecraft, by contrast, was a radical liberal (and emerging feminist). She believed that the French Revolution was self-evidently a good thing. She took from the Enlightenment generally, and John Locke in particular, the view that people possess inalienable rights to freedom, and property (in the sense of ownership acquired through labour, rather than inherited). Further, she assumed that people, in using their rational faculties, are capable of a degree of social co-operation which leads to an equal and just society, in which all irrational prejudices and customs are removed. This progress was, for Wollstonecraft, inevitable. Given that optimism, coupled with the notion of the perfectibility of human nature, and armed with an emerging ‘feminist’ insight, there is little wonder that her reaction to Burke was explosive.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was a political pamphlet, and part of the contemporary controversy concerning the French Revolution and the merits of monarchy over republicanism which was being waged in a propaganda war. As such Men contains lively, and entertainingly savage, rhetorical flourishes, and remains heated throughout. Take, for instance, this opening salvo aimed at Burke in the advertisement printed at the beginning:
“Not having leisure or patience to follow this desultory writer through all the devious tracks in which his fancy has started fresh game, I have confined my strictures, in a great measure, to the grand principles at which he has levelled many ingenious arguments in a very specious garb”.
Much of the discussion in Men amounts to a relatively conventional liberal response to a conservative view of political society. Hence there are arguments about the scope and meaning of ‘liberty’, the redundancy of established political institutions and classes (notably the monarchy, the Church of England and the aristocracy) and the just allocation of private property and wealth.
On the usefulness of the Church, she observes that “It is a well-known fact, that when we, the people of England, have a son whom we scarcely know what to do with – we make a clergy-man of him”. And she has no time for what she takes to be Burke’s sentimental affection for country life: “you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and a dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer”.
However, what most interests us now is to examine how Men charts the emergence of Wollstonecraft’s own distinctive political ideas: most obviously, how her discussion of the place of women in society in Men serves as an introduction to ideas further developed in Woman (making Men, perhaps, the first feminist work?). For Wollstonecraft aspires to a society in which women play their fullest part, employing their reason and demanding to become useful members of it. Yet she despairs at seeing how “women of fashion take husbands that they may have it in their power to coquet, the grand business of genteel life, with a number of admirers, and thus flutter the spring of life away, without laying up any store for the winter of age, or being of any use to society. Affection in the marriage state can only be founded on respect – and are these weak beings respectable?” There is no suggestion here that women are helpless victims. Far from it, they are letting themselves down by perpetuating their role as “vain inconsiderate dolls”, whose “luxury and effeminacy” has introduced “so much idiotism into the noble families”.
Wollstonecraft’s call to women is, in effect, to disregard the silly weaknesses of ‘effeminacy’, and instead, as a matter of moral duty and respectability, exercise their reason to acquire the virtue of being “prudent mothers and useful members of society”. A forceful message at the time, which still has resonance today.
Wollstonecraft also addresses the issue of ill-health and poverty in the emerging industrial cities, which she contrasts with the countryside. Yet in doing so she presents an idealised portrayal of rural life. She asserts that whereas London is where “misery lurks in pestilential corners”, the English countryside, “with all the rustic contrivances of simple, unlettered taste”, is where she saw that “the cheerful poultry were fed by the chubby babes, who breathed a bracing air, far from diseases and the vices of cities”. She seeks a radical transformation of the ownership of land, asking “why cannot large estates be divided into small farms?” and “why might not the industrious peasant be allowed to steal a farm from the heath?” Her demand for common ownership of land, coupled with a utopian portrayal of agrarian society anticipates the same, essentially anarchist, views expressed by William Godwin in Political Justice, which influenced Coleridge and the ‘pantisocrats’.
Wollstonecraft first met Godwin on 13 November 1791, that is, a year after Men had been published, and while Godwin was writing Political Justice. Godwin had read Men but had been irritated with the polemical style, later dismissing it as ‘intemperate’. The meeting between them was not a success: a fellow guest that evening was Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) Godwin greatly admired, but, he later recalled, Paine was “no great talker….the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence heard her very frequently when I wished to hear Paine”.
Although most of Wollstonecraft’s attack on Burke concentrated on his Reflections, it is interesting to note her twist on his concept of the ‘sublime’, as expressed in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Her accusation was that Burke was guilty of what has subsequently been termed ‘aesthetic genderising’: that is, he had deliberately set out to persuade women that the quality of beauty is associated with femininity and weakness, while reserving the ‘sublime’ to masculinity and strength. She declares “you may have convinced them that littleness and weakness are the very essence of beauty…..thus confining truth, fortitude, and humanity, within the rigid pale of manly mortals…”
Even if we may not agree with this attack on Burke, we can still acknowledge that Wollstonecraft’s observation that a writer’s use of language can reflect their deeper assumptions about gender is, again, part of an early and recognisably feminist ideological view of the world.
A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and Romanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.