Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft (died 10 September 1797)

Novelist, polemicist, travel writer, philosopher, education and social reformer, political revolutionary, and, above all, advocate for the rights of women, Mary Wollstonecraft died on 10 September 1797, just ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary, named after her mother. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever, a post-partum bacterial infection. 

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1797,
portrait by John Opie
Today Mary Wollstonecraft is most remembered for her spectacular Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There is so much of note in this daring work--daring because she thought that women needed to learn more than French and music, that they needed physical exercise and strength, that they were, above all "reasonable creatures," and that they were, like men, capable of performing useful work in society.

You can find many wonderful quotations from the Vindication by searching online, but so many of my students over the years found inspiration in a sentence that comes from the introductory letter to the French statesman Talleyrand that Wollstonecraft uses as a preface for her work:
I plead for my sex, not for myself. Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I live on a barren heath.
In a time when the goal of so many men and women seems to be acquiring more and more stuff--and then worrying about how to afford more stuff and, of course, where to put it all and how to organize it and then how to get rid of it--Wollstonecraft's idea of "contracting" her "wants" to live independently may be one of her most revolutionary ideas. It was certainly an idea my students were drawn to--and if they remembered nothing more of Mary Wollstonecraft than that single quotation, I could almost be happy.

First edition title page,
There are several excellent Wollstonecraft biographies, but I particularly recommend Claire Tomalin's The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (it's out of print, but you can buy a used copy very inexpensively!) and Janet Todd's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life.

If you would prefer an introductory essay, Janet Todd's "Mary Wollstonecraft: A 'Speculative and Dissenting Spirit'" is posted at the BBC History website, and it's also excellent (you can access it by clicking here).

There are also many editions of Wollstonecraft's most famous work, her Vindication, but I particularly like the Modern Library Classics edition--because it has a wonderful introduction by the poet and essayist Katha Pollitt.

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