Mary Wollstonecraft - Rights in the Air

Context of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"

Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie, about 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie, about 1797. Dea Picture Library / Getty Images

In 1789, Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister in England, preached a sermon "On the Love of Country." In this sermon he congratulated the French National Assembly, for the Revolution had opened up new possibilities for religious and civil freedom. The French Assembly's "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" was, indeed, a landmark in world history, especially following the 1776 American Declaration of Independence.

Price spoke of being a citizen of the world -- with the rights that citizenship implied. He fleshed out further his doctrine of perfectability -- that the world can be made better through human effort. This doctrine was the theological and philosophical justification for social reform, for striving in this world for social change.

Not all English writers agreed with Dr. Price. The responses to the sermon are better known to history than the initial sermon itself. Edmund Burke, appalled at the substitution of the rights of man for the rights of kings, for the institution of liberty at the expense of traditional authority, responded with his Reflections on the French Revolution. Burke argued that the overthrow of authority in France would bring on chaos and disorder. His arguments answered and denied Price's assertions of natural rights and Price's doctrine of perfectability.

Thomas Paine's answer was The Rights of Man.

Burke's and Paine's responses are today considered classics of political philosophy. Few have read Mary Wollstonecraft's initial answer to Burke: A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790.

In this angry rebuttal of Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, a member of Price's congregation, argued for what she considered God-given rights of civil and religious liberty.

She spoke of the aristocracy that was being displaced in France as decadent. She criticized Burke's sympathy for the women of the displaced aristocracy in France as selective, ignoring the many more thousands of women who suffered under the old regime:

"your tears are reserved, very naturally considering your character, for the declamation of the theatre, or for the downfall of queens, whose rank alters the nature of folly, and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration, though they might extort an alms" (from A Vindication of the Rights of Men).

Mary Wollstonecraft followed this argument with another response in 1791, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The second edition in 1792, including her revisions, is the edition available today. Here Mary Wollstonecraft extended her arguments about the need and value of female emancipation.

In 1792, Olympe de Gouge, a Frenchwoman, also called publicly for the extension of the rights of man to woman, in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen.

(I've been unable to learn whether she was influenced or even knew of Wollstonecraft's Vindication.)

Mary Wollstonecraft's visit to France in 1792, as her husband William Godwin later wrote, challenged her own earlier arguments and resulted in more reserved optimism. She published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, an attempt to reconcile her horror at the blood of the Revolution with her faith in perfectability. She integrated into her political ethics an acknowledgement that along with human potential for becoming good was also a potential for viciousness. But Mary Wollstonecraft remained confident that the essence of humanity was good, and that even the "chaotic mass" could result in "a fairer government."

More About Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Rights in the Air: the context of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • What Rights? - arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • Life of Mary Wollstonecraft - the life of experience that grounded her work
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Wollstonecraft - Rights in the Air." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2017, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 6). Mary Wollstonecraft - Rights in the Air. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Wollstonecraft - Rights in the Air." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 23, 2017).