Episode 9

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 1

Published on: 20th January, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. During our last episode we discussed Olympe de Gouges, and her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. We learned how de Gouges was accused of treason and beheaded, and her work never really took off in France or elsewhere, as evidenced by the fact that if you say the name Olympe de Gouges, most people will not have heard of her. However, there was a woman in England writing at the very same time on the very same subject. This was the famous Mary Wollstonecraft, and her book,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects is one of the most famous and influential works on this subject in history. Like some of our other texts, this book is so densely packed with material that we’ve decided to break it into two parts. So today we will introduce Wollstonecraft and talk about the historical context in which she wrote, we’ll talk about the Enlightenment and some of the contemporary authors with whom Wollstonecraft was arguing, and we’ll talk about the balance of Reason and Emotion.  But before we start, I want to introduce my reading partner, Meagan Cahoon Alder. Hi, Meagan!

Meagan: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Meagan and I met in Santiago, Chile when we were 21 years old. We were kindred spirits right from the very first moment, and even though we haven’t lived near each other in many years, every time we reconnect I am amazed at both how much we are still alike, and how much I admire you, Meagan.  I feel like you’re a trailblazer and a role model for me, and I’m so grateful for your example as we’ve gone through all these years of life. So thank you sooo much for being here. and could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Meagan:

Sure, thank you Amy. I am really honored to be a part of your project. Thank you for having me.


A little about me. I come from a large blended family. My oldest sister and I come from my mom and dad, and 6 siblings from my dad and step mom. 8 altogether, 7 girls and 1 boy. We are all pretty close and I wouldn’t trade those relationships for anything. 


I grew up mostly in Northern California with just my mom and visited my dad twice a year for summers and Christmas. 


Around 16, after having an incredible experience in therapy myself, I decided I wanted to be a therapist when I grew up. At 16 I wasn’t totally sure what *kind* of therapist, but I knew that I wanted to help people the way that I had been helped. 


I’m also a 7th generation Mormon, which is pretty relevant to this podcast as its entire structure is based on a patriarchal foundation and definitely has a huge part to play in how I view and experience the world. And it is through my service in the Mormon church that I met you in Chile at the ripe ol’ age of 21 like you said. And while I have so many things to say about that experience, it is probably best left for another podcast. 


Fast forward to coming back from Chile, I got married, graduated from the University of Utah and we headed out to Maryland for graduate school. I went to Virginia Tech in Northern Virginia for a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. I worked for a couple of years with adolescents and their families before we had our first daughter in 2007. Our son came just 18 months after that and then three years later, our third. We struggled to get and stay pregnant so while I had some pretty complicated feelings about quitting my job as a therapist, I looked forward to being at home with them. 


As time passed though, I felt like a very important part of me was put on ice. As the ice started to melt, that part of me became pretty restless and I realized that staying home without attending to the therapist aspect of myself was not going to be sustainable. I began a little life coaching practice on the side and it was great at the time. But didn’t quite quench that thirst to be back in the therapy room.


In 2014, Jon was offered a job at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and one of the perks was free education for spouses. We both had some serious reservations about going back to Utah after being away for 12 years, but decided to go for it. And I was going to go back to school for a PhD in MFT. 


The same week I received my acceptance letter to the PhD program, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had also recently moved to Utah to take care of my grandfather. So we had her come live with us while she had surgery and went through chemo for the first time. Her cancer grew back about 16 months later just as Jon was recruited for a job at the University of Pittsburgh. 


Turns out BYU was a terrible fit for Jon and he was miserable in his professional life. I had one more year left that could all be done remotely, so we packed up our four generation household and moved to Pittsburgh. We had my grandpa with us for those last years of his life and it was a gift to be with him when he passed last year. 


Currently, my mom’s cancer is back and we’ve all decided that cancer is the worst and we are trying to make the best of a really crummy situation. 


I finished my PhD about 2 years ago and started a private practice. I have a great little office downtown Pittsburgh that has been sitting empty because of the COVID global pandemic for about 8 months and that is killing me, but I’m very hopeful that I will return to it someday in the not too distant future. 





Amy: Thanks so much, Meagan. Again, you are such an example to me. And best wishes from the bottom of my heart for your mom. I can’t even imagine how hard that is for your whole family, but your mom is so very lucky to have you. 


Next, if you don’t mind, I usually ask my reading partners what interested them in the project.


Meagan: 

A couple things come to mind. First, because it was you asking and I knew it would be high quality. My experience with you around issues of patriarchy and feminism have been so important because you have a way of expressing what is deepest in your heart in a way that matches what is in my heart. I knew I could trust how you would handle this topic with such care and thoughtfulness. 


Second, because a year or so ago we were chatting about feminism, our experiences in the patriarchy and you mentioned the book Creation of the Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner. I think I went and bought a used copy that same day. Then as I was reading it, I would text rant to you about how maddening it all was and how can it be that after all of these centuries we are still in this place? And you said something to the effect of, we should start a book club so we can discuss all of this and understand it better. I said, sign me up! And this turned out to be a bigger project than a book club but I really am honored to be a part of it. 


Amy: Thank you so much for those kind words and for that reminder of this process together! I do remember both of us saying that we had to take breaks from The Creation of Patriarchy because it brought up so many feelings of frustration and anger… but it was therapeutic for us personally and really important for us to understand. You told me earlier that reading this text was a similar experience - it was hard to keep reading sometimes, right?


Meagan: Yes, I had a really hard time with Vindications of the Rights of Woman. I would get through a chapter and just have to set it down and walk away for a while. I think we’ll discuss some of the main reasons why later on, but the arguments she has to make to just be taken seriously were often painful to read and hit close to home. And that same feeling that here we are so many years later still having to argue for our value and worth. 


Amy: Yeah, this education is not for the faint of heart, but in the spirit of the Enlightenment, when Wollstonecraft was writing, we can quote Immanuel Kant, who said “Sapare Aude,” Dare to Know. (file:///Users/amy/Downloads/Kant-Enlightenment.pdf)  Sometimes knowing hurts, so it requires courage. But it’s worth it. 


So I want to start with a couple of background topics as we launch our discussion.


If you look up A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on Wikipedia, the first sentence describes Mary Wollstonecraft as an 18th Century British proto-feminist. The second sentence describes her book as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. So by now listeners know that word definitions are important to me, and we’re going to pause here and talk briefly about the word “feminist.” We also could have covered this during the episode on The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, but it’s appropriate here as well.

First of all, using the terms “feminism” or “feminist” can be controversial among historians, when applied to people before the term was used. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 1852 as the year of the first appearance of "feminist" and 1895 for "feminism,” and it was first introduced in France. The word “feminism” didn’t appear in the United States until 1910.

Second, the word “feminist” can be controversial in the general discourse, because some people interpret it (in my view, they misunderstand it) to mean an effort to elevate women above men and subjugate men. That idea doesn’t come out of thin air - some feminists in the 1970’s Women’s Lib movement did advocate for female supremacy.

However, I know a whole lot of self-described feminists, and I don’t know a single one who thinks that. Every single feminist that I know subscribes to the definition that is in the Oxford dictionary, which is this:

“Feminism: the advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.”

And if you look up Oxford Reference, there’s an expansion of the term, a portion of which reads:

“The approach to social life, philosophy, and ethics that commits itself to correcting biases leading to the subordination of women.”

This is the definition we will be working with when that word comes up anywhere on this podcast. So I think it’s interesting that Wollstonecraft is described in retrospect as a “protofeminist,” meaning of course “the earliest,” or “a precursor to” a feminist. And we’ll see why she’s described this way as we discuss her work.

 

Ok, and one last thing before we dive into the book: let’s talk about who Mary Wollstonecraft was and what led her to produce the work that made her famous. We’re going to take turns talking about her, so Meagan, do you want to take the first part?

 

Meagan

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on April 27, 1759, the second of seven children. Her father was a violent alcoholic who mismanaged the family fortune and would sometimes beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Mary used to lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. She played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. 

Mary's education was somewhat haphazard, which was not entirely unusual for someone of her sex and position. Mary read a lot, and her mind was shaped by relationships with families who mentored her, and by her friendship with Fanny (Frances) Blood. The two were best friends, and after Mary’s mother died in 1780 (when Mary was 21), Mary moved in with the Bloods.

In the winter of 1783, Mary left the Bloods in order to attend to her sister Eliza, who had just given birth to a daughter. When she arrived she found her sister in a terrible state of depression (scholars now wonder if it was postpartum depression), and Mary’s solution was for Eliza to leave her family. So Mary and Eliza left Eliza’s husband and baby and went into hiding for a time.  The baby died the following August, and Eliza, unable to remarry, lived the rest of her life in poverty.

This was a terrible time for Mary. Prior to Mary’s visit to Eliza, Mary, her other sisters, and Fanny Blood had set up a school together. But Fanny soon became engaged and moved to Lisbon, Portugal with her husband, in hopes that it would improve her health, which had always been poor. Despite the change of surroundings, Blood's health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Mary left the school and went to Portugal to help Fanny after the birth of her baby. Tragically, Mary’s abandonment of the school led to its failure, and even more tragically, after giving birth, both Fanny and her baby died. Fanny's death devastated Mary and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).

After Fanny’s death, Mary got a job as a governess. Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women - which is a topic she would write about a lot in her life - she decided to quit her job as a governess and embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing (let’s be honest, it’s still a risky choice). As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become 'the first of a new genus'. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts.

She also wrote reviews for Joseph Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft's intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson's famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft did not like each other at first - they met at a dinner party and Godwin said Wollstonecraft followed him around all night, disagreeing with everything he said. (But keep Godwin in mind, because he’ll come back into the story later!)

In 1787 Mary started to write her own work, in the form of essays and books, one of which, Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness, was illustrated by the famous artist and poet William Blake. 

The French Revolution was underway, and the English were watching it with careful attention. In 1790 a conservative member of the English parliament named Edmund Burke had written a critique of the French Revolution called Reflections on the Revolution in France, and it so angered Mary that she spent a month writing a rebuttal called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, which supported the values of the revolutionaries. It was originally published anonymously, but a second edition revealed her as the author, and she became famous overnight. 

 

Wollstonecraft called the French Revolution a 'glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe'. About the events of 5–6 October 1789, when the royal family was marched from Versailles to Paris by a group of angry housewives, Burke praised Queen Marie Antoinette as a symbol of the refined elegance of the old regime, and he called the women who captured her 'furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women'. Wollstonecraft by contrast wrote of the same event: 'Probably you [Burke] mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.’

 

Amy

It was around this time that Olympe de Gouge published her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, in 1791. Mary began a work of her own in agreement with de Gouge’s declaration, and also in disagreement with an address to the French National Assembly, which stated that women’s education should consist only of domestic training. Wollstonecraft wrote the Rights of Woman to launch a broad attack against sexual double standards. She published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and it was relatively well received.


On December 26, 1792, Wollstonecraft saw the former king, Louis XVI, being taken to be tried before the National Assembly, and much to her own surprise, found 'the tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death.”


France declared war on Britain in February 1793, and Mary was stranded in France. Despite her sympathy for the revolution, life became very uncomfortable and as an English citizen and she was in frequent danger. Some of Wollstonecraft's French friends lost their heads to the guillotine. 

Having just written the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft met and fell passionately in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. She put her own principles in practice by sleeping with Imlay even though they were not married, which was unacceptable behavior from a 'respectable' British woman. 

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay, and on May 14, 1794 she gave birth to her first child, Fanny. Wollstonecraft was overjoyed; she wrote to a friend, 'My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R[igh]ts of Woman' (emphasis hers). She continued to write avidly, despite the burdens of being a new mother in a foreign country, and the growing tumult of the French Revolution. 

Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. He promised that he would return to her and Fanny, but his delays in writing to her and his long absences convinced Wollstonecraft that he had found another woman. Her letters to him are anguished and depressed - she was a foreign woman alone with an infant in the middle

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.