Wollstonecraft

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If you’ve heard of the 18th century English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s likely because of her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a much-cited entry in both the feminist and the classical liberal canons. In Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics, the Cambridge historian Sylvana Tomaselli aims to reveal the rest of Wollstonecraft’s worldview, demonstrating that she was more than just an early advocate for women’s education and women’s rights.

Wollstonecraft, Tomaselli shows, had an oeuvre “impressive in its variety, originality, and indeed volume, given her tumultuous existence” and “her life’s brevity.” (Wollstonecraft died at age 38, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.) The book details its namesake’s views on such topics as reason, human nature, God, sex, revolution, slavery, her intellectual contemporaries, vanity, theater, inheritance laws, marriage, and more.

One chapter, laying out Wollstonecraft’s “likes and loves,” paints a rather dour portrait: She may have enjoyed music and the outdoors, and she thought sexual relationships were OK under the right circumstances, but Wollstonecraft was still moralistic and polemical, with very strong and precise ideas about how individuals and societies should strive to be. But that impulse—especially when turned toward politics and social conventions—is precisely what makes her worth reading, whether she’s arguing against slavery, deconstructing myths about gender roles, musing about Scandinavian housewives, or eviscerating Edmund Burke’s conservative reflections on the French Revolution.

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