‘Vindication’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Sense and Sensibility

From The New York Times:

Mary IN 1915 Virginia Woolf predicted it would take women another six generations to come into their own. We should be approaching the finish line if Woolf’s math was as good as her English. A little over a century before her, another Englishwoman, Mary Wollstonecraft, declared in her revolutionary book of 1792, ”The Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” that not only had the time come to begin the long slog to selfdom, freedom, empowerment — or whatever current feminist term serves — but that she would be the first of what she called, using the language of taxonomy, ”a new genus.” It took the renegade second child (of seven) — and first daughter — of Edward John Wollstonecraft, a drinker, and the unhappy Elizabeth Dickson, to take this virtually unimaginable plunge into uncharted waters. And she took this leap while displaying the full measure of female unpredictablity, while the world watched, astounded, dismayed and outraged. This Mary was quite contrary, and her reputation over time, unsurprisingly, has suffered from this complexity. Surely we women have a gene — in addition to those saucy, but ill-mannered, hormones — for theatrics, so frequently do they puncture our inner lives and decorate our outer ones in operatic robes. But occasionally high drama is the most efficient way to break through the status quo, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s radical mission called for extreme measures.

In her wonderful, and deeply sobering, new book, Lyndall Gordon, the distinguished biographer of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë and Henry James, tackles this formidable woman with grace, clarity and much new research. Despite occasional slips into strangely purple prose (when she reproaches her lover, ”retorts — great sprays of indignant eloquence — would fountain from her opening throat”), Gordon relates Wollstonecraft’s story with the same potent mixture of passion and reason her subject personified.

More here.