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A Vindication of the Rights of Men

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A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is a political pamphlet, written by the 18th-century British liberal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, which attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. Wollstonecraft's was the first response in a pamphlet war sparked by the publication of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a defense of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England. Wollstonecraft attacked not only hereditary privilege, but also the rhetoric that Burke used to defend it. Most of Burke's detractors deplored what they viewed as his theatrical pity for Marie Antoinette, but Wollstonecraft was unique in her love of Burke's gendered language. By saying the sublime and the beautiful, terms first established by Burke himself in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), she kept his rhetoric as well as his argument. In her first unabashedly feminist critique, which Wollstonecraft scholar Claudia Johnson describes as unsurpassed in its argumentative force, Wollstonecraft indicts Burke's justification of an equal society founded on the passivity of women. In her arguments for republican virtue, Wollstonecraft invokes an emerging middle-class ethos in opposition to what she views as the vice-ridden aristocratic code of manners. Driven by an Enlightenment belief in progress, she derides Burke for relying on tradition and custom. She describes an idyllic country life in which each family has a farm sufficient for its needs. Wollstonecraft contrasts her utopian picture of society, drawn with what she claims is genuine feeling, with Burke's false theatrical tableaux. The Rights of Men was successful: it was reviewed by every major periodical of the day and the first edition, published anonymously, sold out in three weeks. However, upon the publication of the second edition (the first to carry Wollstonecraft's name on the title page), the reviews began to evaluate the text not only as a political pamphlet but also as the work of a female writer. They contrasted Wollstonecraft's "passion" with Burke's "reason" and spoke condescendingly of the text and its female author. This remained the prevailing analysis of the Rights of Men until the 1970s, when feminist scholars revisited Wollstonecraft's texts and endeavoured to bring greater attention to their intellectualism.
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original title: A Vindication of the Rights of Men
language: English
date of publication: 1790

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