The early modern period: dignity and the foundation of women's rights

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In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft declares her intention to restore to women ‘their lost dignity.’ This chapter shows that the concept of dignity plays a significant role in defences of women prior to Wollstonecraft’s ground-breaking treatise. To support this claim, I examine a number of texts calling for the recognition of women’s dignity in the early modern era (c. 1650–1750), namely those of Mary Astell, Mary Chudleigh, ‘Sophia,’ and (to a lesser extent) François Poulain de la Barre. In recent times, the topic of dignity has undergone a substantial revival of interest among ethicists and political theorists, especially those concerned with establishing a foundation for universal human rights. Within this modern framework, Wollstonecraft’s predecessors advocate what might be seen as a combination of both dignity-as-rank (high status) and dignity-as-value (inherent worth). In my analysis, I show that their hybrid concept of dignity is founded on a blend of Christianity and Cartesian metaphysics, specifically (i) the idea that human beings have inherent value insofar as they partake in the perfections of God, especially free will; and (ii) the idea that human beings enjoy an equal ontological status insofar as their perfections make them superior to animals. I conclude that if we look carefully at the concept of dignity in early modern feminist texts, we can see that the history of women’s rights prior to Wollstonecraft is much longer and richer than previously thought.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Wollstonecraftian Mind
EditorsSandrine Bergès, Eileen Hunt Botting, Alan Coffee
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781315186788
ISBN (Print)9781138709973
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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