Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Mary Wollstonecraft

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Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Mary Wollstonecraft place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Mary Wollstonecraft
(b. 1759, London, England; d. 1797, London, England)

Mary Wollstonecraft was a renowned women's rights activist who authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, a classic of rationalist feminism that is considered the earliest and most important treatise advocating equality for women. This essay is often seen as the foundation of modern women's rights movements in the Western world.

Wollstonecraft was born in England during the Enlightenment, an intellectual period that advocated for the use of reason to obtain objective truths. Self-educated, Wollstonecraft used her own accomplishments to demonstrate a woman's aptitude for independent thought and academic excellence. With her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood, Wollstonecraft founded a girls' school in London in 1784. During its brief life, the school developed a prestigious reputation and served as a starting point for Wollstonecraft's radical ideas about the necessary equality of female and male education. Wollstonecraft's beliefs were rooted in the idea that the government was responsible for remedying this inequity.

Also in London, Wollstonecraft began associating with the group, the Rational Dissenters (later known as Unitarians), which included political radicals and proponents of independence movements. After the school closed in 1786, Wollstonecraft published her first book about the importance of educating girls, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1786. The book was published near the end of the French Revolution, which failed to bring about the equality of the sexes that Wollstonecraft and other radicals anticipated.

In response to Edmund Burke's anti-revolutionary work Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man, 1790, which laid the groundwork for her 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this treatise, Wollstonecraft argued that the faculties of reason and rationality are present in all human beings and that women must be allowed to contribute equally to society. In its dedicatory letter, Wollstonecraft states, "my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue" (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, xxxv). In order to contribute at the same level as men, Wollstonecraft stated, women must be educated equally to men. If women were not afforded this opportunity, social and intellectual progress would come to a halt.

Wollstonecraft died in 1797 during the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who in 1816, as Mary Shelley, published her own masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Mary Wollstonecraft at The Dinner Party

Mary Wollstonecraft's runner and plate illuminate the author's strong character and contrast her belief in women's equality with the dominant 18th century viewpoint. Chicago created the runner using needlepoint, petitpoint, embroidery, crochet, and stumpwork, a type of raised embroidery that is often associated with pastoral scenes. This meticulous needlework creates a visual narrative of Wollstonecraft's life, while suggesting the gendered confines of her environment. The place setting situates Wollstonecraft's literary work in the context of the period, when women's work was regarded as insignificant and lacking substance.

Throughout the runner, Chicago incorporates images commonly associated with the domestic sphere, such as apples, birds, and flowers, in order to highlight the triviality of female existence in the eighteenth century. The obsessive details of the runner function as a "metaphor for the repeated trivialization of women's accomplishments" (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 213). These domestic details contrast with the plate's three-dimensionality; the raised surface serves as a metaphor for Wollstonecraft's will and intelligence (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 118). Scenes of Wollstonecraft with female students are done in needlework, and the back of the runner illustrates her tragic death during childbirth.

On the front of the runner, the illuminated letter "M" is interlaced with two icons that have come to represent Wollstonecraft's life work, a top hat and a gauntlet, which was the type of glove Wollstonecraft famously rejected on her deathbed as an indicator of women's daintiness. She proclaimed, "I have thrown down the gauntlet. It is time to restore women to their lost dignity and to make them a part of the human species" (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 212).

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Primary Sources

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct in the More Important Duties of Life, 1787.

Mary: A Fiction, 1788.

Original Stories from Real Life, 1788.

Of the Importance of Religious Opinions, 1788.

The Female Reader, 1789.

Young Grandison, 1790.

Elements of Morality, 1790.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792.

An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, 1794.

Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 1796.

The Cave of Fancy (posthumous), 1798.

Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (posthumous), 1798.

Letters to Imlay (posthumous), 1798.

Letters on the Management of Infants (posthumous), 1798.

Lessons (posthumous), 1798.

On Poetry and our Relish for the Beauties of Nature (posthumous), 1798.

Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by William Godwin, 1798.

Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources

Falco, Maria J., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft. University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 1996.

Franklin, Caroline. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life. London and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Gordon, Lyndall. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Little, Brown, 2005.

Kelly, Gary. Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: St. Martin’s Press,1992.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: a Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

---, ed. The Complete Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

---, ed. A Wollstonecraft Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Todd, Janet, and Marilyn Butler, eds. The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft. 7 vols. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Web Resources

The National Portrait Gallery : Wollstonecraft

The Unitarian Universalist Association : Mary Wollstonecraft bio

Project Gutenberg : Works by Mary Wollstonecraft

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