In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft declares her intention to restore to women “their lost dignity.” In this paper, I show that a distinctive concept of dignity plays a central role in defences of women in the century 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 the 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 this hybrid concept of dignity is founded on 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 all 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 Cartesian 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.

Mary Wollstonecraft