Since her rediscovery by the women’s movement during the 1970s, Mary Wollstonecraft has been championed as the seminal voice in the long struggle for women’s emancipation in Britain. A courageous but at times deeply troubled and unhappy woman, she rebelled against the social strictures of her time, twice choosing to live openly with the man she loved. Her short and turbulent life during the unsettling years of revolutionary change in Europe produced one of the most eloquent and impassioned pleas for a woman’s right to self-determination, for her political and legal equality with men, and for her access to the formative benefits of education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is now regarded as a key text in feminist writing, one of the first to emerge after the French Revolution.
Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in London, in the eighteenth century noted for its community of silk weavers. Her father, however, wasted much of his considerable inheritance in failed business schemes and abandoned a business in silk weaving. He took his family first to Barking, Essex, and then north, in 1768, to Yorkshire, where he also failed as a gentleman farmer. Mary’s childhood was miserable, blighted by poverty, her father’s descent into alcoholism, and his frequent tirades at her mother. She felt rejected and unloved, and the seeds of her own adult neuroses and bitterness toward men were sown there. When she was nineteen and seeking her own financial independence, Wollstonecraft took the only respectable work then available. She spent two years as a lady’s companion in Bath. After her mother died, she left home again in 1780, to set up a school with her sister Eliza and her friend Fanny Blood at Newington Green, in north London. During this time, she wrote a treatise, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), advocating the modernization of teaching methods in girls’ education in order that their intellects be more fully developed. The school was not a success, never acquiring more than a dozen pupils, and Wollstonecraft again had to find employment, this time spending a year in Ireland as a governess to the children of Lady Kingsborough. But she was not emotionally suited to the work and despised her employer for her indifference toward both her children and her poor tenants as well as for the long hours she spent in aimless preening and primping. Wollstonecraft was dismissed within a year and returned to London in 1787.
There she took up editorial and translation work (from German and Italian) for a radical publisher, Joseph Johnson, who published her early works, including Mary: A Fiction, based on her early life (1788); Original Stories from Real Life, a collection of teaching aids for children (1788); and The Female Reader, an anthology (1789), and printed her articles in his Analytical Review. Her association with Johnson brought Wollstonecraft an introduction into the literary and radical circuit in London, where she met luminaries such as Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, William Blake, and, in 1791, the radical philosopher William Godwin. In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 and before that the American Revolution, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men in a Letter to Edmund Burke at the end of 1790 as a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, published earlier that year. Wollstonecraft objected to Burke’s condemnation of Jacobin radicalism in France. She saw his book as being a clear attempt to bolster the English monarchy against the spread of inflammatory revolutionary ideas. Her response was to defend the reformist ideas of the Enlightenment and point out the iniquities of the British political and social system, its reliance on the slave trade, and its neglect of the poor.
Wollstonecraft went on to draw parallels between the tyranny of kings over their subjects and that of men over women in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published early in 1792, which according to Claire Tomalin reflected “thirty years’ rage distilled in six weeks’ hard labour” (1985, 142), a fact reflected in its disjointed and sometimes repetitive structure. It was not the first book in English to describe the subordination of women and expound the principles of their emancipation; arguments such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education (1790) predated it, as did French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges’s September 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. But it was Wollstonecraft’s work that would have the greatest impact and a wide-reaching influence.
In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft laid down a formal challenge that the new era of rapid social change should address the long-ignored rights of women. In so doing, she was not uncritical of women themselves. Although she recognized the enslavement—both physical and intellectual—of women to the service of men and their egos in a male world order, she also criticized women for their own foolish obedience and readiness to please and for their idle obsessions with the vanities of dress and appearance. She despised the weakness of character inbred in women by their servility and by the overemphasis on their beauty or lack of it and painted a bleak picture of the shallow, unfulfilled lives they lived, confined to the home, which brought with it the atrophying of their natural abilities and intellects. As for their economic dependence, this to Wollstonecraft was little less than parasitism; in her eyes, marriage was tantamount to legal prostitution. Men, she argued, had been brought up to believe women were at their disposal, little more than submissive, decorative toys who contributed nothing to the economic, intellectual, or social life of the country. Women needed to learn greater self-respect in order to combat this belief, and only better education and intellectual enlightenment would equip them as both better wives and better citizens.
Wollstonecraft was not against the institution of marriage itself because she felt it was necessary as a stable environment for children. Instead, she sought improvement in the status of married women through the acquisition of the character-enhancing qualities of self-reliance and self-discipline. A modicum of economic independence should be guaranteed by legislation from the state, in her view. She did not speak openly of women’s enfranchisement but noted their need for political representation as central to a new, utopian age that would inaugurate educational and social equality for all and do away with poverty and the class system. Alluding to her own difficulties in obtaining paid employment, Wollstonecraft advocated that certain trades be opened up to women, who had in the past pursued occupations such as midwifery, animal husbandry, bookbinding, brewing, and hairdressing, all of which were being taken over by men. Such arguments applied to middle-class women, of course, but they also begged the question of what impoverished working-class women might do to liberate themselves.
The Vindication enjoyed some success among radical circles and was admired by many of Wollstonecraft’s friends. It was soon translated into French, and Davis records (1972, 297) that copies even reached the most remote towns of the American Midwest, making Wollstonecraft a “Tom Paine of her sex” (299) whose voice had a formative influence on feminist pioneers of the U.S. movement, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But in general, Wollstonecraft’s radical ideas provoked a profound conservative reaction in a Britain uneasy that revolution might spread from France. Immune to Wollstonecraft’s arguments on moral progress, the powers that be saw her demand for sexual equality as a threat to the traditional social order. She was labeled irreligious, a revolutionary who preached insurrection, condemned as a “hyena in petticoats” (by writer Horace Walpole in a letter to Hannah More, 26 January 1795) who in her private life was sexually promiscuous. Even radical women could not tolerate the extremism of her arguments; More condemned Vindication unread, and inexorably the book was systematically discredited until it disappeared from view, to be rehabilitated by the English suffrage movement in the late 1890s.
An infatuation with Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, who was already married, took Wollstonecraft to France in pursuit of him in 1792. Johnson had commissioned her to prepare a history of the French Revolution, and Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris in December, during the height of the Reign of Terror. Her Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution: And the Effect It Had Produced in Europe (1794) reflected her dismay that the ideals of the revolution were already being betrayed by the onset of arbitrary violence and executions. In Paris, Wollstonecraft fell desperately in love with an American writer and adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, an affair that resulted in 1794 in the birth of a daughter, Fanny. He soon proved to be a philanderer, and their relationship, which caused her much pain and frustration, has proven difficult territory for recent feminist biographers, who cannot square her self-demeaning and at times histrionic pursuit of Imlay with her rational condemnation of such behavior in other women on the printed page (see, for example, Janet Todd’s revisionist biography of 2000). Wollstonecraft’s life with Imlay was disjointed, constantly interrupted by his business ventures. In 1796 she traveled to Scandinavia on a business mission for Imlay, which resulted in her 1796 travelogue, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, considered by critics such as Richard Holmes (2000) to be a gifted and underrated work.
By the time she returned to London in 1796, Imlay had installed himself with another woman. In despair, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide by jumping into the River Thames. Saved by a passerby, she went back to working for Johnson and, in the spring of 1796, resumed her acquaintance with William Godwin. After Wollstonecraft became pregnant, and despite the strong position they shared on personal freedom, the couple reluctantly married for the sake of the child in March 1797, although they continued to retain separate homes near each other. However, Wollstonecraft died of septicemia eleven days after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, in September (Mary went on to marry Percy Bysshe Shelley and was the author of the gothic classic Frankenstein). Wollstonecraft’s collected works were published posthumously by Godwin in 1798, including Maria, a Fiction, a partially completed novel. Based on her early friendship with Fanny Blood, it is an exposition in fiction of many of the ideas of the Vindication and boldly affirms women’s sexual desires. Godwin published his own Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1798, also discussed in Holmes (2000), the candor of which (in its details of Mary’s unhappy love affairs and her two suicide attempts) served only to add fuel to the flames of public opprobrium and with it the concerted destruction of her legacy. An informative article on Wollstonecraft, with links to other sites, can be found at http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa092099.htm.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.