Mary Wollstonecraft (; 27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships, received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, became an accomplished writer herself, as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
After Wollstonecraft's death, her widower published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft's advocacy of women's equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.
Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was the second of the seven children of Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft's youth. The family's financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft's father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was apparently a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. Wollstonecraft played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. For example, in a defining moment in 1784, she convinced Eliza, who was suffering from what was probably postpartum depression, to leave her husband and infant; Wollstonecraft made all of the arrangements for Eliza to flee, demonstrating her willingness to challenge social norms. The human costs, however, were severe: her sister suffered social condemnation and, because she could not remarry, was doomed to a life of poverty and hard work.
Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft's early life. The first was with Jane Arden in Beverley. The two frequently read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden's father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. Wollstonecraft revelled in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Arden greatly, sometimes to the point of being emotionally possessive. Wollstonecraft wrote to her: "I have formed romantic notions of friendship ... I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none." In some of Wollstonecraft's letters to Arden, she reveals the volatile and depressive emotions that would haunt her throughout her life. The second and more important friendship was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, introduced to Wollstonecraft by the Clares, a couple in Hoxton who became parental figures to her; Wollstonecraft credited Blood with opening her mind.
Unhappy with her home life, Wollstonecraft struck out on her own in 1778 and accepted a job as a lady's companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787). In 1780 she returned home, called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson's employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to her and her family throughout her life (she frequently gave pecuniary assistance to Blood's brother, for example).
Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood; they made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and after their marriage her husband, Hugh Skeys, took her to Lisbon, Portugal, to improve her health, which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings Blood's health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood's death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).
"The first of a new genus"
After Blood's death, Wollstonecraft's friends helped her obtain a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-IrishKingsborough family in Ireland. Although she could not get along with Lady Kingsborough, the children found her an inspiring instructor; Margaret King would later say she "had freed her mind from all superstitions". Some of Wollstonecraft's experiences during this year would make their way into her only children's book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).
Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women—an impediment which Wollstonecraft eloquently describes in the chapter of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters entitled "Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune"—she decided, after only a year as a governess, to embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become "the first of a new genus". She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts, most notably Of the Importance of Religious Opinions by Jacques Necker and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. She also wrote reviews, primarily of novels, for Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft's intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson's famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were both disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject. Johnson himself, however, became much more than a friend; she described him in her letters as a father and a brother.
While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was already married. She was, she wrote, enraptured by his genius, "the grandeur of his soul, that quickness of comprehension, and lovely sympathy". She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli's wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft. After Fuseli's rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to escape the humiliation of the incident, and to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to the Whig MP Edmund Burke's conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and it made her famous overnight. Reflections on the Revolution in France was published on 1 November 1790, which so angered Wollstonecraft that she spent the rest of the month writing her rebuttal, and The Vindication of the Rights of Man, in a Letter to the Right Honorable Edmund Burke was published on 29 November 1790, initially anonymously. The second edition of The Vindication of the Rights of Man was published on 18 December, and this time the publisher revealed Wollstonecraft as the author.
Wollstonecraft called the French Revolution a "glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe". Against Burke's dismissal of the Third Estate as men of no account, Wollstonecraft wrote: "Time many show, that this obscure throng knew more of the human heart and of legislation than the profligates of rank, emasculated by hereditary effeminacy". About the events of 5–6 October 1789, when the royal family was marched from Versailles to Paris by a group of angry housewives, Burke praised Queen Marie Antoinette as a symbol of the refined elegance of the ancien régime, who was surrounded by "furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women". Wollstonecraft by contrast wrote of the same event: "Probably you [Burke] mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education".
Wollstonecraft was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) would prove to be the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work. Wollstonecraft's fame extended across the English channel, for when the French statesmen Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord visited London in 1792, he visited her, during which she asked that French girls be given the same right to an education that French boys were being offered by the new regime in France.
France and Gilbert Imlay
Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December 1792 and arrived about a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. Britain and France were on the brink of war when she left for Paris, and many advised her not to go. France was in turmoil. She sought out other British visitors such as Helen Maria Williams and joined the circle of expatriates then in the city. On 26 December 1792, Wollstonecraft saw the former king, Louis XVI, being taken to be tried before the National Assembly, and much to her own surprise, found the sight of Louis riding down the streets as a prisoner in a wagon "made the tears flow insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed". During her time in Paris, Wollstonecraft associated mostly with the moderate Girondins rather than the more radical Jacobins.
In February 1793, France declared war on Britain, and Wollstonecraft attempted to leave France for Switzerland, but was declined permission. In March 1793, the Jacobin-dominated Committee of Public Safety came to power in France, instituting a totalitarian regime meant to moblise France for the first "total war", and life become very difficult for foreigners in France. All foreigners living in France were put under police surveillance, had to produce six written statements from Frenchmen testifying to their loyalty to the republic in order to be granted residency permits, and on 12 April 1793 all foreigners were forbidden to leave France. Despite her sympathy for the revolution, life for Wollstonecraft become very uncomfortable, all the more so as the Girondins had lost out to the Jacobins. Some of Wollstonecraft's French friends lost their heads to the guillotine as the Jacobins set out to annihilate all of their enemies.
Having just written the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft was determined to put her ideas to the test, and in the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of the French revolution she attempted her most experimental romantic attachment yet: she met and fell passionately in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. Wollstonecraft put her own principles in practice by sleeping with Imlay despite not being married, which was not something that was considered acceptable behavior from a "respectable" British woman at the time. Whether or not she was interested in marriage, he was not, and she appears to have fallen in love with an idealized portrait of the man. While Wollstonecraft had rejected the sexual component of relationships in the Rights of Woman, Imlay awakened her passions and her interest in sex. Wollstonecraft was to a certain extent disillusioned by what she saw in France, writing that the people under the republic were still behaved slavishly to those who held power while the government remained "venal" and "brutal". Despite her disenchantment, Wollstonecraft wrote: "I cannot yet give up the hope, that a fairer day is dawning on Europe, though I must hesitatingly observe, that little is to be expected from the narrow principle of commerce, which seems everywhere to be shoving aside the principle of honor of the noblesse. For the same pride of office, the same desire of power are still visible; with this aggravation, that, fearing to return to obscurity, after having but just acquired a relish for distinction, each hero, or philosopher, for all are dubbed with these new titles, endeavors to make hay while the sun shines." Wollstonecraft was offended by the way that the Jacobins refused to grant Frenchwomen equal rights, denounced "Amazons", and made it clear the role of women was to conform to Rousseau's ideal of as a helper to men. On 16 October 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined with one of the charges that she been convicted of being she had committed incest with her son. Though Wollstonecraft disliked the former queen, she was troubled by the way that the Jacobins had made Marie Antoinette's alleged perverted sexuality that had caused her to engage in an incestuous relationship with the Dauphin one of the central reasons for why the French people should hate her. On 31 October 1793, most of the Girondin leaders were guillotined, which caused Wollstonecraft to faint when Imlay broke the news to her.
To protect Wollstonecraft, Imlay registered her as his wife in 1793, even though they were not married. After declaring war on Britain, France was blockaded by the Royal Navy, which caused shortages that worsened the problem of inflation. Imlay engaged in blockade-running, chartering ships to be bring in food and soap from America into France, which explained why both he and Wollstonecraft were not arrested during the Reign of Terror. As the Terror began in France with arrests and executions occurring daily, Wollstonecraft came under suspicion as someone from a nation that was at war with France and who was known to be a friend of leading Girondins, which led Imlay to make a false statement to the U.S. embassy in Paris that he had married her, automatically making her into an American citizen, in order to protect her from arrest. Some of her friends were not so lucky; many, like Thomas Paine, were arrested, and some were even guillotined (Wollstonecraft's sisters believed she had been imprisoned). Wollstonecraft called life under the Jacobins "nightmarish" with gigantic parades in the day where everyone had to cheer, lest they fall under suspicion of not being committed to the republic, and police raids at night to arrest "enemies of the republic". In a letter to her sister Everina, written in March 1794, Wollstonecraft wrote:
"It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind...death and misery, in every shape of terror, haunted this devoted country – I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded."
Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay, and on 14 May 1794 she gave birth to her first child, Fanny, naming her after perhaps her closest friend. Wollstonecraft was overjoyed; she wrote to a friend: "My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R[igh]ts of Woman" (emphasis hers). She continued to write avidly, despite not only her pregnancy and the burdens of being a new mother alone in a foreign country, but also the growing tumult of the French Revolution. While at Le Havre in northern France, she wrote a history of the early revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published in London in December 1794. Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. He promised that he would return to Le Havre where she went to give birth to her child, but his delays in writing to her and his long absences convinced Wollstonecraft that he had found another woman. Her letters to him are full of needy expostulations, explained by most critics as the expressions of a deeply depressed woman but by some as a result of her circumstances—alone with an infant in the middle of a revolution.
In July 1794, Wollstonecraft welcomed the fall of the Jacobins, predicting this would be followed with a restoration of freedom of press in France, which led her to return to Paris. In August 1794, Imlay departed for London and promised to return soon. The winter of 1794–95 was the coldest winter in Europe for over a century, which reduced Wollstonecraft and her daughter Fanny down to desperate circumstances. The river Seine froze that winter, which made it impossible for ships to bring food and coal to Paris, leading to widespread starvation and deaths from the cold in that city. Wollstonecraft continued to write to Imlay, asking him to return to France at once, declaring she still had faith in the revolution and did not wish to return to Britain. In 1793, the British government began a crackdown on radicals, suspending civil liberties, imposing drastic censorship, and trying for treason all suspected of sympathy with the revolution, which led Wollstonecraft to fear she would be imprisoned if she returned. After she left France on 7 April 1795, she continued to refer to herself as "Mrs Imlay", even to her sisters, in order to bestow legitimacy upon her child.
The British historian Tom Furniss called An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution the most neglected of Wollstonecraft's books, which was first published in London in 1794, and a second edition did not appear until 1989. The reason for this neglect is later generations were more interested in her feminist writings rather her account of the French Revolution, which Furniss regretted as he called An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution easily Wollstonecraft's "best work". Wollstonecraft was not trained as a historian, but she used all sorts of journals, letters and documents recounting how ordinary people in France reacted to the Revolution, and attempted to counter-act what Furniss called the "hysterical" anti-revolutionary mood in Britain, which depicted the Revolution as due to the entire French nation apparently all going mad. Wollstonecraft argued that the revolution was not due to the French people all going insane in 1789 as popular opinion in Britain held, but was due to a set of social, economic and political conditions that left no other way out of the crisis that gripped France in 1789.An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution presented a difficult balancing act for Wollstonecraft as she condemned the Jacobin regime and the Reign of Terror, but at same time, she continued to argue that revolution was a great achievement, which led her to stop her history in late 1789 rather than write about the Terror of 1793–94. Burke had ended the Reflections with reference to the events of 5–6 October 1789, when a group of women from Paris forced the French royal family from the Palace of Versailles to Paris. Burke called the women "furies from hell" while Wollstonecraft called the women just merely ordinary housewives angry about a lack of bread to feed their families. Against Burke's idealised portrait of Marie Antoinette as a noble victim of a mob, Wollstonecraft portrayed the queen as a femme fatale, a seductive, scheming and dangerous woman. Wollstonecraft argued that the values of the aristocracy were corrupting ones for women since in a monarchy, the main purpose of a woman was to bear sons to continue the house, which essentially reduced a woman's value down to her womb. Moreover, Wollstonecraft argued unless a queen was a queen regnant, most queens were queen consorts, which meant a woman to exercise influence via her husband or son, which encouraged manipulative behavior. Wollstonecraft argued that aristocratic values by emphasising the value of a woman's body and her ability to be charming over the value of her mind and character had encouraged women like Marie Antoinette to be manipulative and ruthless, making the queen into a corrupted and corrupting product of the ancien régime.
England and William Godwin
Seeking Imlay, Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795, but he rejected her. In May 1795 she attempted to commit suicide, probably with laudanum, but Imlay saved her life (although it is unclear how). In a last attempt to win back Imlay, she embarked upon some business negotiations for him in Scandinavia, trying to recoup some of his losses. Wollstonecraft undertook this hazardous trip with only her young daughter and a maid. She recounted her travels and thoughts in letters to Imlay, many of which were eventually published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796. When she returned to England and came to the full realization that her relationship with Imlay was over, she attempted suicide for the second time, leaving a note for Imlay:
Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold ... I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.
She then went out on a rainy night and "to make her clothes heavy with water, she walked up and down about half an hour" before jumping into the River Thames, but a stranger saw her jump and rescued her. Wollstonecraft considered her suicide attempt deeply rational, writing after her rescue,
I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointment; nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect, I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, it is by other circumstances that I should be dishonoured.
Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson's circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft's unique courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Godwin had read her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and later wrote that "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration." Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and as a result she and Godwin lost many friends. Godwin received further criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. After their marriage on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by letter. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.
Death and Godwin's Memoirs
On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; puerperal (childbed) fever was a common and often fatal occurrence in the eighteenth century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797." (In 1851, her remains were moved by her grandson Percy Florence Shelley to his family tomb in St Peter's Church, Bournemouth.) Her monument in the churchyard lies to the north-east of the church just north of Sir John Soane's grave. Her husband was buried with her on his death in 1836, as was his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin (1766–1841).
In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Wollstonecraft's illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. The Romantic poet Robert Southey accused him of "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked" and vicious satires such as The Unsex'd Females were published. Godwin's Memoirs portrays Wollstonecraft as a woman deeply invested in feeling who was balanced by his reason and as more of a religious sceptic than her own writings suggest. Godwin's views of Wollstonecraft were perpetuated throughout the nineteenth century and resulted in poems such as "Wollstonecraft and Fuseli" by British poet Robert Browning and that by William Roscoe which includes the lines:
Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life
As daughter, sister, mother, friend, and wife;
But harder still, thy fate in death we own,
Thus mourn'd by Godwin with a heart of stone.
Wollstonecraft has what scholar Cora Kaplan labelled in 2002 a "curious" legacy that has evolved over time: "for an author-activist adept in many genres ... up until the last quarter-century Wollstonecraft's life has been read much more closely than her writing". After the devastating effect of Godwin's Memoirs, Wollstonecraft's reputation lay in tatters for a century; she was pilloried by such writers as Maria Edgeworth, who patterned the "freakish" Harriet Freke in Belinda (1801) after her. Other novelists such as Mary Hays, Charlotte Turner Smith, Fanny Burney, and Jane West created similar figures, all to teach a "moral lesson" to their readers. (Hays had been a close friend, and helped nurse her in her dying days.) One writer who never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, but whose novels often contain allusions to her was Jane Austen. The American scholar Anne Mellor noted as example that the character of Wickham in Pride and Prejudice seems to be based upon the sort of man that Wollstonecraft claimed that standing armies produce while the sarcastic remarks that Elizabeth Bennet makes about "female accomplishments" in the same novel closely echo Wollstonecraft's condemnation of "female accomplishments" in A Vindication of the Rights of Women; the balance between a woman must strike between feelings and reason in Sense and Sensibility follows what Wollstonecraft had recommended in her novel Mary; the moral equivalence that Austen drew between slavery and the treatment of women in British society in Mansfield Park follows one of Wollstonecraft's favorite arguments; and presentation of Anne Eliot in Persuasion as better qualified to manage her family estate than her father also echoes a thesis of Wollstonecraft.
Scholar Virginia Sapiro states that few read Wollstonecraft's works during the nineteenth century as "her attackers implied or stated that no self-respecting woman would read her work". (In fact, as Craciun points out, new editions of Rights of Woman appeared in the UK in the 1840s, and in the US in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.) One of those few was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who read Rights of Woman at the age of 12, and whose poem Aurora Leigh reflected "Wollstonecraft's unwavering focus on education".Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Americans who met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, discovered they had both read Wollstonecraft, and agreed the need for what became the Seneca Falls Convention, an influential women's rights meeting held in 1848. Another who read Wollstonecraft was George Eliot, a prolific writer of reviews, articles, novels, and translations. In 1855, she devoted an essay to the roles and rights of women, comparing Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women's rights activist who, like Wollstonecraft, had travelled to the Continent, been involved in the struggle for reform (in this case the Roman Republic), and had a child by a man without marrying him. Wollstonecraft's children's work was adapted by Charlotte Mary Yonge in 1870.
With the rise of the movement to give women a political voice, Wollstonecraft's work was exhumed. The first full-length biography, by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, appeared in 1884 as part of a series by the Roberts Brothers on famous women. This followed an attempt at rehabilitation in 1879, with the publication of Wollstonecraft's Letters to Imlay, with prefatory memoir by Charles Kegan Paul.Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a suffragist and later president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, wrote the introduction to the centenary edition (i.e. 1892) of the Rights of Woman, cleansing the memory of Wollstonecraft and claiming her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. As early as 1898, Wollstonecraft was the subject of a doctoral thesis and its resulting book.
With the advent of the modern feminist movement, women as politically dissimilar from each other as Virginia Woolf and Emma Goldman embraced Wollstonecraft's life story. By 1929 Woolf described Wollstonecraft—her writing, arguments, and "experiments in living"—as immortal: "she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living". Others, however, continued to decry Wollstonecraft's lifestyle. A biography published in 1932 refers to recent reprints of her works, incorporating new research, and to a "study" in 1911, a play in 1922, and another biography in 1924. Interest in her never completely died, with full-length biographies in 1937 and 1951
With the emergence of feminist criticism in academia in the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft's works returned to prominence. Their fortunes reflected that of the second wave of the North American feminist movement itself; for example, in the early 1970s, six major biographies of Wollstonecraft were published that presented her "passionate life in apposition to [her] radical and rationalist agenda". The feminist artwork The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, features a place setting for Wollstonecraft. In the 1980s and 1990s, yet another image of Wollstonecraft emerged, one which described her as much more a creature of her time; scholars such as Claudia Johnson, Gary Kelly, and Virginia Sapiro demonstrated the continuity between Wollstonecraft's thought and other important eighteenth-century ideas regarding topics such as sensibility, economics, and political theory.
Wollstonecraft's work has also had an effect on feminism outside the academy in recent years. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a political writer and former Muslim who is critical of Islam in general and its dictates regarding women in particular, cited the Rights of Woman in her autobiography Infidel and wrote that she was "inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights". British writer Caitlin Moran, author of the best-selling How to Be a Woman, described herself as "half Wollstonecraft" to the New Yorker. She has also inspired more widely. Nobel LaureateAmartya Sen, the Indian economist and philosopher who first identified the missing women of Asia, draws repeatedly on Wollstonecraft as a political philosopher in The Idea of Justice.
Main articles: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Original Stories from Real Life
The majority of Wollstonecraft's early productions are about education; she assembled an anthology of literary extracts "for the improvement of young women" entitled The Female Reader and she translated two children's works, Maria Geertruida van de Werken de Cambon's Young Grandison and Christian Gotthilf Salzmann's Elements of Morality. Her own writings also addressed the topic. In both her conduct bookThoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and her children's bookOriginal Stories from Real Life (1788), Wollstonecraft advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos: self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. Both books also emphasize the importance of teaching children to reason, revealing Wollstonecraft's intellectual debt to the important seventeenth-century educational philosopher John Locke. However, the prominence she affords religious faith and innate feeling distinguishes her work from his and links it to the discourse of sensibility popular at the end of the eighteenth century. Both texts also advocate the education of women, a controversial topic at the time and one which she would return to throughout her career, most notably in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft argues that well-educated women will be good wives and mothers and ultimately contribute positively to the nation.
Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
Main article: A Vindication of the Rights of Men
Published in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England, and an attack on Wollstonecraft's friend, the Rev Richard Price at the Newington Green Unitarian Church, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism. Hers was the first response in a pamphlet war that subsequently became known as the Revolution Controversy, in which Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1792) became the rallying cry for reformers and radicals.
Wollstonecraft attacked not only monarchy and hereditary privilege but also the language that Burke used to defend and elevate it. In a famous passage in the Reflections, Burke had lamented: "I had thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette] with insult.—But the age of chivalry is gone." Most of Burke's detractors deplored what they viewed as theatrical pity for the French queen—a pity they felt was at the expense of the people. Wollstonecraft was unique in her attack on Burke's gendered language. By redefining 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 undermined his rhetoric as well as his argument. Burke had associated the beautiful with weakness and femininity and the sublime with strength and masculinity; Wollstonecraft turns these definitions against him, arguing that his theatrical tableaux turn Burke's readers—the citizens—into weak women who are swayed by show. In her first unabashedly feminist critique, which Wollstonecraft scholar Claudia L. Johnson argues remains unsurpassed in its argumentative force, Wollstonecraft indicts Burke's defence of an unequal 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. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, she believed in progress and derides Burke for relying on tradition and custom. She argues for rationality, pointing out that Burke's system would lead to the continuation of slavery, simply because it had been an ancestral tradition. She describes an idyllic country life in which each family can have a farm that will just suit its needs. Wollstonecraft contrasts her utopian picture of society, drawn with what she says is genuine feeling, to Burke's false feeling.
The Rights of Men was Wollstonecraft's first overtly political work, as well as her first feminist work; as Johnson contends, "it seems that in the act of writing the later portions of Rights of Men she discovered the subject that would preoccupy her for the rest of her career." It was this text that made her a well-known writer.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Main article: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society and then proceeds to redefine that position, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be "companions" to their husbands rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Large sections of the Rights of Woman respond vitriolically to conduct book writers such as James Fordyce and John Gregory and educational philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wanted to deny women an education. (Rousseau famously argues in Émile (1762) that women should be educated for the pleasure of men.)
Wollstonecraft states that currently many women are silly and superficial (she refers to them, for example, as "spaniels" and "toys"), but argues that this is not because of an innate deficiency of mind but rather because men have denied them access to education. Wollstonecraft is intent on illustrating the limitations that women's deficient educations have placed on them; she writes: "Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." She implies that, without the encouragement young women receive from an early age to focus their attention on beauty and outward accomplishments, women could achieve much more.
While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. What she does claim is that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. However, such claims of equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and valour. Wollstonecraft famously and ambiguously writes: "Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequently, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God." Her ambiguous statements regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist, particularly since the word and the concept were unavailable to her.
One of Wollstonecraft's most scathing critiques in the Rights of Woman is of false and excessive sensibility, particularly in women. She argues that women who succumb to sensibility are "blown about by every momentary gust of feeling" and because they are "the prey of their senses" they cannot think rationally. In fact, she claims, they do harm not only to themselves but to the entire civilization: these are not women who can help refine a civilization—a popular eighteenth-century idea—but women who will destroy it. Wollstonecraft does not argue that reason and feeling should act independently of each other; rather, she believes that they should inform each other.
In addition to her larger philosophical arguments, Wollstonecraft also lays out a specific educational plan. In the twelfth chapter of the Rights of Woman, "On National Education", she argues that all children should be sent to a "country day school" as well as given some education at home "to inspire a love of home and domestic pleasures." She also maintains that schooling should be co-educational, arguing that men and women, whose marriages are "the cement of society", should be "educated after the same model."
Wollstonecraft addresses her text to the middle-class, which she describes as the "most natural state", and in many ways the Rights of Woman is inflected by a bourgeois view of the world. It encourages modesty and industry in its readers and attacks the uselessness of the aristocracy. But Wollstonecraft is not necessarily a friend to the poor; for example, in her national plan for education, she suggests that, after the age of nine, the poor, except for those who are brilliant, should be separated from the rich and taught in another school.
Main articles: Mary: A Fiction and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman
Both of Wollstonecraft's novels criticize what she viewed as the patriarchal institution of marriage and its deleterious effects on women. In her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), the eponymous heroine is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons; she fulfils her desire for love and affection outside of marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man. Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman
About the Book
While best remembered for her revolutionary work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), renowned feminist, author, and thinker Mary Wollstonecraft’s most popular book during her lifetime was a remarkable travel narrative, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
The impetus behind Wollstonecraft’s journey couldn’t be more dramatic: Her relationship with her lover on rocky ground, Wollstonecraft sets out for Scandinavia in order to retrieve a stolen treasure ship for him. As she travels across the dramatic landscape, she writes vividly of the people she encounters, events she witnesses, and the sublime natural landscape. Yet the letters also reflect her anguish as she comes to realize that her love affair is fated to end.
In its day, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark inspired hordes of readers to travel to Scandinavia. Now, with a new introduction by acclaimed travel author and novelist Joanna Kavenna, Mary Wollstonecraft's remarkable Letters will enchant a new generation of readers and world travelers.