Wollstonecraft, Mary

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Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797): English Writer.

Prolific novelist and essayist Mary Wollstonecraft was often attacked or deliberately ignored by the critics who immediately followed her, but she is praised today as the founder of the modern feminist movement. Wollstonecraft is best known, aside from being the mother of novelist Mary Shelley, as the writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which argues for political and social equality between the sexes and encourages education for women. Wollstonecraft’s body of work is a diverse collection of carefully formed arguments covering many topics, including education, capital punishment, revolution, and women’s rights, a startling production from an era in which women were expected to be little more than graceful but silent companions for men.

Wollstonecraft was born in London, in 1759, second of seven children to a weaver, Edward John Wollstonecraft, and Elizabeth Dickson. With an abusive father and a mother who focused her attentions on the eldest child, Wollstonecraft left home quickly. She opened a school, in 1784, with her sister Eliza and her closest friend Fanny Blood, but her hopes of an ideal life as an educator were short-lived. The school closed, and Blood died in 1785 after the birth of her premature child, a tragedy Wollstonecraft witnessed firsthand. In running the school, however, Wollstonecraft had made the acquaintance of minister Price, Richard, who introduced her to a number of radical writers and intellectuals. Among these was publisher Joseph Johnson, who commissioned her to write a book on education, Thoughts on the Education of Girls (1786), addressing in particular the need for women’s education. She also began writing other works, Original Stories from Real Life (1787), Mary: A Fiction (1788), and contributing journal articles, beginning in 1788, to Johnson’s journal, the Analytical Review.

In the following year, a sermon written by Price, praising the French Revolution, angered Edmund Burke, who consequently produced a widely read criticism of the Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This book prompted an immediate rejoinder from Wollstonecraft, who took less than a month to compose A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), published anonymously. At times addressing itself directly to Burke, Edmund, the work is a strident attack on his position and rhetorical style, also challenging the tyranny of monarchical rule. Wollstonecraft criticized the insincerity of the rich, supported the Revolution and called for an end to traditions that had created a nation of poverty. In vindicating Price as well as the rights of men, she had also vaulted herself onto the intellectual stage of England, gaining the attentions and friendship of a number of liberal writers, including Paine, Thomas, Godwin, William and Blake, William.

Wollstonecraft published her most famous work in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The title reflects a legitimate response to many revolutionary supporters of the time, who were urging the end of tyranny and the establishment of universal rights for men while nonetheless ignoring the oppression of women. While radical at the time, it contains many arguments for basic equality between the sexes that would be taken for granted today. The book criticizes the degradation inherent in respecting women only for their beauty, and maintains that lack of education for women is a source of tragic consequences, resulting in conditions little better than slavery. The work further argues that the effects of civil and political slavery diminish both women and men, and therefore weaken the nation. As a solution, Wollstonecraft calls for a “revolution in female manners,” urging that not only should women be educated; they should be given the same education as men, and in the same classrooms.

In 1792, after publishing Vindication, Wollstonecraft went to France to see the effects of the Revolution firsthand. With the political climate increasingly dangerous in England, Wollstonecraft had reason to stay in France, but another reason was a love affair with Gilbert Imlay, an American writer, with whom she had a child, Fanny, in 1794. Imlay traveled on business frequently, eventually prompting Wollstonecraft to return to England to meet him. There she discovered his ongoing affair with an actress, which led to the first of her two suicide attempts. In an effort to maintain their relationship, she took a business trip to Scandinavia on his behalf, bringing her daughter with her and publishing A Short Residence in Sweden (1796) about the journey. When she returned and discovered that Imlay was still living with a mistress, she again attempted suicide.

In 1796, however, she renewed her acquaintance with liberal writer William Godwin, and their relationship blossomed. After she became pregnant, they married, in 1797, though Godwin, who had previously announced himself opposed to the practice of marriage, was consequently attacked by conservative critics for his hypocrisy. Their otherwise idyllic marriage ended when Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, from complications arising from the birth. In the following year, Godwin published her final novel, Maria or the Wrongs of Woman (1798), a sequel to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin also published his own biography of Wollstonecraft, Memoirs (1798), and though the work was meant to honor her memory, it had the opposite effect. Critics used the text, which included an admission of the couple’s intimacy before marriage, as proof that feminism encouraged illicit behavior. The immediate result was a shunning of Wollstonecraft by Victorian critics and writers, who distanced themselves from her arguments and largely ignored her work.

Despite the censure suffered immediately following her death, Wollstonecraft is today considered one of the premiere feminist writers of English literature, receiving vindication and continued reevaluation in the contemporary critical world. Her attack on the traditions of monarchy foreshadowed the gradual expansion of European democracy, and her arguments for women’s rights and education have likewise seen fruition over two centuries of continued advances of the feminist cause.

Further Reading:

Maria Falco, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1996.

Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology, 1977.

Steven Zani

Lamar University