It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Mary Wollstonecraft and her writings received the noticeable attention. After her death in 1797 her husband, William Godwin, published a Memoir of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle– inadvertently destroying her reputation for a century. During her short career as an author, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a historical narrative on the French Revolution, a social conduct book, and a children’s novel.
Today, Wollstonecraft is noted as a founding feminist philosopher and author. With the emergence of the feminist movement, her advocacy for women’s rights for equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. In recent, her writings are cited by most feminist critics and theorists as a base for feminist argument. Come explore this fabulous woman’s life and works.
Defining Life Moments
Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759 in Spitalfields, London into a family of comfortable income, which was slowly squandered by her father throughout her childhood. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during her 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.
Her father was also quite a violent man, often beating his wife in drunken rages. This made Wollstonecraft very protective over her mother and sisters. In a defining moment in 1784, she persuaded her sister Eliza, suffering from postpartum depression, to leave her husband and infant. Making all the arrangements for Eliza’s leave was the first sign of Wollstonecraft’s ability to challenge societal norms. The costs, however, were severe– her sister suffering social condemnation and doomed to a life of poverty.
Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft’s early life, the first being Jane Arden. The two often read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden’s father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. Wollstonecraft thrived in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Arden greatly. Unfortunately, the attachment became somewhat possessive. In some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Arden, she reveals some 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 started life 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. In 1780, she returned home upon being 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. During the two years she spent with the family, she realized that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than Wollstonecraft. However, her friendship with Fanny remained strong throughout her life, despite their differing views on womanhood.
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 her marriage, moved to Lisbon Portugal with her husband, Hugh Skeys. It was there that she became pregnant and severely ill. In 1785, Wollstonecraft uprooted her life at the school in an attempt to nurse Blood back to health, 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).
After Blood’s death, Wollstonecraft’s obtained a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family in Ireland. The children found her an inspiring instructor and some of Wollstonecraft’s experiences during this year would make their way into her only children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).
Becoming an Author
Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women, she decided 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 quickly moved to London in hopes of achieving her goal.
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. Wollstonecraft’s intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading she did for reviews, but also from the company she kept. She attended dinners, meeting the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject.
While in London, Wollstonecraft began an intimate relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, while he was already married. She even proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli’s wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship.
The French Revolution
To escape humiliation, Wollstonecraft traveled to France. There she found the opportunity to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) written in response to the Whig MP Edmund Burke’s politically conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It became an overnight success.
Wollstonecraft thought the French Revolution was a glorious chance to obtain virtue and happiness. For her work she was compared with leading lights such as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)– her most famous and influential work.
Wollstonecraft was determined to put her ideas in Rights of Women to the test, attempting her most experimental romantic attachment yet: Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. Wollstonecraft put her own principles in practice by sleeping with Imlay even though they were not married, which was unacceptable behaviour from a respectable British woman. Despite her rejection of the sexual component of relationships in the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft discovered that Imlay awakened her interest in sex.
Wollstonecraft was offended by the Jacobins’ treatment of women in France, refusing equal rights. As the daily arrests and executions of the Reign of Terror began, Wollstonecraft came under suspicion. To protect Wollstonecraft from arrest, Imlay made a false statement to the U.S. embassy in Paris that he had married her, automatically making her an American citizen. Some of her friends were not so lucky. Many, like Thomas Paine, were arrested, and some were even guillotined.
Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay. On May 14, 1794, she gave birth to her first child, Fanny. She was overjoyed and continued to write avidly, despite her pregnancy and the burdens of being a new mother alone in a foreign country. While at Le Havre in northern France, she wrote a history of the early revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, published in 1794. Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. Her letters to him are full of needy expostulations, which most critics explain as the expressions of a deeply depressed woman.
Wollstonecraft and her daughter had been reduced to desperate circumstances. 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. After she left France in April 1795, she continued to refer to herself as ‘Mrs. Imlay’ to bestow legitimacy upon her child.
Return to London
Her return to London turned into a search for Imlay, but ended in rejection. That May, Wollstonecraft attempted to take her own life, from which Imlay saved her at the last second. In a final attempt to win back Imlay, she embarked upon some business negotiations for him in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft undertook this hazardous trip with only her young daughter and Marguerite, her 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 (1796). When she returned to England and came to the full realisation that her relationship with Imlay was over, she made another attempt on her life.
Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved 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. 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, leaving them without many friends. Godwin was further criticized, because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. While married they stayed in separate houses, so that they could both still retain their independence, often communicating through letter. Theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.
The Birth of Mary Shelley and the Death of Mary Wollstonecraft
On August 30, 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary, who would go on to become Mary Shelley, the gothic author of Frankenstein and many other novels. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia. Godwin was devastated. She was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, where her tombstone reads: “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women: Born April 27, 1759: Died 10 September 10, 1797.”
In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 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 attempts on her life. 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 tainted both her work and legacy for over a century.
Her Work and Legacy
Wollstonecraft’s work was exhumed with the rise of the movement to give women a political voice. 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. With the emergence of feminist criticism in academia in the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft’s works returned to prominence.
Works on Education
Most of Wollstonecraft’s early productions are about education, assembled as an anthology of literary extracts “for the improvement of young women” entitled The Female Reader. In both her conduct book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and her children’s book Original 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, exposing Wollstonecraft’s intellectual debt to the educational views of seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke.
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.
Beyond attacking monarchy and hereditary privilege, Wollstonecraft also attacked the language that Burke used to defend and elevate it. Wollstonecraft indicts Burke’s defence of an unequal society as founded on the passivity of women. The Rights of Men was Wollstonecraft’s first overtly political work, her first feminist work, and notably what made her a famous author.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is often considered one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society and then proceeds to redefine that position. She claims women are essential to the nation, because they educate its children and could be companions to their husbands rather than just 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.
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 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 valor, making it difficult to classify this work as purely feminist.
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 instead fulfills her desire for love and affection outside marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man.
Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), is an unfinished novel published posthumously and often considered Wollstonecraft’s most radical feminist work. The story revolves around a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband. Like Mary, Maria also finds fulfillment outside of marriage, in an affair with a fellow inmate and a friendship with one of her keepers. Neither of Wollstonecraft’s novels depict successful marriages, although she posits such relationships in the Rights of Women. Both of Wollstonecraft’s novels also critique the discourse of sensibility, a moral philosophy and aesthetic that had become popular at the end of the eighteenth century.
The life of Wollstonecraft has been the subject of several biographies. Those written in the nineteenth century tended to emphasize the scandalous aspects of her life and not her work. With the renewed interest in women’s rights beginning in the later twentieth century, she again became the subject of several books, including The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (2003) assembled by Janet Todd, and Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (2015) by Charlotte Gordon.
Her influence extends beyond her substantial contribution to feminism for which she is now mostly remembered, shaping the art of travel writing as a literary genre through her account of her journey through Scandinavia, as well as her writings on women and thoughts on the imagination, she had an impact on the Romantic movement.
For more on Wollstonecraft’s equally famous daughter, Mary Shelley, click here.