Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience”
While not as well-known today as the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) deserves a place among other major enlightenment thinkers involved in the debate about the “women’s question.” Her most important contribution was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.
Wollstonecraft was born in 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. Wollstonecraft faced constant pressures to save her family. As a child, she regularly defended her mother against the violence of her drunken father, an abusive man who wasted away a small fortune in gambling and alcohol. Because of this situation, Wollstonecraft left home at 17, quickly learning how to survive through adaptability and independence. As a byproduct of her upbringing, Wollstonecraft dedicated her life to the fight for women’s rights.
As a young adult, Wollstonecraft received minimal formal education in school, learning only how to read and write. As a result, her knowledge is largely self-taught. In 1784, Wollstonecraft, her sister Eliza, and her best friend, Fanny Blood, started a school in Newington Green. She attended this school, where she met individuals like Thomas Paine, Dr. Richard Price, and William Godwin (her later husband), all of whom admired the works of John Locke and his philosophy for “equal rights to all.” Locke differed from most philosophers during the eighteenth century by insisting that women be included in these rights as they applied to men. Thus, began Wollstonecraft’s activism, as a writer on the obstacles to women’s equality in late eighteenth-century Europe. When her friend Fanny Blood died in 1785, Wollstonecraft began employment as a governess in Ireland. She soon learned that she was not suited for this type of domestic work and returned to London, becoming a translator for a publishing firm and later an advisor to Joseph Johnson, a noted publisher of radical texts.
In her passionate pursuit of social and educational reform, she employed enlightenment philosophies of human reason to advocate for woman’s equality. One of her most acclaimed works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a treatise written in 1792, was a response the “enlightened” thinkers and philosophers of her day who continually failed to recognize women’s capacities as intellectuals and independent agents of reason. In this piece, Wollstonecraft abhorred the prevailing notions that women were nothing but adornments to their husbands and caretakers of the household. Instead, Wollstonecraft argued that society bred “gentle domestic brutes,” resulting in this societal construction of “motherhood.” The solution, she claimed, is educational reform. Her proposed reform included giving women access to the same educational opportunities as men—the main doctrines of the later women’s movement.
Towards the end of 1792, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in the middle of the French Revolution (1789-1798), which heavily influenced her work and political aims. As the Revolution began, women were filled with hope and vigor in their efforts to achieve social and political equality. However, Wollstonecraft also witnessed the Reign of Terror under the leadership of Jacobin revolutionary Maximilian Robespierre. During this time, she collected materials for a variety of her other works, including An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it has Produced in Europe, published in 1794. The book sharply criticized the violence evident even in the early stages of the French Revolution and the killing of so many moderate Girondist revolutionaries like Olympe de Gouges and Manon Roland on the guillotine in 1793.
During her time in Paris Wollstonecraft fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman, author, and diplomat. The couple left Paris and moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, a small French town west of Paris. To protect Wollstonecraft, Imlay registered her as his wife in 1793, even though they were not married. In 1794 they welcomed a daughter named Fanny after her dear friend. Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her for England. After he left, she wrote a series of letters, pleading with her husband to return home or bring her back to England. Seeking Imlay, Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795, but he rejected her. In May 1795 she attempted to commit suicide, but Imlay saved her life.
In 1796, she began a passionate relationship with William Godwin, and English journalist, political philosopher and novelist, whom she knew from her youth. When she became pregnant in 1797, they married. Tragically, ten days after the birth of her second daughter (later know as Mary Shelley, the infamous author of Frankenstein), Wollstonecraft passed away due to an childbed infection. Following her death, Godwin published all of her writings, including the letters she had written to Gilbert Imlay. While he intended them as a tribute, the general reception of these works proved to be quite opposite. Wollstonecraft faced a plethora of criticisms, as people attacked her “unusual” lifestyle consisting of free will, independence, sex, and suicide attempts. For over a century Wollstonecraft’s work was deemed crazy, socially unacceptable, immoral. in short: dangerously feminist.
Throughout her life, Mary Wollstonecraft faced extraordinary trials and tribulations. Yet she remained devoted to her aim of bridging the gap between societies present circumstances and her ideal ultimate perfection. She was truly a child of the French Revolution and as result envisioned a new age of reason and benevolence. Wollstonecraft undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life through the means of education, not only for the benefit of themselves, but also for their children and husbands. Of course, it took more than a century before society began to put her views into effect.
Yet, this is what makes Wollstonecraft so significant in terms of her historical relevance. Other early feminists had made similar pleas for the equality of women and improved education, but her work was unique in suggesting that the betterment of women’s status be incited through real political change. She wanted a radical reform of England’s educational systems. Such change, she concluded, would benefit all society. As stated by historian Mary Poovey, Wollstonecraft “took the first steps towards liberating herself from the crippling structure of feminine propriety. She identified the ideology that assigned women their social position and cultural definition; she then argued that it was both unnatural and wrong.” The prodigious works of Wollstonecraft and her messages of political activism and equality will remain relevant for decades to come.
Rosa Bestmann, Communication Studies, Class of 2018
Literature and Websites
- “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft (Accessed April 15, 2018).
- Bour, Isabelle. “Mary Wollstonecraft as Historian in An Historical and Moral View Of…” Études Épistémè. Revue De Littérature Et De Civilisation (XVIe – XVIIIe Siècles), at https://journals.openedition.org/episteme/668 (Accessed April 15, 2018).
- Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as style in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
- Todd, Janet M. and Butler, Marilyn. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Routledge, 1989, seven vols.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/wollstonecraft-mary/1792/vindication-rights-woman/ch02.htm. (Accessed April 15, 2018).