Wollstonecraft was a noted writer during the 18th century. She was
born in Spitalfields, London. Wollstonecraft had a momentous but
tragically brief career of nine years; she wrote A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman, as well as a full range of work across disciplinary
boundaries separating philosophy, letters, education, advice, politics,
history, religion, sexuality, and feminism itself.
viewed solely in relation to the history of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft
is now recognized as a great writer across a range of genres,
including journalism, letters, and travel writing. Her personal
struggles as a woman and an author contributed to her articulation
of the dynamic connection between political writing and political
rights, both of which she argued had been "confined to the
male line since Adam downward". Her writing challenges the
male birthright, bringing to life a new form of political analysis.
Today, she is celebrated for her early advocacy of women's equality
and rationality, and for arguing against the degradation and subjugation
of women justified by "the arbitrary power of beauty"
Mary Wollstonecraft was the second child of seven, and the eldest
daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft. Mary's parents
shared preference for her older brother, which contributed to
her loss of economic and class status as a young woman. Her grandfather
was a wealthy silk merchant who left 10,000 pounds to her father,
but Mary's father tried to distance himself from the trade and
set up as a gentleman farmer first in Essex, and then near Beverley
grandfather wanted his family to rise in the world, and desired
a country retreat for his privileged son more than for himself;
along with the city house in Primrose Street, he provided Edward's
first farm in Essex, where Mary lived at age four and five, and
where her other sister, Everina was born.
less than four years, Edward's farm in Essex failed. The failure
drove Edward's career across England and Wales, to poorer and
more remote farms, eventually squandering his inheritance and
ultimately making his children rootless. He developed a drinking
problem and began to verbally, and perhaps even physically, abuse
Mary's mother; Mary tried to shield her mother from Edward's aggression
by sleeping nights on the landing near her mother's bedroom door.
As a result of the neglect to which her parents subjected her,
Mary assumed a mother's role for the children that followed, especially
1768, the Wollstonecrafts moved to a farm outside of Beverley,
where Mary attended a local day-school for girls; the school attended
to housewifery and morals, and the curriculum aimed at making
a girl marriageable and ladylike — rudimentary French language,
needlework, music, dancing, writing, and possibly some botany
and accounts. At home or with friends she read general books,
magazines and newspapers, and learned to consider social issues
troubling Kingdom of Great Britain in general and Beverley in
particular. Beyond schooling and access to print, Beverley gave
Mary cultured society.
Wollstonecrafts left Beverley for Hoxton, London, when Mary was
fifteen. Disinherited both economically and emotionally, Mary
became an autodidact, who learned through reading and by participating
in the public sphere; the city and provinces held informal and
formal discussion groups, public lectures and clubs, libraries
made books affordable, and coffee shops offered the latest periodicals
and newspapers. When in Beverley, she attended the lectures of
John Arden on experimental science; he also taught her along with
his daughter Jane Arden, how to use globes and on how to argue
Hoxton, Mary also found mentors in her next-door neighbors, the
Reverend Mr. Clare and his wife, who recommended and encouraged
her to read proper books. It is through Mrs. Clare that Mary met
Fanny Blood, a woman two years her senior, who became the emotional
centre of Wollstonecraft's life for the following ten years. Fanny
was a role-model to Mary, who inspired her to think of leaving
her unhappy family life and of obtaining employment.
was prepared to leave, but was begged to stay by her mother; in
exchange for staying, she was given a place to live near Fanny,
lodging with an unusual couple: Thomas Taylor "the Platonist"
and his wife. Mary became friends with them and began to read
Plato, which helped to influence her ardent religiosity.
eventually moved in with Fanny and her family after Elizabeth
Wollstonecraft's death in 1782, prompting Mary to throw all her
energy into supporting the Bloods, as well as her own younger
sisters. Early in 1784, Wollstonecraft, her two sisters, and Fanny
Blood set up a school on Newington Green, then a village just
to the north of London and now part of Islington. The following
year, Fanny Blood left the school and sailed to Lisbon to marry.
Later, Mary followed her friend to assist her in childbirth, but
Fanny died, a precursor to Mary's own fate.
1786, Mary closed her school because of financial problems that
had mounted during her absence. To raise money and improve her
spirits, Mary began to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters;
the work was published in 1787 by Joseph Johnson, and earned her
ten guineas, which she gave to the Blood family. She also composed
Mary, A Fiction and "Cave of Fancy", and worked as a
reader and translator with Joseph Johnson, beginning her career
as a published writer.
1788, Joseph Johnson also published Wollstonecraft's, Mary: A
fiction, Original Stories from Real Life and Of the Importance
of Religious Opinions, and she began to work as a reviewer for
the Analytical Review, a monthly periodical started by Joseph
Johnson and Thomas Christie.
1790, Mary published Young Grandison, a translation of Maria van
de Werken de Cambon's adaptation of the novel by Samuel Richardson,
followed by a translation of Elements of Morality by Christian
Gotthilf Salzmann. In November of that year, she published A Vindication
of the Rights of Men anonymously, then, one month later, she published
the second edition bearing her name, establishing her reputation
as a partisan of reform. One year later, in 1791, she published
a second edition of Original Stories, and started to write A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman; she also met her future husband, the philosopher
William Godwin, through Joseph Johnson in November of that year.
January 1792, Mary published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,
which received several favorable reviews; she published a second
edition later that year, and had planned to write a second part
but never did, though Godwin published her "Hints" of
it in Posthumous Works (1798). In 1793, Mary met Gilbert Imlay,
had an affair with him and although not married, she registered
as his wife at the American Embassy to claim protection of United
1794, Fanny Imlay was born, and in 1795, Mary learned of Gilbert's
infidelity and attempted suicide twice; she saw Imlay for the
last time in 1796, and met Godwin again in April. She also published
Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and
Denmark, started to write Wrongs of Woman, and began her relationship
with Godwin by mid-summer.
in 1797, Mary married Godwin, and their daughter, later known
as Mary Shelley, was born in August; Wollstonecraft died in September
of complications resulting from childbirth, probably puerpal fever.
In 1798, Godwin published Mary's Posthumous Works, including,
The Wrongs of Women, or Maria, "The Cave of Fancy",
her Letters to Imlay and other miscellaneous pieces; he also includes
his own Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman, Mary's first biography. Arguably Mary Wollstonecraft's
greatest posthumous work was her daughter, known to history as
Mary Shelley. Her husband brought up the younger Mary in a loving
but rigorously rational manner, and the only way she could rebel
as a teenager was to elope with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe
Shelley, and would eventually write Frankenstein.
on the Education of Daughters (1787)
This was the first book to establish Mary Wollstonecraft as an
author. The title echoes John Locke's Some Thoughts on Education,
and maintains familiar ideas from the Lockean tradition: the ideal
of a domestic education supervised by parents; the bourgeois distrust
of servants; the banishment of improbable tales and superstitious
accounts from the child's library; and the importance of an inflexible
adherence to rules.
summarizes the main articles of early education as a strict adherence
to truth; a proper submission to superiors; and condescension
to inferiors; she also argues for the development of sound moral
understanding over the mindless cultivation of exterior accomplishments
like drawing and music. She passionately criticizes the scarceness
of careers for women, saying that the school teacher is a kind
of upper servant, and a governess is a humble companion. She also
says that artificial manners obscure natural sincerity and fine
clothes and made up faces should not take the place of unaffected
manners and natural play of thought and emotion.
A fiction (1788)
This story was Wollstonecraft's first novel; she began writing
with Rousseau's idea that a genius will educate itself, and used
this idea as a summary for her book by presenting Emile, a female
who educates herself through sensations, nature and solitary thinking.
Stories from Real Life
Described as a series of harsh tales, Original Stories was Wollstonecraft's
first commercial success. The book is a sort of governess fantasy,
in which children are rescued from sophisticated aristocrats by
a discerning surrogate, Mrs. Mason, who acts out of high-minded
compassion, not greed. Throughout Original Stories, the tie between
higher and lower remains charity, and story after story which
cries out for resolution in social reform is answered by personal
the Importance of Religious Opinions (1788)
Mary was not fluent in French, but at the time she had the rudiments
and so could tackle the more ambitious translating project, Of
the Importance of Religious Opinions, by the French politician,
Jacques Necker. Mary liked his emphasis on constant self-improvement
and his praise of reason as a divine gift in agreement with religion.
Later, when she disapproved of Necker's political activities before
the French Revolution, she came to despise his book, describing
it as, "various metaphysical shreds of arguments" in
a style as "inflated and confused as the thoughts were far-fetched
and unconnected." .
Female Reader (1789)
A collection of short pieces and extracts edited by Wollstonecraft
but published by Johnson under a popular writer's name, Mr. Creswick.
She advocates simplicity and sincerity in style as well as behaviour,
recommends works addressed to the imagination over cold arguments
and mere declamation, and characterizes children formed by rote
learning as miseducated monsters.
By the time Wollstonecraft published this translation of de Cambon's
De kleine Grandisson, de gehoorzaame zoon, or Young Grandison,
she had grown impatient with doctrines that "cramped"
the child's understanding in making a child submit to any other
authority than that of reason. In A Vindication of the Rights
of Woman, she rejects the arbitrary principle of parental authority
and the blind obedience that renders children "slavish"
in character; Wollstonecraft urges that parent-child relations
be predicated instead on a principle of reciprocal duty. She insists
that parents should earn their children's respect through carefully
attending to their education and basic needs, and that children
will return the obligation through caring for their parents in
their old age.
of Morality (1790)
This was an adaptation more than a translation of Christian Salzmann's
Moralisches Elementarbuch or Elements of Morality, for the Use
of Children; with an Introductory Address to Parents, because
Mary had limited knowledge of the German language and had begun
the translation to help herself learn the language. She found
his work very rational, and the book's arguments agreed with her
view that pain, whatever its physical cause, was in God's plan
and led to good character.
approved of Salzmann's opinion that happiness was not the measure
of virtue and its aim was to insinuate a taste for domestic pleasures
into the hearts of both parents and children. She kept Salzmann's
moral stories and added one herself to persuade children to consider
Indians their brothers, a more relevant tale for British than
German youth; she also toned down the sentimental effusions and
the ingratiating remarks about the upper orders.
Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
This work begins with Edmund Burke's Reflections of the Revolution
in France, a melodramatic evocation of Louis XVI of France and
his family plagued by a murderous mob and his predictions of anarchy
and slaughter. The French Revolution provided Burke with raw material
to create a cautionary tale to frighten the British away from
following suit. Mary wrote this passionate rebuttal, which turned
into her first political polemic.
affirms her support for the French Declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen by addressing a reply to Burke in the second
person, in the form of a letter. She wrote anonymously, satirizing
Burke's sensibility and imagination as mere literary fictions.
She also puts her ideals of justice and human rights on a moral
basis, fighting against a corrupt state which impedes the freedom
of the individual to make moral choices and to participate in
her response, she demands a more equal society, responding to
Burke's cynical contempt for the poor. The book publicly established
Wollstonecraft, spurring some criticism that doubted whether such
a good pamphlet could really have been written by a "fair
lady". Her confidence growing, Mary was already at work on
Rights of Woman by the time Rights of Men was under review.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Godwin asserted that Mary wrote Rights of Woman in six weeks.
She says, "Had I allowed myself more time I could have written
a better book". Mary promised greater care on a second volume,
but there is no sign that she ever began it. She was not interested
in conforming to scholarly conventions, but her vehemence and
personal tone are a conscious attempt to reproduce, in literary
style, a persuasive political speech.
put the rights of women in the context of social optimism; she
argues that the minds of women are no different from the minds
of men, but that only men and women differ in their bodies. As
a result, she affirms universal human rights—-females are
in all the most important aspects the same as males, possessing
the same souls, the same mental capacities and thus the same human
rights. Therefore, she argues that a system based on one's sex's
dependence is demeaning to everyone.
book also contends that women, like men, are born free. It raises
a serious discussion of women's citizenship, linking the objectification
of women to the subjection of her sex. The point of Vindication
is that women become silly creatures because the goal of their
education is to lure a man. She feels that sexually differentiated
instruction only disguises female ignorance as innocence, and
so Wollstonecraft offers her own system of female education for
independence that aims at creating a citizen woman capable of
also calls for coeducational government-sponsored schools, and
on her philosophical assumption of sexual equality, Wollstonecraft
mounts this campaign for the reform of female education, arguing
that girls should be educated in the same subjects and by the
same methods as boys. She exclaims, "Let an enlightened nation
then allow women to share the advantages of education and government
with man, see whether they will become better as they grow wiser
and become free.
to her scheme, between the ages of five and nine, "rich and
poor" children of both sexes would attend national day schools;
but she cautions that not every child has an intellectual future,
and so after the age of nine, only boys and girls of wealth or
ability would pursue academic courses, while the others have the
option of trade schools. Coeducation is crucial for she says "men
and women were made for each other, though not to become one being,
and if [men] will not improve women, they will deprave them".
further advocated a radical revision of British law to enable
a new, egalitarian marriage in which women would share equally
in the management and possession of all household resources, and
demands women be paid equally for their labour, gain civil and
legal rights to possess and distribute property, be admitted to
all professions, and be given the vote.
insisted that a revolution in female manners would dramatically
change both genders, as it would produce women who acted with
reason, providence and generosity; it would produce men who would
treat women with respect and act toward all with benevolence,
justice and sound reason; and it would also produce egalitarian
marriages based on compatibility, mutual affection, and respect.
proclaims that women must articulate the story of their own lives
and act for themselves; she says to become democratic citizens
and to participate in the public world, women must challenge social
custom and change personal habits. The revolution in female manners
incites other women to claim the feminist authority of representing
themselves and their own interests in word and deed. Lastly, she
insists that the female reader can become a revolutionary agent
of change by taking part in the historical dramas of their nation.
Wollstonecraft wanted to bring about change, considering herself
as standing forth in defense of one half of the human species
who have been degraded from the station of rational beings. Thus,
she calls for a "revolution in female manners", and
proposes a model of what we would now call "equality"
or "liberal" feminism. A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman has proven to be one of the most important works in the
history of western feminism, and has been a touchstone for generations
of women committed to sexual equality.
Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794)
In this work, Mary concedes that the effeminacy of the French
was responsible for anarchy, but maintains that this subverted
a revolution that had been motivated by nobler motives. She wrote
only one volume, despite promising two or three more in the advertisement
for it. Wollstonecraft found it necessary to analyze what had
gone so horrifyingly wrong in France; however, she confined herself
to commenting on the less contentious events up to 1790, making
her book a retrospective analysis that contributed to the revolution
debate. Adopting the stance of a modern, philosophically opinionated
historian, she intersperses her narrative of events with passages
of critical commentary on the dialectic between constitutional
change and the stage France had reached in civilization.
Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark
This was the last book published before Wollstonecraft's death;
she takes the restlessness and dislocation that marked her own
life, as well as the society she observed in Northern Europe,
and tries to shape them into a style, an argument, and a political
stance. Her travelogue tells the reader more about the mind of
the traveler-subject, charting her path through a "heterogeneous
modernity" than about the three countries she visits.
narrator adopts several modes of travel but never settles; however,
as the story unfolds, the mobility of the subject, which had initially
presented itself as both liberating and creative, changes into
something compromised, inescapable. The desire to escape is a
recurring motif, but in the course of these lengthy twenty-five
letters, the narrator loses her faith in the freedom of movement.
Cave of Fancy (1798)
Published by William Godwin after her death, Wollstonecraft's,
"The Cave of Fancy" is a work where she allows the expression
of passion to be romanticized. She began the novel by writing
about a fantasized rescue of a young girl by a fatherly sage who
teaches her the recognition and value of true sensibility; the
sage is used to express a cautionary tale of sensibility in passionate
women. She may have stopped writing because she was tired of worrying
over what sensibility was, and how it could be channeled away
from pain and illicit desire; or perhaps, she was persuaded by
Joseph Johnson to turn to a genre more suited to her talents.
Wrongs of Women (1798)
This novel was designed to show the injustice and immorality built
in to marriage, and more daring than most feminists, to show the
wrongs of different classes of women, linking their fates together
as equals. Her novel hosts a man and two women who tell stories
that also incorporate miserable accounts of other oppressed women.
story's setting is an asylum, and the twist is that the heroine,
Maria, who narrates a tale of domestic betrayals, is only disappointed
in love and not actually mad, even though she sometimes sounds
like it. Wollstonecraft most likely started this novel in the
Summer of 1796, but her lack of confidence and unwillingness to
conform to literary convention stopped her from completing the
novel. Wollstonecraft's death is why she was unable to complete
"Maria, or The Wrongs of Women."
to Imlay (1798)
When Godwin decided to publish her Letters to Imlay, he did so
as a part of his honest presentation of a beloved partner and
because he admired them as literary constructions; they are the
proper self-expression of a sensitive woman. The letters are extraordinary
because they are, as Godwin professed, "the finest examples
of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the
on the Management of Infants (1798)
Only part of the first letters survived for publishing--the letters
were meant to illustrate a program of infant care based on simplicity
and the author's own successful practice for women ready to depart
from the conventional errors that contributed to the high infant
mortality rate of the time; her healthy daughter was a living
argument for rational motherhood and for giving children as much
freedom and stimulation as possible.
The fragmentary "Lessons" (ten in all) address a little
girl whose life narrative develops as the lessons progress; the
lessons were designed for use in learning to read. Wollstonecraft
tries to provide new readers with age-appropriate, concrete, engaging
material in a simple style and parental voice. Had Wollstonecraft
lived to complete Lessons, it would have made a pronounced contrast
to the steely didacticism of Original Stories, and would have
provided an innovative and compelling model for children's writers
Mary Wollstonecraft proves to be a prophetic visionary for 19th
century, 20th century, and 21st century feminist politics. As
a feminist author, she has been reinvented and her work read again
and again by women yearning to understand their history and eager
to create their future. Wollstonecraft's scholarship has played
a leading role in a shift from the study of the experience or
writings of women as a separate category of literary or historical
analysis, and toward the complex involvement of women and of gender
difference in all areas of eighteenth century life and thought.
the end of the nineteenth century, Wollstonecraft's ideas were
explored by Victorian era feminists who put sexual freedom on
their agenda. Yet it was not until the twentieth century that
Wollstonecraft's broader philosophical critique of the cultural
and economic constraints on women would come into its own. In
fact, late twentieth century feminism adopted Wollstonecraft as
an icon for her success in placing women's rights and sexual difference
at the center of social and political debates, and in so doing,
made the genealogy of feminist ideas in modernity of interest
to a wider public.
in the first and second waves of feminism, in the 1920s/1930s
and 1960s/1970s, feminists turned to Wollstonecraft as a vital,
still-relevant thinker. Virginia Woolf, in 1929, described Mary
Wollstonecraft saying that, "she is alive and active, she
argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence
even now among the living".
story of Wollstonecraft's life was seized upon by feminist intellectuals,
and became re-told as a tale of principle instead of illicit passion.
Her attack on conventional femininity helped inspire a 1970s feminism
based on consciousness-raising and women's scrutiny of their life
experiences. The combination of an outpouring of feminist scholarship
and the movement towards historicism in romantic studies since
the 1980s has produced a new portrait of Wollstonecraft. She laid
down a tradition of feminism saturated in the word, in literacy
and literature, in her participation in print culture and in concern
with representation whose effects are felt to this day.