Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer, philosopher, and women’s rights activist in the late eighteenth century who promoted equality of the sexes and the implementation of Enlightenment political ideals. As a female intellectual in the late eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft experienced the intense social, political, and ideological divides of the French Revolution.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759, in London, England. She was one of seven children in a large, middle-class family headed by Elizabeth Dixon and John Edward Wollstonecraft. Mary’s father, John, was a failed tradesman and abusive alcoholic who would physically harm Mary’s mother and spend large amounts of money on personal endeavors and speculative ventures. Although the household received a steady income, Wollstonecraft’s family was always struggling financially because of John’s irresponsibility. He eventually stopped working as Mary’s mother became weak and anxious, leaving Mary to uphold a maternal role to her many sisters at age sixteen. She eventually left home in 1779 to pursue financial independence through teaching, writing, and caretaking. Although she struggled for many years, she eventually obtained a position as governess to the daughters of the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland. Despite this middle-class position, Wollstonecraft remained unfulfilled and quit after only a year to pursue her dreams of being an author.
Wollstonecraft’s decision was ambitious and precarious, considering the number of women who could support themselves by writing. Nonetheless, her defiance and ambition led her to receive an assisting position to liberal publisher Joseph Johnson in London. As the man credited for the prominent journal, The Analytical Review, Johnson was influential among liberal radicals in the late eighteenth century. He was known for publishing the works of Enlightenment-inspired radicals, especially on the topics of republicanism, Unitarianism, and abolitionism. Johnson’s writers included Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, and more. Wollstonecraft soon found herself in the company of these famed writers, where her financial and intellectual needs were met, and she could finally begin to flourish. She quickly built a vast social network of like-minded (and very unalike-minded) thinkers who challenged and encouraged her. Contacts such as Thomas Paine and William Godwin influenced her ongoing intellectual development while giving her work significant exposure.
Like all revolutionary writers, Wollstonecraft was challenged with conveying her message provocatively enough to challenge the status quo, while also translating (and being convincing) to the general population. As a woman in the eighteen century, this already challenging task was near impossible. Women were widely perceived as intellectually inferior and the society of Wollstonecraft’s lifetime had no conception of feminism or feminist philosophy. Virtually all prominent thinkers at the time were men, and radicals were focused on the political implementation of republicanism rather than the advancement of women. Wollstonecraft would later receive praise for some works, though not without first establishing herself as legitimate writer through years of associating with prominent male intellectuals. Soon after meeting Joseph Johnson in 1787, Wollstonecraft famously wrote a letter to her sister:
“Mr. Johnson […] assures me that if I exert my talents in writing, I may support myself in a comfortable way. I am then going to be the first of a new genus — I tremble at the attempt.”
Wollstonecraft’s first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), initially established her passionate views on the education of women. She believed that women have equal intellectual capacity to men but are disproportionately deprived of rational education. The theme of social equality between the sexes persists throughout most of Wollstonecraft’s subsequent publications. Although Wollstonecraft recognized natural differences between the sexes, she viewed these differences as insignificant in a civilized society. Furthermore, she believed that these differences are intensified (or fabricated entirely) by a male-dominated society. For example, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) she admitted that “bodily strength seems to give man a natural superiority over woman; and this is the only solid basis on which the superiority of the sex can be built” (Chapter 3, Pg. 26). However, physical differences between the sexes (like most sexual differences) has been amplified by a society that expects women to be thin and physically delicate through domestic work environments, fashion trends, and rigid social expectations. Wollstonecraft believed that a similar dynamic justified the intellectual differences between and men and women at the time, citing the sexual disparities in education. Ultimately, her belief that men and women share equal intellectual ability led her to conclude that physical differences between the sexes are irrelevant, since intellect is the most important quality in the modern world. Regardless of any other natural differences, men and women should be treated equally by the government and society since they share equal intellectual ability.
Wollstonecraft’s liberal mindset was also reflected in her political writings, in which she frequently expressed disgust for conservative political institutions alongside favorability towards democratic ideals and Enlightenment-inspired social movements. Like many intellectuals in the late eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft was fixated the politics of the ongoing French Revolution. Seeking to reshape France in the image of democratic equality and individual freedom, French revolutionaries sought to replace the old aristocracy with a new republic. As an advocate of liberalism and the American Revolution, Wollstonecraft avidly supported the French revolutionaries. From her perspective, the dynamics of political and economic oppression are entwined with the unequal relationship between the sexes. The solution for untangling both dynamics, she believed, is democracy. Wollstonecraft would later spend years sojourning through war-torn France and use her eyewitness experiences to craft an optimistic and rationalist account of the French Revolution. In An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1795), Mary assessed the progress of humanity and celebrated the demise of French despotism. She also envisioned her ideal society, which was composed of small businesses and farms that minimize the division of labor to provide necessary, as opposed to luxurious, needs. Her perfect community also lacked single-sex institutions and all-male workshops.
Written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790, A Vindication of the Rights of Men is one of the many political pamphlets written in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); an influential conservative pamphlet defending the clergy, monarchy and aristocracy. Wollstonecraft’s fiery response, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), attacked hereditary privilege and Burke’s reliance on tradition and custom. Meanwhile, it expressed her passionate belief in republicanism and the objective of the French rebels. The initial version of A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published anonymously and sold out after only three weeks – making it her most successful work at the time. However, after Wollstonecraft signed the second edition, her pamphlet became negatively perceived by critics and the general public. The debate exposed both Wollstonecraft’s fearless personality and her passion for democracy, alongside the struggle of being a female writer in the eighteenth century.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is Mary Wollstonecraft’s most influential work and is widely considered a founding text of modern feminist philosophy. She wrote the famous pamphlet after reading a report to the French National Assembly which stated that women should only receive a domestic education.
After falling in love with American entrepreneur Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft became unknowingly impregnated. Mary was traveling through war-torn France when she gave birth to her first daughter in 1794. Shortly after, Imlay left Wollstonecraft under the dubious promise that he would return. Despite being a single mother in a foreign country, Wollstonecraft remained in France and continued to write avidly. When she returned to England, she was rejected by Imlay. As Wollstonecraft raised their daughter alone, she strived to win back her husband. Although Imlay never returned to Wollstonecraft, she still succeeded as a mother and an independent female writer in this period. She continued writing, despite being ostracized for being a single mother. After nearly half a decade of chasing Imlay, she was eventually reunited with anarchist social philosopher, William Godwin. They developed an intimate relationship before Wollstonecraft died of septicemia after giving birth to their first child together in 1797. This child, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, would later become known as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).
Much of Wollstonecraft’s legacy derives from the lack of precedence of her feminist philosophy. Wollstonecraft was an unprecedented intellectual because of how she used her thoughts and experiences as a woman to formulate a progressive and equalitarian social philosophy. Before Wollstonecraft, feminist intellectualism had not been articulated in the eloquent and academic manner of her writing. With few prominent female voices echoing their experiences, women were unrepresented in mainstream intellectual discourse.
Despite the political progress she witnessed in her lifetime, Mary’s vision of social equality was never realized. However, her writing served as fuel throughout the following centuries for vital feminist movements that advanced the rights of women. From the Women Suffragists of the early 1900s to modern feminists of 2019, Wollstonecraft serves an inspiration to those who loudly defy social expectations to identify and eliminate dynamics of injustice.
Kelly, Gary. Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft. Springer, 1992. Print.
Wexler, Alice & Emma Goldman. “Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft.” Feminist Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 1981, pp.113-133. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable.3177674.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men: in a Letter to the Right Honorable Edmund Burk; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. Johnson, 1790.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subject. Johnson, 1796.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe. 2nd ed., Johnson, 1795.