“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759; the second eldest in a family of seven. Alienated by her mother’s favour for her brother and her father’s abuse, she dedicated her life to writing. She became one of Britain’s most important radicals, whose work has changed the world. The work she is renowned for is Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which proposed for the first time, equal rights for women.
Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American timer merchant, in the same year as she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and bore her first child, Fanny Imlay, in 1794. However, in 1795, Imlay left her for another woman, which led to Wollstonecraft attempting to drown herself from Putney Bridge. Later in life, she entered a more intellectually-focused relationship with William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism. She later married Godwin (despite their belief in the tyranny of marriage), due to her pregnancy with her second daughter; who would later become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818). Although Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days after the birth (aged 38) due to complications of childbirth, her second daughter unashamedly doted on her works, and used her mother’s teachings and theories as reference points for her own work and lifestyle.
Though Wollstonecraft maintained a sophisticated, intellectual distance in her earlier works, her personal experience conditioned her later writings profoundly. She particularly explores female passion and the connections between body and mental health intensely in her letters and novel (Maria, 1798); which argued that it is degrading and immoral to pretend that women do not possess strong sexual desires.
Other notable writings of hers include; Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (pamphlet, 1787) – ideas from her teaching experience at the school in Newington Green, which she established with her sister, Eliza, Original Stories from Real Life (1788) – a children’s book which encourages children’s ability to reason, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1795) – a critique of the French Revolution, and Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) – a deeply personal travel journal whilst in the possession of her first infant daughter, Fanny Imlay.
Wollstonecraft considered unthinking married women as ‘inferiors’. Perhaps it could be argued, then, that she became more in-tune with her intellectual prowess as a result of being a spinster, and the consequential social stigma she experienced throughout her life.
By far, her most popular legacy, is that of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, Emile (1762), an educational work which proposed that a female’s education should be limited to being useful and supportive to the rational male. Wollstonecraft’s book-length essay was published at the end of the 18th century; a century characterised by the ‘enlightenment’ concept, the ‘philosophical spirit’ and emergence of democracy.
The question of men’s rights ignited a lively debate in the vast discourse of political emancipation during this time, but the issue of women’s rights remained unconsidered. Wollstonecraft challenged this dominant ideology about women by describing them as, “gentle domestic brutes…Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth”. Her radical thinking made her both famous and infamous in her own time, and a pioneering activist for human rights for centuries to come.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and legacy has been documented in several biographies, starting with Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798); which at first (and unintentionally), did more harm than good – as the scandalous aspects of her life (such as her attempted suicide and her two children born out of wedlock) were noticed more than her works, and public literature branded her as a ‘prostitute’ and ‘unsex’d female’.
London has thousands of memorials dedicated to the great and good, and more than 9/10 of them are men. The Mary on the Green campaign is changing that. They believe Mary Wollstonecraft deserves a memorial where she founded a girl’s school and began her writing career – in Newington Green; and planning permission for this project has already been granted.
Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Blackburn
[Next week on Sheroes of History, find out about Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley!]
Find out more…
If you would like to know more about the Mary on the Green campaign, please visit their website. They are hosting a fundraising evening of female artists of spoken word, comedy, live music, DJing and burlesque, taking place in Birmingham on the 28th November 2015, named ROCK n ROLLstonecraft. To find out more, please visit the Facebook event page.
Read Mary’s most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s available in most bookstores, or you can download a free ebook version of it here.
There are lots of videos online which you can watch to find out more about Mary’s life, here is one which I quite like: