Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Born 27 April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary Wollstonecraft was the second of seven children born to Edward and Elizabeth Dixon Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft's father was a drunken bully who squandered the family's money and failed repeatedly at every occupation he tried. He not only terrorized his family and reduced them to genteel poverty, he also diminished his daughters' chances of making respectable marriages and denied them formal schooling beyond sketchy lessons in Yorkshire. The oldest son inherited money from a grandfather in preference to his siblings, had a full university education, and became a lawyer, an injustice that shaped Mary Wollstonecraft's views on the education of men and women for the rest of her life.

After failing at most of the acceptable occupations for ladies, including sewing, teaching, and working as a lady's maid and governess, Wollstonecraft began a girls' school in London but quickly ran into financial trouble. Turning to writing, she produced a pamphlet, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786), which earned ten pounds and brought her to the attention of Unitarians Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, who in turn introduced her to her lifelong friend and patron, the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's Analytical Review hired Wollstonecraft as a writer in 1787, for which she reviewed European works, teaching herself Dutch, French, Italian, and German in the process.

Although she cultivated a bohemian image, Wollstonecraft also turned out profitable books, including Mary: A Fiction (1788); Original Stories from Real Life (1788), an anthology for children; and an anthology for female readers in 1789. Already incensed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's attitude toward women, Wollstonecraft then read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which prompted her to write her groundbreaking work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in less than three months. Johnson promoted the work as a companion piece and challenge to Thomas Paine's 1791 Rights of Man, and the book enjoyed wide circulation in radical circles in Britain and France. Determined to live a genuine existence free of artificial restraints, Wollstonecraft pursued relationships with men, including the artist Henry Fuseli and the American naval captain Gilbert Imlay, that gave her great emotional anguish.

At a dinner for Thomas Paine in 1791, Wollstonecraft had met the author and reformer William Godwin. She met him again in 1796, and they became lovers. Wollstonecraft became pregnant, and in March 1797, at Godwin's insistence, they married. Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter (the writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) but died of puerperal fever on 10 September 1797 in London. Godwin oversaw the posthumous publication of The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria in 1798, and followed that year with his Memoirs, a frank recounting of Wollstonecraft's sexual history that scandalized her readers and alienated many former admirers.

American readers responded very positively to A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which appeared excerpted in literary magazines like the Ladies Magazine and the Massachusetts Magazine in 1792. The first complete American edition appeared in 1793 and went through three printings, surpassing in circulation Paine's Rights of Man. There was much for Americans to admire in Wollstonecraft's work. Far from a revolutionary overturning of gender roles, her plans for the reform of female education and the civic responsibilities of women struck a chord with Americans. As prominent women like Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray argued, women needed a revolution in manners, to shed artificial cunning and flirtation in order to be better spouses, mothers, teachers and nurses—occupations that, over time, would confer status in the new nation. The notion of the importance of motherhood won the support of many conservatives. Americans also liked Wollstonecraft's emphasis on the ability of commerce to bring down social distinctions, as related in her 1796 work, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and her portrayal of women's friendship across class lines, in Maria.

However, the release of Godwin's Memoirs shocked American readers just as it had Europeans. As the French Revolution burned out, its supporters became disillusioned and Americans became disgusted with Napoleonic France. Some critics attacked Wollstonecraft as an immoral fanatic and derided her ideas about women's education. Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft had framed the case for women's rights in words that had special significance for Americans and echoed key philosophical texts revered by the new nation's intellectual elite. Even critics used her terms when defining the role of women, keeping these issues in circulation until the rediscovery of Wollstonecraft by women activists in the second half of the nineteenth century.

See alsoEducation: Education of Girls and Women; Paine, Thomas; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers; Women: Rights; Women: Writers .


Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Gunther-Canada, Wendy. Rebel Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft and Enlightenment Politics. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Janes, R. M. "On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women." Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (April–June 1978): 293–302.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Rev. ed. London and New York: Penguin, 1992.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. "The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America." William and Mary Quarterly 55 (1998): 203–230.

Margaret Sankey

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Mary Wollstonecraft

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