English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both achieved immense notoriety in Georgian England of the 1790s. The book is considered the first written document of the modern feminist movement, and in it Wollstonecraft argued in favor of full legal, social, and economic rights for women. Her achievements and renown, however, could not save her from the most dangerous of all social ills for women in her day—that of childbirth and its attendant medical risks. She died several days after giving birth to her daughter, the novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759, in Hoxton, near London, England, as the second of seven children in the family. Her grandfather had made a fortune as a master weaver in London and through profitable real estate investments as well, but Wollstonecraft's father, Edward, squandered much of that inheritance. He attempted to establish himself as a gentleman farmer, but nearly all of his ventures failed. Because of this, the family moved several times when Wollstonecraft was a child, and kept growing in size despite their economic hardships. The pressures led Wollstonecraft's father into alcoholism, and the related abuse he inflicted upon his wife, Elizabeth, had a profound impact on their daughter and her attitudes toward marriage.
Disliked Tedium of "Women's Work"
The Wollstonecrafts lived in Yorkshire from 1768 to 1774, on a farm called Walkington in the Wolds. This would be the longest time that Wollstonecraft ever lived in one place in her life. She was sent to a local country school for girls, where the courses were skewed toward housekeeping arts like sewing and gardening. The idea was to prepare adolescent girls for their future roles as wives, mothers, and proper middle-class ladies. After the Walkington farm failed, the Wollstonecrafts lived in Hoxton once again, and then spent a year in Wales before moving back to London. During this period of her life, Wollstonecraft met Frances (Fanny) Blood, who would become her closest friend. She also supplemented her rudimentary education by reading extensively from religious, historical, and philosophical books she managed to buy or borrow, and kept up with current events through newspapers and journals.
Tired of living under her father's tyranny, the 19-year-old Wollstonecraft disobeyed her parents by taking a job as a paid companion to a wealthy widow in Bath, a resort town that was a popular destination for England's newly moneyed classes. After two years, she returned home to care for her mother, whose health was declining. After her mother died, Wollstonecraft lived with Blood's family, and in 1784 the two women, along with two of Wollstonecraft's sisters, founded a boarding school for young women in the north London neighborhood of Islington.
A year later, Blood married and moved to Portugal, but died due to complications from childbirth. Wollstonecraft had already sailed to visit her, and in her absence the school was mismanaged by the Wollstonecraft sisters, who had little financial know-how. It closed in 1786. Wollstonecraft then spent ten months as a governess for the children of Lord and Lady Kingsborough in County Cork, Ireland. As with her paid companionship in Bath, she found the experience degrading, though the children liked her. She reportedly had some memorable battles with Lady Kingsborough.
Found Her Calling as a Writer
The Islington school experience had one positive outcome: it was near the community parkland of Newington Green, and Wollstonecraft fell in with a group of liberal-minded intellectuals known as the Newington Green circle. The group was headed by a Unitarian minister, Richard Price, and they welcomed the spirited, well-read young woman to their discussion groups. The circle served to introduce Wollstonecraft to several influential figures, including the publisher Joseph Johnson, who in 1787 hired her to serve as an editorial assistant for his New Analytical Review. Johnson also published Wollstonecraft's first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, that same year. The work is a collection of essays for parents concerning schooling and self-esteem issues for girls and young women.
The following year, Wollstonecraft's first novel, Mary: A Fiction, was published. The semi-autobiographical work, written in the third person, follows the story of an unhappy wife inside an arranged marriage, who is left alone for long periods of time by her husband. Her close friend dies in Portugal, she finds herself drawn to a male acquaintance, who also dies, and finds little purpose in her life except for charity work.
Wollstonecraft was by then living a life that was drastically opposite to the one she imagined as a married woman's plight. She was independent and had her own income, which was no small feat for a woman of her era and class. At the time, women did not attend university or work outside the home unless they were part of the working classes and took part in menial or farm labor. But Wollstonecraft had her own flat in London, and was able to help her sisters out financially as well. Another book of hers that was published in 1788, Original Stories, from Real Life, was the first of her titles to sell well, and part of its appeal seemed to be in the unlikable main characters, two sisters who are the daughters of an affluent family but have little education. Some of the aspects of this book were thought to have been modeled on the Kingsborough family in County Cork.
Challenged Major Political Figure
A rush of new books were printed in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, a pivotal event in European history that was a beacon of hope for the oppressed while giving a corresponding sense of unease to the rich. Wollstonecraft wrote for the New Analytical Review, and also taught herself German, French and Dutch, so that she might translate titles published abroad on philosophy for extra income. Wollstonecraft became part of a well known group of London liberals known as the Johnson circle, and they were collectively outraged at the response from Edmund Burke, a well known member of the House of Commons who had formerly supported the revolt of the American colonies against the British crown. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued in support of a hereditary monarchy and an aristocratic class, and warned that events in France would end badly.
Burke's treatise caused a stir in England, and prompted Wollstonecraft to quickly write A Vindication of the Rights of Man, which was published anonymously by Johnson in December of 1790, just a month following Burke's book. A second edition issued shortly afterward appeared with Wollstonecraft's name on it. She rebutted Burke's arguments one by one, and the ensuing political debate made her famous in London and throughout England. It was extremely rare for a woman to take part in such public or published discussions of current events, but it was her goal to prove that women were the equals of men on all levels except perhaps the physical.
Wollstonecraft's next book set forth those arguments and affirmed her place in feminist history. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792 by Johnson, and again caused a great stir. The author argued that all human beings, no matter their gender, are spiritually equal, and therefore women should be given the same educational opportunities as men. They should also enjoy equality in their marriages, and other legal and social rights. In one particular chapter, Wollstonecraft claimed that a lack of education leaves even well-married women unhappy and prone to torment their servants. "Domestics are deprived of innocent indulgences," she wrote, "and made to work beyond their strength, in order to enable the notable woman to keep a better table, and outshine her neighbours in finery and parade."
Wollstonecraft, meanwhile, continued to pursue her own unconventional lifestyle. She had for some time been platonically involved with Henry Fuseli, the Swiss painter and writer, but he was married. At one point she wrote to his wife, Sophia, and proposed they live in a non-sexual marital threesome, which Madame Fuseli rebuffed. Eager for a new adventure, Wollstonecraft went to Paris, France, so that she might write about the French Revolution firsthand. But the egalitarian spirit of the original event had been hijacked by reactionary forces in France, and a period of human rights abuses known as the "Terror" had arrived. Wollstonecraft was duly disillusioned, which was evident in her 1794 book, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe.
Became Single Parent
In Paris Wollstonecraft fell in love with an American explorer, writer and entrepreneur, Gilbert Imlay. He had been a soldier in the Revolutionary army, but was now a trader in alum and soap. The political climate of the Terror descended into such chaos that it became dangerous for British citizens in the city, and at one point Wollstonecraft went with Imlay to the U.S. Embassy, where she officially registered as his wife. They had not wed, but she was expecting her first child, and they set up housekeeping in Neuilly, outside Paris. As predictably as the husband in her novel Mary, Imlay left her alone for long periods of time, and dallied with other women. She followed him to Le Havre, where her daughter Fanny was born in May of 1794. He left her again, and she followed him to London, where she discovered he was living with another woman. Her response was a suicide attempt, perhaps by ingesting laudanum, an opium derivative, in May of 1795.
Imlay suggested she take on a business role for him, and arranged for her to travel to Scandinavia to serve as the agent for a new shipping venture of his. She took along the infant Fanny and a maid, and sailed for Goteborg, Sweden. She spent the months of June through October of 1795 traveling trough Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, much of it trying to track down a missing cargo of silver from one of Imlay's ships. It was a dangerous time to travel, with much of Europe at war, and Wollstonecraft was not able to resolve the question of the stolen silver. She did write many letters to Imlay, which were published after her death as Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Literary critics consider them the best examples of Wollstonecraft's writing, containing her eloquently worded observations of the countryside, cities, and people of Scandinavia, mixed with declarations of her passion for Imlay.
Back in London, however, Wollstonecraft found Imlay living with a stage actress. Distraught, she walked out of her house in an October rainstorm to a bridge over the Thames River, where she tried to commit suicide once again but was saved by fishermen. Her romantic life improved three months later, when she became reacquainted with William Godwin, whom she had known from Johnson's circle. They fell in love, and by the end of the 1796 Wollstonecraft was pregnant again. Though Godwin was, like her, morally opposed to the institution of marriage, he did agree to a formal union to protect the legal rights of their child, and the wedding took place at St. Pancras Church in London on March 29, 1797. They lived in separate but adjoining quarters, which suited both their temperaments.
Grandmother of Frankenstein
Wollstonecraft went into labor on August 30, 1797, and gave birth to a daughter named Mary. But the delivery went badly, and the placenta remained inside the mother's body. It became toxic, and led to blood poisoning, which killed Wollstonecraft on September 10, 1797. She left an unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, which was published a year after her death by Godwin in his Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. His biography once again stirred controversy, for Wollstonecraft's friends were horrified about the revelations concerning Fuseli and Imlay, while her enemies seized upon its tawdrier aspects with glee. Though Wollstonecraft argued so convincingly on women's rights in her writings, her own personal choices made feminists wary of giving her full due. For the generation of activists and theorists who followed, she was judged to be a woman forever at the mercy of her own passions.
Godwin continued his career as political thinker, writer, and liberal maverick, and raised their daughter Mary in a progressive and education-focused environment. At age 16 she eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. A few years later she produced one of the classics of Western literature, Frankenstein.
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 3: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789–1832. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 1992.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
Guardian (London, England), April 12, 2003.
WOLLSTONECRAFT, MARY (1759–1797), radical thinker, polemicist, translator, and writer of fiction and educational and historical works.
Mary Wollstonecraft was the eldest of three daughters and the second of six children born to Edward John Wollstonecraft, a silk weaver of Spitalfields, London, and Elizabeth Dixon, from Ballyshannon, Ireland. Her father's subsequent failure as a gentleman farmer had the consequence that she spent her adult life constantly seeking independence by earning enough to support herself, her sisters, and later, her child. Her early educational works, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786), Original Stories from Real Life (1788), and the anthology The Female Reader (1788) are fruits of her experiences as lady's companion, mistress of a school set up
with her sisters Eliza and Everina, and as governess to the Kingsboroug family at Mitchelstown near Corke in Ireland; while her first novel Mary, a Fiction (1787) is based on an intense friendship with Fanny Blood. Her London publisher Joseph Johnson also employed her to review and abstract for his Analytical Review, founded in 1788, and to translate contemporary works.
Wollstonecraft's two best known works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), published anonymously in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), published under her own name, owe their genesis to a London group of Dissenter friends in Newington Green, including Dr. Richard Price (1723–1791), whom Wollstonecraft met when running the school in the area, and to Joseph Johnson's circle—including the artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and the radical thinker Thomas Paine (1737–1809). In these two works, stimulated by discussions on the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft argued for enfranchising those who had no political rights because franchise was then based on ownership of property. She advocated representation and citizenship for both men and women, including the right to useful employment for both sexes.
In 1792, Wollstonecraft went to France to report on the French Revolution for Johnson, which enabled her to recover from an unhappy love for Fuseli. Her observations became An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). In 1793, the year of the execution of the king of France, Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792), she began a relationship with Gilbert Imlay (c. 1754–1828), an American writer and trader, who, on the passing of the Law of Suspects (17 September 1793), registered her as his wife at the American Embassy. Wollstonecraft bore his child, Fanny, named after her friend who died in Portugal in 1785. After attempting suicide in 1795, she agreed to act as Imlay's business associate in an attempt to gain redress for the loss of a cargo of silver reputedly lost in Scandinavia. Her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden (1796) was the literary spin-off from intricate and difficult negotiations on Imlay's behalf while traveling in Scandinavia with her baby daughter and maid. On her return to London, her reaction to Imlay's repeated unfaithfulness was a second suicide attempt. Miraculously saved from drowning in the River Thames in October 1795, she lived to marry the philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836) in 1797. Wollstonecraft wrote the never-finished "Lessons" for her daughter Fanny and worked on a further development of her feminist ideas in the novel Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman (published posthumously in 1798), in which she presented an acute analysis of the intricate interrelation of class, gender, and love. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever on 10 September 1797, eleven days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary, the future Mary Shelley (1797–1851).
The publication by Godwin of Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman (1798) continued the trend of turning Wollstonecraft the celebrity into an object of censure on account of her unconventional personal life, by revealing details of her sexual history. Less than a century later, however, the suffragist movement found in Wollstonecraft a champion for their cause. As antidote to the appropriation of Wollstonecraft by a variety of feminist persuasions, scholarship of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has tended to concentrate on two areas: situating Wollstonecraft within the intellectual and social parameters of the late eighteenth century and making known further details of her eventful life. Mary Poovey (1984) discusses Wollstonecraft in relation to concepts of appropriate behavior of her time, and Barbara Taylor (2003) stresses the theistic framework of her thought. Lyndall Gordon's research on Mary Wollstonecraft's travels in Scandinavia (2005) reveals hitherto unknown details of that hazardous and demanding journey.
Todd, Janet, and Marilyn Butler, eds. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft. 7 volumes. London, 1989.
Gordon, Lyndall. Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus. London, 2005.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago, 1984.
Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote four books, the most influential of which was Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). This was the first major statement of feminism by an English writer, and in it Wollstonecraft argued that the French revolutionary principles of liberty and equality applied to women as much as to men. Though rambling and ill organized, it captured the public imagination by its verve and optimism for a future egalitarian society.
Tim S. Gray