Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

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Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

Writer for reformist, radical, and feminist causes, and first British feminist, who is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , an analysis of the injustices and disadvantages women suffered as a result of social, economic, political, and educational inequality . Name variations: Mary Imlay; Mary Godwin; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Pronunciation: WALL-stun-craft. Born Mary Wollstonecraft on April 21, 1759, probably at Spitalfields, a district at the eastern edge of London, England; died on September 10, 1797, in London, following complications of childbirth; second of seven children of Edward John Wollstonecraft (a weaver and unsuccessful farmer) and Elizabeth (Dickson) Wollstonecraft; attended village day schools, largely self-educated; had liaison with Gilbert Imlay, 1793; married William Godwin, in 1797; children: (with Imlay) Fanny Imlay (b. 1794); Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797–1851).

Father lost most of a substantial inheritance through incompetence; family moved frequently and became virtually dysfunctional; met Fanny Blood (1775), with whom she established a fervent longterm friendship; left home to go to Bath as a paid companion (1778); returned home to nurse her dying mother (1781); after mother's death, lived with the Blood family; "rescued" her sister Eliza from her husband's home following her postpartum breakdown (1784); established schools at Islington, then Newington Green with Fanny Blood and sisters Eliza and Everina; visited Fanny, who married (1785) in Lisbon, and found her dying in childbirth; returned to England to find the school had foundered (1786); wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; took a position as governess with Kingsborough family; dismissed by Lady Kingsborough (1787); her novel, Mary, A Fiction, published by Joseph Johnson, printer of works by radical writers; hired by Johnson to write for the Analytical Review; earned an independent living as a reviewer, translator, and writer of fiction and children's stories (1788–90); wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France; published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and went to Paris to observe the French Revolution (1792); met and established relationship with Gilbert Imlay; daughter Fanny Imlay born in LeHavre (1793); made first suicide attempt (May 1795); visited Scandinavian countries with infant daughter; made second suicide attempt (October 1795); renewed acquaintance with William Godwin, radical social and political philosopher (1796); married Godwin (March 1797); died ten days after the birth of their daughter, Mary (September 1797).

Major writings:

(a book on the education and conduct of women) Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787); (a novel) Mary, A Fiction (1788); (a collection of tales for children) Original Stories (1788); (an anthology for women) The Female Reader (1789); (a defense of freedom and liberalism written in response to Burke's Reflections) A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790); (treatise on the disabilities and injustices suffered by women) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); (an account based on her residence in France) An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794); (travelogue and social commentary) Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796); (an unfinished novel published posthumously) The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria (1798).

Mary Wollstonecraft, the first important English feminist, was the second of seven children and the oldest daughter of Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dickson Wollstonecraft . The family included Mary's older brother Ned; two sisters, Eliza and Everina Wollstonecraft ; Henry, who died in infancy; and brothers James and Charles. Edward Wollstonecraft inherited a substantial fortune from his father, a member of the new manufacturing class, who amassed considerable capital by organizing the weaving industry in London and investing his earnings well. But Mary's father and mother, a young woman whose family came from County Donegal in Ireland, did not like London or the weaving trade. Hoping to rise in social status as a gentleman farmer, Edward moved his young family to a series of farms, settling first in the Epping Forest on the outskirts of London in 1763, then at Barking in Essex in 1765. Neither venture proved successful.

From 1768 to 1774, the family lived on a farm at Beverley in Yorkshire, where Wollstonecraft seems to have experienced the most stability of her early years. She enjoyed the freedom of exploring the surrounding countryside, and proved an eager and quick student at the day schools of the town, where she was to receive practically all of her formal education. One can trace Wollstonecraft's later views on social and sexual relationships and her often somber temperament to these formative years from age nine to fifteen when she witnessed the deterioration of her family. She saw her father fritter away his fortune, as well as any portion of it that might have come to his children, through incompetence and extravagance as he indulged a country squire's fondness for horses and alcohol. As his family grew and his prospects declined, his temper became increasingly uncontrolled and abusive. Wollstonecraft later described memories of a childhood in which she often protected her submissive mother from the drunken rages of her father, sometimes sleeping on the landing outside their bedroom in the event that she should have to intervene to shield her mother from physical violence.

Her mother favored and spoiled her oldest son, Ned, who was heir to one-third of his grandfather's

fortune; she seemed to give her attention and affection to each new baby that came along while subjecting Mary, as the oldest daughter, to severe discipline. In time, her mother's resignation to her unhappy marital life gave way to passivity and indifference, and she showed little interest in or affection for her family. Feeling neglected on the grounds of both her sex and age, Mary became a solitary child, roaming the countryside and preferring the company of animals to people. During these years, she developed an abiding hatred of tyranny, cruelty, and the exercise of irrational authority. Her family situation also created in her the seemingly contradictory emotional tendencies that influenced her unconventional adult behavior: a yearning for freedom and independence on the one hand and, on the other, an intense need for loyal, accepting love and secure family relationships.

[W]e hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.

Virginia Woolf

Despite her eagerness to learn, the education Wollstonecraft received at the village day schools taught her little more than to read and write. Although her brother Ned was sent to a good grammar school and marked early for a career in law, the family's declining fortunes ruled out the possibility of a governess for the Wollstonecraft daughters or boarding school for Mary. She grew to adolescence nurturing a sense of grievance as her family's passive acceptance of failure and increasing poverty seemed to narrow her chances for independence and a satisfying life. She yearned for affection, and found an outlet for her emotional intensity in jealous and demanding friendships, first with Jane Arden when she was 14, and then, at 16, with Fanny Blood , a young woman two years her senior who had a strong and lasting influence on Wollstonecraft's life.

Mary met Fanny Blood after the Wollstonecrafts abandoned farming and moved back to Hoxton, on the outskirts of London, in 1774. A neighboring cleric and his wife, who took an interest in Mary and encouraged her self-education through reading, introduced her to Fanny, whose family situation seemed to mirror her own. Unlike Wollstonecraft, however, Blood had managed to develop her talents and assume some responsibility for her improvident family's wellbeing with competence and good spirits. She helped to support her family by selling her drawings. Wollstonecraft was attracted to Blood as a role model who inspired her to develop her abilities and assert her autonomy in a family drifting toward moral and financial ruin. When her father made one last attempt at farming by relocating to Wales in 1776, Mary maintained her attachment to Fanny through letters, and dreamed of a day when she and Fanny could live together and earn their own living. Then when her family's latest venture failed, Mary persuaded her father to move back to Walworth, south of London, where she was within easy visiting distance of Fanny.

As her family life continued to deteriorate, Mary asserted her independence by accepting—against her parents' wishes—a position as a paid companion to a widowed Mrs. Dawson at Bath. In one of the few paid occupations open to women of her class and education, Wollstonecraft, at 19, observed for the first time what she judged as the frivolous and unproductive life led by the fashionable, wealthy, leisured class of her day. Although her new position was far from the ideal of independence she had hoped for, it seemed a decided improvement on her situation at home.

She remained with Mrs. Dawson for two years, until she was called home to nurse her dying mother in the autumn of 1781. Elizabeth Wollstonecraft's death in April 1872 dissolved any ties that might have kept the family together; shortly thereafter, Mary went to live at Walham Green with the Bloods. Her father remarried and returned to Wales. Her sister Eliza married Meredith Bishop in October, and her sister Everina went to live with their older brother Ned, who was married and practicing law in London. Her brother James went to sea, and Charles, her youngest brother, was eventually indentured to Ned. Throughout her life, Mary felt a responsibility for the welfare of her younger sisters and brothers, who did not share Ned's good fortune in receiving an inheritance from his grandfather as the oldest son.

Mary lived with the Bloods for two years, contributing to the support of the household by helping with the eye-straining needlework Mrs. Blood did for meager compensation. Over time, the relationship between Mary and Fanny changed. Mary had previously idealized Fanny as a model of competence and strength, but now her friend showed signs of unhappiness and dependence. Fanny had been engaged for some time to Hugh Skeys, who had moved to Lisbon without setting a marriage date; Mary blamed Skeys for Fanny's declining spirits and health, and became a source of support and strength for Fanny, who was, in fact, in the early stages of consumption.

Soon another unhappy relationship was to trouble Wollstonecraft. Her sister Eliza suffered a breakdown following the birth of her daughter in August 1783. When her condition did not improve by November, her husband sent for Mary to help. Wollstonecraft wrote Everina that she found Eliza with "her mind in a most unsettled state." According to Ralph Wardle, Mary concluded that "the root of Eliza's trouble … [was] a profound aversion which she had taken to her husband." In January, with some help from Fanny and Everina, Mary stole Eliza away from her home, husband, and baby, convinced that only separation from Bishop could heal her sister's ravaged mind. Mary wrote Everina that as they fled across London, Eliza, in her terror of being caught in this flagrant act of rebellion against sacred law and honored social convention, "bit her wedding ring to pieces."

After living in hiding with Eliza for about a month, Mary announced that she, Eliza, and Fanny would open a school together. Their first attempt, at Islington, failed, but a second attempt at Newington Green proved successful. Everina joined them, and for awhile it appeared that Wollstonecraft had managed to establish a community of independent, self-supporting women.

Newington Green had a century-long tradition of attracting religious Dissenters, political reformers, and dissident intellectuals. Here Wollstonecraft first came into contact with thinkers whose radical social and political views influenced her later writings. Through the famous Dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price and his friends, Wollstonecraft discovered a rational intellectual tradition that substantiated views regarding social and personal relationships she had developed through her own experience. Having acquired both a circle of sympathetic friends and a degree of financial independence, Wollstonecraft felt for the first time that a happy and useful life might be within her reach.

This new-found optimism about the future was tempered by concern for Fanny's health, which grew steadily worse. Hugh Skeys finally sent for Fanny to join him in Lisbon in 1784; they were married in February, and Fanny immediately became pregnant. In November, Wollstonecraft went to Lisbon to be with her friend during childbirth. On her arrival, she found Fanny already in labor and so weakened by rapidly advancing tuberculosis that there was no hope she would survive. Within days of the birth, both Fanny and her child were dead. As she relived in memory her earlier passionate and idealized love of Fanny, Wollstonecraft mourned her friend with bitter grief.

Wollstonecraft returned to England emotionally exhausted to find the school disintegrating and the Blood family devastated by Fanny's death and once more in desperate financial straits. Almost overwhelmed by failure, debt, and depression, Mary wrote that she wished to die. Then with a characteristic recovery of energy and determination, she turned to a new direction by writing Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, for which she received an advance from Joseph Johnson, a publisher with Dissenting and radical tendencies, through whose friendship and help she later established her career as a writer. The book, rapidly written and fairly conventional in its pedagogical views, did not attract a great deal of attention; its importance lies in the way it sketches, in rudimentary form and somewhat random order, Wollstonecraft's emerging ideas regarding the role of education in shaping the social destiny of women. She spent the earnings of this first literary effort to send the Blood family to Ireland to make a fresh start.

Still faced with mounting debts, Wollstonecraft hastily learned French in order to take a position, obtained through friends of Dr. Price, as governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough in County Cork, Ireland. It was a position ill-suited for a woman of her pride and experience. As she waited patiently but fruitlessly for her charges to join her at Eton for the trip to Ireland, she once again experienced the disdain she had felt at Bath for the idle life, inconsiderate behavior, and shallow values of the privileged class. Once in Ireland, Wollstonecraft gained the affection and respect of her wards, but the awkward social position of a governess, privileged among servants but subject to the whims and desires of her employers, proved difficult for Wollstonecraft to maintain. She was discharged by Lady Kingsborough after ten months of service.

Upon her return to London in 1787 at age 28, Wollstonecraft was, as Claire Tomalin writes, "homeless again, without a job or a reference; she had nothing to live on, and she was in debt to several people." While in Ireland, however, she had prepared herself for a career as a writer by reading extensively in contemporary British and continental literature. She had also completed her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, based in part on her relationship with Fanny Blood, in part on her experiences with the Kingsboroughs, and held together by the conventions of popular fiction of sentiment and sensibility. Immediately upon her return to London, she went to Joseph Johnson's print shop in St. Paul's Churchyard with her manuscript. Johnson, the major English publisher of radical and reformist books, invited her to make his house her home for the time being and proposed to set her up in a house of her own while she undertook work for him, particularly in the expanding market of books aimed at women and children. She was to become, as she announced to Everina in a letter, the "first of a new genus" of women who could earn their livings as professional writers, reviewers, and editorial assistants.

In 1788, Johnson published two books by Mary Wollstonecraft: her novel Mary, A Fiction, and Original Stories from Real Life, a book for children, which was illustrated with engravings by William Blake in its second edition. Between 1788 and 1792, she wrote reviews, did translations, and assisted in the production of the Analytical Review, a new monthly periodical with a liberal and radical perspective founded by Johnson and his colleagues. She also compiled an anthology of prose and verse entitled The Female Reader.

Johnson's shop served as a center for radical and unconventional thinkers. Joseph Priestly, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, William Blake, Anna Letitia Barbauld , William Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge all at one time or another had associations with Johnson. Wollstonecraft thrived in this heady atmosphere, where she met, probably in 1788, Henry Fuseli, the flamboyant artist and scholar who excited her admiration, respect, and eventually love. Even though Fuseli had recently married, Wollstonecraft, convinced of the purity of her love, made no attempt to conceal her feelings from either Fuseli or their friends; nor did Fuseli seem to discourage her apparently hopeless pursuit of his attention and affection.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 and the excitement it created among Johnson's circle provided a saving distraction from this unhappy infatuation for Wollstonecraft. She sublimated her passion for Fuseli by becoming a fervent supporter of the principles of the Revolution. When Edmund Burke, alarmed by the implications of radical British sympathy for the revolutionaries, responded with his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft was inspired to refute his reactionary stance. She quickly wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which made up in passionate conviction for what it lacked in reasoned argument. This first published reply to Burke (the most famous would be Thomas Paine's Rights of Man), printed anonymously in the first edition, became immediately popular, and when it was published in its second edition under her name, Wollstonecraft found herself famous and controversial.

Encouraged by the reception of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft soon began the work on which her reputation as a feminist of first importance and lasting influence rests, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the first sustained argument for female emancipation. According to William Godwin, she spent only six weeks on the composition of the work for which her whole life was in effect a preparation. Published in 1792, A Vindication affirms that the "rights of man" championed by the philosophical radicals imply also the rights of women. As Miriam Brody points out, before Wollstonecraft, "there were works suggesting the reform of female manners or proposals for improving female education, but there was no single-minded criticism of the social and economic system which created a double standard of excellence for male and female and relegated women to an inferior status." Wollstonecraft asserts that women are human beings before they are sexual beings, that they have the same rational capacity to effect their moral perfectibility as men, and that the social, economic, and political inequities and disadvantages under which they live result from social conditions and customary assumptions about the natures of women and men, not from inherent "inferiority."

Following the publication of the Vindication, Wollstonecraft planned a trip to Paris with Johnson and Henry and Sophia Fuseli , but news of trouble and danger in France caused them to stop at Dover. In fact, recent reports of revolutionary excesses such as massacres and executions were dampening the ardor of many English supporters of the Revolution. The party returned to London, and Wollstonecraft then proposed to Sophia that she be admitted to the Fuseli household on a permanent basis as Fuseli's "spiritual partner." Sophia, outraged, ordered Wollstonecraft never to return to their house. Wollstonecraft seems to have finally recognized the futility of her ardor, and rather than indulge her personal unhappiness in London, she determined to go to France alone to view the political situation at firsthand. There she was welcomed as the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman by a group of international literary and political writers.

By the end of 1792, she found herself in the midst of a frightening political crisis. Although she was still committed to the ideals of the Revolution, Wollstonecraft's lifelong revulsion against cruelty made her sympathize, despite her contempt for the claims of divine right and aristocracy, with the imprisoned King Louis XIV. In February 1793, France declared war on England, and by spring the situation in Paris had deteriorated to rioting, vandalism, and destruction of unpopular presses. Foreigners in France fell under suspicion, and Wollstonecraft considered leaving for Switzerland, but could not get an appropriate passport.

Then in April 1793 she met Gilbert Imlay, an American entrepreneur, author, and adventurer; soon she became involved in an affair that would bring her brief periods of happiness in a stormy relationship that lasted for three years. Although both claimed indifference to the bonds of formal marriage, Imlay registered Mary as his wife at the American Embassy to protect her when the Terror put English citizens in France in danger, and Wollstonecraft sometimes assumed his name for the sake of convenience. The two lived together in France briefly, and Imlay was with Wollstonecraft when their daughter Fanny Imlay —named for Fanny Blood—was born in Le Havre in May 1794. It seems unlikely, however, that he ever anticipated the kind of permanent union Wollstonecraft seemed to wish for. As their incompatibility grew more apparent, Imlay spent most of his time separated from Wollstonecraft, pursuing affairs of business and pleasure. She occupied herself in Paris during his extended absence in the winter of 1794 by finishing her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, in which she reaffirmed her faith in the principles that inspired the Revolution at the same time that she deplored violence as means of achieving a reformed social order.

When Imlay remained evasive regarding plans for a future together, Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795 in the hopes of making the relationship work. She found Imlay unwilling to set up house with her—he was involved in a new affair—and in her loneliness and depression made her first suicide attempt, probably with laudanum. She was revived by friends, and an alarmed Imlay asked her to undertake a journey to the Scandinavian countries as his business emissary. Wollstonecraft agreed and spent three months traveling on his behalf under difficult conditions with her infant daughter and a nurse.

Upon her return to London, Wollstonecraft was humiliated to learn that Imlay was preparing to set up house with an actress. She wrote a suicide letter to Imlay, walked to Battersea Bridge on the Thames, and decided the dismal spot she had chosen was too public for her plan. She hired a boat and rowed alone upstream to Putney Bridge, where she climbed to the railings and jumped into the darkness. Although she had first stood in the cold October rain to soak her clothes so that she would sink quickly, some boatmen who saw her fall fished her unconscious floating body from the river and took her to a public house where a doctor revived her.

Upon her physical and mental recovery, Wollstonecraft set about once again to mend the pieces of her shattered life. She moved to new lodgings, began reviewing again for Johnson, and prepared a new edition of Original Stories. She asked Imlay to return the letters she had written during her Scandinavian journey and published them in 1796 as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The book contains some of Wollstonecraft's best and most lyrical writing in a travelogue that combines fine descriptions of the countries she visited and acute observations of the people and social conditions she encountered with a melancholy record of her need for love, her tortured relationship with Imlay, and her tender affection for Fanny.

In April 1796, Wollstonecraft renewed her earlier acquaintance with William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) had established his reputation as the leading radical philosopher in England, and whose latest book, Caleb Williams, a novel, illustrated the flaws of the social system he attacked in Political Justice. Their friendship, based on their compatible political and social views and their situations as isolated and unregenerate radicals in an era that had become increasingly conservative, soon developed into passionate love. By December, Mary had reason to believe she was pregnant.

Imlay, Fanny (1794–1816)

Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft . Name variations: Fanny Imlay Godwin. Born in Le Havre, France, in May 1794; committed suicide in September 1816; illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and Gilbert Imlay; half-sister of Mary Shelley (1797–1851).

Seven of Fanny Imlay's letters, written the year of her death, are included in The Clairmont Correspondence, published by Johns Hopkins in 1996. (See also Shelley, Mary.)

Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin opposed marriage as an artificial bond that could corrupt a freely chosen relationship between individuals. Godwin was so famous for his opposition to cohabitation that it was difficult for him and Wollstonecraft to announce their marriage at St. Pancras Church in March 1797 to their friends. The marriage was in some respects unconventional: both partners kept up their established friendships and visited independently of one another, and Godwin maintained a separate residence where he did his work. Perhaps because of this recognition of one another's individual needs, the marriage was a happy one.

Wollstonecraft had only a few months, however, in which to enjoy her long-sought and hard-won happiness. During her pregnancy, she worked on a second novel, The Wrongs of Women, or Maria, and an essay on childrearing, Letters on the Management of Infants. Having little patience with the tradition of a month-long confinement following childbirth, and anticipating an easy delivery with an experienced midwife's assistance, Wollstonecraft planned to join Godwin at dinner the day after their child's birth. Instead, she suffered a long and painful labor. She delivered a daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley ), on August 30, but failed to deliver the placenta. On the advice of the midwife, Godwin called in an obstetrician, who found the placenta broken, attempted to remove the pieces, and undoubtedly introduced infection in the process. Wollstonecraft appeared to recover, but within a few days, she showed symptoms of the onset of septicemia. She died of the infection on September 10. The daughter she gave birth to would become the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the author of Frankenstein.

Most of the biographical information we have regarding Wollstonecraft is derived from the book Godwin began to write as a tribute to his wife within two weeks of her death, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which described her life with the honesty characteristic of both Wollstonecraft and Godwin. Its candor in describing her personal beliefs and behavior, her love affairs, pregnancies, and suicide attempts did little to rehabilitate her reputation with a public that had regarded her as a threat to social and domestic order. The book, in fact, seemed to strike a blow at both liberal and feminist causes; Wollstonecraft's life and death became, for the Tory press, a cautionary tale of the dangers of feminist and radical thought and principles. The pioneer of feminism was thus subject for nearly a century to the neglect resulting from a conservative atmosphere in which reference to her life and works would bring discredit to feminist causes. Even John Stuart Mill did not acknowledge her ideas or example in his essay On the Subjection of Women in 1869. It remained for the 20th century to rediscover, reevaluate, and reach a just appreciation of Mary Wollstonecraft's courageous life and influential body of work.


Brody, Miriam. Introduction, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. NY: Penguin, 1992.

Ferguson, Moira, and Janet Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.

Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.

George, Margaret. One Woman's "Situation": A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Godwin, William. Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. by W. Clark Durant. London: Constable, 1927.

Lorch, Jennifer. Mary Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Radical Feminist. NY: St. Martin's, 1990.

Sunstein, Emily W. A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. NY: Harper & Row, 1975.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974.

Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1951.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Edited with an Introduction by Miriam Brody. NY: Penguin Classics, 1992.

Woolf, Virginia. "Mary Wollstonecraft," in The Second Common Reader. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1932.

suggested reading:

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. NY: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Patricia B. Heaman , Ph.D., Professor of English, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

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Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

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