Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759 to 1797, a slut and radical revolutionary, an atheist, and a pathologically castrating threat to masculine authority. Boy, I like this woman. As well, she was an advocate for the education of young women, the virtues of sense over sensibility, chastity for men as well as women, school uniforms, and regular physical exercise. Although she was infamous, she did famously publish “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” which earned her place in histories categorical classification under controversial personalities.
Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759 at Primrose Street, Spitalfields, London. She was born into a modestly affluent family, but under the cloud of a father’s drunken violence against her mother. Wollstonecrafts’ mother submitted to her husband’s abusive behavior without protest. Her mother idolized her eldest son, Edward or Ned, to the point where “in comparison with her affection for him, it may be suggested that she did not love the rest of her children. Ned received a gentleman’s eduction. Mary received some education at a day school in Beverly, Yorkshire, where she learned to read and write. The passionate indignation with which Mary later inveighed against the disparity between men and women’s educational opportunities was anger acquired at first hand.
By the end of the 1770s the Wollstonecraft family resources had sunk to a low ebb. Poverty seriously underminded a middle-class woman’s opportunities on the marriage market, while remaining unwed reduced her status and life chances even further. Throughout the eighteenth century employment opportunities for women were thin; teaching, governessing, needlework, or serving as a lady’s companion. By the late 1780s, Mary had done and hated them all. However, there was some literary work available to women. In 1786, while running a failing girls’ school in London, Wollstonecraft opted to try her hand in the work of literary pursuits. Her first book, a didactic tract on female manners titled “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,” and it earned her ten pounds. Wollstonecraft was proud of being an author, as she boasted in a letter to her sister Eliza.
In 1786 Wollstonecraft was introduced tyo Joseph Johnson. Johnson was a large-minded man with an appreciation of ability regardless of sex. Johnson published her “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.” Wollstonecraft was fired from her teaching post as governess to the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland. Johnson employed Wollstonecraft to write on a regular basis for his new literary review, the “Analystical Review.” Johnson encouraged Wollstonecraft to write about her radical political ideals. By the mid-1790s, Wollstonecraft had become the best-known female political writer in Europe.
In London Wollstonecraft became part of Johnson’s lively circle of artists, writers, liberal political thinkers, progressive philosophers, and religious Dissenters―among them, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Tom Paine, William Blake, Joel Barlow, Joseph Priestley, Fuseli, and Godwin. Blake and Robert Southey were completely enamored of her, though Godwin was at first put off by her forwardness in conversation. In 1790 Johnson published her “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” a rapid response to Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France;” it was anonymous, and when Wollstonecraft signed her name to the second edition, her fame was established.
In 1791 and early 1792, Wollstonecraft began writing “Rights of Woman.” Wollstonecraft spent time with Talleyrand, the French minister of education. On Talleyrand visit to London, Wollstonecraft dedicated “Rights of Woman” to him. Wollstonecraft’s reasonable, modest proposals for the improved education and social development of young women were etched with acid comparisons of the state of women to that of plantation and harem slaves, equally oppressed, tyrannized, and brutalized by morally illegitimate masters. Wollstonecraft called for a “revolution in female manners,” arguing that no agenda for “the rights of man” could claim moral authority if it entailed the unchanged degradation of women.
Wollstonecraft left for Paris to witness Revolutionary France at the end of 1792. Paris in 1793 was a dangerous world, still reeling from the September massacres of 1792 and the arrest and trial of Louis XVI, who was beheaded in January 1793. Over the course of this year, the Reign of Terror claimed thousands more, including Wollstonecraft’s friend Madame Roland and Queen Marie Antoinette. Wollstonecraft left Paris to seek safety in the suburbs, but returned to register as Imlay’s wife at the American embassy in order to gain protection as an American citizen. In early 1794, Wollstonecraft and Imlay went to Le Havre, where their daughter Fanny was born. They returned to Paris; then Imlay went London, leaving his wife and daughter behind.
Wollstonecraft later that year published “Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution.” Wollstonecraft returned to London, but found Imlay living with an actress. Wollstonecraft tried to kill herself, but Imlay prevented her attempt. During the summer of 1795, Imlay sent Wollstonecraft, Fanny and a French nurse on a dangerous trip to Scandinavia. In October Wollstonecraft returned to London, to find Imlay with another actress, and decided to jump off the bridge into the Thames, but to no avail. In November Imlay left for Paris with his new love, and Wollstonecraft published her letters to him recording her experiences in Scandinavia. When “Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark” appeared the following year, Godwin exclaimed, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.”
Godwin and Wollstonecraft became friends again in January 1796 and by the summer, “friendship melting into love,” they became lovers. By the end of the year, Wollstonecraft became pregnant and they set aside principle and decided to marry. In March they wed, but insisted on keeping separate residences. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, was born in August, and ten days later her mother, having suffered agonizing pain from poisoning by an incompletely expelled placenta was dead at the age of thirty-seven.
Attacks on Wollstonecraft’s character and conduct persisted well into the 1970s, not only stigmatizing the arguments of her writing but providing antifeminists w3ith fuel to impugn and advocacy of woman’s rights. Yet there persisted a community of admiration for her courage and intelligence, including for better or worse Percy Shelley, and over ensuing decades, such women of intellect as George Eliot, Emma Goldman, and Virginia Woolf.
“The Longman Anthology, British Literature,” Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Fourth Edition, Volume 2A, The Romantics and Their Contemporaries, Wolfson, Susan and Peter Manning, Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, Print.
“Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,” In Association with The British Academy, Ed. Matthew, H.C.G and Brian Harrison, Volume 59, Wilks-Wolman, Oxford University Press, 2004, Print.