Mary Wollstonecraft - (1759-1797)
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
The name Mary Wollstonecraft, should roll off the tongues of women as easily as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. The 18th century British author is best known for writing The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the most important books ever written championing women’s rights. Mary Wollstonecraft came to her strong, enlightened assertions through the trials, subjugations and depressions she suffered throughout her life and the tenacity to create from the ruins.
Mary’s life was a short and an emotional one. Her father was a wealthy, adulterous, alcoholic, ne’er do well landowner who physically abused his family. She became aware of the inequality of the sexes early on when her brother was afforded an inheritance and an education and she was not though she had as much, if not more, aptitude for learning. Mary left home as soon as she could and was employed at all the positions available to women of genteel birth... a nursemaid, a companion, needlepoint for compensation, a teacher and a governess.
One of Mary’s accomplishments was opening a school in the Newington Green area of London, with her friend Fanny Blood, and her sister, Eliza. An acquaintance that she had made during her time in Newington Green was with the liberal clergyman, Richard Price. He introduced Mary to a group of Enlightenment thinkers including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and a radical publisher named Joseph Johnson. The meetings that she attended with these thinkers were a high point in Mary’s life and provided her with the forum to develop and put forth her ideas.
After her friend’s Fanny's death, the failure of the Newington Green school and a disagreeable stint as a governess in Ireland, Mary returned to London depressed and with little in terms of funds. Desperately needing to work, Mary contacted Joseph Johnson and reinvented herself as a writer. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published by Joseph Johnson. Mary, a Fiction and the children’s book, Original Stories of Real Life followed. Mary then became an editor, critique writer and contributing author to Johnson’s literary magazine, Analytic Review.
The French Revolution was the topic of many a forum that Mary attended. Thomas Paine had written The Rights of Man defending the revolution. Mary wrote and had published anonymously The Vindication of the Rights of Man, in response to an article criticizing Paine’s treatise. Mary, deciding to put forth in one document all of her arguments for the equality for women then wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this momentous treatise, Mary dealt with the issues of women’s education, equality, rights, status and women’s roles in life.
With the French Revolution unfolding across the channel, Mary traveled to Paris to witness the historic movement and write a first hand account of the revolution. When the reign of terror began, Mary was disillusioned by the violence and corruption of ideals. During this time she met an American, Gilbert Imlay. Mary approached this relationship based on her modern ideas of equality, fell in love and the two became lovers. A daughter, Fanny Wollstonecraft Imlay, was born in the french city of La Havre. Mary began to see that Imlay was losing interest in her. Feeling vulnerable in the world with a child and without the safety of a husband, Mary followed Imlay from La Havre to Paris and then to London.
Mary became anxious, depressed and felt powerless in her attempts to regain Imlay’s affections. Despondent, Mary made a suicide attempt by jumping into the Thames river. Imlay rescued her. Shortly after her failed suicide attempt, Imlay sent Mary on a business mission for him to Scandinavia. While there, Mary channeled her passion and chronicled the political and social climate in Scandinavia through letters and journal entries. Mary returned to London to find Imlay living with an actress. Once again she tried to commit suicide and once again she was rescued by Imlay. Intent to lift herself from her depressive state and put Imlay out of her mind, once more Mary put pen to paper and wrote Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
After publication, Mary called upon William Godwin, a radical philosopher that she had met through Joseph Johnson and with whom she had had an oppositional relationship. Godwin softened his appraisal of Mary as a cold, aloof woman after reading the warmth and passion of her Letters book. Their relationship developed into an egalitarian love affair, neither wanting Mary to lose her identity through marriage... until, that is, Mary became pregnant. The couple wed at that point, however, they maintained separate residences in order for each to have the space in which to write. A daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (also known as Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein ) was born on August 30, 1797. Mary Wollstonecraft died 10 days later from septicemia, known at the time as childbed fever.
Published posthumously, in her last novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, Mary continued to put forth her ideas to improve women’s position in society through reform. Sadly, Mary’s reputation was inadvertently and grievously hurt by her grieving husband Godwin. In his written tribute to his deceased wife, called Memoir, Godwin described Mary’s unconventional lifestyle and out of wedlock pregnancies which served to destroy Mary’s reputation for over a century.
One of the many things I found noteworthy in Mary Wollstonecraft’s rationale for equality of the sexes, was her understanding of the human psyche. Mary was able to see that when a person's liberty, equality and agency are oppressed, they often resort to less than honorable behavior because they feel powerless and impotent to effect any real change. During the time she lived, women were often seen as deceitful, weak, vain, unreasonable and ignorant. Mary saw these characteristics as not part of feminine nature, but arising from not having the same freedoms and access to education as men did. Mary argued that the morality of men and women depended upon women being equal and educated. Otherwise, male imposed feminine frivolity would be the norm and loathed by all.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove, that their minds are not in a healthy state; for like flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed for beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity. One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on the subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives; and the understanding of the sex has been bubbled by this spacious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are mostly anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.”
Questions to ponder as you let Mary's story sink into your depths...
Mary Wollstonecraft did not live by the rules of the day, in fact she was considered a radical. She pushed the boundaries of the culture in terms of education, independence, sexuality, relationships, women's equality, roles and status. Although these boundary trespasses at times caused her pain, suffering and the censure of the public, they also gave her an expansion of mind and potential, a widened view of herself as a woman and fueled her writing. What can we learn from Mary's story about breaking through limiting thresholds to create a larger sense of self, our potential and develop our gifts?
In our often adolescent culture where youth is idolized and aging is threatening, we still see how women "fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity." How has social media, television, films, advertising, the multibillion dollar industry of anti-aging products and a superficial culture contributed to the sad condition of women still being molded into "alluring mistresses" rather than evolving, noble creatures that "by their abilities... exact respect"?
In her personal life, Mary's relationship with Gilbert Imlay was emotionally difficult. They were not married and they had a child together that changed her life but did not impact his. Mary suffered with post-partum depression, most likely exacerbated by Imlay repeatedly leaving her and Mary chasing him from town to town. We see in Mary, a woman who on the one hand had written extensively about gaining equality and being "rational" and on the other hand was highly emotionally reactive at times. We see a woman trying to courageously live by the same rights afforded men while living in an oppressive time for women. Mary was no different than so many important men in history who got a pass for their personal behavior and relationships, but due to her sex, Mary did not get a pass. In my opinion, Mary's sometimes erratic behavior simply points to her humanity. She was a whole person, at times exhibiting messy, earthy emotions, yet always a creative, influential trendsetter and feminist luminary. How many of us think we have to be close to perfect to use our voices and put forth our ideas? If we were to give ourselves the grace of a "pass" for our own, sometimes messy humanity, how much more fruitful might our lives be?
For a complete biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, please see the links below.