Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Works: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Mary, A Fiction [a novel] (1788), Original Stories from Real Life (1788), Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), The Wrongs of Woman [a novel] (1798).

Biographical Notes: After leaving the home of her abusive, alcoholic father, Wollstonecraft worked through the range of "respectable" women's employment—"lady's companion," governess, schoolmistress—then found her vocation as a professional writer.  Her publisher and patron, Joseph Johnson, introduced her to a circle of leading radical thinkers (William Blake and Thomas Paine among them), and Wollstonecraft was outspokenly sympathetic to the French Revolution.  She became a passionate critic of all forms of oppression, writing on behalf of downtrodden nations, races, social classes—and of course, women.  After painful failed love relationships with Swiss painter Henry Fuseli and American writer and speculator Gilbert Imlay (with whom Wollstonecraft had a child, Fanny), and after two foiled suicide attempts, Wollstonecraft fell in love with the radical British philosopher and novelist William Godwin, whom she married after becoming pregnant.  Wollstonecraft died in childbirth; her daughter survived and later achieved fame of her own, as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet, Percy Shelley.

Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
Written in response to Edmund Burke's 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke condemned the Revolution, denying the egalitarian "rights" of men, and prophesying terror and chaos for France.  Wollstonecraft's answer to Burke contained important arguments against property, primogeniture, and class rank, though her work was quickly overshadowed by Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in 1791-92.

Wollstonecraft argued that civil and religious liberties were part of every man's inalienable birthright, calling the idle aristocracy "profligates of rank, emasculated by hereditary effeminacy."  She was contemptuous of Burke's castigation of the French for not gallantly defending their queen, Marie Antoinette: she mocked Burke, saying he had tears only for "the declamation of the theatre, or for the downfall of queens, whose rank alters the nature of folly, and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your consideration, though they might extort an alms."

Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Wollstonecraft took the same egalitarian principles she claimed for men in her first Vindication and applied them to women in what has been called "the feminist Declaration of Independence."  According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman presents the first fully elaborated feminist criticism of misogynist images of women in literature, as well as the first sustained argument for female political, economic, and legal equality. . . .  Wollstonecraft's impassioned plea against the miseducation of women constituted a groundbreaking demonstration of how the very protection offered women confirms them to the vices and virtues of an inferior class and thereby inhibits both women and men from establishing their common humanity."

The men of England (and most women, too) greeted Vindication of the Rights of Woman with derision and scorn.  Wollstonecraft was vilified by her contemporaries as "an unsex'd female," "a whore," "a philosophizing serpent," and by Horace Walpole, as "a hyena in petticoats."  Upon her death, Historical Magazine recommended that her works be read "with disgust by every female who has any pretensions to delicacy; with detestation by every one attached to the interests of religion and morality, and with indignation by anyone who might feel any regard for the unhappy woman, whose frailties should have been buried in oblivion."

Controversy and paradox:
purple bulletWollstonecraft, daughter of an erratic, alcoholic, ne'er-do-well father and a weak, acquiescent mother, became economically self-sufficient and at several points supported her father and brothers and sisters in addition to herself and her own family.

purple bulletIn part because of scandals in her personal life—mainly, open sexual relations without the sanction of marriage, in which she did not believe—Wollstonecraft faded quickly into oblivion, where she remained through most of the twentieth century.  As Wollstonecraft scholar Miriam Brody writes, "The name 'Wollstonecraft,' once considered synonymous with the destruction of all sacred virtues, disowned by the feminist movement as it marched for votes or pressed for admission to universities, became an obscure reference indeed."   Only in the past few decades has the unacknowledged "mother of modern feminism" been granted her important place in history.

purple bulletShe was a champion of reason, of rational progress in human affairs on both national/international and personal levels, but her passions were so great that she was driven to two suicide attempts in despair after failed loves.

purple bulletShe was England's first major feminist and champion of women's rights, but her need for a man's love was so great that she continued to pursue two lovers with letters and in person after they had clearly signaled an end to relations with her—Fuseli by marrying another woman, Imlay by repeated infidelities and finally, living with an actress.  With both Fuseli and his wife, and later with Imlay and his actress, she suggested "menages a trois" and was refused.

purple bulletWollstonecraft, the champion of motherhood, who took on in her writings the combined male might of Moses, Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, and Rousseau, died in childbirth.