Mary Wollstonecraft is considered one of the most significant early feminist writers and thinkers. Her reputation suffered posthumously due to revelations about her personal life, but today she is viewed as one of the founders of feminist philosophy, and her work is essential reading for students and scholars.
She was born in London on April 27, 1759, to Edward John and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft. Edward inherited a sizable amount of money from his father, a master weaver, but mismanaged his finances as he moved the family from city to city trying to establish himself as a gentleman farmer. Mary’s brother Edward was the only child of seven to receive a formal education, but Mary became very well-read in the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, and some of the classical authors.
In 1778 she became the companion to a Mrs. Dawson and lived in Bath for a short time until her mother’s illness and subsequent death disrupted that arrangement. In Bath she developed scorn for the wealthy. She lived with another family in 1782, then joined her sister Eliza and Eliza’s new baby. This domestic situation was emotional and disruptive, and Mary encouraged her sister to leave her unhappy marriage, which Eliza did in January 1784, but the infant was left behind and soon died.
Mary, Eliza, and Fanny Blood, together with another Wollstonecraft sister, established a school in Newlington Green. During this time Mary met the Reverend Richard Price, who would become an intellectual mentor to her. She also met Joseph Johnson, her future publisher and friend, through Price, as well as other religious and social dissenters. Mary traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, to visit her friend Fanny, now expecting a child. Portugal was generally unpleasant for Mary, and her experience became worse with the deaths of Fanny and her child not long after childbirth. Returning from her travels to her school also was not as pleasant as she had hoped, since it was now in dire financial straits and she would continue to be in financial difficulty for most of her life. She did receive an advance from her publisher for her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the more important Duties of Life (1787), which somewhat ameliorated the situation.
When the school collapsed, Wollstonecraft became a governess, at one point traveling to Ireland with her charges and completing her first novel, Mary, A Fiction. She also completed Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788) and an anthology, The Female Reader; Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse; Selected from the Best Writers and Disposed under Proper Heads; for the Improvement of Young Women (1789), published under the pen name “Mr. Cresswick, teacher of Elocution.” She also translated several works during her lifetime and wrote for the Analytical Review, started by Joseph Johnson.
After reviewing a work by Richard Price on English patriotism and love of country, she was dismayed to see an attack on him by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (1790). This led to her publishing the Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and her establishment as a political writer (the first edition was published anonymously, but her name was on the second). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman followed not long after.
Wollstonecraft met Charles Talleyrand on his visit to London and dedicated her second volume of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman to him. On a 1792 voyage to France she met Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant and author, and fell madly in love with him. She posed as his wife in order to avoid persecution of British subjects during the Terror. They did not marry, and Imlay eventually left her, resulting in intense depression and suicide attempts. She did have one child by Imlay and named her Fanny. In 1796 she renewed her friendship with William Godwin, a philosopher, and they married in February 1797. Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), was born in August 1797. Godwin encouraged Wollstonecraft’s writing, and she completed The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria, a fictionalization of the famous Vindication.
Mary Wollstonecraft died of an infection on September 10, 1797, eleven days after the birth of her daughter. She is buried in the Old Saint Pancras Church cemetery.
Study Guides on Works by Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is often referred to as the founding text or manifesto of Western feminism. Nineteenth-century American feminists revered its author as their founding mother and read and...