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Mary Wollstonecraft: The Life and Works of a Self-Proclaimed “Shocking Incendiary”

Updated on September 17, 2012

Virginia Woolf may have put it best when she wrote that the ideas put forth in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, most notably A Vindication of the Rights of Men and her later work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “are so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them—their originality has become our commonplace” (170-1). An eighteenth century proponent of liberal feminism, Wollstonecraft believed that women’s capacity to reason was equal to that of men and advocated the advancement of women’s education, which she believed would allow them to reach their true potential both as wives and mothers and as human beings (Tomaselli). As widely accepted and “commonplace” as her beliefs have by now become, Wollstonecraft was widely maligned in her day as a “a radical revolutionary, an atheist, a slut, and a pathologically castrating threat to masculine authority” (Damrosch 227), partly in reaction to her works and partly in reaction to what many of her contemporaries viewed as her scandalous life story, frankly related after her death by her husband William Godwin in his Memoirs of the Author of a “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (Tomaselli). However, in spite of her early posthumous reputation, Wollstonecraft has influenced such prominent feminist figures as Emma Goldman and Virginia Woolf and is today frequently cited as the first English feminist (Tomaselli).

Born the granddaughter of a wealthy Spitalfields silk weaver, Wollstonecraft was the second of seven children and the eldest girl (Todd, Dictionary 330). Capitalizing on his father’s wealth, Wollstonecraft’s father became a gentleman farmer, squandering a great deal of the family inheritance in the process and “thrashing” Wollstonecraft’s mother with some regularity, according to Woolf (169). Wollstonecraft was additionally angered by the preferential treatment given to her eldest brother, who as his father’s heir was presented with educational opportunities withheld from the rest of the family, including the informally educated Mary (Todd, Dictionary 330). These early experiences with what Wollstonecraft must have viewed as male tyranny helped to shape her later views on the importance of women’s education and autonomy.

Throughout her life, Wollstonecraft held such occupations as were open to a woman of her social standing, serving variously as a lady’s companion, a governess, and a schoolteacher (Tomaselli). However, she frequently found the upper class women she served frivolous and empty-headed, and in spite of the stigma attached to her spinster status “felt that unthinking married women were her ‘inferiors’” (Todd, MaryWollstonecraft). In between jobs, Mary took time off to care for her family, nursing her ailing mother before her death and tending to her sister Eliza during her postnatal depression. Mary’s opposition to masculine oppression became clearly manifest in this second instance, as she convinced her sister to flee her unhappy marriage, leaving her newborn child behind. Met with criticism about the incident, Wollstonecraft defiantly wrote “I knew I should be the… shameful incendiary in this shocking affair of a woman’s leaving her bed-fellow” (Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft).

Perhaps as a result of witnessing the unhappy marriages of her mother and younger sister, Wollstonecraft remained unmarried until reaching her late thirties, instead becoming self-sufficient, first through the establishment of a school in 1784 in Newington Green, which quickly failed (Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft), and later, from 1787 onward, through work as a translator, reviewer, and editorial assistant for Joseph Johnson’s liberal journal the Analytical Review (Todd, Dictionary 331). It was through Johnson that Wollstonecraft became acquainted with other radicals of the time, including Thomas Paine, William Blake, and her own future husband, William Godwin (Todd, Dictionary 331). Wollstonecraft soon became known as a radical political thinker in her own right with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790.

This first of Wollstonecraft’s two famous Vindications defended the French Revolution and related republican sentiments in Great Britain against the criticism of Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France, and its 1792 follow-up, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, expanded on a few of the points mentioned in its predecessor, most significantly that women were not given the education required to be good wives, mothers, and human beings; to contribute to society; or to lead happy and fulfilled lives (Tomaselli). According to Wollstonecraft, women were encouraged to pursue the love of men to the exclusion of all other things. “Strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves—the only way women can rise in the world—by marriage,” wrote Wollstonecraft (234). Given this lacking education, she questioned, “Can [women] be expected to govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?” (234) Instead of teaching women mere ornamental accomplishments and valuing them for feminine delicacy, Wollstonecraft suggested that women’s reason should be cultivated and that they should learn skills required to support themselves and their families, so as to never have the need to marry out of financial necessity. Women so educated could take up professions if unmarried, reasoned Wollstonecraft, and their interests would span the range of human concerns, including the political life in which their education would qualify them to participate (Tomaselli). Hoping to influence politics herself, Wollstonecraft dedicated the book to Charles Talleyrand, hoping to influence the French education policies he was slated to form, making them more inclusive of women (Todd, Dictionary 331).

Later in 1792, Wollstonecraft set out for France to witness the Revolution and found herself disillusioned by the violence into which it descended. “I can scarely tell you why,” she ended one letter after witnessing the execution of Louis XVI, “I am going to bed, and for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle” (qtd. in Woolf 171). However, she stuck to her support of the revolutionary principles of freedom and reason, writing both in defense of the revolutionaries’ original intent and in condemnation of their ultimate violence in her 1794 An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (Todd, Dictionary 331).

It was also during her stay in France that she met the American author and Revolutionary War veteran Gilbert Imlay and fell deeply in love. When war broke out between Great Britain and France, she registered as his wife in order to avoid arrest as an Englishwoman. However, they never married. Wollstonecraft bore Imlay one child, a daughter named Fanny, out of wedlock, and upon subsequently discovering his philanderings with other women, attempted suicide twice, failing both times before finally deciding to leave the affair behind her in 1796 (Todd, Dictionary 331).

Returning to her work with Joseph Johnson, Wollstonecraft became reacquainted with William Godwin, with whom she formed a far more stable relationship than she had had with Imlay. Of their affair, Godwin would later write in his Memoirs, “It was friendship melting into love” (Woolf 175). Godwin encouraged Wollstonecraft in the composition of her final, unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, which explores the oppression of women of differing social classes, including, in a bold move for Wollstonecraft’s time, a prostitute. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant with Godwin’s child, she convinced him to marry her, in spite of his views against the institution of marriage and her own desire for autonomy, in order to provide the coming baby with the benefit of a legitimate birth. (Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft). However, always unconventional, the couple retained separate dwellings (Tomaselli, Damrosch 228). Unfortunately, complications followed the delivery, and Wollstonecraft died ten days after giving birth to a girl who would one day become Mary Shelley, the great romantic novelist and author of Frankenstein (Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft).

Shortly after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an account which candidly detailed Wollstonecraft’s life, including her involvement in her sister’s separation from her husband, her affair with Imlay, and her suicide attempts. Because of this, Wollstonecraft was largely demonized as a “prostitute” and an “unsex’d female,” and very few feminists would openly admit to being influenced by her writings until the twentieth century. Instead, Wollstonecraft’s call for female education went largely unreferenced by her more conservative feminist successors because of the demand for sexual freedom that her life implied (Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft). However, future biographers worked to revive Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and the less conservative twentieth century saw a renewed interest in her work and a more sympathetic interpretation of her life. Wollstonecraft herself seems aware that, as one ahead of her time, she was to face criticism and outright slander, as she wrote in her last published work: “All the world is a stage, thought I, and few are there in it who do not play the part they have learnt by rote; and those who do not, seem marks set up to be pelted at by fortune; or rather as signposts, which point out the road to others” (qtd. in Todd, Dictionary 333).

Works Cited

"Mary Wollstonecraft." Longman Anthology of English Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 2nd ed. Vol. 2A. Addison-Wesley Educational, 2003. 227-29. Print.

Todd, Janet. "British History in depth: Mary Wollstonecraft: A 'Speculative and Dissenting Spirit'" BBC - Homepage. BBC, 05 Nov. 2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2010. <>.

Todd, Janet. "Wollstonecraft." A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800. Ed. Janet Todd. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985. 330-33. Print.

Tomaselli, Sylvana. "Mary Wollstonecraft." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 16 Apr. 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2010. <>.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. "A Vindication on the Rights of Women." Longman Anthology of English Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 2nd ed. Vol. 2A. Addison-Wesley Educational, 2003. 230-57. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. "Four Figures." The Second Common Reader. Rahway, NJ: Quinn & Boden Company,, 1932. 168-76. Print.


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