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Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication for Women's Rights

Updated on February 11, 2016

Mary Wollstonecraft – mother of feminism

Mary Wollstonecraft lived during the Age of Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), an era when traditional institutions, values, customs, morals and ideas were being questioned. This era gave rise to the “rights of man” and the American and French Revolutions. Often called the “mother of feminism,” her Vindication on the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, advocated for equality of the sexes and was influential in the doctrine of the women’s movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Born in 1759 in London, Wollstonecraft was the second of six children. Her family suffered financially when her father wasted an inheritance. When she was 19, she started a school with her sister. Her experience led her to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787).


The beginning of her radicalization

When Wollstonecraft was a member of the Unitarian chapel at Newington Green, she became friends with its minister, Richard Price. Through him, she met many of the leading intellectuals and radicals of the day, including Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley and Joseph Johnson.

In 1788, she became a translator and literary advisor to Johnson and was a frequent contributor to his Analytical Review. A year later, her friend, Richard Price, gave a sermon that would spark a debate between Edmund Burke and Wollstonecraft.

In his sermon, Price congratulated the French National Assembly, arguing that the French Revolution had opened up the potential for religious and civil freedom with its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Price also believed the world could be made better through human effort.

At least one man disagreed with his views. Although an earlier defender of the American Revolution, Burke argued in Reflections on the French Revolution that the Revolution would bring chaos and disorder. Angry that Burke turned his back on what she considered God-given rights of civil and religious liberty, Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Man as a rebuttal. She also criticized Burke for what she felt was misplaced sympathy for the women of the displaced French aristocracy and said he ignored the many more thousands of women who had suffered under the old regime.


A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Her next treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), expanded on the plight of women, including the lack of education available to them. The book explored women’s equality, women’s status, women’s rights and the role of public/private, and political/domestic life, all of which had not been addressed before. Rights of Woman reached a wide audience, making its way to America, where it was read by Judith Sargent Murray and Abigail Adams.

Wollstonecraft went on to write Maria, or the Wrongs of a Woman (1798), in which she argued that women had strong sexual desires and An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution which was criticized the violence of the French Revolution.

While in Paris, Wollstonecraft met and agreed to become Gilbert Imlay’s common law wife and in1794, she bore him a daughter, Fanny. After Imlay deserted her, she returned to London where, flouting social convention of the time, called upon fellow Analytical Review writer William Godwin at his home.

Although both rejected marriage as a form of tyranny because women had no legal rights after marriage, they eventually married in spring 1797 because Wollstonecraft was pregnant. A daughter, Mary, was born at the end of August and on September 10 Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicimia.

Nearly a century later, in 1881, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated their History of Women’s Suffrage to her.


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    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks for the votes up, HBN. I first heard of Mary Wollstonecaft many years ago while in school; my minor is in women's studies. You're right that she must have had a strong sense of self to be such an advocate, although I imagine she mush have had her moments of doubt. I'm not sure I could be so brave and but thank goodness for those among us who are.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      Fascinating hub about a woman whose name I had never heard of, and who was, from this account, an amazing advocate for women's rights. It must have taken a great amount of courage, self-esteem and self-confidence to write about and advocate for the correction of the many injustices she saw. It is ironic that the feminine role of childbirth led to her death while she was only in her thirties. One wonders how much more she could have accomplished had she lived longer, yet one is also in awe that she was able to accomplish as much as she did. Thanks for sharing this important and well written hub. I'm voting it up, useful, beautiful and awesome.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      Hi Lisa HW,

      thanks for stopping by to read my hub. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. I hope you were able to read some my others on women's issues/history.

    • Lisa HW profile image

      Lisa HW 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      I enjoyed this nicely done and informative Hub about this woman, whose name isn't exactly a household name. It think it's always nice to see these often forgotten, or else never known about, women in history have their stories given a little more prominence by way of the Internet (and Hubs, in particular, of course).

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Danette, I'm filled with awe and admiration. Wonderful recap of Mary W's life and how she fought for women's rights-none of which I was aware of, sad to say. It is amazing to know that this intelligent woman of the 1700's stood up publicly and wrote so eloquently in regards to what was clearly a disregard for the rights of women. Thanks for sharing. I sent it off to FB and voted it up. Well done, sister!