Chances are, you may never have heard of Mary Wollstonecraft.
If so, that’s too bad — both for you and for her. Wollstonecraft, an English writer, lived in the 18th century (1759-1797) and had a great deal of misfortune, both in her life and at her death. She died at the age of 38 after giving birth to a daughter, whose name was also Mary. The daughter grew up to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
But before her birth, Mary’s mother had established herself as a forward-thinking, perceptive writer about political and social issues, particularly the role of women and the inequality of life that 18th century imposed on them. Today, after a long period of obscurity, she is considered one of the founders of modern feminist thinking. (Wollstonecraft’s life is finely detailed in several full-length biographies, including Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (2000); Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, Mary Wollstonecraft (2016); Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2006). There is also the dual biography of Mary and her daughter by Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lifes of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (2016).)
Wollstonecraft lived a tumultuous life, determined to make her own decisions and to think for herself. As a young adult, she envisioned situations where she and other women could support themselves without dependence on men. She recognized the value of education and the need for English society to pay more attention to the education of females.
She was a strong and forceful writer and had the courage to address the great issues of the day and take on the nation’s political eminences. She was especially supportive of the French revolution when much of the English middle and upper classes viewed it with alarm.
After attempts at being a governess and running a school for girls, Wollstonecraft found her niche in 1788 when she joined the radical Joseph Johnson and began editing and contributing to his publication, the Analytical Review. Within four years, she had formulated a truly revolutionary view of women that critiqued their place in society and even how they viewed themselves. She published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and called for educational reform to correct the situation. Nothing like that had been written before, and the book continued to stir controversy and have an effect on feminist thinking long after her death.
She traveled to France in 1792 and stayed there for three troubled years that included the Reign of Terror. She fell in love with an American adventurer and had a daughter by him. Her life was threatened by both the shifting political winds and economic deprivation when her lover abandoned her and her daughter for long periods of time. Wollstonecraft returned to England, but her life and emotions remained unsettled. She made at least two attempts at suicide before entering into an affair with William Godwin and getting pregnant by him. The couple married, and she gave birth to a second daughter, but she died a few day later in December 1797.
In the years after her death, Godwin published a biography of Wollstonecraft that openly described her love affairs and suicide attempts. Her life, rather than her ideas and writings, became a center of controversy.
Still, her ideas — especially those expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — influenced every major feminist of the century, and by the early 20th century, Wollstonecraft emerged as a perceptive social critic who was far-sighted in her thinking.
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