Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797

Mary Wollstonecraft

Biography

Mary was one of seven children, and her early years were characterised by her father squandering their money, leading them into a downward social spiral. He was also violent towards their mother. At the age of 19 she left home to become a lady’s companion in Bath. She returned to London between 1780-81 to nurse her mother through a fatal illness, and encouraged her sister Eliza to leave her unhappy marriage. She founded a small school in Newington Green, which was a Dissenting community, meaning the people were committed to combining reason with piety. The school collapsed in 1785 because Mary left. She then became a governess in Ireland, which she did not approve of as she felt it represented the position of women as defined by men. In 1787 her radical publisher in London took her on; Joseph Johnson hired her as an editorial assistant and writer for the new magazine, Analytical Review. She was a pioneering feminist. 

Education and Life Events

Mary’s only formal schooling was a few days at a day school in Beverley, Yorkshire, where she learnt to read and write. The rest of her education, including several languages, was impressively self-acquired. She mothered two children, one illegitimately to Gilbert Imlay – an American speculator and liberal author – and one to William Godwin (whom she did marry) – a political writer and novelist. She died at the age of 38, 10 days after giving birth to her second child who went on to become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.  

Noted Works

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786)

160 pages long, this book aimed to show the sad results of the faulty education that was provided to women at the time and to suggest a new, more suitable one. She took many ideas from the theories of John Locke (1632-1704), who had ‘started the trend toward dealing with children as individuals and adapting instruction to fit their capacities. Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.27.

‘Women are said to be the weaker vessel, and many are the miseries which this weakness brings on them. Men have in some respects very much the advantage. If they have a tolerable understanding, it has a chance to be cultivated. They are forced to see human nature as it is, and are not left to dwell on the pictures of their own imaginations. Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world; and this is not a woman’s province in a married state. Her sphere of action is not large, and if she is not taught to look into her own heart, how trivial are her occupations and pursuits!’ quoted in: Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.36. 

A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)

This book was aimed at challenging the work of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), specifically his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. It forcefully states Wollstonecraft’s rationalist philosophy from her early years as well as touching on subjects such as women’s association with weakness and the universal fear of madness. Wollstonecraft saw Burke as a chief proponent of a conservative philosophy, which held that hereditary honours and property were sacred – custom and privilege were the only safeguards against social chaos. Furthermore, she saw him as a sentimental writer, spurning reason and indulging in feeling for its own sake. Burke’s works include A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), in which he ascribes women’s beauty to their littleness and fragility. The Rights of Men opposed Burke’s ideas plainly with bare assertion, reasoning and some degree of personal abuse. It was the first of Wollstonecraft’s works to be widely reviewed, to mixed success. The Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1791 found it ridiculous, how could the rights of men be asserted by a woman?  Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.64-65.

‘And is the humane heart satisfied with turning the poor over to another world, to receive the blessings this could afford? If society was regulated on a more enlarged plan; if man was contented to be the friend of man, and did not seek to bury the sympathies of humanity in the servile appellation of master; if, turning his eyes from ideal regions of taste and elegance, he laboured to give the earth he inhabited all the beauty it is capable of receiving, and was ever on the watch to shed abroad all the happiness which human nature can enjoy; – he who, respecting the rights of men, wishes to convince or persuade society that this is true happiness and dignity, is not the cruel oppressor of the poor, nor a short-sighted philosopher – he fears God and loves his fellow creatures. – Behold the whole duty of man! – the citizen who acts differently is a sophisticated being.’ quoted in: Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.82.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

This work was in response to Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a woman and to the literary tradition of scorning women. Much of it is devoted to works that denigrate women, including the Bible and particularly Rousseau’s Émile. It sold well, and ran to a second, amended, issue before the year was out. It received mixed reviews as was to be expected. It gained high praise from the likes of Mary Hays (1759 – 1843). Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.84.

‘ My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists – I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt…’ quoted in: Janet Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology (Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989), p.86.

Wollstonecraft’s other works include:

·       Original Stories from Real Life (1788)

·       An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794)

·       Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796)

·       Mary, A Fiction

·       The Wrongs of Woman: or, Mari

Reputation and Impact

Wollstonecraft greatly influenced the way that women’s rights were viewed both in Britain and America (where the Rights of Women was published many times). Her ideas on education were profound and she provided an insight into the early endeavours of the feminist movement. Furthermore, her work allowed historians to assess not just how Wollstonecraft and others like her felt towards men and other women at the time, but also gave a glimpse into the world in which these women were writing. Although some men and women from more radical publishers supported Wollstonecraft, her work received much scorn from the more traditional papers (such as the Gentlemen’s Magazine, used as an example above). At the time Wollstonecraft was seen as radical for wanting the female sex to have equal rights to their male counterparts, something which is now a given. She is a prime example of how histories must be seen from many different angles, even at the time Wollstonecraft disputed the ideas of other historians and philosophers. It is important to consider when reading histories and books from the 18th century that the authorship would have a specific angle on the world they lived in, and the experience for others may have been profoundly different. 

Bibliography/Reading List

Botting, Eileen Hunt and Christine Carey. ‘Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth-Century American Women's Rights Advocates’. American Journal of Political Science 48, no. 4 (October 2004): 707–22.

Gordon, Lyndall. Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus. LONDON: Little, Brown & Company, 2005.

Laird, Susan. Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophical Mother of Coeducation. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.

Sessler, Randall. ‘Recasting the Revolution: The Media Debate between Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine’. European Romantic Review 25, no. 5 (August 5, 2014): 611–26.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism Series #56). 3rd ed. Edited by Marilyn Butler. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Todd, Janet, ed. A Wollstonecraft Anthology. Cambridge, UK: Polity, Cambridge, 1989.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000.

Yeo, Eileen, ed. Mary Wollstonecraft and 200 Years of Feminisms. London: Rivers Oram Press/Pandora Press, 1997.