Authors: Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English critic and philosopher

April 27, 1759

London, England

September 10, 1797

London, England


The pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (WOOL-stuhn-kraft) endured a long eclipse of her literary and personal reputation until the emergence of the twentieth century feminist movement and the publication of a biography of this radical writer by Ralph Wardle (1951). Wollstonecraft was the second child and first daughter of the seven children of Edward and Elizabeth Dickson Wollstonecraft. Her childhood and adolescence were marred by her father’s improvidence and brutality and her mother’s indifference. Her early life was punctuated by several moves, particularly to Beverly in Yorkshire, where she attended a day school. On the family’s return to London, she found refuge with the family of her friend Fanny Blood. {$I[AN]9810001536} {$I[A]Wollstonecraft, Mary} {$S[A]Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft;Wollstonecraft, Mary} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Wollstonecraft, Mary} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Wollstonecraft, Mary} {$I[tim]1759;Wollstonecraft, Mary}

Mary Wollstonecraft

(Library of Congress)

In 1778, repelled by her family life, she became a paid companion to a widow, Mrs. Dawson, in Bath, but she was forced to return home to nurse her ailing mother, who died in 1782. Wollstonecraft thereupon moved into the Blood household until it became necessary to rescue her sister Eliza from an unsuccessful marriage; Eliza left her husband and baby daughter to join Mary and Fanny Blood in establishing a school for young ladies, first in Islington and then in Newington Green. Soon after Fanny left to marry and live in Portugal. Mary traveled to Lisbon to assist Fanny during childbirth, but both Fanny and her child died, and a dispirited Mary returned to England to face the problem of supporting herself after the school had to be closed. Her first published book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, excited little attention, but Wollstonecraft won a friend in its publisher, Joseph Johnson. She accepted a post as a governess to the children of Lord Kingsborough in Ireland, but although she was a favorite with the children, she was dismissed. She returned to London with a completed novel, Mary: A Fiction, a strongly autobiographical work with a feminist perspective. The book was not financially successful but steered the development of the novel toward the inclusion of independently minded heroines.

Wollstonecraft next turned to her publisher for employment and taught herself French, German, Dutch, and Italian to equip herself for translating work. She translated and “adapted” such works as Jacques Necker’s Of the Importance of Religious Opinions and Mme de Cambon’s Young Grandison. Wollstonecraft became a frequent contributor to Johnson’s newly launched Analytic Review, providing reviews and acting as an assistant editor; she also became acquainted with the Johnson circle, meeting the poet-painter William Blake, the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, the philosopher William Godwin, and the Swiss writer and painter Henry Fuseli, with whom she became obsessed.

In response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, her views on the issues of human rights and social justice, in which she declared that women must be regarded as rational beings and not as frail objects of homage. The work, only one of the many replies to Burke, was a success and established women as significant political theorists. In 1792 she published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an original statement based on her own experience and reflection. After an emotional crisis that severed her tie to Fuseli, she left for France in December of 1792 to observe conditions there. Among her new friends was an American, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she began an affair; to protect her from danger if France went to war with Britain, he registered her as his wife at the American Embassy in Paris. Their daughter Fanny was born on May 14, 1794; that same year Wollstonecraft published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, in which she expressed criticism of the direction taken by the revolutionaries.

She returned to London with her daughter, Fanny, but rebuffed by Imlay, who had taken a new mistress, she attempted suicide in May of 1795. During a subsequent but only temporary reconciliation with Imlay, she undertook a mission for him to Scandinavia and published Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. A second suicide attempt followed when she and Imlay failed to reestablish their relationship. Charmed, however, by a mind that resembled her own, she renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin, and the two became lovers by the autumn of 1796. Mary became pregnant shortly after, and on March 29, 1797, they married. Their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley), was born on August 30. Eleven days later, Wollstonecraft died of septicemia. Godwin published her works, some still fragments, posthumously.

Author Works Nonfiction: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct in the More Important Duties of Life, 1787 Original Stories from Real Life: With Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness, 1788 The Female Reader: Or, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Best Writers, and Disposed Under Proper Heads: For the Improvement of Young Women, 1789 A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 1790 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, 1792 An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, 1794 Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796 Long Fiction: Mary: A Fiction, 1788 The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria, incomplete posthumous pb. 1798 Bibliography Conger, Syndy McMillen. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. A scholarly, well-documented assessment of Wollstonecraft’s change in attitudes toward the language of emotions and feeling, from uncritical acceptance to critical rejection to a mature reacceptance and adaptation of it to new contexts, including feminism and political revolution. A corrective to standard twentieth century interpretations of Wollstonecraft that focus on the emphasis on reason during her middle years. Falco, Maria J., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. A collection of twelve essays on a variety of political issues. Contains two essays that compare the thought of Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, as well as essays dealing with liberalism, slavery, the evolution of women’s rights since the time of Wollstonecraft, and the changing reactions to Wollstonecraft since her death. Ferguson, Moira, and Janet M. Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A volume in the Twayne authors series providing concise, scholarly, and well-documented accounts of both Wollstonecraft’s life and her literary career. Includes an assessment of her ideas, style, and influence. Stresses her professional achievements more than her personal experience. Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography. New York: Coward-McCann, 1972. Concentrates on Wollstonecraft’s early life, associating her childhood disappointments and hardships with later behavior patterns, especially her relationships with and attitudes toward both parents. Emphasizes Edward Wollstonecraft’s financial situation and its effect on his daughter. Well documented. Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Windmill Books, 2016. Presents the first dual biography of Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. This intriguing and well-documented biography adds invaluably to any examination of Wollstonecraft’s adventurous and productive life. Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. A lively, well-researched biography of the feminist philosopher. Includes previously unavailable material from the letters of Joseph Johnson, Wollstonecraft’s publisher. Jump, Harriet Devine, ed. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Critics, 1790–2001. 2 vols. New York: Routledge, 2003. A hefty (1200-page) collection of essays on Wollstonecraft’s writings, from reviews of her books published in the 1790’s to contemporary feminist critiques. Kramnik, Miriam Brody. Introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. This lengthy introduction to Wollstonecraft’s most famous work surveys her life and literary contributions. It discusses her within the framework of the history of feminism and compares her approach with the piecemeal efforts of nineteenth century feminists. Rather uncritical of Wollstonecraft’s literary shortcomings. Lorch, Jennifer. Mary Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Radical Feminist. New York: Berg, 1990. A concise account of Wollstonecraft’s life, focusing on her relationships and her development as a feminist thinker. Stresses her personal experiences more than her professional achievements. Included is an analysis of her relevance to twentieth century feminism. Good documentation. Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Describes Wollstonecraft from the vantage point of eighteenth century British bourgeois ideology, juxtaposing her to the prevailing cultural model of the middle-class married female. Shows how Wollstonecraft both rebelled against this unfulfilling state and became enmeshed in it. Sharp critiques of Wollstonecraft’s reasoning and her style. Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. A close examination of the life and work of the radical eighteenth century author and the mother of modern feminism.

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