Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797

"I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves."

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London into a picturesquely bleak family. She had a violent alcoholic father, and a weak, unsympathetic mother. Despite her inauspicious beginnings, she dragged herself upwards, eventually becoming a self-supporting bestselling international human-rights celebrity. 

In 1784, Mary, her sister Eliza and her best friend, Fanny, established a school in in the progressive Dissenting community of Newington Green. From her experiences teaching, Wollstonecraft wrote the pamphlet Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787).

 Mary Wollstonecraft, 2018 Oil on Linen 71x61cm (Available for Sale)

Mary Wollstonecraft, 2018 Oil on Linen 71x61cm (Available for Sale)

When her friend Fanny died in 1785, Wollstonecraft took a position as governess for the Kingsborough family in Ireland. Spending her time there to mourn and recover, she eventually found she was not suited for domestic work. Three years later, she returned to London and became a translator and an adviser to Joseph Johnson, a noted publisher of radical texts. When Johnson launched the Analytical Review in 1788, Mary became a regular contributor. Within four years, she published her polemical works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (published anonymously in 1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), both public letters in angry reaction to texts by men whom she considered powerful and wrong-headed. The first answered Edmund's Burke's nostalgic and conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France, which argued for the status quo because human nature could not take too much change or reality, and the second responded to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's educational work Emile, which proposed that a girl's education should aim at making her useful to and supportive of a rational man.

 Mary Wollstonecroft, 2017 Oil on Paper 28x28cm (My Collection)

Mary Wollstonecroft, 2017 Oil on Paper 28x28cm (My Collection)

When her feelings for the married painter Henri Fuseli threatened to overwhelm her, she left for France in 1792 to join other English intellectuals, such as Thomas Paine, in celebrating the French Revolution.  Having just written the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft was determined to put her ideas to the test, and in the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of the French revolution she attempted her most experimental romantic attachment yet: she met and fell passionately in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. Wollstonecraft put her own principles in practice by sleeping with Imlay despite not being married had her first child with him.  While nursing her firstborn, Wollstonecraft wrote a conservative critique of the French Revolution in An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. She also wrote a deeply personal travel narrative, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but in 1795 Imlay left her and she attempted to commit suicide.

Back in England Mary recovered, finding new hope in a relationship with William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism. Despite their belief in the tyranny of marriage, the couple eventually wed due to her pregnancy. In 1797, their daughter Mary (who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), was born. Ten days later, due to complications of childbirth, Wollstonecraft died of Septicaemia aged 38.  For many years, the scandalous aspects of her life (such as her two children born out of wedlock) were more noted than her works.  After her death Godwin published her last most radical novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), as well as a memoir of her life. This revealed the fact that Mary had not been married while having a sexual relationship with Imlay. As a result her demand for rational female education, which had been accepted by most thinking women, became almost forgotten in the light of her implied demand for sexual freedom.  Overnight she became toxic and Wollstonecraft’s enemies couldn’t contain their glee: here was proof irrefutable that she was a whore, a “hyena in petticoats” as Horace Walpole described her.

Wollstonecraft’s legacy was trashed for well over a century and even today, despite a number of outstanding modern biographies, there’s still no significant memorial to her anywhere although Maggi Hambling, the British artist was commissioned in May 2018 for a commemorative statue.  It will be erected in Newington Green, London,  which is known as the birthplace of feminism because of Wollstonecraft’s roots there.

Sources:

https://www.biography.com/people/mary-wollstonecraft-9535967

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/wollstonecraft_01.shtml