A short biography of Mary Wollstonecraft
Though I’m still on hiatus, I couldn’t help but write a declaration of my love to one of the foremost feminist philosophers, Mary Wollstonecraft. She was one of the first people to declare that women are not naturally inferior to men but merely appear that way because they have not been allowed the education to equal men. For Mary (why yes, we are on a first-name basis), men and women are equal even in the eyes of God:
I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard?
- Excerpt from A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Mary, her sister Eliza, and her friend Fanny Blood opened a school for women in Newington Green in 1784. She quickly befriended minister Richard Price and joined a group called the Radical Dissenters. One of the Radical Dissenters, publisher Joseph Johnson, commissioned Mary to write Thoughts on the Education of Girls which suggested new teaching methods and topics for female students. Mary published a novel, Mary: A Fiction, in 1788, critiquing 18th century sensibility and the traditional marriage plot.
In 1789, Edmund Burke responded to Price’s praise of the French Revolution by arguing in favor of the inherited monarchy and current society. Mary, not too keen on Burke, responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Man, which gained momentum among radicalists, including poet William Blake and philosopher William Godwin.
In 1792, Mary published what is arguably her most well-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, attacking the restrictions on women and arguing that marriage was a form of “legal prostitution."
When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject? If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; consequently their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim.
- Excerpt from A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Following that, in June 1793, she followed her lover, Gilbert Imlay, to France after an attack on the radicals led by Edmund Burke that was supported by King George III. While in France, she registered as his wife though they were not married. In 1794, she gave birth to his daughter but Imlay returned to London, leaving them in Paris. Upon Mary’s return to London, she found him living with an actress and attempted suicide but was, per my research, saved by Imlay.
She then travelled with her daughter in Scandinavia and wrote letters to Imlay which have been collected and published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Upon returning to London, she attempted suicide a second time by drenching her clothes and walking into the River Thames. A note left for Imlay included "Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.”
When she returned to the literary world, William Godwin began to court her. He had read Letters and said, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” They married in 1797, shortly before the birth of their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley, of Frankenstein fame.)
Mary passed away a few days after the birth of her daughter. Godwin was devasated. He wrote and published her memoirs in January 1798 and, though he thought he portrayed his wife well, readers were shocked by her illegitimate daughter, love affairs, and suicide attempts. Godwin also posthumously published Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel, Maria, Or the Wrongs of Women which played on the philosophy from Vindication.
Let’s take a minute to soak all of this in: Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in the late 1700s, wrote about women’s rights, argued with leading conservative philosophers, had an affair and illegitimate child, attempted suicide twice, published under her name in her own right, argued things that we take now to be truths, and was not afraid to do it.