Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759-September 10, 1797), a revolutionary advocate of equal rights for women, was an inspiration for both the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century women's movements. Wollstonecraft was not merely a woman's rights advocate. She asserted the innate rights of all people, whom she thought victims of a society that assigned people their roles, comforts, and satisfactions according to the false distinctions of class, age, and gender.
Mary endured a difficult childhood, denied the advantages and affection lavished on her older brother. She often had to protect her mother from the drunken rage of her father, the son of a master weaver from London who tried unsucessfully to set himself up as a gentleman farmer. Many other eighteenth-century girls had to endure similar injustices and hardships. It was Mary's genius that allowed her to rise above these severe handicaps and transform her experience into a dream of a reordered society. As a young woman Wollstonecraft supported herself as a lady's companion, seamstress, governess, and schoolteacher. She was largely self-educated.
From 1782 until 1785 Wollstonecraft was a congregant at the Unitarian chapel at Newington Green, during which time she was influenced by its minister, Richard Price. Through her friendship with Dr. Price she entered a circle of intellectuals and radicals, including Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and William Godwin. Between 1788 and 1792 she was a translator and reviewer for publisher Joseph Johnson. Her work frequently appeared in his periodical, Analytical Review. Johnson, a distributor of Unitarian literature, often hosted meetings and dinners that included Paine, Priestley, and Price.
In response to criticism of Price in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Wollstonecraft immediately wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This work was overshadowed by another response to Burke, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, which followed several months later. In Rights of Men Wollstonecraft presented her vision of a society, based upon equality of opportunity, in which talentnot the wrongful privileges of gentilitywould be the requisite for success. Paine and Wollstonecraft were accused in the press of seeking to "poison and inflame the minds of the lower class of his Majesty's subjects to violate their subordination." When Paine was later burnt in effigy for his support of Revolutionary France, there was public talk of subjecting Wollstonecraft to the same treatment.
Wollstonecraft decided to devote her next treatise to women's rights, a topic that had never before been dealt with at any length. The resulting A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was, in part, her response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in Emile (1762), had recommended that girls be given a different education from boys, one that would train them to be submissive and manipulative. In Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft argued that the rights of man which she had previously espoused applied equally and unconditionally to women as a just God could not have created one human being superior to another. She sought to overturn centuries of Judeo-Christian teaching that women, having no separate moral identity, depended upon their husbands for a spiritual relationship with God. Wollstonecraft boldly declared that all people-men, women, and children-have a right to an independent mind. She envisioned a society in which women could be educated and work alongside men as co-equals in every pursuit. She advocated equal citizenship for both sexes, giving everyone "a direct share in deliberations of government." Wollstonecraft opposed war and all forms of oppression. "Let there be no coercion established in society," she said, "and, the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places." An advocate of universal self-reliance and responsibility, she did not wish that women should exercise "power over men," only "over themselves."
The historian Henry Noel Brailsford, in Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle (1913), considered the Rights of Woman "perhaps the most original book of its century." "What was absolutely new in the world's history," he thought, "was that for the first time a woman dared to sit down to write a book which was not an echo of men's thinking, nor an attempt to do rather well what some man had done a little better, but a first exploration of the problems of society and morals from a standpoint which recognised humanity without ignoring sex."
Rights of Woman reached a wide audience in its day. It went into two editions in Britain, and was shortly available in America, where it was read by Judith Sargent Murray as well as John and Abigail Adams. It was often reviewed. Some reviewers thought the book "unfeminine," judgment with which Wollstonecraft did not, perhaps, disagree. Others thought that her views on education were sensible. One reader declared that the book "first induced me to think."
Wollstonecraft embraced a religion that combined faith with reason, morality with knowledge, and which placed no limits on human inquiry. "I submit to the moral laws which my reason deduces," she said. "It is not to an arbitrary will, but to unerring reason." She rejected the notion that the faculty of reason is exclusively a male attribute. "Who made man the exclusive judge?" she asked. In particular, she challenged the dogma and authoritarianism of the Church of England, decrying "slavery to forms which make religion worse than a farce." Like many religious liberals she took issue with the doctrine of original sin "on which priests have erected their tremendous structures of imposition, that we are all naturally inclined to evil." Rather she wished to "leave room for the expansion of the human heart." Her fundamental religious beliefs were not borrowed from her Deist friends or anyone else. She sensed the presence of the God in nature and recorded a mystical experience in which her "soul rested on itself, and seemed to fill the universe." Like religious liberals in all ages, Wollstonecraft believed that "True grace arises from some kind of independence of mind."
To alleviate the ills of an unjust society, Wollstonecraft called for educational reform, including co-education, that would benefit men and women alike. "Day schools, for particular ages, should be established by government, in which boys and girls might be educated together." She thought that children and youth were subject to "a slavish bondage to parents" which "cramps every faculty of the mind." Likening excessive respect for property to "a poisoned fountain," Wollstonecraft recommended that large estates be divided into small farms. She decried slavery to "monarchs and ministers" and "the preposterous distinctions of rank which render civilization a curse."
At the end of 1792 Wollstonecraft moved to France to observe and write a book about the French Revolution. During part of her residence in France she became the common-law wife of the American writer and adventurer Gilbert Imlay, who some years later abandoned her, causing her to go through a period of despair. Afterward Wollstonecraft resumed her work on the Analytical Review. During the next two years Mary was courted by, and finally married, her friend William Godwin. She died giving birth to their daughter, Mary (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).
Wollstonecraft endured calumny for what she wrote and, for daring to write at all, but was never vengeful or abusive. In the closing weeks of her short life, she said, "Those who know me know I acted from principle." Nearly a century later Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated their History of Women's Suffrage (1881) to her.
Wollstonecraft's letters have been gathered and edited by Ralph M. Wardle and published as Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (1979). Along with the works mentioned above Wollstonecraft wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct in the More Important Duties of Life (1787), Mary, a Fiction (1788), Original Stories from Real Life (1788), 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) and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798). The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (1989), edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, have been issued in seven volumes. Janet Todd also edited A Wollstonecraft Anthology (1977). The writing of Wollstonecraft is included in the more general anthologies Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (1972) edited by Miriam Schneir and The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir (1973) edited by Alice S. Rossi.
Immediately after her death Wollstonecraft's husband William Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). Modern biographies include Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (1966) by Ralph M. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft: Her Life and Times (1971) by Edna Nixon, Mary Wollstonecraft (1972) by Eleanor Flexner, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) by Claire Tomalin, A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1975) by Emily Sunstein, and, most recently, Mary Wollstonecraft: a Revolutionary Life (2000) by Janet Todd. Wollstonecraft's influence on British Unitarians is related in Ruth Watts, Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England: 1760-1860 (1998). The influence of Richard Price on Wollstonecraft is addressed in Saba Bahar, "Richard Price and the Moral Foundation of Mary Wollstonecraft's Feminism," in Enlightenment and Dissent (1999).
Article by Louis Worth Jones