Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2351
Article abstract: In challenging British institutions to extend the political liberties of the American and French Revolutions to women, Wollstonecraft developed a comprehensive feminist program.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27, 1759, in London. She was the second of seven children born to Edward Wollstonecraft and his wife, Elizabeth, née Dickson. During the 1760’s, her father sold his prosperous weaving business to become a spendthrift, hard-drinking gentleman farmer. As a result, Wollstonecraft spent much of her childhood in fear of paternal fits and brutalities, often directed at her mother. A witness early in life to the precarious, helpless status of women, she lost her own chance at financial independence when the elder Wollstonecraft dissipated his daughters’ legacies. Parental preference for the firstborn son, Edward, who was already favored by primogeniture, caused Wollstonecraft later to attack the practice and contributed to her lasting resentment toward that brother. Though her formal education was limited to several years at the Yorkshire county day school, supplemented by shared lessons from the father of a friend, Wollstonecraft engaged in continuous informal study casually directed by well-read acquaintances.
What turned out to be a lifelong headstrong bent facilitated Wollstonecraft’s first attempt at economic independence. At the age of nineteen, she accepted, in defiance of her parents, the position of live-in companion to the wealthy, widowed Mrs. Dawson in Bath, where she remained until called home in 1781 to nurse her ailing mother. After the latter’s death the following year, Wollstonecraft once more took charge of her future by giving up the secure but onerous job of companion in order to spend the next eighteen months in the congenial albeit impoverished home of her friend Fanny Blood.
Wollstonecraft’s strong-willed character asserted itself again in 1784, when she brazenly removed her sister Eliza from an abusive husband and put her, together with another sister and Blood, to work in a hastily established school for girls, which she superintended until late 1785. At that time the consumptive Blood, now married and living in Lisbon, required lying-in nurture. Wollstonecraft courageously undertook the journey to Lisbon alone, attended her already dying friend, and returned to London several weeks after the funeral to find her school failing and bankrupt. To acquit herself of accumulated debts, she persisted in securing a publisher for a hurriedly composed tract, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), thereby establishing contacts for her future writing career. She met most of the many subsequent crises in her life with equal resilience and resolution, often by challenging established mores.
In 1786, however, Wollstonecraft’s literary prospects were as yet insufficient to vouchsafe a livelihood, and she reluctantly set out for Ireland as governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough. Her tenure in that fashionable environment lasted a mere ten months because of her refusal to acquiesce in the intrigues and whims of the lavish, aristocratic household. Instead, she invested her time completing the manuscript of her first novel. Determined never again to serve in a subservient capacity, she returned to London in search of an independent career, an audacious notion for a respectable, twenty-eight-year-old unmarried female.
In searching for a publisher, Wollstonecraft had the good fortune to associate with Joseph Johnson, a member of the Radical Dissenters, Protestant skeptics who were dedicated to reason and receptive to extending authorship to women. Johnson engaged Wollstonecraft as reviewer for his new periodical, The Analytical Review, and brought her together with like-minded Dissenters. He also published her collection of pedagogical vignettes, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), and her first novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788). The latter is a rather artless, stylistically inept tale chronicling Wollstonecraft’s friendship with Blood, but already demonstrative of her feminist spirit as she attempts to introduce a new kind of thinking heroine into the established genre of the sentimental novel. The author’s belief that women should aspire to control over their lives is firmly incorporated into the plot.
Wollstonecraft’s first controversial work came into being when her Dissenter friend Richard Price voiced his ardent support of the French Revolution. His implied criticism of the British ruling class so enraged the conservative Edmund Burke that he wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in defense of the British status quo and against extension of political liberties. Wollstonecraft immediately entered the fray on the side of Price with A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which, though poorly reasoned and organized, was the first of many noted rebuttals to Burke, preceding Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791), with which it is often associated. The popularity of her anonymously published essay encouraged Johnson to bring out a second, signed edition and Wollstonecraft at once became famous and infamous, for she assailed English Parliament and the hereditary nobility in harsh, occasionally vituperative, language.
Society’s amazement at seeing an unattached female engaged in rancorous political commentary motivated Wollstonecraft to address the gender inequality issue in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In analyzing how societal institutions and famous authors, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, characterize women as beings of lesser value, she argues that these portraits are but expressions of how males wish to perceive females and calls on members of her sex to reevaluate and assert themselves. At the same time, she expresses doubt that the middle-class woman, whom she especially wished to rescue from an inferior position, would be determined enough to rise above the strictures of social convention. Though her prose and frequently disorganized digressions barely match eighteenth century literary standards, the case for women’s rights, including education and financial self-sufficiency, comes across clearly. By extension, the essay challenged all vested interests of society and evoked a storm of controversy. It represents the peak of her writing career in terms of public exposure.
Wollstonecraft’s private life was much less satisfactory. While publicly encouraging women to become economically and emotionally independent, she herself sought stable personal bonds with men. Contemporaries describe her as a plain, purposeful woman of sober countenance and somewhat dowdy appearance, which some of the portraits used in the title pages of her books tried to soften and prettify. She was attractive to the opposite sex as a skilled and mettlesome conversationalist, but her tendency to be possessive and ever assertive strained intimate relationships. Her first ill-fated encounter was with the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, to whom she became so deeply attached that, in her usual presumptuous fashion, she asked Fuseli’s wife to take her into the household as his spiritual partner. Mrs. Fuseli’s outraged refusal hastened Wollstonecraft’s planned journey to France in 1792. Arriving in Paris at the height of the Jacobin terror, she moderated her former optimistic opinion about the efficacy of sudden social change, though in her formal account of that visit, Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), she gamely holds to the liberal ideas set forth in previous publications.
Privately, Wollstonecraft was passionately involved with the American businessman Gilbert Imlay during her Paris stay. They had a child, Fanny (born 1794), and he registered her as his wife to afford her American protection during the political upheavals. They were, however, never married. Imlay treated the affair lightly, while she demanded serious commitment. When he left her for another woman, she twice attempted suicide in 1795. After the first attempt, an alarmed Imlay sent her to Scandinavia as his business representative in the hope that new impressions would excite her authorial curiosity and restore her equilibrium. The resulting Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), based on a personal journal Wollstonecraft wrote for Imlay, represents her best work from an artistic standpoint. Acknowledgment of her own vulnerability, recognition of the value of feelings, absence of polemics, and a genuine interest in the unfamiliar surroundings all very much enhance her writing.
Determined to satisfy her longing for enduring companionship, Wollstonecraft, upon returning to London, cultivated an intimate relationship with William Godwin, an old friend and political ally. Finding herself pregnant once more without benefit of matrimony, she married Godwin in 1797, even though both partners had earlier written impassionate denunciations of formal marriage. From all accounts, their life together was a satisfactory one, cut short by Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth on September 10, 1797. Her infant daughter Mary survived to become the spouse of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and an author in her own right.
In her last, incomplete work—the posthumously published Maria: Or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798)—Wollstonecraft returns to the genre of the sentimental novel in order to present her arguments for gender equality in a form women would widely read. Despite its fictional frame, the story chronicles a variety of abuses heaped on females by bourgeois institutions. Imaginary case histories, full of autobiographical events, cover a wide range of social classes, with special focus on a heroine who disregards convention and is subjected to moral censure. Another section details the injustices suffered by a working-class woman. Moreover, Wollstonecraft ventures into a frank, almost modern discussion of female sexuality. In its indictment of the status quo, the tale leaves the impression of a revolutionary manifesto. It was a fitting conclusion to the life of a feminist far ahead of her times.
Both the writings and the personal behavior of Mary Wollstonecraft reflect the belief in inalienable human rights which was given wide currency by the American and French Revolutions. Wollstonecraft dared extend this notion to members of her own sex at a time when neither established social values nor (with a few exceptions) radical libertarians considered such an extension. As a result, her arguments on behalf of women did not bring about any basic social changes or even engender a significant following. Not until John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women (1869) were many of the concerns raised by Wollstonecraft once again brought before a wide audience. That her feminist arguments appeared in print at all was primarily a result of her publisher Johnson’s antiestablishment stance. Wollstonecraft’s writings challenged the very fabric of aristocratic rule and as such were welcome matter for the Radical Dissenters.
A proper appreciation of Wollstonecraft’s keen political and ethical insights is hampered by her cumbersome phrasing and a general inattention to aesthetic quality, perhaps the result of a meager formal education. In part, her roundabout reasoning also reflects confusion when frontally assaulting such a hallowed institution as marriage. She, too, had internalized to some degree prevailing cultural mores regarding the status of women. After returning from France with a daughter, she was careful to conceal her unwed state and lived as Mrs. Imlay. Her caution in this regard was well taken. When Godwin’s memoirs later revealed the extent of her unconventional lifestyle, public opinion turned viciously against her and drowned her professional achievements in ridicule and abuse.
Only in the twentieth century has proper recognition been extended to Wollstonecraft. Her comprehensive approach, delineating the political and economic subjugation of women, their psychological and personal dependence, the contradictions embedded in conventional sexual morality, the patriarchal nature of established institutions, corresponds to modern feminist aspirations. Hers was an early female voice giving reasoned articulation to women’s suffrage, to reconsideration of the marriage contract and parental roles, to the desirability of blending motherhood with a professional career, and to female sexuality. She not only articulated many concerns still controversial in the late twentieth century, but also she advanced boldly enough ahead of her epoch to practice them.
Ferguson, Moira, and Janet M. Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. Follows format established by Twayne author series in giving concise, scholarly written, and well-documented accounts of both life and literary career. Includes an assessment of her ideas, style, and influence. Stresses her professional achievements more than personal experience.
Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography. New York: Coward-McCann, 1972. Concentrates on Wollstonecraft’s early life. Associates her childhood disappointments and hardships with later behavior patterns, especially her relationship and attitude toward both parents. Emphasis on Edward Wollstonecraft’s financial situation and its effect on his daughter. Well documented.
George, Margaret. One Woman’s “Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970. Discusses Wollstonecraft’s psychological state, especially during her troublesome relationships with intimate acquaintances. Connects her experiences and feelings as a woman with her political commentaries. Details her many futile challenges to the ideology of the time and chronicles her failures. Assesses her contribution to feminism.
Kramnik, Miriam Brody. Introduction to 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.
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 Wollstonecraft’s reasoning and style. Also analyzes Jane Austen and Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelley within the context of their times.
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974. A detailed account of all phases of Wollstonecraft’s life with several sets of illustrations. Gives excellent background on the tenor of the time; chronicles the lives of people important to Wollstonecraft. In places, rather chatty and liberally interpretative, but provides adequate documentation. A very readable book.
Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1952. A good biographical account with ample discussion of the major works. Draws heavily on Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin’s letters, as well as those of her relatives and offers interpretative insights based on the correspondence. Supports its conclusions with liberal quotes from the letters. Does not stress Wollstonecraft’s feminist contributions or give sufficient background on her contemporaries.