Wollstonecraft has been labelled by several scholars as one of the founders of modern feminism. Resembling other progressive figures of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment era, Wollstonecraft supported both political and social freedom in her polemic prose, calling for greater social justice and individual autonomy. She additionally emphasized the natural rights and reason of men and women as the foundation of personal liberty. An accomplished essayist and novelist, Wollstonecraft was influenced by such Enlightenment figures as Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but unlike most thinkers of the period, she extended the radical doctrine of the rights of man to include the rights of women. In support of Wollstonecraft's own claim that she was "the first of a new genus" of female advocates, many academics now consider her controversial manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) the first modern feminist tract.
Born in London on April 27, 1759, Wollstonecraft was the daughter of a would-be gentleman farmer and his wife—her father having abandoned the prosperous family trade of weaving in order to pursue farming. The Wollstonecraft family relocated frequently during Mary's childhood, living at various times in London, Yorkshire, and Wales, but nowhere did Edward John Wollstonecraft succeed in his chosen career. The domestic life of the Wollstonecrafts progressively worsened as Mary's father succumbed to alcoholism. Wollstonecraft was frequently a witness to her father's physical abuse of her mother, who meekly suffered her husband's violence. Wollstonecraft also failed to receive emotional support from her mother, who openly preferred and indulged Mary's brother, Edward. Resolved to become independent, Wollstonecraft left home against her parents' wishes in 1778 to accept the position of paid companion to a widow in Bath. She was obliged to return to her family in London two years later to care for her dying mother, but upon the latter's death, she immediately left again, this time living with the family of her close friend Frances ("Fanny") Blood. Wollstonecraft remained with Fanny Blood and her parents for several years, contributing with her needlework to the family's meager income. In 1783 Wollstonecraft's sister Eliza suffered a mental breakdown following the birth of a daughter. Believing that her brother-in-law was the cause of his wife's distress, Wollstonecraft arranged to remove Eliza from his house and later obtained a legal separation. Having undertaken responsibility for her sister, and faced with the necessity of earning a living, Wollstonecraft opened a school at Newington Green, near London, with Fanny Blood, Eliza, and her other sister, Everina. The enterprise was a success, but the partnership dissolved in 1785 when Blood married a longtime suitor and traveled with him to Portugal. Some months later, Wollstonecraft also journeyed to Portugal in order to visit her pregnant and ailing friend but arrived only to witness Fanny's death in childbirth. Upon her return to England, Wollstonecraft was forced to close the school due to financial difficulties. Soon afterward she wrote her first essay, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787), and made the acquaintance of the liberalminded publisher Joseph Johnson, who agreed to issue it. However, conscious of a pressing need for money, Wollstonecraft left England for Ireland, where she took a post as a governess to Lord Kingsborough's children. During her employment in Ireland, she wrote her first novel Mary, A Fiction (1788). In 1787 Wollstonecraft was dismissed from her duties by Lady Kingsborough and subsequently settled in London, determined to support herself by writing. Johnson became her mentor in this new venture, introducing her to London's literary and political worlds and charging her to undertake translations and reviews for the Analytical Review, a politically liberal periodical that he and Thomas Carlisle had recently founded.
With the publication of her A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, Wollstonecraft fully established herself as an equal in a circle of radical thinkers that included Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Godwin, and the painter Henry Fuseli. Wollstonecraft fell in love with Fuseli, but the feeling was not reciprocated. When her proposal to join the Fuseli household was firmly rejected by the artist's wife, Wollstonecraft journeyed alone to Paris to recover from her disappointment. Paris in 1792 was in the midst of the chaotic violence of the French Revolution, and while Wollstonecraft, like other liberal English intellectuals, wholeheartedly supported the revolution, she was nonetheless appalled and to some degree endangered by the excess of the Reign of Terror. Her thoughts and the conclusions she drew during this time are recorded in her An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). In Paris Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American author and businessman. They became lovers and, the following year, Wollstonecraft's daughter Fanny was born. Imlay soon lost interest in Wollstonecraft, but as he was unable or unwilling to admit this, the dissolution of their affair was both painful and protracted. Following a brief reunion in London in 1795, Wollstonecraft became so despondent upon learning of Imlay's involvement with another woman that she attempted suicide. Little is known of the circumstances of the attempt—it is thought that she took laudanum—but Imlay prevented its success and persuaded Wollstonecraft to undertake business of his in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft accordingly embarked with Fanny and her nurse for an extended tour of Scandinavia, which resulted in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). When she returned to England, Wollstonecraft again despaired of a reunion with Imlay and attempted suicide a second time: she jumped off a bridge into the River Thames but was rescued by passing boatmen. Wollstonecraft recovered and eventually resumed writing, contributing material to the Analytical Review. She also renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin, now famous as the author of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), an essay much acclaimed in radical circles. Godwin and Wollstonecraft eventually became lovers and, after Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they married. The couple did, however, maintain separate residences as a means of retaining independence and keeping their relationship fresh. Within days of giving birth to a daughter, Mary (the future Mary Shelley), Wollstonecraft died of postpartum complications on September 10, 1797.
The tenor of Wollstonecraft's prose is intimately related to the time in which she lived, during which reason, empiricism, and individualism were beginning to supersede the long-established reliance on faith, prescription, and authority. Such Enlightenment ideals are integral to Wollstonecraft's work and form the basis of her argument in her most famous and controversial essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. A Vindication is considered an important milestone in the development of modern thought and of modern feminism. In the essay, Wollstonecraft contends that the great majority of women are intellectually and ethically inferior to men not because of a lack of native ability or potential but rather due to inferior education and insidious social conditioning. Wollstonecraft argues that women are as rational and independent as men and as such are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities. A Vindication combines Wollstonecraft's pragmatic suggestions for ameliorating the status of women with elements of theoretical social philosophy. Many of the practical aspects of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are an expansion of the ideas expressed in Wollstonecraft's earlier Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Thoughts promotes educational theories similar to the system proposed in Rousseau's Émile, but Wollstonecraft's text envisions an academic utopia that is also coeducational. The philosophical perspective of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is prefigured in A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which was Wollstonecraft's response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. Burke denounced the tactics of the French Revolution and warned England against similar democratic schemes, a position Wollstonecraft considered unacceptable to human liberty and demeaning to the human spirit. A Vindication of the Rights of Men highlights how Wollstonecraft's opposition to the oppression of women is further demonstrated in her attacks against class and economic barriers. A Vindication of the Rights of Men additionally shows how the author's feminism coexists with her broader advocacy for the worth of the individual and the natural right of humanity to govern itself. Wollstonecraft's other work on the French Revolution, the Historical and Moral View, mixes the author's personal observations of the Revolution's events with a philosophical and political treatise on natural rights and the consequences of violating those rights. Though Wollstonecraft's major feminist writings are contained in her essays, her fiction presents an equally passionate and notably more personal argument for the rights and education of women. Mary, A Fiction and Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman (1799) both focus on a young heroine trapped by both an unhappy marriage with an unfeeling husband and restrictive social mores. The novels are largely autobiographical, particularly Mary, which details the misery of the young heroine's childhood and the fervor of her attachment to a friend who dies young. The melodramatic tone of her fiction is in keeping with her reportedly tempestuous personality as well as the notoriously dark style of English Romanticism.
Initial response to Wollstonecraft's work focused on her political and social ideas and was predictably polarized. Her immediate circle of peers was one of like-minded progressive intellectuals who admired her candor and boldness as a champion of human rights. Conservative critics were especially disapproving of her feminism and her audacity as a publishing woman author: Horace Walpole famously called her a "hyena in petticoats." Like several other women who dared to publish in a male-dominated world, criticism of Wollstonecraft's work was colored by charges of promiscuity and depravity—charges that were fueled by Wollstonecraft's notorious difficult personality and her unusual romantic arrangements. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Wollstonecraft was inarguably on the winning side of the Enlightenment war of ideas, and her position on natural rights eventually reflected political reality, though her popularity waxed and waned along with the fluctuations of feminism in society. Studies of Wollstonecraft from the early twentieth century, such as G. R. Stirling Taylor's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Study in Economics and Romance, celebrated her ideas and vision as the movement for women's suffrage gained power. A few decades later, critics were more likely to emphasize Wollstonecraft's character failings and minimize her contribution to political thought; in fact, Wollstonecraft's personal life has never ceased to be a central issue in Wollstonecraft scholarship, even in the twenty-first century. Accordingly, she has inspired an unusual number of biographies, many of which have been openly critical of her volatile nature and complicated personal relationships. Among these are two works written as the modern feminist movement peaked—Eleanor Flexner's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography and Claire Tomalin's The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Some scholars, however, have sought to reexamine Wollstonecraft's extremes of temperament to provide a better understanding of her work. A feminist interpretation of "sensibility"—an eighteenth-century term that could be expressed in modern times as a strong sensitivity, both physical and emotional—contends that Wollstonecraft's language of feeling is a feminine mode of expression that is often devalued by men but remains empowering and inspirational to women. Cora Kaplan, Mitzi Meyers, Claudia L. Johnson, and Julie Ellison are among those critics who have attempted to revise traditional readings of sentiment in Wollstonecraft's work, transforming what was once seen as feminine weakness into a staunch battle against oppression. Even Wollstonecraft's novels, which were long dismissed as excessively sentimental and mediocre in style, have begun to appear in this light as extensions of her theoretical essays. Although Wollstonecraft's general premises of the rights of women no longer generate controversy, many feminists suggest that her writings continue to be influential. Recent models for literary analysis have generated new appreciation for the lessons Wollstonecraft has to teach men and women of the twenty-first century. In particular, Wollstonecraft's treatment of motherhood as an aspect of women's identity has attracted the attention of writers seeking to expand the possibilities of feminine and feminist identity, including Shawn Lisa Maurer, Miriam Brody, Angela Keane, and Cora Kaplan. Keane and Kaplan have each suggested that Wollstonecraft's inclusion of women's physical nature—and not just mental capacity—as part of their subjectivity maintains transformative potential for modern feminist political thought. Virginia Woolf once claimed of Wollstonecraft's Vindication sthatthey "are so true that they now seem to contain nothing new in them—their originality has become our commonplace." A number of academics mirror Woolf's remarks, and assert that Wollstonecraft's radical critique of the position of women in society continues to offer challenges and inspiration to modern feminist theorists.