Mary Wollstonecraft begins her most celebrated work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, with a disclaimer: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of […] viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” While academic and social exclusion of women has largely (although far from universally) improved since the publication of Vindication in 1792, the work does not lose its power and relevance today.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759, the daughter of a wealthy but financially irresponsible farmer. Her mother passed away when Mary was only 11, after suffering years of domestic abuse, and the young girl was raised by her violent and dismissive father. Wollstonecraft received very little formal education because her father was unwilling to support her intellectual development as a woman. Despite this oppressive environment, Wollstonecraft spent much of her time reading and writing, and she invested greatly in her studies.
In 1784, in order to escape the confines of her abusive home, Wollstonecraft moved away and established a girls’ boarding school in Newington Green with her sister and close friend Fanny. Working with her students and with local academics at Newington Green inspired Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), one of her first short treatises on the oppression and exclusion of women in education.
When Fanny died in 1785, the school (which had been sustained despite great financial struggle) was closed. Wollstonecraft reluctantly became a governess for a wealthy, extremely traditional family in County Cork. Her experience as a governess was frustrating and uncomfortable— she strongly disliked the mistress of the home, who zealously upheld demeaning and traditional ideals of femininity.
Returning to London miserable and penniless, Wollstonecraft was able to publish Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. She then continued to work as a translator and writer for Johnson, and was welcomed into his vibrant intellectual community — which included the likes of William Godwin, William Blake and Thomas Paine.
In 1792, Wollstonecraft published her most famous work of feminist theory: A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Inspired by her personal experiences of oppression, denigration and social exclusion, Vindication was ground-breaking in its argument for total political reformation in education systems to benefit women and society as a whole. Wollstonecraft’s image of women as acting only in the eyes of others and being educated for useless, image-related ends is wrapped in an enduring social structure of male dominance over a female “minority.” This notion of subservient women is one that often surfaces in Wollstonecraft’s discourse. She explains: “Men… try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood.” This patronizing and limiting social attitude is difficult to combat when it’s ingrained in social tradition.
Wollstonecraft argued that the education of her time deliberately restricted women to frivolous and solely domestic activities, reinforcing the sexist and patriarchal mindset of female inferiority. She laments, “strength of mind and body are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves.”
With the onset of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft was one of many writers to join the war with her words. In 1793, she moved to Paris, but she was quickly disillusioned with the corruption and violence that overtook the movement.
After a brief and tumultuous relationship with a Captain in France, Wollstonecraft returned to London and became romantically engaged with William Godwin. Although both partners were unsupportive of marriage, they were married due to social pressure when Mary became pregnant. Despite their formal union, however, they maintained an unconventional domestic relationship, rebuking social and gender norms and living in separate homes.
Wollstonecraft died at age 38 after a complication with the birth of her second child, the writer Mary Shelley, who went on to write Frankenstein.
In the years after her death much of Wollstonecraft’s work was slandered, critics insulting her sexuality, liberalism and non-traditional gender role in romance and marriage. Nonetheless, Wollstonecraft’s works were gradually revived and by the 20th century, her feminist genius outshone the initial patriarchal policing of her reputation.
Wollstonecraft’s legacy in women’s rights has resounding impacts. Misogyny in academic, social, professional and domestic spheres is still an ingrained and all-consuming notion that perpetuates violence and sexism, but Wollstonecraft’s work is part of a feminist foundation that we can use to strengthen and inspire our work more than 200 years later.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
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“Mary Wollstonecraft.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, 2014. https://www.biography.com/scholar/mary-wollstonecraft
“Mary Wollstonecraft.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft
Vickery, Amanda. “Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘Britain’s first feminist.’” iWonder. BBC News, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zy8y34j
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792. Penguin Classics, 1985.