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Mary Wollstonecraft

1759 CE – 1798 CE

  Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1790. (Wikimedia Commons) Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1790. (Wikimedia Commons) Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27 1759 in London, the second of seven children by Edward John and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft.  Her grandfather had been a prosperous master weaver, who left the family a sizable fortune that her father squandered through gambling, alcoholism, and an ill-advised effort to establish himself as a country gentleman. By all accounts Wollstonecraft's childhood was a deeply unhappy one, marked by declining social status and frequent moves, as well as financial and emotional instability.  Her father was an abusive man, both verbally and physically, which caused his wife, in turn, to withdraw emotionally from family life.  From an early age, Wollstonecraft became the protector of her sisters.

Wollstonecraft’s early career, starting in 1778, was typical for an impoverished gentlewoman; it included periods as a lady’s companion, owner of a school, and finally as a governess.  Two significant events punctuated this period.  First, in a brief break from work, she moved in with her sister Eliza to help care for her newborn in 1784.  For reasons that remain unclear, Wollstonecraft quickly helped her sister escape her husband, leaving Eliza’s infant daughter behind, where she eventually died a year later.  

The second significant event was Wollstonecraft’s introduction to Richard Price, head of the Dissenting community in Newington Green, where she, two of her sisters, and her close friend established their school.   A group of Christians who had seceded from the Church of England, the Dissenters protested state interference in faith by founding their own religious and educational communities.  Though Wollstonecraft seemed to believe in a more natural, deistic religion, she found the Dissenters congenial, and Price to be a true friend.  To defend Price from Edmund Burke’s attacks in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Wollstonecraft would write Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), the text that established her as a political writer.

Through Price, Wollstonecraft met Joseph Johnson, a Jacobin bookseller in London who hired her to write for his journal, Analytical Review, after she lost her job as a governess.  The period proved to be one of the most intellectually influential and productive of her life.  She met leading radical thinkers of the period, such as Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and William Blake.  She also published her most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792, as, in part, an effort to imagine how to educate equal rational citizens for the new republic.

In December 1792, Wollstonecraft left for Paris, arriving just weeks before Louis XVI was guillotined.  During her stay there she met, fell in love with, and had a child by Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman.  Imlay was ultimately uninterested in marriage and unfaithful, leading Wollstonecraft to attempt suicide twice in the year after she gave birth to her daughter Fanny.  Finally breaking from Imlay in 1796, Wollstonecraft returned to England, where she became lovers with William Godwin, the premier philosophical anarchist and radical in England.   Initially refusing to marry out of principle, the two eventually wed when Wollstonecraft became pregnant.  In 1797 she gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.  Wollstonecraft died shortly thereafter from an infection she contracted during childbirth.

As an act of love, Godwin published Wollstonecraft’s letters and manuscripts posthumously. Her unconventional lifestyle destroyed her reputation for a century and discredited her most famous feminist text.  Only with the suffragist movement was her thought rehabilitated and seriously read again.

 

Written by Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, Cambridge Collections Online

"Mary Wollstonecraft," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"Feminist Political Philosophy," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Taylor, Barbara.  “The Religious Foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminism,”  The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, 99- 118.  Ed. Claudia L. Johnson.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002

Todd, Janet.  Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, London: Weidenfel and Nicholson, 2000