Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields, London (Gender Equality in the Gender Equality in the United Kingdom) on 27 April 1759. Wollstonecraft has been called the “first feminist” or “mother of feminism” on account of her essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women are only inferior to men because they lack education and not because of any innate deficiency.
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On account of her father’s poor business decisions and problems with alcohol, the family wealth was squandered when Mary Wollstonecraft was in her teens, and the family of 8 had to move frequently. Mary was exposed to the vulnerability of women face to poverty; in 1782, she encouraged her sister Eliza to leave her violent husband but this only had negative consequences for Eliza who faced social ostracism as a result.
Wollstonecraft worked as a lady’s companion and a governess for a number of families in England and Ireland between the years 1778-1787. With her sisters and her friend, Fanny Blood, Wollstonecraft established a school, at Newington Green, however the school failed. Wollstonecraft drew on this experience to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787).
After leaving the Kingsborough family in Ireland, Wollstonecraft decided to dedicate her life to writing and settled in London. She wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become “the first of a new genus”. While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was already married. She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli’s wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft.
After Fuseli’s rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The Vindication of the Rights of Men made her famous overnight. She was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine. Wollstonecraft’s established reputation allowed her to move in the same circles as Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake and William Godwin.
Mary Wollstonecraft went to Paris one month before Louis XVI was guillotined. She joined the expat community, and through this circle, met and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American. They pursued a passionate relationship which led to her falling pregnant, giving birth to a daughter, Fanny. She continued to write, writing An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794). Imlay finally left her, leading her to attempt suicide twice.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
In 1792, she published her Vindication of the rights of woman, an important work which, advocating equality of the sexes, and the main doctrines of the later women’s movement, made her both famous and infamous in her own time. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest works of Feminism philosophy. She ridiculed prevailing notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. Society had bred “gentle domestic brutes.” “Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth,” women were too often nauseatingly sentimental and foolish. A confined existence also produced the sheer frustration that transformed these angels of the household into tyrants over child and servant. Education held the key to achieving a sense of self-respect and anew self-image that would enable women to put their capacities to good use.
London and Marriage 1795-1797
After falling into depression due to her separation with Imlay, Wollstonecraft gradually returned to writing in London. Through her friend, Joseph Johnson, she befriended Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft embarked on a relationship, leading to Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy in 1796. They married in March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay; Godwin received further criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. They moved into adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by letter.
Unfortunately, during labour the placenta broke and Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 30 August 1797.
Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798): published posthumously and considered Wollstonecraft’s most radical feminist work. The unfinished novel revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband; Maria finds fulfilment outside of marriage, in an affair with a fellow inmate and a friendship with one of her keepers.