father took out his frustrations on his wife, and Mary often slept at the door of her mother’s bedroom to protect her mother from her father’s violent outbursts. Mary was left in poverty as an adult as her father compelled her to cede her own inheritance to him, which he lost. As a result
her marriage prospects, as dictated by social and material status, were dire. The path she was expected to take was that of lady’s companion, schoolmistress or governess, the only route for self-employment available to women in her circumstances.
Mary made two friendships in her youth which
were pivotal in her political and social development; Jane Arden, who introduced her to intellectual groups and lectures, and whose father was a philosopher and scientist, and Fanny Blood, whom Mary credits with opening her mind to her potential. Mary had received an education typical of women of her class, schooled in classics and biblical scholarship.
Mary left home to become a Lady’s Companion
aged 19, but was forced to return home to nurse her mother through a terminal illness; she passed away in 1781. Mary then set up a school with Fanny Blood, which reflected ‘Dissenting’ values – the Dissenters being a religious group who believed in a combination of piety and reason, through which an egalitarian future could be attained. During this time, Mary’s unhappily married sister Eliza became severely depressed after the birth of her child and
Mary took the radical step of encouraging her to leave her husband. She faced criticism for this, but was unrepentant in her belief it was the best step for Eliza.
The school collapsed in 1785 and Fanny, with whom Mary was living in Portugal, died in 1786; Mary found herself forced to become a Governess. Mary proved unsuitable in the position and after disagreements with her employer she was fired in 1787. Mary had already had her work “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”, in which she railed against the situation of young women like herself, published by Joseph Johnson, owner of a radical publishing company. The company took her on
as an Editor and Reviewer, for the new magazine “Analytical Review”, and this proved to be a turning point in her life. Mary was also an advisor and translator for the publisher, and her intellectual gifts were both recognised and nurtured.
In 1790 Mary wrote “Vindication on the Rights of Man” in response to the virulent criticisms by Edmund Burke on the beliefs of the French Revolution. This was followed in 1792 with the book credited with being one of the first feminist
critiques: “Vindication on the Rights of Women”. The book contains political and social proposals for the emancipation and independence of
women. In the same year, Mary travelled to Paris and witnessed the revolution first-hand, and this led to her collection of essays entitled “An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution: and the effect it has Produced in Europe”, criticising the violence and oppression which was evident in the revolution as the revolution became a voice for the monied male middle classes.
It was in Paris Mary met Captain Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a common-law marriage and in 1794 she had a daughter whom she named Fanny, after her friend. The relationship ended when Imlay deserted her in 1795 as she was staying alone in Sweden for four months, and this led to a suicide attempt. Her book “Letters from Sweden” describe her despair and recovery from the pain and depression of this time, and address her beliefs with regard to sexuality and the oppression and torment women suffer due to the patriarchal standards enforced on them as a gender.
Mary recovered, and in 1795 she became
romantically involved with William Godwin, with whom she first became acquainted through Joseph
Johnson in 1791. She fell pregnant with her daughter Mary (later to marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) and although both Mary and Godwin felt marriage was a form of tyranny, they wed to protect
their family. The marriage did not affect their lifestyles or beliefs, and they continued to live apart and to have a relationship of equals.
During this time Mary began work on “Maria, or The Wrongs of Women”, a novel whose heroes include a poor prostitute and an adulterous woman, and which addressed the rights for women to have sexual desires and the dangers oppression posed. Sadly after the birth of her daughter, Mary suffered septicaemia and passed away on 10thSeptember 1797 with the novel unfinished. It was later published unfinished by Godwin, who greatly admired his wife’s works.
Mary was a radical thinker and believed in
equality between the genders, although she has been criticised for intellectual snobbery. Her personal life attracted great criticism, as a result of which her books were condemned for both this and for the gender of the author. It was only long after her death her work was assessed on its own merits.
Mary is widely reputed to be one of the earlier feminist thinkers and writers of European circles.
Selected further reading:
Vindication on the Rights of Man;
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1791
Vindication on the Rights of Women;
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution: and the effect it has Produced in Europe;
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1794
Letters from Sweden;
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1796
Maria, or The Wrongs of Women;
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1798
FOTW No. 43 by Kayla Calkin,
“This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook”group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/234694839904110/doc/389157797791146/
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson