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Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797)
"The being cannot be termed rational or virtuous, who obeys any authority, but that of reason."

"In this metropolis a number of lurking leeches infamously gain subsistence by practicing on the credulity of women."

-- Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was a noted writer during the 18th century. She was born in Spitalfields, London. Wollstonecraft had a momentous but tragically brief career of nine years; she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as well as a full range of work across disciplinary boundaries separating philosophy, letters, education, advice, politics, history, religion, sexuality, and feminism itself.

Once viewed solely in relation to the history of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft is now recognized as a great writer across a range of genres, including journalism, letters, and travel writing. Her personal struggles as a woman and an author contributed to her articulation of the dynamic connection between political writing and political rights, both of which she argued had been "confined to the male line since Adam downward". Her writing challenges the male birthright, bringing to life a new form of political analysis. Today, she is celebrated for her early advocacy of women's equality and rationality, and for arguing against the degradation and subjugation of women justified by "the arbitrary power of beauty"

Mary Wollstonecraft was the second child of seven, and the eldest daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft. Mary's parents shared preference for her older brother, which contributed to her loss of economic and class status as a young woman. Her grandfather was a wealthy silk merchant who left 10,000 pounds to her father, but Mary's father tried to distance himself from the trade and set up as a gentleman farmer first in Essex, and then near Beverley in Yorkshire.

Mary's grandfather wanted his family to rise in the world, and desired a country retreat for his privileged son more than for himself; along with the city house in Primrose Street, he provided Edward's first farm in Essex, where Mary lived at age four and five, and where her other sister, Everina was born.

In less than four years, Edward's farm in Essex failed. The failure drove Edward's career across England and Wales, to poorer and more remote farms, eventually squandering his inheritance and ultimately making his children rootless. He developed a drinking problem and began to verbally, and perhaps even physically, abuse Mary's mother; Mary tried to shield her mother from Edward's aggression by sleeping nights on the landing near her mother's bedroom door. As a result of the neglect to which her parents subjected her, Mary assumed a mother's role for the children that followed, especially the girls.

In 1768, the Wollstonecrafts moved to a farm outside of Beverley, where Mary attended a local day-school for girls; the school attended to housewifery and morals, and the curriculum aimed at making a girl marriageable and ladylike — rudimentary French language, needlework, music, dancing, writing, and possibly some botany and accounts. At home or with friends she read general books, magazines and newspapers, and learned to consider social issues troubling Kingdom of Great Britain in general and Beverley in particular. Beyond schooling and access to print, Beverley gave Mary cultured society.

The Wollstonecrafts left Beverley for Hoxton, London, when Mary was fifteen. Disinherited both economically and emotionally, Mary became an autodidact, who learned through reading and by participating in the public sphere; the city and provinces held informal and formal discussion groups, public lectures and clubs, libraries made books affordable, and coffee shops offered the latest periodicals and newspapers. When in Beverley, she attended the lectures of John Arden on experimental science; he also taught her along with his daughter Jane Arden, how to use globes and on how to argue philosophical problems.

In Hoxton, Mary also found mentors in her next-door neighbors, the Reverend Mr. Clare and his wife, who recommended and encouraged her to read proper books. It is through Mrs. Clare that Mary met Fanny Blood, a woman two years her senior, who became the emotional centre of Wollstonecraft's life for the following ten years. Fanny was a role-model to Mary, who inspired her to think of leaving her unhappy family life and of obtaining employment.

Mary was prepared to leave, but was begged to stay by her mother; in exchange for staying, she was given a place to live near Fanny, lodging with an unusual couple: Thomas Taylor "the Platonist" and his wife. Mary became friends with them and began to read Plato, which helped to influence her ardent religiosity.

Mary eventually moved in with Fanny and her family after Elizabeth Wollstonecraft's death in 1782, prompting Mary to throw all her energy into supporting the Bloods, as well as her own younger sisters. Early in 1784, Wollstonecraft, her two sisters, and Fanny Blood set up a school on Newington Green, then a village just to the north of London and now part of Islington. The following year, Fanny Blood left the school and sailed to Lisbon to marry. Later, Mary followed her friend to assist her in childbirth, but Fanny died, a precursor to Mary's own fate.

In 1786, Mary closed her school because of financial problems that had mounted during her absence. To raise money and improve her spirits, Mary began to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; the work was published in 1787 by Joseph Johnson, and earned her ten guineas, which she gave to the Blood family. She also composed Mary, A Fiction and "Cave of Fancy", and worked as a reader and translator with Joseph Johnson, beginning her career as a published writer.

In 1788, Joseph Johnson also published Wollstonecraft's, Mary: A fiction, Original Stories from Real Life and Of the Importance of Religious Opinions, and she began to work as a reviewer for the Analytical Review, a monthly periodical started by Joseph Johnson and Thomas Christie.

In 1790, Mary published Young Grandison, a translation of Maria van de Werken de Cambon's adaptation of the novel by Samuel Richardson, followed by a translation of Elements of Morality by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. In November of that year, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men anonymously, then, one month later, she published the second edition bearing her name, establishing her reputation as a partisan of reform. One year later, in 1791, she published a second edition of Original Stories, and started to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; she also met her future husband, the philosopher William Godwin, through Joseph Johnson in November of that year.

In January 1792, Mary published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which received several favorable reviews; she published a second edition later that year, and had planned to write a second part but never did, though Godwin published her "Hints" of it in Posthumous Works (1798). In 1793, Mary met Gilbert Imlay, had an affair with him and although not married, she registered as his wife at the American Embassy to claim protection of United States citizenship.

In 1794, Fanny Imlay was born, and in 1795, Mary learned of Gilbert's infidelity and attempted suicide twice; she saw Imlay for the last time in 1796, and met Godwin again in April. She also published Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, started to write Wrongs of Woman, and began her relationship with Godwin by mid-summer.

Finally, in 1797, Mary married Godwin, and their daughter, later known as Mary Shelley, was born in August; Wollstonecraft died in September of complications resulting from childbirth, probably puerpal fever. In 1798, Godwin published Mary's Posthumous Works, including, The Wrongs of Women, or Maria, "The Cave of Fancy", her Letters to Imlay and other miscellaneous pieces; he also includes his own Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary's first biography. Arguably Mary Wollstonecraft's greatest posthumous work was her daughter, known to history as Mary Shelley. Her husband brought up the younger Mary in a loving but rigorously rational manner, and the only way she could rebel as a teenager was to elope with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and would eventually write Frankenstein.


Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787)
This was the first book to establish Mary Wollstonecraft as an author. The title echoes John Locke's Some Thoughts on Education, and maintains familiar ideas from the Lockean tradition: the ideal of a domestic education supervised by parents; the bourgeois distrust of servants; the banishment of improbable tales and superstitious accounts from the child's library; and the importance of an inflexible adherence to rules.

Wollstonecraft summarizes the main articles of early education as a strict adherence to truth; a proper submission to superiors; and condescension to inferiors; she also argues for the development of sound moral understanding over the mindless cultivation of exterior accomplishments like drawing and music. She passionately criticizes the scarceness of careers for women, saying that the school teacher is a kind of upper servant, and a governess is a humble companion. She also says that artificial manners obscure natural sincerity and fine clothes and made up faces should not take the place of unaffected manners and natural play of thought and emotion.

Mary: A fiction (1788)
This story was Wollstonecraft's first novel; she began writing with Rousseau's idea that a genius will educate itself, and used this idea as a summary for her book by presenting Emile, a female who educates herself through sensations, nature and solitary thinking.

Original Stories from Real Life
Described as a series of harsh tales, Original Stories was Wollstonecraft's first commercial success. The book is a sort of governess fantasy, in which children are rescued from sophisticated aristocrats by a discerning surrogate, Mrs. Mason, who acts out of high-minded compassion, not greed. Throughout Original Stories, the tie between higher and lower remains charity, and story after story which cries out for resolution in social reform is answered by personal goodwill.

Of the Importance of Religious Opinions (1788)
Mary was not fluent in French, but at the time she had the rudiments and so could tackle the more ambitious translating project, Of the Importance of Religious Opinions, by the French politician, Jacques Necker. Mary liked his emphasis on constant self-improvement and his praise of reason as a divine gift in agreement with religion. Later, when she disapproved of Necker's political activities before the French Revolution, she came to despise his book, describing it as, "various metaphysical shreds of arguments" in a style as "inflated and confused as the thoughts were far-fetched and unconnected." .

The Female Reader (1789)
A collection of short pieces and extracts edited by Wollstonecraft but published by Johnson under a popular writer's name, Mr. Creswick. She advocates simplicity and sincerity in style as well as behaviour, recommends works addressed to the imagination over cold arguments and mere declamation, and characterizes children formed by rote learning as miseducated monsters.

Young Grandison (1790)
By the time Wollstonecraft published this translation of de Cambon's De kleine Grandisson, de gehoorzaame zoon, or Young Grandison, she had grown impatient with doctrines that "cramped" the child's understanding in making a child submit to any other authority than that of reason. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she rejects the arbitrary principle of parental authority and the blind obedience that renders children "slavish" in character; Wollstonecraft urges that parent-child relations be predicated instead on a principle of reciprocal duty. She insists that parents should earn their children's respect through carefully attending to their education and basic needs, and that children will return the obligation through caring for their parents in their old age.

Elements of Morality (1790)
This was an adaptation more than a translation of Christian Salzmann's Moralisches Elementarbuch or Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children; with an Introductory Address to Parents, because Mary had limited knowledge of the German language and had begun the translation to help herself learn the language. She found his work very rational, and the book's arguments agreed with her view that pain, whatever its physical cause, was in God's plan and led to good character.

She approved of Salzmann's opinion that happiness was not the measure of virtue and its aim was to insinuate a taste for domestic pleasures into the hearts of both parents and children. She kept Salzmann's moral stories and added one herself to persuade children to consider Indians their brothers, a more relevant tale for British than German youth; she also toned down the sentimental effusions and the ingratiating remarks about the upper orders.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)
This work begins with Edmund Burke's Reflections of the Revolution in France, a melodramatic evocation of Louis XVI of France and his family plagued by a murderous mob and his predictions of anarchy and slaughter. The French Revolution provided Burke with raw material to create a cautionary tale to frighten the British away from following suit. Mary wrote this passionate rebuttal, which turned into her first political polemic.

Wollstonecraft affirms her support for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by addressing a reply to Burke in the second person, in the form of a letter. She wrote anonymously, satirizing Burke's sensibility and imagination as mere literary fictions. She also puts her ideals of justice and human rights on a moral basis, fighting against a corrupt state which impedes the freedom of the individual to make moral choices and to participate in improving society.

In her response, she demands a more equal society, responding to Burke's cynical contempt for the poor. The book publicly established Wollstonecraft, spurring some criticism that doubted whether such a good pamphlet could really have been written by a "fair lady". Her confidence growing, Mary was already at work on Rights of Woman by the time Rights of Men was under review.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Godwin asserted that Mary wrote Rights of Woman in six weeks. She says, "Had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book". Mary promised greater care on a second volume, but there is no sign that she ever began it. She was not interested in conforming to scholarly conventions, but her vehemence and personal tone are a conscious attempt to reproduce, in literary style, a persuasive political speech.

Wollstonecraft put the rights of women in the context of social optimism; she argues that the minds of women are no different from the minds of men, but that only men and women differ in their bodies. As a result, she affirms universal human rights—-females are in all the most important aspects the same as males, possessing the same souls, the same mental capacities and thus the same human rights. Therefore, she argues that a system based on one's sex's dependence is demeaning to everyone.

The book also contends that women, like men, are born free. It raises a serious discussion of women's citizenship, linking the objectification of women to the subjection of her sex. The point of Vindication is that women become silly creatures because the goal of their education is to lure a man. She feels that sexually differentiated instruction only disguises female ignorance as innocence, and so Wollstonecraft offers her own system of female education for independence that aims at creating a citizen woman capable of governing herself.

She also calls for coeducational government-sponsored schools, and on her philosophical assumption of sexual equality, Wollstonecraft mounts this campaign for the reform of female education, arguing that girls should be educated in the same subjects and by the same methods as boys. She exclaims, "Let an enlightened nation then allow women to share the advantages of education and government with man, see whether they will become better as they grow wiser and become free.

According to her scheme, between the ages of five and nine, "rich and poor" children of both sexes would attend national day schools; but she cautions that not every child has an intellectual future, and so after the age of nine, only boys and girls of wealth or ability would pursue academic courses, while the others have the option of trade schools. Coeducation is crucial for she says "men and women were made for each other, though not to become one being, and if [men] will not improve women, they will deprave them".

She further advocated a radical revision of British law to enable a new, egalitarian marriage in which women would share equally in the management and possession of all household resources, and demands women be paid equally for their labour, gain civil and legal rights to possess and distribute property, be admitted to all professions, and be given the vote.

She insisted that a revolution in female manners would dramatically change both genders, as it would produce women who acted with reason, providence and generosity; it would produce men who would treat women with respect and act toward all with benevolence, justice and sound reason; and it would also produce egalitarian marriages based on compatibility, mutual affection, and respect.

She proclaims that women must articulate the story of their own lives and act for themselves; she says to become democratic citizens and to participate in the public world, women must challenge social custom and change personal habits. The revolution in female manners incites other women to claim the feminist authority of representing themselves and their own interests in word and deed. Lastly, she insists that the female reader can become a revolutionary agent of change by taking part in the historical dramas of their nation.

Mary Wollstonecraft wanted to bring about change, considering herself as standing forth in defense of one half of the human species who have been degraded from the station of rational beings. Thus, she calls for a "revolution in female manners", and proposes a model of what we would now call "equality" or "liberal" feminism. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has proven to be one of the most important works in the history of western feminism, and has been a touchstone for generations of women committed to sexual equality.

An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794)
In this work, Mary concedes that the effeminacy of the French was responsible for anarchy, but maintains that this subverted a revolution that had been motivated by nobler motives. She wrote only one volume, despite promising two or three more in the advertisement for it. Wollstonecraft found it necessary to analyze what had gone so horrifyingly wrong in France; however, she confined herself to commenting on the less contentious events up to 1790, making her book a retrospective analysis that contributed to the revolution debate. Adopting the stance of a modern, philosophically opinionated historian, she intersperses her narrative of events with passages of critical commentary on the dialectic between constitutional change and the stage France had reached in civilization.

Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796)
This was the last book published before Wollstonecraft's death; she takes the restlessness and dislocation that marked her own life, as well as the society she observed in Northern Europe, and tries to shape them into a style, an argument, and a political stance. Her travelogue tells the reader more about the mind of the traveler-subject, charting her path through a "heterogeneous modernity" than about the three countries she visits.

The narrator adopts several modes of travel but never settles; however, as the story unfolds, the mobility of the subject, which had initially presented itself as both liberating and creative, changes into something compromised, inescapable. The desire to escape is a recurring motif, but in the course of these lengthy twenty-five letters, the narrator loses her faith in the freedom of movement.

Posthumous Works

The Cave of Fancy (1798)
Published by William Godwin after her death, Wollstonecraft's, "The Cave of Fancy" is a work where she allows the expression of passion to be romanticized. She began the novel by writing about a fantasized rescue of a young girl by a fatherly sage who teaches her the recognition and value of true sensibility; the sage is used to express a cautionary tale of sensibility in passionate women. She may have stopped writing because she was tired of worrying over what sensibility was, and how it could be channeled away from pain and illicit desire; or perhaps, she was persuaded by Joseph Johnson to turn to a genre more suited to her talents.

The Wrongs of Women (1798)
This novel was designed to show the injustice and immorality built in to marriage, and more daring than most feminists, to show the wrongs of different classes of women, linking their fates together as equals. Her novel hosts a man and two women who tell stories that also incorporate miserable accounts of other oppressed women.

The story's setting is an asylum, and the twist is that the heroine, Maria, who narrates a tale of domestic betrayals, is only disappointed in love and not actually mad, even though she sometimes sounds like it. Wollstonecraft most likely started this novel in the Summer of 1796, but her lack of confidence and unwillingness to conform to literary convention stopped her from completing the novel. Wollstonecraft's death is why she was unable to complete "Maria, or The Wrongs of Women."

Letters to Imlay (1798)
When Godwin decided to publish her Letters to Imlay, he did so as a part of his honest presentation of a beloved partner and because he admired them as literary constructions; they are the proper self-expression of a sensitive woman. The letters are extraordinary because they are, as Godwin professed, "the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world".

Letters on the Management of Infants (1798)
Only part of the first letters survived for publishing--the letters were meant to illustrate a program of infant care based on simplicity and the author's own successful practice for women ready to depart from the conventional errors that contributed to the high infant mortality rate of the time; her healthy daughter was a living argument for rational motherhood and for giving children as much freedom and stimulation as possible.

Lessons (1798)
The fragmentary "Lessons" (ten in all) address a little girl whose life narrative develops as the lessons progress; the lessons were designed for use in learning to read. Wollstonecraft tries to provide new readers with age-appropriate, concrete, engaging material in a simple style and parental voice. Had Wollstonecraft lived to complete Lessons, it would have made a pronounced contrast to the steely didacticism of Original Stories, and would have provided an innovative and compelling model for children's writers to come.

Mary Wollstonecraft proves to be a prophetic visionary for 19th century, 20th century, and 21st century feminist politics. As a feminist author, she has been reinvented and her work read again and again by women yearning to understand their history and eager to create their future. Wollstonecraft's scholarship has played a leading role in a shift from the study of the experience or writings of women as a separate category of literary or historical analysis, and toward the complex involvement of women and of gender difference in all areas of eighteenth century life and thought.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Wollstonecraft's ideas were explored by Victorian era feminists who put sexual freedom on their agenda. Yet it was not until the twentieth century that Wollstonecraft's broader philosophical critique of the cultural and economic constraints on women would come into its own. In fact, late twentieth century feminism adopted Wollstonecraft as an icon for her success in placing women's rights and sexual difference at the center of social and political debates, and in so doing, made the genealogy of feminist ideas in modernity of interest to a wider public.

Both in the first and second waves of feminism, in the 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s, feminists turned to Wollstonecraft as a vital, still-relevant thinker. Virginia Woolf, in 1929, described Mary Wollstonecraft saying that, "she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living".

The story of Wollstonecraft's life was seized upon by feminist intellectuals, and became re-told as a tale of principle instead of illicit passion. Her attack on conventional femininity helped inspire a 1970s feminism based on consciousness-raising and women's scrutiny of their life experiences. The combination of an outpouring of feminist scholarship and the movement towards historicism in romantic studies since the 1980s has produced a new portrait of Wollstonecraft. She laid down a tradition of feminism saturated in the word, in literacy and literature, in her participation in print culture and in concern with representation whose effects are felt to this day.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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