Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft has been called the "first feminist" or "mother of feminism." Her book-length essay on women's rights, and especially on women's education, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is a classic of feminist thought, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the history of feminism.

Mary Wollstonecraft's life and her work have been interpreted in widely different ways, depending on the attitude of the writer towards women's equality or depending on the thread of feminism with which a writer is associated.

Mary Wollstonecraft is usually considered a liberal feminist because her approach is primarily concerned with the individual woman and about rights. She could be considered as a difference feminist in her honoring of women's natural talents and her insistence that women not be measured by men's standards. Her work has a few glimmers of some modern sexuality and gender analysis in her consideration of the role of sexual feelings in the relationships between men and women. Mary Wollstonecraft can be claimed with some legitimacy by communitarian feminists: their critique of a "rights" approach echoes in Wollstonecraft's emphasis on duty in the family and in civic relationships. And she can also be seen as a precursor of the political feminists: her Vindication and perhaps even more her Maria: The Wrongs of Woman link women's oppression to the need for men to change.

Like several other women of the time (Judith Sargent Murray in America, Olympe de Gouges in France, for two examples), Mary Wollstonecraft was a participant in and observer of a remarkable series of social revolutions. One was Enlightenment thought in general: a skepticism about and revisioning of institutions, including the family, the state, educational theory, and religion. Wollstonecraft is especially associated with Enlightenment thought that put "reason" at the center of human identity and as the justification for rights.

But these ideas seemed in stark contrast to the continuing realities of women's lives. Mary Wollstonecraft could look to her own life history and to the lives of women in her family and see the contrast. Abuse of women was close to home. She saw little legal recourse for the victims of abuse. For women in the rising middle-class, those who did not have husbands -- or at least reliable husbands -- had to find ways to earn their own living or a living for their families.

The contrast of the heady talk of "rights of man" with the realities of the "life of woman" motivated Mary Wollstonecraft to write her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Tracts and ideological books had been exchanged in the war of ideas around rights and liberty and freedom and reason for several years. Writings on the "rights of man" including one by Wollstonecraft were part of the general intellectual discussion in England and France before, during, and after the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft moved in the same circles as Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake and William Godwin.

It was in that atmosphere that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication, taking chapters to the printer as she wrote them (she was still writing the end after the first chapters had been printed).

Mary Wollstonecraft later (1796) published a travel book, writing about a trip to Sweden, in which her descriptions of another culture were full of feeling and emotion -- something which her more rational-oriented critics deplored.

In that same year Mary Wollstonecraft renewed an old acquaintance with William Godwin. They became lovers a few months later, though they lived separately to focus on their separate writing careers. Both were philosophically opposed to the institution of marriage, and for good reason. The law gave rights to a husband and took them away from a wife, and both were opposed to such laws. It was decades later that Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone, in America, integrated into their wedding ceremony a disclaimer of such rights.

But when Mary Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry, though they continued their separate apartments. Tragically, Wollstonecraft died within two weeks of delivery of the baby, of "childbed fever" or septicemia. The daughter, raised by Godwin with Wollstonecraft's older daughter, later married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in a shocking elopement -- and is known to history as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft's death, Godwin published his "Memoirs" of Wollstonecraft as well as her unpublished and unfinished novel, Maria: or the Wrongs of Woman. As some have argued, his honesty in his memoirs of her troubled love relationships, her suicide attempts, her financial difficulties, all helped conservative critics to find a target to denigrate all women's rights. The most vivid example of that is Richard Polwhele's "The Unsex'd Females" which viciously criticized Wollstonecraft and other female writers.

The result? Many readers steered away from Mary Wollstonecraft. Few writers quoted her or used her work in their own, at least they did not do so publicly. Godwin's work of honesty and love, ironically, nearly caused the intellectual loss of Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas.