Mary Wollstonecraft: Advocate for Women's Rights and Education

Mary Wollstonecraft: Advocate for Women’s Rights and Education

Mary Wollstonecraft has been widely taglined as the first feminist due to her early vocality about women’s rights in England. During her brief but remarkable career in the mid-18th century, Wollstonecraft produced work as an author, novelist, philosopher, and feminist activist while being undermined by society due to the social order she wrote against. Here, we will map a short history of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and work and an overview of her powerful legacy, which persists to this day.

Early Life

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759, in Spitalfields, London, to aspiring businessman John Edward Wollstonecraft and his wife, Elizabeth Dixon. The second of seven children, young Wollstonecraft witnessed her abusive, alcoholic father lose all their money, (including Mary’s inheritance), and forcibly move to Yorkshire. 

Throughout her turbulent early years, Wollstonecraft witnessed her mother’s powerlessness at the hands of her reckless father and took on a protective role over her mother and sisters, undoubtedly shaping her views on womanhood in the 18th century.

One of the most formative experiences for Wollstonecraft’s subsequent work and activism was her close female friendships. Away from the biting masculinity at home, Wollstonecraft sought comfort in her close friends, explicitly citing Francis “Fanny” Blood as her closest friend. Her relationship with Blood and the devastating aftermath of her death inspired Wollstonecraft’s first novel, Mary: A Fiction. The book was published in 1788 and is Wollstonecraft’s only complete novel. 

Mission of Education and Development of Writing and Feminism

After leaving home, developing a school in Newington Green in 1784 and leaving it due to financial struggles, Wollstonecraft relocated to Ireland to work as a governess in 1785. In this position, Wollstonecraft refined her approach to women’s education. Though she only spent a year with the children of the Kingsborough family, Wollstonecraft was able to understand further the problems with 18th-century education, which inspired her to write a children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life. Mary King, one of the children, went on to write about the positive impact of her governess in freeing her mind from the constrictions and superstitions set on her by society. 

Soon after, Wollstonecraft moved to London to pursue an author career, a bold move for a woman at the time. While working in a liberal publishing house, she learned German and French. She familiarised herself with philosophical and politically activist writing, leading her to review books for The Analytical Review. The writer surrounded herself with thinkers, philosophers, and artists and greatly expanded her understanding of social issues and the world around her beyond the home and schoolhouse. 

In 1790, Wollstonecraft wrote her first prominent political pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Wollstonecraft wrote anonymously against Burke’s conservative view of the French Revolution and defence of the constitutional monarchy with her republican and anti-aristocratic views. The pamphlet was met with mixed reviews but undoubtedly established Wollstonecraft as a leader in 18th-century politics. Writing A Vindication of the Rights of Men led Wollstonecraft to follow her interest in the French Revolution, and she moved to Paris in 1792. 

In France, Wollstonecraft witnessed the trial of King Louis XVI and the rise of Jacobin ideology, which she denounced as a result of the poor treatment of women as nothing more than helpers to men. 

A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Her most well-known and influential work, Wollstonecraft, was inspired by witnessing firsthand the incongruence between the revolution’s mission for class equality and its unjust view of women to write A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 

In this essay, Wollstonecraft responds to the general prejudiced notions of women’s education, potential, and social status while also addressing issues of republicanism and class, which she was very vocal about and passionate about.

Mary Wollstonecraft

 A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a sprawling undertaking that examines the treatment of women through a philosophical lens, considering the notion of a woman from a scientific and theoretical perspective. Wollstonecraft addressed the ‘scientific’ beliefs of a woman’s fragile constitution. She advocated for a rational education for women, co-educational public schools, and equal opportunity for the sexes. 

Unlike popular belief, the essay was well received upon its publication; it was, after all, a well-written, original piece of political-philosophical thought from a well-respected source. Immediately upon publication, it was sent to the United States and translated into French. It is considered one of the first works of feminist philosophy and the academic foundation of liberal feminism.

Between England and France 

After the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was deported back to England but spent the next two years travelling between the two countries. On one visit to France, she met American adventurer Gilbert Imlay and had her first daughter, Fanny (named after Frances Blood). Despite her disagreements with the Jacobin’s treatment of women, Mary Wollstonecraft held on to the hope that European society would improve following the revolution. 

1793 saw a radical rise in Jacobin leadership throughout the country, and many of Mary Wollstonecraft’s friends were guillotined. Despite the pain and terror of that year, the author still expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be in France, bearing witness to a historical event and sharing her opinion on the proceedings in real time. 

Mary Wollstonecraft returned to Paris in the summer of 1794 without Imlay. The Jacobin order was losing control, and Wollstonecraft was hopeful that a more egalitarian regime would proceed with it. This period saw the restoration of freedom of the press in France, which allowed Mary to write publicly once again. 

First published in London in 1794, Wollstonecraft’s second most renowned work is An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. In the book, she took a historical and social approach to describing the French Revolution, disavowing the Jacobin regime but highlighting the movement’s positive aspects through her personal and philosophical opinions and conversations with French peasants. 

In An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft stated that the aristocracy reduces a woman’s value to her childbearing abilities and corrupts them by forcing them to value their outward appearance more than their education, character, or morality. She combatted the notion of Marie Antoinette as an innocent victim by describing her as a dangerous and cunning woman. 

Mary Wollstonecraft

Despite her wishes, Wollstonecraft officially left France in 1795 due to Imlay’s refusal to join her and Wollstonecraft’s denial to bestow illegitimacy on Fanny. They arrived in London, but Imlay rejected her, leading to the author committing an attempt on her life.

Travel Narrative and Return to London Society

Mary Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia with Fanny, not wanting to remain in London without Imlay. There, she catalogued her travels in letters, published in 1796 under the title Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

It took Wollstonecraft many months and a second suicide attempt before she reacquainted herself with life in London, finding several great female thinkers, writers, and philosophers to surround herself with.

William Godwin, journalist, novelist, and political philosopher, read Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and became enamoured with its author. The pair soon began a relationship and married in 1797 despite his advocacy for the abolition of marriage and her vocality for women’s liberation from the institution. The choice came from Wollstonecraft’s adamance about legitimising their children.

They lived several flats apart and mainly communicated through letters, retaining their independence. In August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Unfortunately, she suffered from post-partum infection and passed away several days after Mary was born. Godwin was devastated but determined to continue Mary Wollstonecraft’s legacy, publishing in Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1798 and memorialising her grave with the words “Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” 

He wanted people to remember her work- and remember we did.

Mary Wollstonecraft´s Legacy

In her 38 years, Mary Wollstonecraft achieved phenomenal success and made unprecedented strides for women’s rights and education in Europe. Her contemporaries tried to smear her memory, citing her illegitimate child, suicide attempts, and sexual promiscuity as condemnations of the author’s name. Jane Austen positively cited Wollstonecraft’s work in her novels; Virginia Woolf was a huge admirer of her writing, and many feminist scholars laud her for the groundbreaking ideas she boldly presented. 

Wollstonecraft set a precedent for women worldwide and fueled the women’s suffrage movements in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Today, Mary Wollstonecraft is considered the foremost academic feminist and an invaluable foundational source for politics, social activism, class activism, feminism, and educational reform. 

It is because of Wollstonecraft’s passion for widening education and women’s rights, constant curiosity, and outgoingness that she is the inspiring figure we know today. May we all use our talents to stand up for what’s right and forgo fear in the name of knowledge, just as Mary Wollstonecraft did.