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Portrait Highlight - Mary Wollstonecraft - English writer, philosopher, advocate of women’s rights

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights.

Mary was born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft in Spitalfields, London, the second child of seven. Her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, however her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects and consequently that comfortable income disappeared, their financial situation became increasingly unstable and the family was forced to move (many times). Their situation deteriorated to such a degree that her father forced Mary to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was apparently a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages and as a teenager, Mary would lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. She played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. It was during her youth that Mary formed two of her most enduring friendships. The first with Jane Arden (later Jane Arden Gardiner), the daughter of one of Mary’s tutors, and Fanny (Frances) Blood, an acquaintance of mutual friends.

Unhappy at home, Mary struck out on her own in 1778 and accepted a job as a lady's companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath and though she found getting along with the cantankerous woman difficult, she stayed until 1780 when she was called home to care for her dying mother. After Elizabeth’s death Mary decided not to return to Dawson’s employ, but move in with Fanny and her family. Her sister Eliza had also managed to escape the family home, via marriage, though sadly, after the birth of her first child suffered severely from post-natal depression and her husband, thinking his wife to have suffered a nervous collapse, called Mary in to help. Mary however, believed that the problem lay in their marriage and convinced her sister to leave the union. She made all of the arrangements for Eliza to flee, demonstrating her willingness to challenge social norms, but the cost of these actions were severe for her sister as social condemnation followed and, due to the impossibility of remarriage, Eliza was doomed to a life of poverty and hard work.

It was after Eliza had legally separated from her husband that she, Mary and Fanny decided to set up a school amongst the community of Dissenters (Protestant Christians who opposed state interference in religious matters and separated from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries) in Newington Green where they were joined by the third of the Wollstonecraft sisters, Everina. Soon though, Fanny became engaged and, after her marriage to Hugh Skyes, moved to Lisbon, Portugal in the hope that it would improve her health which had always been precarious. Pregnancy followed and sadly, her health further deteriorated. Fanny wrote to Mary begging she travel to Lisbon to help her through the childbirth. Mary arrived to find her friend in premature labour. Fanny died in Mary's arms, and the baby survived for only a short time after her. Fanny’s death devastated Mary and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).

Upon her return to England, Mary found her school in an untenable financial situation and was forced to close it and take up a governess position in order to support herself. She served the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family of Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, Ireland as governess to the two daughters for a miserable year during which she became increasingly frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women. After the year was up she decided to embark upon a career as an author; a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. Though her working relationship with Lady Kingsborough had been less than cordial, her two pupils appear to have found her an inspiring instructor; Margaret King would later say she "had freed her mind from all superstitions". Some of Mary's experiences during this year would make their way into her only children's book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).

She moved to London and, assisted by her friend the liberal publisher and Dissenter, Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. It was Johnson who published her first manuscript, a conduct book based on her experiences as a teacher called Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). Mary would later describe Johnson in her letters as ‘a father and a brother’. With Johnson’s assistance Mary learnt French and German and translated texts, and wrote reviews (primarily of novels) for Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. Through him she met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and the philosopher William Godwin with whom she spent an entire evening disagreeing on nearly every subject.

Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Wordsworth, William Godwin

Around this time, Mary found success and almost overnight fame with the publication of her piece, Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) which she had written in response to the Whig MP Edmund Burke's politically conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Mary was outraged by Burke's dismissal of the Third Estate as men of no account, writing, “Time may show, that this obscure throng knew more of the human heart and of legislation than the profligates of rank, emasculated by hereditary effeminacy”. Burke saw Queen Marie Antoinette as a symbol of the refined elegance of the ancien régime, who faced the guillotine surrounded by “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”.

Marie Antoinette

Mary, on the other hand, portrayed the queen as a femme fatale, a seductive, scheming and dangerous woman, arguing that the values of the aristocracy corrupted women in a monarchy because women's main purpose in such a society was to bear sons to continue a dynasty, which essentially reduced a woman's value to only her womb. She argued further that aristocratic values, by emphasising a woman's body and her ability to be charming over her mind and character, had encouraged women like Marie Antoinette to be manipulative and ruthless, making the queen into a corrupted and corrupting product of the ancien régime. And in retort to Burke’s “furies from hell” remark, wrote, “Probably you [Burke] mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education”.

Two years later Mary followed up on the Rights of Man with her most famous and influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, arguably the earliest and most enduring of literary attacks on the male patriarchy. It was later that same year that Mary decided to travel to France to witness the Revolution firsthand. Britain and France were on the brink of war when she left for Paris, and many advised her not to go as France was in turmoil - in fact she arrived about a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. When she reached Paris she joined the circle of expatriates in the city. However, France declared war on Britain in February 1793 and life became very difficult for foreigners who by mid-April were forbidden to leave France. Though this was a frightening time for her, Mary was more concerned with the Jacobins' treatment of women to whom they refused to grant equal rights, denouncing them as 'Amazons', and making it clear that women were supposed to conform to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideal of helpers to men.

During her time in France Mary began a relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer with whom she fell passionately in love. Sleeping with Imlay despite not being married was considered unacceptable behaviour from a 'respectable' British woman and their relationship was much gossiped about. When on 14th May 1794 Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter, she named her Fanny. She continued to write avidly, despite not only her pregnancy and the burdens of being a new mother in a foreign country, but also the growing tumult of the French Revolution. It was at this time that she wrote a history of the early revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published in London in 1794. That same year, Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Mary, left her for London, promising to return but never following through. Mary was fearful of returning to London herself as the British government had begun a crackdown on radicals, suspending civil liberties, imposing drastic censorship, and trying for treason anyone suspected of sympathy with the revolution. She believed she would be imprisoned if she returned home. Instead she and her daughter Fanny spent the coldest winter in Europe for over a century in Paris in desperate circumstances. The river Seine froze that winter, making it impossible for ships to bring food and coal to Paris and leading to widespread starvation and deaths from the cold in the city.

Mary finally returned to London in April 1795 to seek out Imlay who rejected her as soon as she’d discovered him. A month later she attempted to commit suicide, probably with laudanum, but Imlay saved her life (although it is unclear how). Her last ditch attempt to win him back involved embarking upon some business negotiations for him, travelling through Scandinavia with only her maid and her small daughter in an attempt to recoup some of his losses. Many of her letters to Imlay from this time were eventually published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796. When she returned to England and came to the full realisation that her relationship with Imlay was over, she attempted suicide for the second time by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames but again was saved, this time by a passerby.

Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson's circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Siddons and Godwin. The courtship between Godwin and Mary began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. When Mary became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Together they moved to 29 The Polygon, Somers Town, London and Godwin rented an apartment 20 doors down as a study, so that they could both still retain their independence. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.

Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Siddons

On 30th August 1797, Mary gave birth to her second daughter, also called Mary (who, under her married name of Shelley, would go on to write the Gothic novel Frankenstein). The delivery initially appeared to have gone well, however complications arose and after several days of agony, Mary died of septicaemia on 10th September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to a friend “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797.”

In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Mary’s illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. The Romantic poet Robert Southey accused him of "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked" and vicious satires such as The Unsex'd Females were published. After the devastating effect of Godwin's Memoirs, Mary’s reputation lay in tatters for nearly a century; she was pilloried by such writers as Maria Edgeworth, who based the "freakish" Harriet Freke in Belinda (1801) on her. Many other novelists, including her former friend Mary Hays, created similar figures, all to teach a "moral lesson" to their readers.

There was however, one writer of this subsequent generation who apparently did not share the judgmental views of her contemporaries. Jane Austen never mentioned the earlier woman by name, but several of her novels contain positive allusions to Mary’s work. It has been suggested that the sarcastic remarks of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet about "female accomplishments" closely echo Mary’s condemnation of these activities, while the moral equivalence Austen drew in Mansfield Park between slavery and the treatment of women in society back home tracks one of Mary’s favourite arguments. In Persuasion, Austen's characterisation of Anne Eliot (as well as her late mother before her) as better qualified than her father to manage the family estate also echoes a Wollstonecraft thesis.

Despite the judgement of the nineteenth century, new editions of Rights of Woman appeared in the UK in the 1840s, and throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s in the US. It clearly inspired and influenced a great many women, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the writer George Eliot, and the Quaker minister Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both Americans who met in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and later organised the Seneca Falls Convention, an influential women's rights meeting held in 1848.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Millicent Fawcett

It was around 1879 that attempts were made to exhume Mary's work and rehabilitate her into the literary canon. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a suffragist and later president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, wrote the introduction to the centenary edition of the Rights of Woman (1892) and in doing so cleansed the memory of Mary and claimed her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. The modern feminist movement saw her work emerge further and by the 1960s and 1970s, Mary’s works had returned to prominence. Mary’s work has continued to inspire change, even beyond academia; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a political writer and former Muslim who is critical of Islam in general and its dictates regarding women in particular, cited the Rights of Woman in her autobiography Infidel and wrote that she was "inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights”. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and philosopher who first identified the missing women of Asia, draws repeatedly on Mary as a political philosopher in The Idea of Justice.

Several plaques have been erected to honour Mary including a Blue plaque at 45 Dolben Street, Southwark, where she lived from 1788, a Green plaque on Newington Green Primary School, near the site of the school that Mary, her sisters and Fanny Blood set up, and a Plaque on Oakshott Court, near the site of her final home, The Polygon, Somers Town, London. A commemorative sculpture by Maggi Hambling, was unveiled on 10th November 2020 to mixed reviews and in that same month it was announced that Trinity College Dublin, whose library had previously held forty busts, all of them of men, was commissioning four new busts of women, one of whom would be Mary.


Mary Wollstonecraft, pen on paper (2018)

Available as

- an art print (with customisable background)


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