Who Was Mary Wollstonecraft and Why Should We Care?
“I’m pregnant,” your friend says.
“Congratulations. I’m so happy for you. You’ll be a wonderful mother.”
“How can you say that? I’m ruined!”
Oh. I forgot to mention. It’s 1794, and your friend is living in France at the height of the French Revolution. She has a target on the back of her dress—she’s British. France has just declared war on Great Britain, making her suspect as a spy. It doesn’t help that she is a well-known radical author and philosopher. At home, conservatives are threatening to burn her in effigy for her association with the liberals in France.
Worse, she’s not married. Having a child out of wedlock is the surest way to destroy her reputation. What’s a girl to do?
My friend is Mary Wollstonecraft.
A 17th Century Glass Ceiling
“The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent.”
Mary was the eldest girl in a family of seven children, raised by an abusive father and a passive shell of a mother. Mary’s difficult family circumstances forced her to learn how to fend for herself at a young age, during which she was also called on to care for her younger siblings. After witnessing her father’s harsh and violent treatment of her mother while growing up, at 15 she vowed to never marry.
Mary’s determination to live singly was problematic for several reasons. Her father, a member of the landed gentry, had squandered his inheritance by the time Mary was in her teens. This daughter of a gentleman would have to earn her own living, a scandalous notion. The only mildly acceptable options in the class to which she was born were to serve as a lady’s companion, a teacher, or a governess. All were below her station; none paid more than a pittance.
Mary had an independent streak. An intelligent girl and a voracious reader with a curious mind, to a large degree she educated herself, having very little formal schooling. She was fortunate to find mentors who took a vested interest in her, men and women who no doubt recognized Mary’s potential. Her first job was as a lady’s companion in luxurious Bath; her next was as a teacher and headmistress in Newington Green, a progressive London suburb. Tragedy cut her teaching tenure short and ruined her financially, so she became a governess to Ireland’s wealthiest family and moved into their gothic-style castle in County Cork. Although Mary liked teaching, she loathed being at the beck and call of others. At 28, she decided to become a writer.
This too was problematic for Mary. Women writers simply didn’t make enough money to support themselves; writing was a man’s profession. While there were a handful of women authors at the time, none earned enough income to put a roof over their heads. All were either married, widowed with means, or came from a family with money to augment their unconventional lifestyle. When Mary declared she would “be the first of a new genus,” even she knew it was a gamble.
“I am going to be the first of a new genus— I tremble at the attempt yet if I fail—I only suffer…”
Socially adept and well-read, Wollstonecraft succeeded as a writer, again due to various men mentoring her along the way, some of the same men who inspired the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Mary, one might say, ran with the big boys. The men and the books she turned to steeped her in Enlightenment principles which she would go on to adopt as part of her own body of work.
After publishing several moderately successful books, while working in 1790 as a reviewer for The Analytical Review, Mary published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a political pamphlet responding to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The French Revolution was underway, and Mary was a powerful advocate for the commoners seeking liberty from France’s Ancien Régime. Burke, however, England’s leading conservative, denigrated the Revolution just across the Channel. In his piece, he was also critical of one of her beloved mentors, Dr. Richard Price, a thought leader in progressive politics.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was first published anonymously to rave reviews. When it sold out in three weeks, Mary and her mentor/publisher Joseph Johnson printed the second edition with Mary identified as the author. In a matter of days, sentiment toward the publication switched to scorn. Women, critics argued, had no business commenting on politics. Among those denouncing Mary were well-known women writers who bought into the prevailing attitudes that women were incapable of complex, rational thought.
A year later, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a response to those who chastised her for speaking out on behalf of women. In it she advocated for the equal education of girls and questioned why societies denied various populations the same rights and privileges as well-to-do white men. In other words, she took on the establishment.
Both publications established Mary Wollstonecraft as a female philosopher in her own right. We should care because more than anyone, Mary Wollstonecraft got the ball rolling towards greater equity for women.
The World’s First Feminist
Through her writing and various life decisions, Mary upset the status quo by challenging the economic, social, moral, and sexual norms of the day. A century later, those actions earned her the distinction of being widely considered the world’s first feminist. Though Mary predated the words feminist or feminism—the terms wouldn’t be coined until the middle of the nineteenth century, and neither would be widely used until the late 1800s—the principles about which Mary wrote are consistent with its definition.
Feminists and feminism have earned a bad rap these days. Many deride both terms. According to the Oxford Dictionary, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” The same dictionary defines a feminist simply as someone who supports feminism. While I won’t speak to the issue here, I wish to pass along this article from Forbes by Kathy Caprino on what feminism is—and why the term sparks disgust—among men and women. It doesn’t’ have to be so. I like to think most of us can agree on the importance of gender equality.
Terms and label aside, “I plead for my sex,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft on her opening page of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I can picture her with her wavy auburn hair bent over her desk, quill in hand, writing with urgency. Her argument was simple: instead of teaching women to be passive, mere playthings to men—teach them to think. Of course, her position, tinged by the times, promoted things we would at present consider less than progressive. For example, she stressed the importance of teaching women to be virtuous so they can become virtuous mothers and wives. While modern readers would still support such sentiment—who doesn’t want women to be good mothers (and fathers to be good fathers)—it wouldn’t go far enough in pleading women’s case by today’s standards. For Mary, however, the topic of girls’ education was paramount to opening the conversation that is still evolving over two centuries later. Her words were bold and to the point:
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience…”
Modern readers would find Mary Wollstonecraft’s struggles similar to challenges women face in the twenty-first century. Hers is an epic story of a woman’s ongoing search for her truest self. Family strife, loss, unrequited love, and ongoing depression tested her resolve.
Now about that pregnancy… Mary was a passionate woman with a deep capacity for love. As she grew older, it became difficult to deny natural stirrings within, being constantly in the company of intelligent, talented, and handsome men. Let’s face it. There wasn’t a lot of room for a spinster in the eighteenth century to maneuver sexually. Mary’s first inclination was to deny any feelings she might have for the opposite sex beyond mutual platonic admiration. But we all know what happens when a pressure cooker heats up; things eventually burst. After a disappointing brush with a man whom she could never possess, Mary moved to Paris at the height of the French Revolution to write articles for The Analytical Review, making her perhaps the world’s first female war correspondent.
I’ve written about Mary’s life in Vindicated: The Story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a meticulously researched historical novel for which I am seeking publication. Hers is a timeless story of a woman determined to find her way in the world, from her complicated relationships with her family, to her fight to live by her own industry when women weren’t allowed to have careers, and to the men she loved along the way. She captures readers’ heart with her compassion and their imagination with her intelligence as she navigates some of life’s most difficult circumstances.
As you can see, I am a big fan of my friend Mary. I hope you will become one too!
I’m glad you’re here.
Sources for this article:
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon and Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life by Janet Todd