Mary Wollstonecraft: A Life

Grounded in Experience

Mary Wollstonecraft - detail from a painting by John Odie, about 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft - detail from a painting by John Odie, about 1797. Dea Picture Library / Getty Images

Dates: April 27, 1759 - September 10, 1797

Known for: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the most important documents in the history of women's rights and feminism. The author herself lived an often-troubled personal life, and her early death of childbed fever cut short her evolving ideas. Her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, was Percy Shelley's second wife and author of the book, Frankenstein.

The Power of Experience

Mary Wollstonecraft believed that one's life experiences had crucial impact on one's possibilities and character.  Her own life illustrates this power of experience.

Commentators on Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas from her own time until now have looked at the ways in which her own experience influenced her ideas. She handled her own examination of this influence on her own work mostly through fiction and indirect reference. Both those who agreed with Mary Wollstonecraft and detractors have pointed to her up-and-down personal life to explain much about her proposals for women's equality, women's education, and human possibility.

For instance, in 1947, Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham, Freudian psychiatrists, said this about Mary Wollstonecraft:

Mary Wollstonecraft hated men. She had every personal reason possible known to psychiatry for hating them. Hers was hatred of creatures she greatly admired and feared, creatures that seemed to her capable of doing everything while women to her seemed capable of doing nothing whatever, in their own nature being pitifully weak in comparison with the strong, lordly male.

This "analysis" follows a sweeping statement saying that Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (these authors also mistakenly substitute Women for Woman in the title) proposes "in general, that women should behave as nearly as possible like men." I'm not sure how one could make such a statement after actually reading A Vindication, but it leads to their conclusion that "Mary Wollstonecraft was an extreme neurotic of a compulsive type....Out of her illness arose the ideology of feminism...." [See the Lundberg/Farnham essay reprinted in Carol H.

Poston's Norton Critical Edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman pp. 273-276.)

What were those personal reasons for Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas that her detractors and defenders alike could point to?

Mary Wollsonecraft's Early Life

Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27, 1759. Her father had inherited wealth from his father, but spent the entire fortune. He drank heavily and apparently was abusive verbally and perhaps physically. He failed in his many attempts at farming, and when Mary was fifteen, the family moved to Hoxton, a suburb of London. Here Mary met Fanny Blood, to become perhaps her closest friend. The family moved to Wales and then back to London as Edward Wollstonecraft tried to make a living.

At nineteen, Mary Wollstonecraft took a position that was one of the few available to middle class educated women: a companion to an older woman. She traveled in England with her charge, Mrs. Dawson, but two years later returned home to attend her mother who was dying. Two years after Mary's return, her mother died and her father remarried and moved to Wales.

Mary's sister Eliza married, and Mary moved in with her friend Fanny Blood and her family, helping to support the family through her needlework -- another of the few routes open to women for economic self-support.

Eliza gave birth within another year, and her husband, Meridith Bishop, wrote to Mary and asked that she return to nurse her sister whose mental condition had deteriorated seriously.

Mary's theory was that Eliza's condition was the result of her husband's treatment of her, and Mary helped Eliza leave her husband and arrange a legal separation. Under the laws of the time, Eliza had to leave her young son with his father, and the son died before his first birthday.

Mary Wollstonecraft, her sister Eliza Bishop, her friend Fanny Blood and later Mary's and Eliza's sister Everina turned to another possible means of financial support for themselves, and opened a school in Newington Green. It is in Newington Green that Mary Wollstonecraft first met the clergyman Richard Price whose friendship led to meeting many of the liberals among England's intellectuals.

Fanny decided to marry, and, pregnant soon after the marriage, called Mary to be with her in Lisbon for the birth. Fanny and her baby died soon after the premature birth.

When Mary Wollstonecraft returned to England, she closed the financially-struggling school and wrote her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. She then took a position in yet another respectable profession for women of her background and circumstances: governess.

After a year of traveling in Ireland and England with the family of her employer, Viscount Kingsborough, Mary was fired by Lady Kingsborough for becoming too close to her charges.

And so Mary Wollstonecraft decided that her means of support had to be her writing, and she returned to London in 1787.

Mary Wollstonecraft Takes Up Writing

From the circle of English intellectuals to whom she'd been introduced through Rev. Price, Mary Wollstonecraft had met Joseph Johnson, a leading publisher of the liberal ideas of England.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and published a novel, Mary, a Fiction, which was a thinly-disguised novel drawing heavily on her own life.

Just before she'd written Mary, a Fiction, she'd written to her sister about reading Rousseau, and her admiration for his attempt to portray in fiction the ideas which he believed. Clearly, Mary, a Fiction was in part her answer to Rousseau, an attempt to portray the way that a woman's limited options and the serious oppression of a woman by circumstances in her life, led her to a bad end.

Mary Wollstonecraft also published a children's book, Original Stories from Real Life, again integrating fiction and reality creatively.

To further her goal of financial self-sufficiency, she also took on translation, and published a translation from French of a book by Jacques Necker.

Joseph Johnson recruited Mary Wollstonecraft to write reviews and articles for his journal, Analytical Review. As part of Johnson's and Price's circles, she met and interacted with many of the great thinkers of the time. Their admiration for the French Revolution was a frequent topic of their discussions.

Liberty in the Air

Certainly, this was a period of exhilaration for Mary Wollstonecraft. Accepted into circles of intellectuals, beginning to make her living with her own efforts, and expanding her own education through reading and discussion, she had achieved a position in sharp contrast to that of her mother, sister, and friend Fanny. The hopefulness of the liberal circle about the French Revolution and its potentials for liberty and human fulfillment plus her own more secure life are reflected in Wollstonecraft's energy and enthusiasm.

In 1791, in London, Mary Wollstonecraft attended a dinner for Thomas Paine hosted by Joseph Johnson. Paine, whose recent The Rights of Man had defended the French Revolution, was among the writers Johnson published -- others included Priestley, Coleridge, Blake and Wordsworth. At this dinner, she met another of the writers for Johnson's Analytical Review, William Godwin. His recollection was that the two of them -- Godwin and Wollstonecraft -- immediately took a dislike to each other, and their loud and angry argument over dinner made it nearly impossible for the better-known guests to even attempt conversation.

The Rights of Men

When Edmund Burke wrote his response to Paine's The Rights of Man, his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Mary Wollstonecraft published her response, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. As was common for women writers and with anti-revolutionary sentiment quite volatile in England, she published it anonymously at first, adding her name in 1791 to the second edition.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Mary Wollstonecraft takes exception to one of Burke's points: that chivalry by the more powerful makes unnecessary rights for the less powerful. Illustrating her own argument are examples of the lack of chivalry, not only in practice but imbedded in English law. Chivalry was not, for Mary or for many women, their experience of how more powerful men acted towards women.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Later in 1791, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, further exploring issues of women's education, women's equality, women's status, women's rights and the role of public/private, political/domestic life.

Off to Paris

After correcting her first edition of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman and issuing a second, Wollstonecraft decided to go directly to Paris to see for herself what the French Revolution was evolving towards.

Mary Wollstonecraft in France

Mary Wollstonecraft arrived in France alone, but soon met Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. Mary Wollstonecraft, like many of the foreign visitors in France, realized quickly that the Revolution was creating danger and chaos for everyone, and moved with Imlay to a house in the suburbs of Paris. A few months later, when she returned to Paris, she registered at the American Embassy as Imlay's wife, though they never actually married. As wife of an American citizen, Mary Wollstonecraft would be under the protection of the Americans.

Pregnant with Imlay's child, Wollstonecraft began to realize that Imlay's commitment to her was not as strong as she had expected. She followed him to Le Havre and then, after the birth of their daughter, Fanny, followed him to Paris. He returned almost immediately to London, leaving Fanny and Mary alone in Paris.

Reaction to the French Revolution

Allied with the Girondists of France, she watched in horror as these allies were guillotined. Thomas Paine was imprisoned in France, whose Revolution he had so nobly defended.

Writing through this time, Mary Wollstonecraft then published Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, documenting her awareness that the revolution's grand hope for human equality was not being fully actualized.

Back to England, Off to Sweden

Mary Wollstonecraft finally returned to London with her daughter, and there for the first time attempted suicide over her despondency over Imlay's inconsistent commitment.

Imlay rescued Mary Wollstonecraft from her suicide attempt, and, a few months later, sent her on an important and sensitive business venture to Scandinavia. Mary, Fanny, and her daughter's nurse Marguerite, traveled through Scandinavia, attempting to track down a ship's captain who had apparently absconded with a fortune that was to be traded in Sweden for goods to import past the English blockade of France. She had with her a letter -- with little precedent in the context of 18th century women's status -- giving her legal power of attorney to represent Imlay in attempting to resolve his "difficulty" with his business partner and with the missing captain.

During her time in Scandinavia as she attempted to track down the people involved with the missing gold and silver, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote letters of her observations of the culture and people she met as well as of the natural world. She returned from her trip, and in London discovered that Imlay was living with an actress. She attempted another suicide, and was again rescued.

Her letters written from her trip, full of emotion as well as passionate political fervor, were published a year after her return, as Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Done with Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft took up writing again, renewed her involvement in the circle of English Jacobins, defenders of the Revolution, and decided to renew one particular old and brief acquaintance.

William Godwin - an Unconventional Relationship

Having lived with and borne a child to Gilbert Imlay, and having decided to make her living in what was considered a man's profession, Mary Wollstonecraft had learned not to obey convention. So in 1796, she decided, against all social convention, to call upon William Godwin, her fellow Analytical Review writer and dinner-party-antagonist, at his home, on April 14, 1796.

Godwin had read her Letters from Sweden, and from that book had gained a different perspective on Mary's thought. Where he'd formerly found her too rational and distant and critical, he now found her emotionally deep and sensitive. His own natural optimism, which had reacted against her seemingly-natural pessimism, found a different Mary Wollstonecraft in the Letters -- in their appreciation of nature, their keen insights into a different culture, their exposition of the character of the people she'd met.

"If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book," Godwin wrote later. Their friendship deepened quickly into a love affair, and by August they were lovers.

Marriage

By next March, Godwin and Wollstonecraft faced a dilemma. They'd both written and spoken in principle against the idea of marriage, which was at that time a legal institution in which women lost legal existence, subsumed legally in their husband's identity. Marriage as a legal institution was far from their ideals of loving companionship.

But Mary was pregnant with Godwin's child, and so on March 29, 1797, they married. Their daughter, named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born on August 30 -- and on September 10, Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicimia -- blood poisoning known as "childbed fever."

After Her Death

Mary Wollstonecraft's last year with Godwin had, however, not been spent in domestic activities alone -- they had in fact maintained separate residences so that both could continue their writing. Godwin published in January, 1798, several of Mary's works that she'd been working on before her unexpected death.

He published a volume The Posthumous Works along with his own Memoirs of Mary. Unconventional to the end, Godwin in his Memoirs was brutally honest about the circumstances of Mary's life -- her love affair with and betrayal by Imlay, her daughter Fanny's illegitimate birth, her suicide attempts in her despondency over Imlay's unfaithfulness and failure to live up to her ideals of commitment. These details of Wollstonecraft's life, in the cultural reaction to the French Revolution's failure, resulted in her near-neglect by thinkers and writers for decades, and scathing reviews of her work by others.

Mary Wollstonecraft's death itself was used to "disprove" claims of women's equality. Rev. Polwhele, who attacked Mary Wollstonecraft and other women authors, wrote that "she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable."

And yet, such susceptibility to death in childbirth was not something Mary Wollstonecraft had been unaware of, in writing her novels and political analysis. In fact, her friend Fanny's early death, her mother's and her sister's precarious positions as wives to abusive husbands, and her own troubles with Imlay's treatment of her and their daughter, she was quite aware of such distinction -- and based her arguments for equality in part on the need to transcend and do away with such inequities.

Mary Wollstonecraft's final novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, published by Godwin after her death, is a new attempt to explain her ideas about the unsatisfactory position of women in contemporary society, and therefore justify her ideas for reform. As Mary Wollstonecraft had written in 1783, just after her novel Mary was published, she herself recognized that "it is a tale, to illustrate an opinion of mine, that a genius will educate itself." The two novels, and Mary's life, illustrate that circumstances will limit the opportunities for expression -- but that genius will work to educate itself. The ending is not necessarily going to be happy because the limitations that society and nature places on human development may be too strong to overcome all attempts at self-fulfillment -- yet the self has incredible power to work to overcome those limits. What more could be achieved if such limits were reduced or removed!

Experience and Life

Mary Wollstonecraft's life was filled with both depths of unhappiness and struggle, and peaks of achievement and happiness. From her early exposure to abuse of women and the dangerous possibilities of marriage and childbirth to her later blossoming as an accepted intellect and thinker, then her sense of being betrayed by both Imlay and the French Revolution followed by her association in a happy, productive and relationship with Godwin, and finally by her sudden and tragic death, Mary Wollstonecraft's experience and her work were intimately tied together, and illustrate her own conviction that experience cannot be neglected in philosophy and literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft's exploration -- cut short by her death -- of the integration of sense and reason, imagination and thought -- looks toward 19th century thought, and was part of the movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism. Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas on public versus private life, politics and domestic spheres, and men and women, were, though too often neglected, nevertheless important influences on the thought and development of philosophy and political ideas that resonate even today.

More About Mary Wollstonecraft

  • The Legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft: an overview of Mary Wollstonecraft's life and work
  • Rights in the Air: the context of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • What Rights? - arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • Life of Mary Wollstonecraft - the life of experience that grounded her work
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Wollstonecraft: A Life." ThoughtCo, Mar. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/mary-wollstonecraft-early-years-3530791. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 25). Mary Wollstonecraft: A Life. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mary-wollstonecraft-early-years-3530791 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mary Wollstonecraft: A Life." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mary-wollstonecraft-early-years-3530791 (accessed November 18, 2017).