Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797
The Anglo-Irish feminist, intellectual and writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, was born in London, the second of six children. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a family despot who bullied his wife, Elizabeth Dixon, into a state of wearied servitude. He spent a fortune which he had inherited in various unsuccessful ventures at farming which took the family to six different locales throughout Britain by 1780, the year Mary's mother died.
At the age of nineteen Mary went out to earn her own livelihood. In 1783, she helped her sister Eliza escape a miserable marriage by hiding her from a brutal husband until a legal separation was arranged. The two sisters established a school at Newington Green, an experience from which Mary drew to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787). Mary became the governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, living most of the time in Ireland. Upon her dismissal in 1787, she settled in George Street, London, determined to take up a literary career.
In 1788 she became translator and literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, the publisher of radical texts. In this capacity she became acquainted with and accepted among the most advanced circles of London intellectual and radical thought. When Johnson launched the Analytical Review in 1788, Mary became a regular contributor of articles and reviews. In 1790 she produced her Vindication of the Rights of Man, the first response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. She was furious that the man who had once defended the American colonies so eloquently should now assault the sacred revolution and libel Richard price, a close friend of her Newington days.
In 1792, she published her Vindication on the Rights of Woman, an important work which, advocating equality of the sexes, and the main doctrines of the later women's movement, made her both famous and infamous in her own time. She ridiculed prevailing notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. Society had bred "gentle domestic brutes." "Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth," women were too often nauseatingly sentimental and foolish. A confined existence also produced the sheer frustration that transformed these angels of the household into tyrants over child and servant. Education held the key to achieving a sense of self-respect and anew self-image that would enable women to put their capacities to good use.
In Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, published unfinished in Paris in 1798, Mary asserted that women had strong sexual desires and that it was degrading and immoral to pretend otherwise. This work alone sufficed to damn Mary in the eyes of critics throughout the following century.
In 1792 she set out for Paris. There, as a witness of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, she collected materials for An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution: and the effect it has Produced in Europe (vol I, 1794), a book which was sharply critical of the violence evident even in the early stages of the French Revolution.
At the home of some English friends in Paris Mary met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber-merchant, the author of The Western Territory of North America (1792). She agreed to become his common law wife and at Le Havre in May 1794, she bore him a daughter, Fanny. In November 1795, after a four months' visit to Scandinavia as his "wife," she tried to drown herself from Putney Bridge, Imlay having deserted her.
Mary eventually recovered her courage and went to live with William Godwin in Somers-town with whom she had first met at the home of Joseph Johnson in 1791. Although both Godwin and Mary abhorred marriage as a form of tyranny, they eventually married due to Mary's pregnancy (March 1797). In August, a daughter Mary (who later became Shelley's wife), was born and on September 10 the mother died.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical in the sense that she desired to bridge the gap between mankind's present circumstances and ultimate perfection. She was truly a child of the French Revolution and saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand. Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands. Of course, it took more than a century before society began to put her views into effect.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis