A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstonecraft | Biography

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Early Years

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on April 27, 1759. Her father made poor decisions with the family's money and was reportedly abusive to Mary and her family. After her mother's death in 1780, Wollstonecraft needed to support herself. She worked with her sister and a good friend to open a school, and her work in the school inspired her first publication, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). When her cofounder died, Wollstonecraft needed to find another way to support herself. She took a job as a governess, but found she was unhappy working in a family home.

Vindication of the Rights of Man—and Woman

She returned to London and began working for a publisher, reviewing publications by other authors. Her employer also assisted Wollstonecraft in publishing her own work. Her first real political writing was A Vindication of the Rights of Man, published in 1790. This was a response to Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who took a very negative view of the French Revolution (1789–99), which challenged traditional French politics in favor of democracy and civil rights. Wollstonecraft embraced the theories of John Locke, an English Enlightenment philosopher whose ideas also inspired the American Revolution (1765–83), during which the American colonies won independence from Great Britain. She also expressed her religious beliefs, emphasizing that morality comes from God and evil comes from humanity. Some of these ideas later reappeared in her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In it she argues that limited education for women prevents them from taking equal roles with men and might potentially make it harder for women to earn salvation from God.

Wollstonecraft received little support from most people of her era. The intellectuals who shared her beliefs, including her publisher, applauded her work, but that was a small percentage of the reading public of the time. Influential English writer Horace Walpole referred to her as a "hyena in petticoats." The reception of Wollstonecraft's work, however, became tangled with her scandalous personal choices, leading people to believe her work was even more radical than she intended.

Love, Marriage, Death and Controversy

Unmarried and in her early 30s, Wollstonecraft became romantically involved with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay, and gave birth to a daughter, Fanny, out of wedlock. She also published a book about the French Revolution and a travel diary recounting her travels in Scandinavia. When her relationship with Imlay ended, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. She returned to London and began a new relationship with William Godwin, an equally radical English writer and thinker. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry. Wollstonecraft suffered complications during pregnancy and died on September 10, 1797, 11 days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary Godwin. Mary Godwin would grow up to become Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818).

A few years after Wollstonecraft's death, William Godwin published a book of memoirs about his late wife that caused a great uproar. This was mostly because of her unusual and controversial life choices, including repeated sexual relationships outside of marriage. As a result, many people rejected her works. However, by the mid-1800s Wollstonecraft's work was beginning to influence American women's rights activists. By the 20th century Wollstonecraft was acknowledged as an early and persistent advocate for women's rights, and in the 21st century, scholars have begun reevaluating Wollstonecraft as an Enlightenment thinker, in that she challenged traditional women's roles, but also embraced rational change regarding a broader range of philosophical and political issues of her day.

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