Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft, the daughter of a handkerchief weaver, was born in Spitalfields, London in 1759. The family moved a great deal during Mary's childhood and she lived for periods at Epping, Barking, Beverley, Hoxton, Walworth and Laugharne in Wales.

In 1784 Mary Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green, a small village close to Hackney, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. Soon after arriving in Newington Green, Mary made friends with Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel. Price and his friend, Joseph Priestly, were the leaders of a group of men known as Rational Dissenters.

Price had written several books including the very influential Review of the Principal Questions of Morals (1758) where he argued that individual conscience and reason should be used when making moral choices. Price also rejected the traditional Christian ideas of original sin and eternal punishment. As a result of these religious views, some Anglicans accused Rational Dissenters of being atheists.

Although Mary was brought up as an Anglican, she soon began attending Richard Price's chapel. Price held radical political views and had encountered a great deal of hostility when he supported the cause of American independence. At Price's home Mary Wollstonecraft met other leading radicals including the publisher, Joseph Johnson. He was impressed by Mary's ideas on education and commissioned her to write a book on the subject. In Thoughts on the Education of Girls, published in 1786, Mary attacked traditional teaching methods and suggested new topics that should be studied by girls. Two years later Wollstonecraft helped Johnson to found the journal Analytical Review .

In November, 1789, Richard Price preached a sermon praising the French Revolution. Price argued that British people, like the French, had the right to remove a bad king from the throne. Edmund Burke, was appalled by this sermon and wrote a reply called Reflections on the Revolution in France where he argued in favour of the inherited rights of the monarchy. Wollstonecraft was upset by Burke's attack on her friend and she decided to defend him by writing a pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Man. In her pamphlet Wollstonecraft not only supported Price but also pointed out what she thought was wrong with society. This included the slave trade and way that the poor were treated. In one passage she wrote: "How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre."

The publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Man brought Wollstonecraft to the attention of other radical thinkers such as Tom Paine, John Cartwright, John Horne Tooke, William Godwin and William Blake. Wollstonecraft met several of these men including Godwin who was busily writing a book on Political Justice. In 1791 the first part of Paine's Rights of Man was published. This book created a burst of radical activity and although Paine was forced to flee the country, others were determined to carry on the struggle in England. Soon after Rights of Man appeared, two of Britain's leading Rational Dissenters, Richard Price and Joseph Priestly, formed the Unitarian Society, an organisation that was to have a profound influence on religious and political ideas in Britain.

The following year Mary Wollstonecraft published her most important book,Vindication of the Rights of Women. In the book Wollstonecraft attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a state of "ignorance and slavish dependence." She was especially critical of a society that encouraged women to be "docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else." Wollstonecraft described marriage as "legal prostitution" and added that women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent."

The ideas in Wollstonecraft's book were truly revolutionary and caused tremendous controversy. One critic described Wollstonecraft as a "hyena in petticoats". Mary Wollstonecraft argued that to obtain social equality society must rid itself of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Mary Wollstonecraft's views even shocked fellow radicals. Whereas advocates of parliamentary reform such as Jeremy Bentham and John Cartwright had rejected the idea of female suffrage, Wollstonecraft argued that the rights of man and the rights of women were one and the same thing.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1791)
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1791)

In 1793Edmund Burke led the attack on the radicals in Britain. He described the London Corresponding Society and the Unitarian Society as "loathsome insects that might, if they were allowed, grow into giant spiders as large as oxen". King George III issued a proclamation against seditious writings and meetings, threatening serious punishments for those who refused to accept his authority.

In June, 1793 Mary decided to move to France with the American writer, Gilbert Imlay. The following year, Mary gave birth to Fanny. She wrote to a friend: "Nothing could be more natural or easy than my labour. My little girl begins to suck so manfully that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the Rights of Women." Claire Tomalin has pointed out: "His (Imlay) infidelities drove her to desperation and she twice projected suicide, the second time saturating her clothes before walking into the Thames".

After her relationship with Imlay came to an end she returned to London. Mary married William Godwin in March, 1797 and soon afterwards, a second daughter, Mary, was born. The baby was healthy but the placenta was retained in the womb. The doctor's attempt to remove the placenta resulted in blood poisoning and Mary died on 10th September, 1797.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish. The preposterous distinction of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people.

(2) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre.

(3) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

Ah! why do women condescend to receive a degree of attention and respect from strangers different from that reciprocation of civility which the dictates of humanity and the politeness of civilization authorize between man and man? And why do they not discover, when, "in the noon of beauty's power", that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect. Confined, then, in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch.