Mary Wollstonecraft: A brief biographical note


Mary Wollstonecraft

            Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), rightly credited as the first feminist philosopher, though the term feminism was not available in the discourse of that era, by the Enlightenment-inspired passion for reason,dared to rationally think and publically express her thought, a philosophical taboo for women at the time. By defying and challenging the prevalent social role models and stereotyped notions of feminine virtues in words and deeds, she set the agenda for future feminist discourse.Though she stops short of absolute equality and is ambiguous on the notion of masculine superiority, she inaugurated a new paradigm of analysis in social theory that looks at a woman not as a woman but as a human at par with men. Till the late 20th century marked by resurgence feminist assertion and scholarship, people talked more about her short life than her writings, written in the midst of tumultuous events of the French revolution and counter revolution (1789-99) in the difficult personal circumstances[1]. As women were not allowed education beyond basic level, she had to satisfy her passion for reading and rational thinking by self-education like her near-contemporary JJ Rousseau, who becomes the first target of her intellectual rage. She concludes the first chapter of the Vindication of Right of Woman with “… had Rousseau mounted one step higher in his investigation, or could his eye have pierced through the foggy atmosphere, which he almost disdained to breathe, his active mind would have darted forward to contemplate the perfection of man in the establishment of true civilization, instead of taking his ferocious flight back to the night of sensual ignorance.”[2]When people were talking about reform in women’s education so they can fit into the role of a civilized companion, Mary wrote, “I attribute [these problems] to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers … the civilized women of this present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.”[3]

The second of seven children, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in1759.  Her paternal grandfather was a successful master weaver who left a sizeable legacy, but her father, Edward John, mismanaged his share of the inheritance.Her somewhat haphazard education was, however, not entirely unusual for someone of her sex and position, nor was it particularly deficient. As her works substantiate, she had good knowledge of the works of several of famous Ancient philosophers. The latter is partly explained through her personal acquaintance with Thomas Taylor, famed for his translations of Plato. She also drew on a variety of early modern sources, such as Shakespeare and Milton’s works. Through her own writing for the Analytical Review she was to become widely read in the literature of her period. In a relatively rapid succession, for earning the livelihood, she was to enter the most likely occupations for someone of her sex and circumstances: a lady’s companion, a schoolteacher, and a governess.

By February 1784 along with her sister and her best friend Fanny Blood Mary started a school at Newington Green, where Mary met the moral and political thinker, the Reverend Richard Price, head of Newington’s thriving Dissenting community, and heard him preach. This was a crucial encounter for Mary. Several years later, she was to rise to his defense in a Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), and it was through her connections to members of this community that she was to gain an introduction to her future publisher, friend, and one might even say, patron, Joseph Johnson, the publisher of the Analytical review, that became the source of her income and platform for developing her intellectual ability as the first feminist philosopher.

In November 1785, Wollstonecraft set off on a trip to Lisbon, where her friend Fanny, who had married that February, was expecting her first child. On board the ship, Mary met a man suffering from consumption; she nursed him for a fortnight, the length of the journey. This experience is related in her first novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788).

On her return to England, Wollstonecraft found her school in a dire state. Far from providing her with a reliable income and some stability, it was to be a source of endless worries and a financial drain. Only Joseph Johnson’s advance on her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct in the more important Duties of Life (1787) helped ease her considerable financial difficulties. It consists of brief discussions on such topics as ‘Moral Discipline’, ‘Artificial Manners’, ‘Boardings-Schools’, ‘The Benefits Which Arise From Disappointments’, ‘The Observance of Sunday’, and ‘On the Treatment of Servants’.

Following the collapse of her school, Wollstonecraft became a governess to the family of Lord Kingsborough for a brief and unsatisfactory period. The position took her to Ireland, where she completed Mary, A Fiction. On her return to London, Joseph Johnson came to the rescue once again by giving her some literary employment. In 1787, she also began, but never completed, The Cave of Fancy. A Tale. The same year, she wrote Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788); it appeared in two other London editions in her life time (1791 and 1796), the last of which illustrated by William Blake. Wollstonecraft’s anthology, The Female Reader; Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse; Selected from the Best Writers and Disposed under Proper Heads; for the Improvement of Young Women (1789), was compiled in the same period and published under the name of ‘Mr. Cresswick, teacher of Elocution’; it pursues themes to be found in her previous works and contains excerpts mostly from the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, as well as many by various eighteenth-century authors, such as Voltaire, Hume, Steele, Charlotte Smith, and Madame de Genlis.

To understand the extent to which Wollstonecraft made up for the lack of a formal education, it is essential to appreciate fully that her talents were to extend to translating and reviewing, and that these two activities, quite apart from her own intellectual curiosity, acquainted her with a great many authors, including Leibniz and Kant. She translated into English Jacques Necker’s Of the Importance of Religious Opinions (1788) from French, Rev. C. G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children; with an Introductory Address to Parents (1790) from German, and Madame de Cambon’s Young Grandison (1790) from Dutch. In each case, the texts she produced were almost as if her own, not just because she was in agreement with their original authors, but because she more or less re-wrote them. The Reverend Salzmann is unlikely to have resented her for this, as he was to translate into German both A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798).

Throughout the period covered by these translations Wollstonecraft wrote for the Analytical Review, which her publisher, Joseph Johnson, together with Thomas Christie, started in May 1788. She was involved with this publication either as a reviewer or as editorial assistant for most of its relatively short life. Despite her own practice of the genre, her many reviews reveal the degree to which, she, like many other moralists in the eighteenth century, feared the moral consequences of reading novels. She believed that even those of a relatively superior quality encouraged vanity and selfishness. She was to concede, however, that reading such works might nonetheless be better than not reading at all. Besides novels, Wollstonecraft reviewed poetry, travel accounts, educational works, collected sermons, biographies, natural histories, and essays and treatises on subjects such as Shakespeare, happiness, theology, music, architecture and the awfulness of solitary confinement; the authors whose works she commented on, included Madame de Staël, Emanuel Swedenborg, Lord Kames, Rousseau, and William Smellie. Until the end of 1789, her articles were mostly of a moral and aesthetic nature. However in December 1789, she reviewed a speech by her old friend, Richard Price, entitled A Discourse on the Love of our Country, delivered on Nov. 4, 1789, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, to the Society for Commemorating the Revolution of Great Britain. With an Appendix, containing the report of the Committee of the Society; and Account of the Population of France; and the Declarations of the Rights by the National Assembly of France(1789). This address to the Revolution Society in commemoration of the events of 1688 partly prompted Burke to compose his very famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (1790).

Burke’s attack on Price in that work in turn led Wollstonecraft, egged on by her publisher, Johnson, to take up her pen in the aged Reverend’s defence. A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) was almost certainly the first of many responses Burke’s Reflections elicited. Initially published anonymously at the end of November, the second edition that quickly followed in mid-December bore its author’s name and marked a turning point in her career; it established her political writer. In September 1791, Wollstonecraft began A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, which elaborated a number of points made in the previousVindication, namely, that in most cases, marriage was nothing but a property relation, and that the education women received ensured that they could not meet the expectations society had of them and almost certainly guaranteed them an unhappy life.

Following the publication of her second Vindication, Wollstonecraft was introduced to the French statesman and diplomat, Charles Talleyrand, on his mission to London on the part of the Constituent Assembly in February 1792. She dedicated the second edition of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to him. In December 1792, she travelled to France where she met Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant and author of A Topographical Descriptions of the Western Territory of North America (1792) and The Emigrants (1793). As British subjects were increasingly at risk under the Terror, Wollstonecraft passed as Imlay’s wife so as to benefit from the security enjoyed at the time by American citizens. They never married. Imlay was probably the source of Wollstonecraft’s greatest unhappiness, first through his lack of ardor-passion for her, then because of his infidelity, and finally because of his complete rejection of her. Most of all, her love of Imlay brought Wollstonecraft to the realization that the passions are not so easily brought to heel by reason. After a tense period of relationship, she broke with Imlay finally in March 1796. In April of the same year, she renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin and they became lovers that summer. They were married at St Pancras church in March 1797. On the 30th August, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, future author of Frankenstein and wife of Shelley, was born and soon she died of child birth complication.With no economic opportunities open for women to live independently, she chose to be a writer for income generation that coincided with her ambition of being a philosopher in her own right. A woman being a writer was unheard.

[1]Mary Wollstonecraft (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


[3] Ibid

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi


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