Mary Wollstonecraft: reclaiming the reputation of a feminist icon

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer and passionate advocate of equality for women, whose seminal works – including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – proved a manifesto for future generations of feminists. In this piece written for BBC History Magazine in 2009 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Wollstonecraft's birth, historian Hannah Greig looks at the reputation of the dissenting philosopher

A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

More than two centuries ago, a learned writer sought to classify “the first of a new genus”. Later this author penned polemical texts challenging the perceived natural order and dismantling society’s organising principles. Despite the taxonomical turn of phrase, this was not the intellectual was not Charles Darwin. It was another, Mary Wollstonecraft.

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Born in 1759, Wollstonecraft was half a century Darwin’s senior. Concerned with sexual equality rather than sexual selection, she offered arguably as radical a vision of the world, and one as unsettling to the contemporary status quo as the later Darwinian view of a competitive natural hierarchy.

Critically, for Wollstonecraft, society was handicapped by its denigration of female capabilities. Benefiting men but limiting women, such an unequal society, she claimed, could never prosper. Instead, human progress was dependent on the recognition and promotion of female reason. “Intellect,” she thundered, “will always govern”.

Publishing her most famous work in the revolutionary 1790s, Wollstonecraft’s words were a manifesto for the rights of women. Indeed, the “new genus” Wollstonecraft identified was herself: female philosopher and writer. “I am not born to tread the beaten track”, she boldly asserted.

Wollstonecraft’s belief in her originality was supported by her extraordinary curriculum vitae. Determined to be independent, she initially walked the well-worn path of lady’s companion, schoolmistress and governess. However, on running her own educational establishment in Newington Green, she joined its famous dissenting community. Inspired, she turned to professional writing, a more unorthodox pursuit for a woman, to boost her income and establish her intellectual credentials.

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Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), seemed steeped in the traditions of conduct literature. Disavowing fripperies, implying that education might improve wives and mothers, it echoed contemporary works on female virtue. Yet, buried in the standard vocabulary were hints at more explosive propositions. Thoughts condemned the limited prospects available to unmarried women, and the inequities of marriage itself. “Few are the modes of earning a subsistence”, Wollstonecraft lamented, “a teacher at a school is a kind of upper servant, who has more work than the menial ones, a governess is equally disagreeable… how cutting is the contempt she meets with”.

Wollstonecraft’s verdict on the latter was borne out when she left Newington Green to become a governess. Her year-long stint fuelled her dissatisfaction with the confines of gender and class. Dismissed from a job she loathed, she continued to write, completing a collection of didactic stories for children, Original Stories From Real Life (1788), and channelling her frustrations into another work Mary, A Fiction (1788) – a novel championing a rebellious, intellectual heroine stymied by conventions.

It was at this moment that Wollstonecraft’s professional life took a critical turn. Aged 29, she rejected stereotyped spinsterhood for a career with a London publisher, Joseph Johnson. Provincial obscurity was soon replaced with metropolitan fame. Her new duties involved translating and reviewing books for Johnson and his Analytical Review. Through such labours, Wollstonecraft joined an intellectual circle including author and revolutionary Thomas Paine, painter and writer Henry Fuseli and artist and poet William Blake.

Enriched and emboldened, Wollstonecraft’s discontent with the ‘natural order’ continued to evolve. Into the swirling debates sparked by
the French Revolution, she launched an important polemical work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), the first published, radical response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which had portrayed aristocracy and monarchy as cornerstones of constitutional perfection.

Written at a breathtaking pace (with Johnson printing each page as she composed it) Wollstonecraft furiously dismantled Burke’s claims. She argued not only for republicanism but presented Burke’s model as founded on social and gendered inequalities. Her fiery prose captivated readers and crafted a bestseller. It was initially anonymous, yet the second edition carried her name, catapulting Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and philosopher, into the public imagination.

Improper privileges

This work was soon followed by her most famous, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), written with speed and aplomb. Here Wollstonecraft extended ideas prefigured elsewhere. To unfairly simplify what remains a brilliant text, she asserted that just as the aristocracy possessed improper hereditary privileges over the lower orders, so men inherited improper privileges over women.

How grossly do they insult us who advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft imagined a world where such artificial divisions were erased. Reason, she said, was given to all, but women were denied its cultivation through strategically limited education. “How grossly do they insult us”, she wrote, “who advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!” Presenting men and women as identical in intelligence, Wollstonecraft envisaged a society founded on first principles of equality.
“Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man”.

Other works followed: An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the Revolution in France (1794), Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), and, posthumously, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798). Stylistically eclectic, they have been recovered by feminist scholars and read alongside her earlier writings.

Although primarily preoccupied with the rights of women, Wollstonecraft was also a serial polemicist who roamed across 18th-century literary genres from conduct literature to travel writing, and the novel to the philosophical tract.

With its rebuttal of oppression and demand for equality, unsurprisingly Vindication, in particular, is cited as a founding feminist text and its author hailed the mother of a modern movement. Yet, notwithstanding her current stature, Wollstonecraft’s right to commemoration was not always assured. On the contrary, she was rebuffed by Victorian Britain and her memory was nearly erased.

Then, if remembered at all, Wollstonecraft’s work connoted female immorality rather than female emancipation, with her posthumous fate suppressing the achievements of her life. Not least, after her death following childbirth in 1797, her grief-stricken husband, William Godwin, wrote a memoir to honour his notable spouse. In Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he delineated Wollstonecraft’s originality, creativity and radicalism.

However, applying a shared code of sincerity, Godwin also exposed her personal circumstances, unwittingly ensuring that her extraordinary life overshadowed her intellectual contribution. Godwin’s homage recounted Wollstonecraft’s history in dramatic detail.

It explored a troubled childhood; an ill-fated love affair with Gilbert Imlay; an illegitimate daughter; two suicide attempts; and a marriage to Godwin grudgingly enacted (in contravention of their principles) after another illegitimate pregnancy. Wollstonecraft appeared not as an erudite voice of republicanism, but as the personification of bohemian vice.

Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

What Godwin regarded as a celebration, contemporaries and later generations condemned: Wollstonecraft’s work remained untouched, presumed unfit for female consumption. Thus, posthumously cast as hoyden not heroine, the story of Wollstonecraft has been one of rediscovery and restitution.

It took centenary editions of her work to start the process of securing Wollstonecraft’s place. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and campaigner for female education, composed an eloquent reappraisal of Wollstonecraft in her reprint of Vindication (1891). The literary establishment, though, was suspicious of its merits. A reviewer for The Times suggested: “those who sympathise with Mrs Fawcett’s views on ‘the Great Woman Question’ will read the introduction with interest… but we doubt whether even they will be tempted to dip far into Mary Wollstonecraft’s own work, the interest of which is now mainly historical”.

Personal predilections

A similar reception was given to the 1898 biography by Emma Rauschenbusch-Clough, which called for the consideration of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy rather than her personal predilections. The Times once again disagreed: “Our readers will probably agree with us in thinking it is possible to regard Mary Wollstonecraft, whether sinning, sinned against, or both, with sympathy, but without assenting to her philosophy. It may even be held that her philosophy is no longer a living thing but a matter of historical interest alone”.

However, it is very much as a living thing, rather than a historical relic, that Wollstonecraft’s work has been more recently appraised. Systematically reclaimed by women’s historians during the second-wave feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft has enjoyed more regular republication in recent years. In The Independent’s 2008 guide to “great philosophers”, Wollstonecraft was one of only two women who made the cut (Simone de Beauvoir being the other).

Yet, despite this appropriate respect for her contributions, the world is still remarkably quiet in commemorating the contrary Mary Wollstonecraft. Newington Green has been celebrating its status as the ‘birthplace of feminism’, with lectures, concerts and cake.

But, next to the national applause for Darwin, she remains worryingly invisible. Whatever the claims of Victorian and later detractors, Wollstonecraft’s intellectual brilliance surely remains as relevant and resonant today.

Vindication: the rise of Wollstonecraft’s reputation

Early 1800s

Details of Wollstonecraft’s unorthodox personal life that emerge after her death in 1797 overshadow her literary output during the Victorian period. 

1890s

As women campaign for the vote, suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett argues for a reappraisal of Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is republished with an introduction by Fawcett (1891). The Times articulates the establishment view that the interest of her work is “mainly historical”.

1929

Vindication is published within Everyman Classics making copies more readily available.

1960s–70s

Wollstonecraft’s work and intellectual contributions are reclaimed by historians during the second-wave feminist movement. Vindication is republished, edited by Eleanor Louise Nicholes (Scholar’s, 1960) and Miriam Brody Kramnick for Pelican Classics (Penguin, 1972) and thereafter repeatedly republished under that series.

In 1974 Claire Tomalin publishes a substantial new biography The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974) and wins the Whitbread First Book Prize.

1980–90s

Revised editions of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men and other collected works of Wollstonecraft are completed by Wollstonecraft scholars and published in single volumes.

The seven-volume The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (Pickering, 1989), is the first edition containing all the known published writings.

2008

The Independent includes Wollstonecraft in its series on the world’s greatest philosophers.

Dr Hannah Greig is a lecturer in 18th-century history at the University of York and a historical adviser to film and television productions

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This content first appeared in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine