It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind...death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country – I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.
Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was the second of the seven children of Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her Father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft's youth. The family's financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft's Father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was apparently a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. Wollstonecraft played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. For Example, in a defining moment in 1784, she convinced Eliza, who was suffering from what was probably postpartum depression, to leave her husband and infant; Wollstonecraft made all of the arrangements for Eliza to flee, demonstrating her willingness to challenge social norms. The human costs, however, were severe: her sister suffered social condemnation and, because she could not remarry, was doomed to a life of poverty and hard work.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society and then proceeds to redefine that position, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be "companions" to their husbands rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Large sections of the Rights of Woman respond vitriolically to conduct book Writers such as James Fordyce and John Gregory and educational Philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wanted to deny women an education. (Rousseau famously argues in Émile (1762) that women should be educated for the pleasure of men.)
Unhappy with her home life, Wollstonecraft struck out on her own in 1778 and accepted a job as a lady's companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787). In 1780 she returned home, called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson's employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to her and her family throughout her life (she frequently gave pecuniary assistance to Blood's brother, for example).
Wollstonecraft's Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is a deeply personal travel narrative. The twenty-five letters cover a wide range of topics, from sociological reflections on Scandinavia and its peoples to philosophical questions regarding identity to musings on her relationship with Imlay (although he is not referred to by name in the text). Using the rhetoric of the sublime, Wollstonecraft explores the relationship between the self and society. Reflecting the strong influence of Rousseau, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark shares the themes of the French philosopher's Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782): "the search for the source of human happiness, the stoic rejection of material goods, the ecstatic embrace of nature, and the essential role of sentiment in understanding". While Rousseau ultimately rejects society, however, Wollstonecraft celebrates domestic scenes and industrial progress in her text.
Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood; they made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and after their marriage her husband, Hugh Skeys, took her to Lisbon, Portugal, to improve her health, which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings Blood's health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood's death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).
The majority of Wollstonecraft's early productions are about education; she assembled an anthology of literary extracts "for the improvement of young women" entitled The Female Reader and she translated two children's works, Maria Geertruida van de Werken de Cambon's Young Grandison and Christian Gotthilf Salzmann's Elements of Morality. Her own writings also addressed the topic. In both her conduct book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and her children's book Original Stories from Real Life (1788), Wollstonecraft advocates educating children into the emerging middle-class ethos: self-discipline, honesty, frugality, and social contentment. Both books also emphasize the importance of teaching children to reason, revealing Wollstonecraft's intellectual debt to the important seventeenth-century educational Philosopher John Locke. However, the prominence she affords religious faith and innate feeling distinguishes her work from his and links it to the discourse of sensibility popular at the end of the eighteenth century. Both texts also advocate the education of women, a controversial topic at the time and one which she would return to throughout her career, most notably in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft argues that well-educated women will be good wives and mothers and ultimately contribute positively to the nation.
Both of Wollstonecraft's novels criticize what she viewed as the patriarchal institution of marriage and its deleterious effects on women. In her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), the eponymous heroine is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons; she fulfils her Desire for love and affection outside of marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man. Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), an unfinished novel published posthumously and often considered Wollstonecraft's most radical feminist work, revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband; like Mary, Maria also finds fulfilment outside of marriage, in an affair with a fellow inmate and a friendship with one of her keepers. Neither of Wollstonecraft's novels depict successful marriages, although she posits such relationships in the Rights of Woman. At the end of Mary, the heroine believes she is going "to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage", presumably a positive state of affairs.
The British Historian Tom Furniss called An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution the most neglected of Wollstonecraft's books, which was first published in London in 1794, and a second edition did not appear until 1989. The reason for this neglect is later generations were more interested in her feminist writings rather her account of the French Revolution, which Furniss regretted as he called An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution easily Wollstonecraft's "best work". Wollstonecraft was not trained as a Historian, but she used all sorts of journals, letters and documents recounting how ordinary people in France reacted to the Revolution, and attempted to counter-act what Furniss called the "hysterical" anti-revolutionary mood in Britain, which depicted the Revolution as due to the entire French nation apparently all going mad. Wollstonecraft argued that the revolution was not due to the French people all going insane in 1789 as popular opinion in Britain held, but was due to a set of social, economic and political conditions that left no other way out of the crisis that gripped France in 1789. An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution presented a difficult balancing act for Wollstonecraft as she condemned the Jacobin regime and the Reign of Terror, but at same time, she continued to argue that revolution was a great achievement, which led her to stop her history in late 1789 rather than write about the Terror of 1793–94. Burke had ended the Reflections with reference to the events of 5–6 October 1789, when a group of women from Paris forced the French royal family from the Palace of Versailles to Paris. Burke called the women "furies from hell" while Wollstonecraft called the women just merely ordinary housewives angry about a lack of bread to feed their families. Against Burke's idealised portrait of Marie Antoinette as a noble victim of a mob, Wollstonecraft portrayed the queen as a femme fatale, a seductive, scheming and dangerous woman. Wollstonecraft argued that the values of the aristocracy were corrupting ones for women since in a monarchy, the main purpose of a woman was to bear sons to continue the house, which essentially reduced a woman's value down to her womb. Moreover, Wollstonecraft argued unless a queen was a queen regnant, most queens were queen consorts, which meant a woman to exercise influence via her husband or son, which encouraged manipulative behavior. Wollstonecraft argued that aristocratic values by emphasising the value of a woman's body and her ability to be charming over the value of her mind and character had encouraged women like Marie Antoinette to be manipulative and ruthless, making the queen into a corrupted and corrupting product of the ancien régime.
Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark was Wollstonecraft's most popular book in the 1790s. It sold well and was reviewed positively by most critics. Godwin wrote "if ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." It influenced Romantic poets such as william Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who drew on its themes and its aesthetic.
Wollstonecraft was compared with such leading Lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) would prove to be the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work. Wollstonecraft's fame extended across the English channel, for when the French statesmen Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord visited London in 1792, he visited her, during which she asked that French girls be given the same right to an education that French boys were being offered by the new regime in France.
Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December 1792 and arrived about a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. Britain and France were on the brink of war when she left for Paris, and many advised her not to go. France was in turmoil. She sought out other British visitors such as Helen Maria Williams and joined the circle of expatriates then in the city. On 26 December 1792, Wollstonecraft saw the former king, Louis XVI, being taken to be tried before the National Assembly, and much to her own surprise, found the sight of Louis riding down the streets as a prisoner in a wagon "made the tears flow insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed". During her time in Paris, Wollstonecraft associated mostly with the moderate Girondins rather than the more radical Jacobins.
To protect Wollstonecraft, Imlay registered her as his wife in 1793, even though they were not married. After declaring war on Britain, France was blockaded by the Royal Navy, which caused shortages that worsened the Problem of inflation. Imlay engaged in blockade-running, chartering ships to be bring in food and soap from America into France, which explained why both he and Wollstonecraft were not arrested during the Reign of Terror. As the Terror began in France with arrests and executions occurring daily, Wollstonecraft came under suspicion as someone from a nation that was at war with France and who was known to be a friend of leading Girondins, which led Imlay to make a false statement to the U.S. embassy in Paris that he had married her, automatically making her into an American citizen, in order to protect her from arrest. Some of her friends were not so lucky; many, like Thomas Paine, were arrested, and some were even guillotined (Wollstonecraft's sisters believed she had been imprisoned). Wollstonecraft called life under the Jacobins "nightmarish" with gigantic parades in the day where everyone had to cheer, lest they fall under suspicion of not being committed to the republic, and police raids at night to arrest "enemies of the republic". In a letter to her sister Everina, written in March 1794, Wollstonecraft wrote:
Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay, and on 14 May 1794 she gave birth to her first child, Fanny, naming her after perhaps her closest friend. Wollstonecraft was overjoyed; she wrote to a friend: "My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her Father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R[igh]ts of Woman" (emphasis hers). She continued to write avidly, despite not only her pregnancy and the burdens of being a new mother alone in a foreign country, but also the growing tumult of the French Revolution. While at Le Havre in northern France, she wrote a history of the early revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published in London in December 1794. Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. He promised that he would return to Le Havre where she went to give birth to her child, but his delays in writing to her and his long absences convinced Wollstonecraft that he had found another woman. Her letters to him are full of needy expostulations, explained by most critics as the expressions of a deeply depressed woman but by some as a result of her circumstances—alone with an infant in the middle of a revolution.
Seeking Imlay, Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795, but he rejected her. In May 1795 she attempted to commit suicide, probably with laudanum, but Imlay saved her life (although it is unclear how). In a last attempt to win back Imlay, she embarked upon some Business negotiations for him in Scandinavia, trying to recoup some of his losses. Wollstonecraft undertook this Hazardous trip with only her young daughter and a maid. She recounted her travels and thoughts in letters to Imlay, many of which were eventually published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796. When she returned to England and came to the full realization that her relationship with Imlay was over, she attempted suicide for the second time, leaving a note for Imlay:
On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; puerperal (childbed) fever was a Common and often fatal occurrence in the eighteenth century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797." (In 1851, her remains were moved by her grandson Percy Florence Shelley to his family tomb in St Peter's Church, Bournemouth.) Her monument in the churchyard lies to the north-east of the church just north of Sir John Soane's grave. Her husband was buried with her on his death in 1836, as was his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin (1766–1841).
In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Wollstonecraft's illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. The Romantic poet Robert Southey accused him of "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked" and vicious satires such as The Unsex'd Females were published. Godwin's Memoirs portrays Wollstonecraft as a woman deeply invested in feeling who was balanced by his reason and as more of a religious sceptic than her own writings suggest. Godwin's views of Wollstonecraft were perpetuated throughout the nineteenth century and resulted in poems such as "Wollstonecraft and Fuseli" by British poet Robert Browning and that by william Roscoe which includes the lines:
Scholar Virginia Sapiro states that few read Wollstonecraft's works during the nineteenth century as "her attackers implied or stated that no self-respecting woman would read her work". (In fact, as Craciun points out, new editions of Rights of Woman appeared in the UK in the 1840s, and in the US in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.) One of those few was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who read Rights of Woman at the age of 12, and whose poem Aurora Leigh reflected "Wollstonecraft's unwavering focus on education". Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Americans who met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, discovered they had both read Wollstonecraft, and agreed the need for what became the Seneca Falls Convention, an influential women's rights meeting held in 1848. Another who read Wollstonecraft was George Eliot, a prolific Writer of reviews, articles, novels, and translations. In 1855, she devoted an essay to the roles and rights of women, comparing Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller. Fuller was an American Journalist, critic, and women's rights Activist who, like Wollstonecraft, had travelled to the Continent, been involved in the struggle for reform (in this case the Roman Republic), and had a child by a man without marrying him. Wollstonecraft's children's work was adapted by Charlotte Mary Yonge in 1870.
With the rise of the movement to give women a political voice, Wollstonecraft's work was exhumed. The first full-length biography, by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, appeared in 1884 as part of a series by the Roberts Brothers on famous women. This followed an attempt at rehabilitation in 1879, with the publication of Wollstonecraft's Letters to Imlay, with prefatory memoir by Charles Kegan Paul. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a suffragist and later President of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, wrote the introduction to the centenary edition (i.e. 1892) of the Rights of Woman, cleansing the memory of Wollstonecraft and claiming her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. As early as 1898, Wollstonecraft was the subject of a doctoral thesis and its resulting book.
With the advent of the modern feminist movement, women as politically dissimilar from each other as Virginia Woolf and Emma Goldman embraced Wollstonecraft's life story. By 1929 Woolf described Wollstonecraft—her writing, arguments, and "experiments in living"—as immortal: "she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living". Others, however, continued to decry Wollstonecraft's lifestyle. A biography published in 1932 refers to recent reprints of her works, incorporating new research, and to a "study" in 1911, a play in 1922, and another biography in 1924. Interest in her never completely died, with full-length biographies in 1937 and 1951
With the emergence of feminist criticism in academia in the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft's works returned to prominence. Their fortunes reflected that of the second wave of the North American feminist movement itself; for Example, in the early 1970s, six major biographies of Wollstonecraft were published that presented her "passionate life in apposition to [her] radical and rationalist agenda". The feminist artwork The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, features a place setting for Wollstonecraft. In the 1980s and 1990s, yet another image of Wollstonecraft emerged, one which described her as much more a creature of her time; scholars such as Claudia Johnson, Gary Kelly, and Virginia Sapiro demonstrated the continuity between Wollstonecraft's thought and other important eighteenth-century ideas regarding topics such as sensibility, economics, and political theory.
Wollstonecraft has what scholar Cora Kaplan labelled in 2002 a "curious" legacy that has evolved over time: "for an author-activist adept in many genres ... up until the last quarter-century Wollstonecraft's life has been read much more closely than her writing". After the devastating effect of Godwin's Memoirs, Wollstonecraft's reputation lay in tatters for a century; she was pilloried by such Writers as Maria Edgeworth, who patterned the "freakish" Harriet Freke in Belinda (1801) after her. Other novelists such as Mary Hays, Charlotte Turner Smith, Fanny Burney, and Jane West created similar figures, all to teach a "moral lesson" to their readers. (Hays had been a close friend, and helped nurse her in her dying days.) One Writer who never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, but whose novels often contain allusions to her was Jane Austen. The American scholar Anne Mellor noted as Example that the character of Wickham in Pride and Prejudice seems to be based upon the sort of man that Wollstonecraft claimed that standing armies produce while the sarcastic remarks that Elizabeth Bennet makes about "female accomplishments" in the same novel closely echo Wollstonecraft's condemnation of "female accomplishments" in A Vindication of the Rights of Women; the balance between a woman must strike between feelings and reason in Sense and Sensibility follows what Wollstonecraft had recommended in her novel Mary; the moral equivalence that Austen drew between slavery and the treatment of women in British society in Mansfield Park follows one of Wollstonecraft's favorite arguments; and presentation of Anne Eliot in Persuasion as better qualified to manage her family estate than her Father also echoes a thesis of Wollstonecraft.
One of Wollstonecraft's most scathing critiques in the Rights of Woman is of false and excessive sensibility, particularly in women. She argues that women who succumb to sensibility are "blown about by every momentary gust of feeling" and because they are "the prey of their senses" they cannot think rationally. In fact, she claims, they do harm not only to themselves but to the entire civilization: these are not women who can help refine a civilization—a popular eighteenth-century idea—but women who will destroy it. Wollstonecraft does not argue that reason and feeling should act independently of each other; rather, she believes that they should inform each other.