Mary Wollstonecraft - Biography
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on the 27th of April, 1759 in Spitalfield, London, England. She was a philosopher, novelist, historian, and most famous for her key role in the fight for women's rights. In her best known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft claims that the perceived idea that women are inferior to women is not due to any sort of natural inferiority, but rather to women's lack of access to education. Thus suggesting that if such situations were to be reversed, equality and a social compact founded on reason, could be achieved. It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that her work attracted serious attention. Before that her work seemed to be overshadowed by concerns over her personal life with it's ill-fated affairs and late marriage with William Godwin, a philosopher and early anarchist.
With one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s affairs, Gilbert Imlay, she had her first daughter, Fanny Imlay. With Godwin she had her second daughter who became a famous novelist under the married name Mary Shelley, who was born only 11 days before Wollstonecraft's death. Following her death, Godwin published a biography entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which ruined Wollstonecraft's reputation for more than a century by revealing her unorthodox life. Wollstonecraft's writings had to wait for the 20th century feminist movement to receive its deserved attention and she became known as one of the first feminist philosophers since.
Mary Wollstonecraft was the second of six children and saw her comfortable childhood degrade slowly due to the fact that her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was losing his money on speculations. Her father was also a men of violent temper and is known to have beaten his wife when drunk. Mary Wollstonecraft played a maternal role for her own mother as well as for her sisters, protecting them from their father and advising them throughout their personal lives. It was the father of her childhood friend Jane Arden, a scientist and philosopher, that shaped Mary Wollstonecraft's early interest in philosophy. In 1778, tired with her life at home, Wollstonecraft got a job as Sarah Dawson's lady companion, which proved to be an unbearable job that did not last two years. Much of the inspiration for her later work Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, from 1787, was drawn from this experience.
In 1780 she went back home to take care of her ill mother and soon after moved into her friend Fanny Blood's family home. With Fanny Blood, Mary Wollstonecraft made life plans that were frustrated by their economic condition. Together with Fanny Blood, Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters opened a school in Newington Green, in order to try to make a living. Fanny Blood soon married and left, leaving the school to its failure and soon died. Her death partly inspired Mary Wollstonecraft's Mary: A Fiction, written in 1788.
Following Fanny Blood's death and the failure of their school project, Mary Wollstonecraft managed a position in Ireland as the governess of the Kingsborough family. She had a terrible relationship with Lady Kingsborough but an inspiring relationship with their children from which she drew ideas for her Original Stories from Real Life, her only childrens book, published in 1788. Frustrated with the limit horizon of being a governess, Mary Wollstonecraft decided to abandon her work and become an author, a daring move since barely any women could support themselves as writers at the time. She moved to London and, with the help of Joseph Johnson, a liberal publisher, found space to work, learned German and French, translated texts, and wrote novel reviews for his periodical Analytical Review. Her intellectual interest and social circle greatly expanded in this period and it was then that she met her future husband William Godwin. She was still to have an affair with a married man, Henry Fuseli, which ended when Mary Wollstonecraft proposed a platonic relationship to the couple, sharply refused by Fuseli's wife.
In response to the conservative critiques of Edmund Burke of the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, in 1790, Vindications of the Rights of Men, a work that made her instantly famous and which made her, together with the end of the affair with Fuseli, decide to move to France and join the revolutionary struggle. Two years later, and based on Vindications of the Rights of Men, she wrote Vindications of the Rights of Women, which was to become her most influential work. In Paris she fell in love with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay and, letting go of her rejection of the sexual component in relationships proposed in Vindications of the Rights of Women, she became pregnant and her first daughter, Fanny Imlay, was born in 1794. Overjoyed at being a mother, Wollstonecraft nevertheless continued writing and in the same year published An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Following the declaration of war on France by Britain, Imlay registered Wollstonecraft as his wife, even though they didn't officially marry, as to protect her. He eventually left her, tired of her new maternal phase, leaving her alone with a child, in the middle of the revolutionary turmoil.
Searching for Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft left to London in 1795 but was rejected by him which made her attempt suicide for the first time. She embarked on a business trip to Scandinavia with her daughter to try and recoup some of Imlay's financial losses, and eventually his heart. When she returned and found the situation unchanged, she attempted suicide a second time, in the River Thames. Slowly recovering, Mary Wollstonecraft came back to her literary life and circle, meeting once more William Godwin and both eventually fell in love with each other. When Mary Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry, which made apparent the fact that she was never officially married to Imlay making the couple lose many of their friends. Godwin also received some criticism for having advocated in his writing the abolition of marriage. They moved into two adjoining houses so as to keep their independence and are known to have led a stable and happy married life, even if tragically short.
Mary Shelley, her second daughter, was born on the 30th of August 1797 and her delivery brought an infection to Mary Wollstonecraft who only 11 days later took her life. Mary Wollstonecraft died at the early age of 38, on the 10th of September 1797. Her husband Godwin was devastated and Wollstonecraft was buried and had a memorial raised to her at the Old Saint Pancras Churchyard. Her tombstone mentions her as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin released in the following year Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which, although portraying Wollstonecraft with compassion, nevertheless shocked many readers by revealing her suicide attempts, love affairs, and illegitimate children.
Her A Vindication for the Rights of Woman remains as her most important work. It is considered one of the first feminist philosophical writings. She argues that women are essential in their role of raising the children and proposed to redefine their position in relation to men as companions, rather then wives. She claims that women are human beings that should share the same rights as men and strongly attacks thinkers like John Gregory, James Fordyce, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau the latter being famous for arguing that women should be exclusively educated for the pleasure of men. She insisted that what she observed as an apparent superficialness of mind of the women of her time was not due to any sort of natural deficiency but to the lack of education. Mary Wollstonecraft further accuses a culture where women were taught from infancy that the only thing they should care about is their beauty. Even though she advocates for equality of rights in many fields, she nevertheless stated that men were superior in strength and virtue.
Virginia Woolf was one of the 20th century feminists to praise Mary Wollstonecraft's life and writings. Woolf wrote: "She is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."