Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, the second of seven children. She died on 10 September 1797 from complications following childbirth. Her grandfather had been a prosperous silk manufacturer, but her father dissipated the family fortune in various attempts to set himself up as a country gentleman. Wollstonecraft received scant formal tuition; she was largely self-educated and taught herself French and German. Her friendship with Fanny Blood from the mid-1770s until the latter’s death was the emotional centre of her early life and was fictionalized in Mary, her sentimental novel of 1788. At nineteen it became clear that she would have to earn her own living, and she became a rich lady’s companion in Bath until 1780, when she returned to London to nurse her dying mother. She sought work to provide for her siblings, her elder brother having abnegated responsibility, and also occasionally subsidized the poverty-stricken Blood family. After helping her unhappy sister Eliza to leave her husband, Wollstonecraft founded a school in 1784 with her sisters and Fanny at Newington Green, the intellectual centre of rational dissent.
There Wollstonecraft met Richard Price; was befriended by Sarah, the widow of Dr James Burgh; and was introduced by John Hewlett to Dr. Samuel Johnson and the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson. The school foundered when Wollstonecraft left for Portugal in 1785 to nurse the recently married Fanny during childbirth and her death from consumption. On her return Wollstonecraft published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and gave the ten guineas she had earned to the Bloods. When the school failed, she obtained a post as governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Ireland, which allowed her to observe wealthy aristocratic society at first hand. Although she was a successful teacher, she resented her dependent position and was dismissed by 1787. Joseph Johnson, by then her publisher and friend, invited her to London to become a reviewer and editorial assistant on his new liberal periodical, the Analytical Review, and she now became a self-supporting journalist. She contributed mostly reviews on polite literature such as novels, poetry, travel books and educational treatises, but later branched out to write on religion, philosophy and aesthetics. She also translated European religious and educational works for Johnson, as well as writing her own didactic stories for children and editing an anthology of extracts for girls to read aloud. In 1787 she began but laid aside a philosophical tale, ‘The Cave of Fancy’, in which a hermit, Sagestus, analyses the sensibility of his female pupil, Sagesta. This fragment appears in her posthumous works.
Wollstonecraft was introduced by Johnson to a circle of political and artistic liberals and nonconformists which included William Blake , Henry Fuseli, Thomas Paine, William Godwin and Anna Barbauld. The development of her political radicalism was produced by her interaction with this group at the time of the French Revolution. In 1792 Wollstonecraft visited France to experience the Revolution at first hand. While there she gave birth to her daughter by Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. His infidelity prompted her to attempt suicide during a brief return to England in 1795. She and the baby, Fanny, then travelled to Scandinavia, where she wrote a travel book while conducting commercial transactions on Imlay’s behalf. On her return she was rejected once more and made a second suicide attempt. She began a second autobiographical novel, and in January 1796 was reintroduced to Godwin by their mutual friend, the feminist writer Mary Hays. Godwin and Wollstonecraft conquered their original antipathy and became friends and then lovers. They eventually married in March 1797, in spite of their theoretical objections to the institution of matrimony, Wollstonecraft having become pregnant. Their child would eventually grow up to become the novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Though she remained an Anglican, Wollstonecraft was deeply influenced by Price’s moral and political philosophy. Her developing political radicalism was rooted in her religious conviction that men and women are spiritually equal and that individuals need education and independence to enable them to make true moral decisions and effect self-improvement. The conduct book she published in 1787, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, is directed specifically at a middle-class readership, and asserts the importance of education in developing a girl’s rationality, encouraging her to reject the superstitions of the lower classes and the instinctual behaviour of children and uneducated women. The influence of then current materialist philosophy is shown in Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on the importance of training the body simultaneously with the mind; and that of Rousseau in her assertion that mankind is innately virtuous. Thoughts is typical of conduct books written by the more liberal women writers of the period, though there are incipient feminist touches, such as its insistence that virtue consists of active struggle rather than mere passive obedience, and a grim survey of the lack of employment for unmarried women. Like her novel of the following year, Thoughts paints a bleak picture of society’s restrictions on women’s lives, but can only counsel stoicism and the anticipation of spiritual rewards in the afterlife.
In 1790 Wollstonecraft boldly entered the revolution debate with her political polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Hers was the first of over fifty replies to Edmund Burke’s influential Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which in its turn had attacked Price’s 1789 sermon on the anniversary of the 1688 Revolution, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, which had welcomed the fall of the Bastille and envisioned the further progress of liberty in Britain and the erosion of hereditary power. Burke’s denunciation of this sermon in the House had already effected Parliament’s refusal in 1790 to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts which denied full civil rights to dissenters. In Reflections Burke depicted Price as a Commonwealthman with ‘levelling’ tendencies, and emotionally argued that the ‘moderate’ English constitutional monarchy and national Church established in 1688 were the envy of the world, and needed no radical reform. Reflections succeeded in identifying radicalism with the French and patriotism with the status quo, in the popular mind, but failed to unite the Whigs. Burke eventually broke with Fox and Sheridan and supported the Tories.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men shows Wollstonecraft using the political philosophy of Price, Burgh and the eighteenth-century Commonwealthmen to assert her belief in the progress of society, and the natural rights of man based on the God-given gift of reason. She argued that justice was incompatible with the perpetuation of monarchy and feudal property rights; and with the alliance of secular and spiritual power in the national Church. Aristocratic degeneracy and the subordination of the poor were castigated, and reform of the penal law and the game laws, abolition of the press gang and repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts were advocated. However, it was Wollstonecraft’s penetrating demystification of Burke’s rhetorical stance rather than her political agenda that was noteworthy. Her approach reflected his own epistolary format and preference for immediacy over well-organized argument, but she portrayed herself as a ‘manly’ principled rationalist and him as an opportunist hiding behind a manipulative and effeminate sentimentalism. The full irony of this reversal of the stereotypical gender roles was missed by readers of the first, anonymous edition of 29 November 1790, but this was quickly followed by a second on 18 December in which Wollstonecraft acknowledged authorship of the ‘masculine’ genre of political polemic. Particularly effective was Wollstonecraft’s critique of Burke’s gendered aesthetic categories in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), which led on to her analysis of the patriarchal basis of chivalry in his patronizing eulogy on the French Queen in Reflections.
This insight into the political significance of sentimentalism would be further developed in her most important work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which she presents as a philosophical ‘treatise’. Many male and female Enlightenment historians had studied the role of women in society, for this was commonly taken as a measure of the progress of civilization, but the French Revolution controversy on the requirements of citizenship provided a context for urgent debate. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was dedicated to Talleyrand, who was then implementing a national system of education in the new Republic, and it calls for boys and girls to be educated together. Catherine Macaulay, in her Letters on Education (1790), which Wollstonecraft had enthusiastically reviewed, and Condorcet, in ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’ (1790), which she may not have known, had recently been as progressive in their call for educational and civil rights for women as Wollstonecraft would be. What makes Wollstonecraft’s book original and radical is less her specific feminist agenda than her philosophical and ideological analysis of ‘female manners’: her assertion that traits associated with femininity are not innate but culturally acquired, and reflect strategies utilized by the powerless; and that idealization of the feminine in European society is contingent on that powerlessness and is therefore degrading. She brings a newly politicized consciousness to the world of the conduct book. Education is not advocated as a method of regulating female behaviour but as emancipating the individual from what Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ and thus bringing about political change. The oppression of women is always linked in her rhetoric with other irrational forms of tyranny and hereditary privilege, and their liberation is envisaged as an integral part of the revolutionary agenda.
Wollstonecraft again adopts the standpoint of a female rationalist attacking a male sentimentalist but now her target is the father of the French Revolution himself, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As with her onslaught on Burke, she emphasizes the internal contradiction in a political thinker famous for championing human rights but who nevertheless represented women as a separate category of merely sexual beings. Her own educational theory had been strongly influenced by Rousseau’s Émile, but she angrily rejected as demeaning the notion explored in his fifth chapter of a limited education for women designed to produce entertaining, infantilized companions for men. Women themselves are castigated by Wollstonecraft for being seduced by the cult of sensibility fuelled by novels like Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, and placing too much importance on romantic love or sexual passion, portrayed by her as degrading even within marriage. On the other hand, middle-class women are also warned against attempting to emulate the luxury and idleness of the aristocracy by allowing themselves to become merely decorative objects of consumption in the newly commercialized society with its marriage market.
Adapting for women the Commonwealthman’s emphasis on the ‘masculine’ virtues of reason, and strenuous exercise of mind, body and spirit in self-improvement, she put forward instead an austere ideal of the republican matron within a ‘companionate’ marriage based on rational friendship, whose domestic role in bringing up children is valued as civic virtue equal to patriotic duty in the public sphere. Women, like men, should strive for the perfectibility of human reason. Wollstonecraft is sometimes criticized by modern feminists for her apparently one-sided onslaught on femininity and exhortation that women strive for the ‘masculine’ virtues. However, it should be remembered that she addresses both men and women as her implied readership and potential agents of change, and she does criticize at length the masculine martial ideal in her denigration of professional soldiers who are seen as vain, effeminate slaves servicing the dynastic ambitions of corrupt imperial courts. If her œuvre is taken as a whole, it can be seen that Wollstonecraft was herself ambivalent about sensibility. Ironically, in the Rights of Woman she seemed to parallel conservative moralists such as Hannah More who were also castigating the cult of sensibility, but because they suspected it to be potentially libertarian and Jacobinical. In this work Wollstonecraft’s belief in rationalist feminism was at its height and strongly articulated in the appropriate form of a philosophical treatise, yet her personal tone, loose structure of incremental repetitions, and disturbingly insistent figuring of femininity in erotic terms of passivity and voluptuousness qualify the overt argument to an extent. In her novels and travel book, however, Wollstonecraft herself experimented with the feminist possibilities of a romantic heroine whose extreme sensibility generates sympathy with victims of an unjust society, and whose capacity for passion enables the author to raise the question of sexual freedom for women.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was controversial but widely read and discussed, and it made Wollstonecraft internationally famous, being translated into French and German. She now left England to experience the French Revolution at first hand, and visited Thomas Paine and the salon of the writer Helen Maria Williams, who had settled in Paris and was closely involved with the Girondins. She was shocked and disillusioned by the Terror and renounced her belief in rationalist progress in an unpublished ‘Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation’ in 1793. The following year saw the publication of her more considered evaluation, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). This was written while she was moving between Paris and Le Havre to escape imprisonment and in the period when she gave birth to her daughter by Imlay. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the shattering of both her political and personal ideals at this unhappy time, Wollstonecraft produced a more organized and less hasty book than hitherto. Her View was a retrospective account of the beginning of the Revolution, which she had not witnessed, based on documentary evidence interspersed with authorial commentary. She aimed at the detached, analytical tone of a philosophical historian, in contrast with the subjective eyewitness impressions of Helen Maria Williams’ Letters from France (1790–96). As with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she ambitiously promised that View was only the first volume of the projected work, though no more were actually completed. View affirms the original ideals of the Revolution yet acknowledges its degeneration into excessive violence, which she attributes specifically to French culture which had been so tainted by its legacy of feudal aristocracy, superstition and self-indulgent sensibility that corruption was carried on into the new regime. She still believes human nature to be essentially good, and concludes by affirming the possibility of the evolutionary progress of society, but this cautious optimism is qualified by vigorous descriptions throughout the book of the corruption of power, the violence of the mob and the feared effects of industrialization.
When Mary Wollstonecraft died, to assuage his grief her new husband published a well-meaning biography, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), but his honest account of her suicide attempts and love affairs, together with the backlash against all English ‘Jacobin’ writers, so blasted her reputation that respectable women were deterred from reading her works for decades to come.