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Last updated:02 June 2016

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary WollstonecraftMary Wollstonecraft was born in London into a family who were forced to move constantly owing to her father’s mismanagement of resources. Her early life was made palatable by virtue of two strong female friendships with Jane Arden and Fanny Blood. After the death of her mother in 1782, Mary had to face up to decisions about how to make a living. She decided, along with her sister Eliza, to open a school in Newington Green. It was during this venture that Mary met someone who exerted an important influence on her life, Doctor Richard Price who was a Dissenting Minister. He was part of a circle where discussions about politics and philosophy were accepted and Mary was able to bring forward her thoughts which came out of her experience as a woman. In 1785 she left the school in order to travel to Lisbon to care for and then mourn the death of the second of her important friends, Fanny. Because of this prolonged visit the school venture failed and Mary had to take up a post as a governess in Ireland.

As a result of her experience as a governess Mary wrote Thoughts on the education of daughters in 1787. It concentrated on what might be the essence of education for girls which was that they should be able to think critically and be self-confident individuals. However, Mary did not see how these skills might be used in the wider world and she still assumed that women would remain in the domestic sphere. The most heartfelt section of the work concentrated upon the humiliation of being a single subservient woman in the households of the rich. The difficulties of such a role were well explored in much of women’s fiction in the nineteenth century.

She was dismissed from her post in Ireland and had the good fortune to secure a post with her publisher Joseph Johnson. Mary was determined not to return to the disagreeable life of being in the position of subservience to the offspring of the rich and idle and it was the job with Johnson which afforded her the opportunity to mix in an intellectual atmosphere. Through Johnson she became involved in the setting up of a new magazine, the Analytical Review. Rather than being isolated as she had been previously, Mary was now part of a circle which included Thomas Paine, William Blake and William Godwin amongst the many authors known to Johnson. Mary wrote material for the Analytical Review, carried out book reviews and translated articles from French and German.

The circles in which Mary mixed were enthusiastically in favour of the French Revolution in 1789 and the question much discussed was whether such an event would have an influence upon British society. Her friend Richard Price delivered a sermon in which he spoke of the feeling of liberty that was now in evidence. He saw ‘the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priest giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience’.

Vindication of the Rights of Men

It was this sermon which led to the production of Edmund Burke’s work Reflections on the revolution in France which was not so much concerned with the events in France but what might happen in England. Mary’s reaction to Burke was conditioned by the fact that it was in essence an attack on the integrity of Richard Price. Such was the intellectual confidence of Mary that she was the first person to reply to Burke. Joseph Johnson had encouraged her to respond quickly and at the end of 1790 the work appeared, anonymously initially, less than a month after the publication of Reflections on the revolution in France.

Even those who are sympathetic to the work of Mary Wollstonecraft present A Vindication of the rights of man as an uneven piece of work somewhat lacking in structure. However the underlying arguments are very clearly presented. She wrote that ‘the demon of property has ever been at hand to encroach on the sacred rights of men, and to fence Mary Wollstonecraftround with awful pomp laws that war with justice’.  She described the efforts of Burke in defending the rights of property and hereditary power as showing that he had ‘a moral antipathy to reason’ and that Burke emerged as ‘the champion of property, the adorer of the golden image which power has set up’.

Her level of analysis is rational and considered, whatever her critics have said, and it is notable that it is an analysis which has great contemporary resonance. She wrote that ‘it is only the property of the rich that is secure; the man who lives by the sweat of his brow has no asylum from oppression’.  Further, she said of Burke that ‘your respect for rank has swallowed the common feelings of humanity’.

It is worth remembering that Edmund Burke now has a reputation for being the principal philosopher of modern conservatism. Mary Wollstonecraft, far from being irrational and governed by sentiment, provides us with such an intellectual clarity about the conservative mind-set that it requires no further revision, even today. She argues for the principle of reason in political life and dismisses Burke as one who produces arguments which ‘supported the despotic principles which agree so perfectly with the unerring interest of a large body of your fellow citizens’.

Her clarity of vision contrasts with the view of some critics that the work was particularly ‘emotional’. It was a very hastily written piece of work and very much in the journalistic tradition of the time but such a consideration is secondary to the quality of the writing. It is the lack of logic shown by Burke that is her main target and she is clear is saying that ‘my respect is soon changed into that pity which burdens on contempt’.

Finally, Mary pinpoints what is for her the essence of the conservative philosophy espoused by Burke when she describes his view of the poor as ‘like the live flock of an estate’ and that if they possess no property then ‘they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice’.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Plate from Godwin book

Plate from Godwin's Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1927 edition

This was the second of her major works and Mary wrote A vindication of the rights of woman in 1792. It was written largely in response to Emile, or on education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She rejected the ‘special’ role assigned to women by Rousseau and in order to do so she set out the rational case for the rights of women. However, it is made clear that such rights and educational opportunity are to be attached to only specific groups of women: those who are of ‘superior abilities or fortunes’. The need for reforms to assist women cannot be separated from a reform of society generally and it is that repression, outlined in her first Vindication, which needs to be tackled. The gain which she envisages is spelled out in the passage ‘would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word – better citizens’.

Mary recommends a system of national co-educational education which will assist in developing women who are useful and independent. As an active citizen a woman should be able to ‘manage her family, educate her children and assist her neighbours’. In determining what leadership might come from men she observes that ‘husbands, as well as their helpmates, are often only overgrown children, - nay, thanks to early debauchery, scarcely men in their outward form, - and if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence’.

When men wish to see women as ‘special’ or possessing ‘gentleness, docility, and a spaniel like affection’ then even a thinker of the quality of Rousseau has little to offer to women. Women have been used to being treated so that they may acquire gentility, artificial graces and so may appeal to men. Mary concludes that ‘this ignoble desire, like the servility in absolute monarchies, destroys all strength of character. Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves … they must ever languish like exotics’.

What is clear from this work is the need for comprehensive change in both the personal and societal treatment of women. Men can gain from both changes but only if they follow the precepts of reason and throw off the tyranny of property and inherited power. She admits that many women do not wish to be treated as such and that many women writers urged women to remain submissive. This ensures that women ‘becoming the slave of her own feelings, is easily subjugated by those of others’.

There is a reminder, however, that such a profound change in society is not intended for all women. She writes of a scene in which ‘I have then viewed with pleasure a woman nursing her children, and discharging the duties of her station with perhaps merely a servant-maid to take off her hands the servile part of the household business’. In respect of her earlier views on education, it is still envisaged that such women as ‘servant maids’ will receive an education appropriate to their status. Mary returns to this theme when she refers to the frustrations of ‘women of a superior cast’ who are unable to be more useful to society. For such women Mary envisages that they ‘ought to have representatives instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government’.

Mary Wollstonecraft sees the purpose of Vindication as being to set out some simple moral and political principles. She acknowledges the ‘faults’ of women but indicates that they arise from the conduct of men who are living in and maintaining a cruel and unjust society. This situation can change through rational thought and education and by men accepting that it is a good thing for women to join them in having rights and duties.

The impact of Mary’s work at the time was diminished by the publication of Rights of man and the subsequent prosecution of its author Thomas Paine for seditious libel. She left for France at the end of 1792 and began a relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant. She witnessed the beginnings of the Reign of Terror and once France and England were at war, she was at considerable personal risk as an English subject in France. To avoid being treated as English, she and Gilbert contracted a ‘Republican’ or common law marriage. Imlay was an elusive and duplicitous character and his behaviour did not improve when they had a child together.

An historical and moral view of the origins and progress of the French Revolution, and the effect it has produced in Europe

Mary returned to England, deeply affected both by her unsuccessful liaison and the reality of Revolution. Whilst still in France she set to work on An historical and moral view of the origins and progress of the French Revolution but only completed the first volume, which appeared in 1794.

The work was in the same measure widely praised and reviled. Her somewhat matter of fact remarks on Marie Antoinette led to the remark uttered by Horace Walpole that she ‘was a hyena in petticoats’. She received praise for her historical accuracy and was referred to as ‘a Lady of masculine masterly Understanding’ – a remark which she would hardly have welcomed. Her work did not take a particularly Republican stance but did expose the aristocratic excesses and moral degeneracy of pre-revolutionary France. She reflected upon the progress of humanity and the factors which might have produced despotism. She explored the moral arguments which she considered had been raised by the Revolution and reflected upon how future societies might deal with what would now be termed ‘alienation’.

In 1796, she embarked upon a mission to Scandinavia which was suggested by Imlay after her first suicide attempt. She took her daughter Fanny and her maid Marguerite and spent some months away from England. This journey resulted in Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, a work which was received very well and translated into many languages.

When it was clear that her ‘marriage’ was over she returned to England and  attempted suicide for the second time. As she was recovering, she met with renewed personal hostility as it became clear that she had never been ‘Mrs. Imlay’ in the first place.

Plate from Godwin book

Plate from Godwin's Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1927 edition

Subsequently, she began a relationship with William Godwin, the author in 1793 of Political justice, a work which anticipated the evolution of humans into a society governed by reason and self-government rather than reliance upon the State. It also covered some of the same ground that Mary had, in terms of being a critique of existing political institutions and their uses of religion and superstition to prevent rational thought and progress. They married and Mary subsequently died in September 1797 after complications which developed in the birth of Mary who was subsequently to become Mary Shelley.

William Godwin produced an exceedingly frank piece of work in a hastily written memoir which, whether intended or not, severely damaged the reputation of Mary Wollstonecraft. His treatment of her relationships, friendships with women and suicide attempts produced such a reaction that he was forced to revise the work and release another edition a few months later. It ensured that the private life of Mary Wollstonecraft achieved greater prominence than her works, a state of affairs which was not altered until the 1880s at the time of the discussion of ‘the Women Question’ and the rise of socialism.

Come and read

The Working Class Movement Library has a wide range of material to come in and read on Mary Wollstonecraft. Vindication of the rights of men [Shelfmark D77] and both editions of the Vindication of the rights of woman [A13 & M14] are accompanied by collections of her writings such as A Wollstonecraft anthology [D07] and Political writings [I33], both edited by Janet Todd. There are numerous biographies including an 1885 one by Elizabeth Pennell [B07] and others by George Preedy [B24], Edna Nixon [B24], Madeline Linford [B26] and Ralph Wardle [B26]. Claire Tomalin’s 1974 work, The life and death of Mary Wollstonecraft [I32] and Margaret Tims’s 1976 work Mary Wollstonecraft: a social pioneer [B19] are both available as are other biographical works.

The memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft by William Godwin [D25] and her Collected letters, edited by Janet Todd [Q29] are also to be found in the Library.

Mary Wollstonecraft in the context of the feminist movement is examined by Eileen Yeo [J40], Margaret Clayton [Women – Box 8], Giffin & Freemantle [A14] and Spender [X28].  There is also an essay on Mary Wollstonecraft in Persons and polemics by E.P. Thompson [I49].

The Library has a wide range of material on or by William Godwin including Volumes I & II of the 1842 edition of Political justice [D02] and the 1802 edition of Caleb Williams [C25].


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