Mary Wollstonecraft

I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. -- Mary Wollstonecraft

The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -- Mary Wollstonecraft

Probably Mary, and certainly Godwin, when he revealed her life to the public, misjudged the price she would pay for her unconventionality. But, although she was in many ways foiled by her own flaws, and even more by the shifts of cultural fashion, she tried - almost uniquely for the times - to be true to her sense of common female needs: for education and for legal and political significance, as well as for sex, affection and esteem. -- Janet Todd

Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797) was a member of a group of radical intellectuals called the English Jacobins. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) argued equal educational opportunities for women. She married the radical activist and philosopher William Godwin in 1797 and died giving birth to a daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley).

Mary Wollstonecraft was born near London, of Irish descent. Owing to her father's thriftlessness, she had to earn her living by teaching (177888). With her sisters she ran a school for two years, then served for a year as a governess in Ireland and then worked for Johnson, the publisher, as reader and translator. While she was working for Johnson she met political philosopher Thomas Paine, chemist Joseph Priestley (17331804), and the Swiss-born Romantic artist (John) Henry Fuseli (17411825).

Going to Paris to observe at first hand the French Revolution, she collected materials for her unfinished History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution (1793), and there met Captain Imlay, by whom she had her illegitimate daughter Fanny.

Her works include Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Original Stories from Real Life (1788), A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Answer to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, Original Stories for Children (1791), and Posthumous Works (1798).

Published after her death, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, a novel, with as a heroine, a working class prostitute, Maria. In it, she revealed the need of women for companionship and freedom to express their sexuality, as well as for reason and independence and showed the plight of working women differs little from imprisonment. This together with her radical views on the independence of women, her demand for sexual freedom, and the publication by William Godwin of his memoirs of Mary, which revealed that Mary had not been married while having a sexual relationship with Imlay, sufficiently scandalized society, that she was reviled as a 'prostitute' and disowned by the later generations of 'feminists'.

Mrs Opie's Adeline Mowbray (1804) was founded on the outlines of Mary's life.

William Godwin (1756-1836), husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, political agitator and novelist, wrote Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the novel Caleb Williams (1794). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was dedicated to William Godwin.

Thomas Paine, (17371809), English political philosopher, whose pamphlet Common Sense greatly influenced public opinion during the American Revolution and The Rights of Man, seen as the foundation of modern democracy, was the driving force of the Atlantic-Democratic Revolution of the late 18th century. He personified the political currents that linked American independence, the French Revolution and British radicalism. He was to die a pauper, alone and forgotten.

English Jacobins were a group of radicals, members included English poet and artist William Blake, Lakeland poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the Anglo-American political philosopher Thomas Paine, the English chemist Joseph Priestly, and the Anglo-Swiss painter and author Henry Fuseli. They possibly took their name from the Jacobins, an extremist republican club of the French Revolution founded in Versailles (1789), so named because they used a former Jacobin (Dominican) friary as their headquarters in Paris. Helped by Danton's speeches, the Jacobins proclaimed the French republic, had the king executed, and overthrew the moderate Girondins (179293). Through the Committee of Public Safety, they began the Reign of Terror, led by Robespierre. After his execution 1794, the club was abandoned and the name 'Jacobin' passed into general use for any left-wing extremist.


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further reading

Maria J. Falco (ed), Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, Penn. State, 1996

Eleanor Flexner, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1972

William Godwin, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, 1798

Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft, St. Martin's, 1995

Anne K Mellor, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria or the Wrongs of Woman, Norton, 1994

Calvin Craig Miller, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Women, Morgan Reynolds, 1999

Jane Moore, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mississippi, 1999)

Margaret Tims, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Social Pioneer, 1976

Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000

Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Woman, Writing and Fiction 1660-1800, Virago, 1989

Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Penguin, 1992

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Penguin, 1994

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Penguin, 1987


Literature ~ Mary Shelley
(c) Keith Parkins 2003 -- August 2003 rev 0