Mary Wollstonecraft : Grandmother of Modern, Western Feminism

April 27, 1759 — September 10, 1797

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About Mary Wollstonecraft

 Image from NewStatesMan.com

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Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships at the time, received more attention than her writing. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and her works as important influences.

During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.

After Wollstonecraft's death, her widower published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft's advocacy of women's equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important.

 Image from LibertyFund.com

Image from LibertyFund.com

After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38 leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. She died 11 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, who would become an accomplished writer and author of Frankenstein.

(Source: Wikipedia.)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was a moral and political philosopher whose analysis of the condition of women in modern society retains much of its original radicalism. One of the reasons her pronouncements on the subject remain challenging is that her reflections on the status of the female sex were part of an attempt to come to a comprehensive understanding of human relations within a civilization increasingly governed by acquisitiveness and consumption. Her first publication was on the education of daughters; she went on to write about politics, history and various aspects of philosophy in a number of different genres that included critical reviews, translations, pamphlets, and novels. Best known for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her influence went beyond the substantial contribution to feminism for which she is mostly remembered and extended to shaping the art of travel writing as a literary genre; through her account of her journey through Scandinavia as well as her writings on women and thoughts on the imagination, she had an impact on the Romantic movement.

(Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

 Image by Diamond Geezer, CC BY-NC-ND License

Image by Diamond Geezer,
CC BY-NC-ND License

Mary Wollstonecraft was a renowned women’s rights activist who authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, a classic of rationalist feminism that is considered the earliest and most important treatise advocating equality for women. This essay is often seen as the foundation of modern women’s rights movements in the Western world.

Wollstonecraft was born in England during the Enlightenment, an intellectual period that advocated for the use of reason to obtain objective truths. Self-educated, Wollstonecraft used her own accomplishments to demonstrate a woman’s aptitude for independent thought and academic excellence. With her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood, Wollstonecraft founded a girls’ school in London in 1784. During its brief life, the school developed a prestigious reputation and served as a starting point for Wollstonecraft’s radical ideas about the necessary equality of female and male education. Wollstonecraft’s beliefs were rooted in the idea that the government was responsible for remedying this inequity.

 Image by Fred Langridge, CC BY-NC License

Image by Fred Langridge,
CC BY-NC License

Also in London, Wollstonecraft began associating with the group, the Rational Dissenters (later known as Unitarians), which included political radicals and proponents of independence movements. After the school closed in 1786, Wollstonecraft published her first book about the importance of educating girls, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1786. The book was published near the end of the French Revolution, which failed to bring about the equality of the sexes that Wollstonecraft and other radicals anticipated.

In response to Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary work Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man, 1790, which laid the groundwork for her 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this treatise, Wollstonecraft argued that the faculties of reason and rationality are present in all human beings and that women must be allowed to contribute equally to society. In its dedicatory letter, Wollstonecraft states, “my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue” (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, xxxv). In order to contribute at the same level as men, Wollstonecraft stated, women must be educated equally to men. If women were not afforded this opportunity, social and intellectual progress would come to a halt.

Wollstonecraft died in 1797 during the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who in 1816, as Mary Shelley, published her own masterpiece, Frankenstein.

(Source: BrooklynMuseum.org.)

From : Wikipedia.org / Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy / BrooklynMuseum.org

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1798
August 7. Air, exercise, and bathing, have restored me to health, braced my muscles, and covered my ribs, even whilst I have recovered my former activity.—I cannot tell you that my mind is calm, though I have snatched some moments of exquisite delight, wandering through the woods, and resting on the rocks. This state of suspense, my friend, is intolerable; we must determine on something—and soon;—we must meet shortly, or part for ever. I am sensible that I acted foolishly—but I was wretched—when we were together—Expecting too much, I let the pleasure I might have caught, slip from me. I cannot live with you—I ought not—if you form another attachment. But I promise you, m... (From: Gutenberg.org.)
1796
I might have spared myself the disagreeable feelings I experienced the first night of my arrival at Hamburg, leaving the open air to be shut up in noise and dirt, had I gone immediately to Altona, where a lodging had been prepared for me by a gentleman from whom I received many civilities during my journey. I wished to have traveled in company with him from Copenhagen, because I found him intelligent and friendly, but business obliged him to hurry forward, and I wrote to him on the subject of accommodations as soon as I was informed of the difficulties I might have to encounter to house myself and brat. It is but a short and pleasant walk from Hamburg to Altona, under the shade of several rows of trees, and this walk is the more agreeable... (From: Gutenberg.org.)
1793
[Paris] December 28 [1794]. ******** I do, my love, indeed sincerely sympathize with you in all your disappointments.—Yet, knowing that you are well, and think of me with affection, I only lament other disappointments, because I am sorry that you should thus exert yourself in vain, and that you are kept from me. ——, I know, urges you to stay, and is continually branching out into new projects, because he has the idle desire to amass a large fortune, rather an immense one, merely to have the credit of having made it. But we who are governed by other motives, ought not to be led on by him. When we meet, we will discuss this subject—You will listen to reason, and it has probably occurred to you, that it... (From: Gutenberg.org.)
1798
Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with specters and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavoring to recall her scattered thoughts! Surprise, astonishment, that bordered on distraction, seemed to have suspended her faculties, till, waking by degrees to a keen sense of anguish, a whirlwind of rage and indignation roused her torpid pulse. One recollection with frightful velocity following another, threatened to fire her brain, and make her a fit companion for the terrific inhabitants, whose groans and shrieks were no ... (From: Gutenberg.org.)
1788
The next morning Mrs. Mason met them first in the garden; and she desired Caroline to look at a bed of tulips, that were then in their highest state of perfection. I, added she, choose to have every kind of flower in my garden, as the succession enables me to vary my daily prospect, and gives it the charm of variety; yet these tulips afford me less pleasure than most of the other sort which I cultivate—and I will tell you why—they are only beautiful. Listen to my distinction;—good features, and a fine complexion, I term bodily beauty. Like the streaks in the tulip, they please the eye for a moment; but this uniformity soon tires, and the active mind flies off to something else. The soul of beauty, my dear children, con... (From: Gutenberg.org.)
ADVERTISEMENT. Mr. Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution first engaged my attention as the transient topic of the day; and reading it more for amusement than information, my indignation was roused by the sophistical arguments, that every moment crossed me, in the questionable shape of natural feelings and common sense. Many pages of the following letter were the effusions of the moment; but, swelling imperceptibly to a considerable size, the idea was suggested ivof publishing a short vindication of the Rights of Men. Not having leisure or patience to follow this desultory writer through all the devious tracks in which his fancy has started fresh game, I have confined my strictures, in a great measure, to the grand principles...
1792
To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. Yet it should seem, allowing them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by providence to lead MANKIND to either virtue or happiness. If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headst... (From: Gutenberg.org.)

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April 27, 1759
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September 10, 1797
Death Day.

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