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Born: 1759, London England

Died: 1797, London England

Major Works: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Mary, A Fiction (1788), Original Stories from Real Life, (1788) A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798)

Major Ideas

Unwilling submission to any person, institution, or custom is limiting, degrading, and destructive.

Reason, infallible and God-given, should control all human thought and action.

Women must have the freedom to cultivate reason, the key to self-improvement and social change.

Environment and education shape character and morality.

Education is the right of all humankind and the vehicle through which women can gain independence and equality.

Humankind is evolving socially toward perfectibility.

Mary and writings have provided the foundation for the feminist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her best-known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was the first woman to articulate publicly a request for women's suffrage and coequal education She denied all double standards emanating from the sexual character theory, which ascribed reason to man alone.

Her arguments for increased opportunities and independence for women however, did not include total equality of the sexes. She maintained a separate sphere ideology and her hope for women was that they could become better wives and mothers. Although Wollstonecraft is best known as a feminist thinker her philosophies are not limited to women's issues She championed radical theories in education and politics, often linking social and political polemics with gender issues. The two false systems of values she attacked were class and gender.

The second of seven children, Wollstonecraft received a typical "female" education at the Yorkshire country school 2 Resenting the favoritism extended to her older brother by her parents, Wollstonecraft found companionship in Jane Arden, a friend from school and later from Fanny Blood, her adopted mentor During the summer of 1777, the family moved to Walworth in South London, and a year later, Wollstonecraft defied her parents by accepting employment as a companion to a wealthy, demanding widow, Mrs. Dawson, in Bath. Wollstonecraft would term this experience "a nightmare of tyranny and humiliation." In 1781, Wollstonecraft returned home to nurse her dying mother and to care for her younger siblings.

In 1782, Wollstonecraft moved in with the poverty-stricken Blood family at Walham Green, South London. Experiencing actual poverty for the first time, she earned a meagre income by sewing. When her sister Eliza suffered a severe depression following childbirth, Wollstonecraft abducted Eliza and the child from her husband's house. This represented Wollstonecraft's first public scandal.

With her sisters Everina and Eliza, together with her friend Fanny Blood, Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green in 1784. Here Wollstonecraft met a circle of rational Dissenters who exerted considerable influence on her thinking. These thinkers included the moral philosopher and minister Richard Price, scientist Joseph Priestley, the Reverend John Hewlett, and Sarah Burgh, widow of the educator James Burgh.

In 1785, Wollstonecraft rushed to Portugal to visit her recently married friend Fanny, who died in childbirth. Although the Newington Green School failed, Wollstonecraft wrote her first educational tract, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and she sent Fanny's family to Ireland with the ten guineas she received from the book. In Ireland, Wollstonecraft was a governess to Lady Kings-borough, an experience she describes as "disagreeable." She was dismissed in 1787. Wollstonecraft's first attempt at fiction, Mary, describes her friendship with Fanny and voices her resentment of trivial aristocratic women.

Wollstonecraft returned to London as a reviewer and editorial assistant for Joseph Johnson's liberal journal, the Analytical Review. She reviewed controversial contemporary works and translated works from French, Dutch, and German, which she taught herself to read. Here Wollstonecraft met a second group of influencial radical thinkers: philosopher William Godwin, political writer Thomas Holcroft, Swiss painter and writer Henry Fuseli, painter and poet William Blake, educator and author Anna Barbauld, publisher Thomas Christie, radical activist Thomas Paine, and authors Mary Hays and Eliza Fenwick.

In 1790, Wollstonecraft contributed to the political polemics of this revolutionary period with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, one of thirty replies to Edmund Burke's conservative tract Reflections on the Revolution in France. After an unsuccessful and unhappy affair with Henry Fuseli, Wollstonecraft traveled to Paris in 1792. Her observations of postrevolutionary Paris are recorded in An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. In Paris, Wollstonecraft fell in love with the American writer and speculator Gilbert Imlay. She named their child, born in 1794, Fanny, for her friend. Claiming to be Imlay's wife and therefore an American citizen, Wollstonecraft escaped arrest and imprisonment in Paris.

Following Imlay to London in 1795, Wollstonecraft discovered his infidelity and she attempted suicide. Recovering and hoping to keep Imlay's love, Wollstonecraft agreed to take her one-year-old child and to go to Scandinavia as Imlay's business emissary. There she composed Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Returning to London, Wollstonecraft learned Imlay had again forsaken her. She tried suicide a second time by plunging into the Thames from Putney Bridge. Thames boatmen dragged her unconscious from the water.

Shortly following Wollstonecraft's recovery from this suicide attempt, Mary Hays reintroduced her to William Godwin. Their friendship "melted into love," as her letters reveal. Neither believed in the institution of marriage, but in 1797, when Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they agreed to many. She was working on another novel, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, when her second daughter Mary was born. Eleven days after Mary's birth, Wollstonecraft died from birthing complications and inadequate medical attention.

Educational Theories

Wollstonecraft encourages self-respect, independence, and intellectual inquiry in her educational writings. Education represented the solutions to women's lack of physical and mental development and a process through which they could achieve reason, equality, and virtue. In Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Wollstonecraft reiterates Locke's emphasis of environment and experience on education. From the nursery, girls should cultivate reason and learn to govern their instincts to dominate over passions. Affection, not rigid requirements of behavior and needless restraint, generates better conduct and manners.

Wollstonecraft encourages examples over precepts as teaching strategies. Mrs. Mason, Mary and Caroline's governess in Original Stories from Real Life, demonstrates this with her anecdotes that provide moral instruction. Stories, claims Wollstonecraft, should amuse and instruct, and children should be permitted to enter into conversation and to pose questions. Deploring rote learning, Wollstonecraft encourages understanding, analytical thinking, and associations of ideas. She argues that the principles of truth are innate, but children, unless they reason, cannot discern such principles from fictions.

Wollstonecraft demands that parents take more responsibility for the education of their children.

She encourages mothers to nurse their own children and not leave young ones to the care of servants, who teach only cunning. Boarding schools, likewise, provide inadequate education for women. It is the duty of parents, she argues, to preserve the child from receiving wrong impressions and prejudices.

Wollstonecraft s most radical educational tenet asserts that boys and girls should receive the same instruction. Attacking the theories of Rousseau, Fordyce, and Gregory whose double-standard approach to education limited female intellectual life, Wollstonecraft argues that women should cultivate the same mental and physical activities that men enjoy. In these early educational tracts, as well as in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft maintains that female education should be useful it should prepare women to be rational wives and mothers. The present system merely cultivates female vanity and teaches women to function as submissive, unthinking servants to men. Daughters who imitate their mothers receive an indirect, unconscious form of learning. She seeks to end this imitation cycle that inculcates and perpetuates humiliated social and domestic females.

Women, Wollstonecraft advocates, should spend less time on the exterior accomplishments, affectations derived from dress; cosmetics, cards, and dance, and more time on mental employments like reading, writing and conversation. Reading is the most rational employment and food for understanding. Furthermore she encourages women to read weighty materials to exercise and to improve their minds, not sentimental novels for escape. Novels, she asserts, give a wrong account of human passions and perpetuate fictional perspectives. Reason must fill up the vacuums of life, but too many women suffer theirs to lie dormant. Idleness, in men and women, is intolerable.

Political Theories

Wollstonecraft advocates liberty and equality for all humanity. Advancing arguments for political rights, she argues for the removal of traditional injustices of rank, property, class, and gender. At birth, all human beings as rational creatures inherit rights from God. Conserving old principles and institutions (such as monarchy, church, commerce, and inheritance) hinders progress--humankind's evolutionary process toward perfectibility. The key to freedom lies in the reasoning individual conscience, not in laws or dogma.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men defends Price's sermon on the anniversary of the 1688 English Revolution and specifically his assertion that political authority is derived from the people; she refutes Burke's defense of the established church, civil authority emanating from propertied men, and the hereditary principle of succession. Wollstonecraft raises the question of obedience to a tyrannical parent (and by analogy, to king, to ecclesiastical authority, or to commerce). She cites the 1215 rebellion and the English Magna Carta as the foundation of liberty.

She attacks marriage as an institution that provides men with another article of property--a wife. Girls are sacrificed to family convenience or marry to settle themselves in a superior rank. Property and primogeniture, she argues, are a consequence of a barbarous feudal institution. "The only security of property that nature authorizes and reason sanctions," she writes, "is the right a man has to enjoy the acquisitions which his talents and industry have acquired...." Eliminating rank would make all people more genuine and productive. No friendships or society can generate among unequals. Defending the French National Assembly, Wollstonecraft predicts that liberty will produce glorious change that levels all rank.

Acutely aware of the chaos and the atrocities occurring in France in 1792, Wollstonecraft defends the French Revolution as a positive step toward human perfectibility. She sees the political and physical revolution as an analogue to mental revolution that would attack the foundation responsible for all injustices and inequalities. The Revolution represents a "natural consequence of intellectual improvement." The Revolution has overthrown superstitions, broken the artful chain of despotism, destroyed false notions of duty, and provided room for reason to flourish. The revolution of opinion will continue to overturn the empire of tyranny and to emancipate the mental powers of humankind.

In An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft optimistically asserts: "Out of this chaotic mass a fairer government is rising than has ever shed the sweets of social life on the world." The aristocracy of France destroyed itself, she explains, through the ignorant arrogance of its members, who, "bewildered in a thick fog of prejudices, could discern neither the true dignity of man, or the spirit of the times." She believes that a civilization founded on reason and morality is taking place in the world, but that stability would require time.

Wollstonecraft ascribes the failures of the Revolution to the character of the French people, who were so long held in tyranny that they became incapable of handling their newly achieved freedom. She explains that the minds of the people were not completely ripe for a total change in government from despotism to republicanism; thus, it was politically necessary to maintain the shadow of monarchy. She finds fault with the way the dissolution of the monarchy was handled, but qualifies the mistakes by showing how the French, depraved and volatile, were not ready for the new government. The Revolution was in many ways, she argues, an improper political plan for the degenerate French society. Republicanism is possible only for a people in the highest stage of civilization. Furthermore, the revolutions of states ought to be gradual so wisdom may prevail. France failed because its revolution was not gradual. Still an infant civilization, France was not yet ready for an idealistic government.

Still, Wollstonecraft finds much goodness coming out of bloody Paris. Revolution, even with its mistakes, is a rational and natural part of the growth of civilization. "People thinking for themselves," she writes, "have more energy in their voice, than any government, which it is possible for human wisdom to invent." It is this mental revolution and freedom that Wollstonecraft embraces, and we see evidence of this philosophy in all her writings. She later recanted her harsh assessment of the French people (in letters she composed in Scandinavia).

Political equality and educational reform are the vehicles for social change. In Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Wollstonecraft argues for prison reform and more tolerance toward servants, while she attacks capital punishment, lawyers, commerce, and meaningless ceremony. Public executions, she alleges, are scenes of amusement, and far from being useful examples, they harden "the heart they ought to terrify." Men of business, she asserts, are domestic tyrants. She cautions the merchants gaining power in Norway: "England and America owe their liberty to commerce, which created a new species of power to undermine the feudal system. But let them beware of the consequence: the tyranny of wealth is still more galling and debasing than that of rank." She admonishes Tonesberg lawyers who undermine morality by confounding right and wrong.

These letters reveal Wollstonecraft's skepticism of any organized religion, the Anglican church, Lutheran piety, or Methodist fanaticism. Piety, either heathen or Christian, constitutes a blind faith in things contrary to reason. She expresses concern for the environment and overpopulation, and she is convinced that knowledge will destroy the factitious national characters that ignorance has supposed permanent. All vices are a result of ignorance.

Because Norwegian farmers maintain communal-like small landholdings, Wollstonecraft professes them the happiest and least oppressed people of Europe. Humankind is debased by any kind of servitude, and she thus deplores the double sexual standards of Denmark. Men, whether fathers, brothers, or husbands, are domestic tyrants; "there is a kind of interregnum between the reign of the father and husband," she writes, "which is the only period of freedom and pleasure that the women enjoy."

Wollstonecraft is as appalled by the poverty of Scandinavia as she was with the poverty of Ireland. She admonishes excessive drinking. Calling intoxication the pleasure of savages, Wollstonecraft says drinking serves as Europe's greatest impediment to general improvement. Wollstonecraft questions the assistance provided by any institutionalized charity, whether hospitals or workhouses. "I have always been an enemy to what is termed charity," Wollstonecraft writes because timid bigots endeavouring thus to cover their sins, do violence to justice, till, acting the demi-god, they forget that they are men." Benevolence becomes merely tyranny in disguise.

Feminist Theories

Masculine tyranny over women, the double standard at the heart of gender relations, is the focus of Wollstonecraft's <attacks in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Educational restrictions and social customs keep women in a state of ignorance and slavish dependence Men, she points out, are prepared for a vocation that ensures them a future. Women are prepared only for the present, to be the playthings of men They are taught to adorn themselves with artificial graces that enslave them to masculine tyranny Marriage-a contract of obedience and servitude to men-is the only way for women to advance socially.

Why asks Wollstonecraft, should virtue have different meanings for men and women? She challenges men to become more chaste and modest as she erodes the double standard of socially acceptable behavior. The word "masculine," she asserts, is only a bugbear. We have imposed gender distinctions and limitations on the mind and soul. The sexual distinction that men have so long insisted upon is arbitrary. Women must reform and liberate themselves from the servitude imposed on them by this double standard. Wollstonecraft calls for a revolution of female manners. Women must cultivate reason, think independently, and learn to respect themselves. This female improvement and emancipation will, in turn, liberate and improve all humankind.

Wollstonecraft tried to depict these feminist theories in her two attempts at fiction. In both Mary, A Fiction and Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, she portrays women who are victimized by limited feminine education, who submit to unquestionable obedience and duty, who become imprisoned by a society that glorifies the tyranny of men, and who are deprived of economic independence.

The preface of Maria reveals Wollstonecraft's desire to exhibit "the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society." In her depiction of Jemima, Wollstonecraft presents the plight of poor, outcast women. Maria, a representative of upper-class women, is manacled in the cell of an insane asylum where her husband George Venables has legally placed her. The literal fetters of the cell provide a concrete image of the metaphoric chains of marriage. All women, regardless of class, are victimized by the myths, customs, and prejudices that endorse a double standard.

In all her writings, Wollstonecraft adamantly asserts that education inculcating reason will eventually emancipate all humankind from all forms of servitude (political, sexual, religious, or economic) and allow all humankind to enjoy their God-given rights.

Further Reading

Bouten, Jacob Mary Wollstonecraft and the Beginnings of Female Emancipation in France and England. Amsterdam H. J. Paris, 1922; Reprint: Philadelphia Porcupine Press, 1973. An analysis of Wollstonecraft's works in the context of eighteenth-century English and French philosophy

Ferguson, Moira, and Janet Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft. Twayne's English Author Series. General editor, Sarah Smith. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. A superb introduction to Wollstonecraft's life, including analyses of major works and an excellent annotated bibliography.

Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography. New York: Coward McCann and Geoghegan, 1972. Flexner emphasizes Wollstonecraft's life experiences as the basis for her writings, rather than the intellectual trends of the period.

George, Margaret. One Woman's "Situation": A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1970. Considers Wollstonecraft as a feminist and rebellious writer who refused the female role prescribed by eighteenth-century society and who helped create a history for women.

Nicholes, Eleanor L. "Mary Wollstonecraft." In Romantic Rebels, Essays on Shelley and His Circle. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973. Good short introduction to her life, ideas, and major works. Nicholes stresses the personal nature of Wollstonecraft's literary works.

Nixon, Edna. Mary Wollstonecraft: Her Life and Times. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1971. The narrative focuses on the events surrounding Wollstonecraft's life and her relationships with Fuseli, Imlay, and Godwin.

Sustein, Emily. A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. The best biography of Wollstonecraft, with excellent analyses of her works and the eighteenth-century philosophies influencing her thought.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Chapters 4, 6, and 11 are helpful examinations of the radical thinkers that helped to shape Wollstonecraft's own ideas.

Wardle, Ralph. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. 1951. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. This readable biography is still a standard. Especially good discussion of Wollstonecraft's French Revolution experiences (chapters 6 and 7). Wardle details reactions to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Wollstonecraft's influence on feminist thinking.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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