Mary Wollstonecraft: The Mother of Feminism?

⚠️ TW: mentioning of abuse, suicide and death

Today is International Women’s Day as you may have noticed by all the postings about it on social media. We also want to celebrate this important day. And we do it by presenting another article to you just as every monday. This one is on someone who had a great impact on the world of women: Mary Wollstonecraft. 📝

You might also know her as the foremother of Western Feminism, because that’s how the first wave feminist movement has framed her narrative. Today we want to shine a light on the life of her and the thoughts she shared with her writing. 📚💭

Go check her out in the article below!

Mary Wollstonecraft | *27-04-1759 | † 10-09-1797| UK| Feminist Thinker, Writer

You might know her as the foremother of western feminism or even as the first feminist, which, to be quite honest, is not necessarily true. It is just the narrative that the first wave of feminism has started to create around this influential figure. In 2020 Mary Wollstonecraft was even honoured with a sculpture titled “mother of feminism.” The sculpture, made by artist Maggie Hambling, is located in Newington Green in north London. This place plays a major role in Wollstonecraft’s life. This sculpture dedicated to her is of great importance due to many reasons, but it also sparked a great deal of controversy. You definitely need to check it out, and keep reading to get to know the person to whom the sculpture is dedicated.

Mary Wollstonecraft might be best known for one of the earliest sources of western feminism: “The Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She wrote this text in 1792, right in the middle of the Enlightenment. Influenced by the ideas about rational thinking and reason, she focuses on education and women as rational beings. Wollstonecraft uses education in a broader sense: her vindication also includes thoughts on social upbringing and women’s manners. She argues here that women are rendered as inferior by society because they do not get the space to develop their intellect the way boys do during their upbringing. She noticed that girls and women were excluded from education and thus have no place to learn. If they had there would be no possible argumentation against equality of the sexes in rationality and reason. Women, according to Wollstonecraft, need the power to exercise their own reason, and that is only possible through educating them properly.

Those thoughts are quite interesting in regard to her own life. Mary Wollstonecraft was born on the 27th of April in 1759. Her childhood can be described as a first-hand experience of patriarchy. The family she was born into, was a wealthy one but due to the fact that her father was an alcoholic he lost most of it. Not only did he do this, but he was also a violent and abusive father to Mary and her siblings. Mary also never had the chance to attend proper education. It was inaccessible due to the lack of money. Everything she knew was self-taught. All this made her aware of the injustices in society and sharpened her sense for it. 

Mary pretty much is what we can call an independent woman: she taught herself, her sister and worked in education later on. When she was only 25, she opened her own girls boarding school together with her sisters and Frances Blood. In, you guessed it, Newington Green, north London. This place shaped her in many ways: here she got in touch with influential thinkers of her time and started to express her own thoughts on topics that were important to her. Unfortunately, not everything was good in those years. When her friend Frances Blood died in childbirth, the endeavor of their boarding school came to an abrupt end. This was the trigger for her first written work. 

Through her circle of friends but also her writing she came in contact with the publisher Joseph Johnson and began to write for a living. This was quite uncommon for a woman back in the day, but Mary was proud to be one of the first women to earn her living from writing. She expressed this in a letter to her sister as she wrote to be “the first of a new genus.” Through her connection with Johnson, her intellectual circle grew and she got connected to more and more of her contemporaries. She, as many of them were as well, was quite interested in the happenings of the French Revolution, so she went to France to experience this firsthand. Mary worked there as a correspondent. It was quite a difficult situation for a foreigner to live in France at that time. When the Reign of Terror began, she was always at danger of being captured and beheaded, just like many of her friends. But this did not happen due to her influential connections. One of them was the man with whom she fell deeply in love with: the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. 

The following years of her life were quite impacted by this relationship: during the French revolution he might have saved her life, but he also was the reason she attempted suicide twice. Their relationship was of an uncommon nature: they never married even though he claimed it to authorities to save her in France. However, she bore his daughter, Fanny, in 1794; quite a scandal in their time. After some time, Imlay left her and their child in France and did not return to them.

Mary finally left France in 1795 and returned to England. Here, she still referred to herself as Imlay’s wife, which she of course never was. She made attempts to get back with him, but he rejected her once again. This led to her first attempt of suicide. In a desperate attempt to win him back she went on a journey to Scandinavia to recover one of his trading ships. She wrote down her thoughts in letters that would lead her to be well-known as a writer in England. They are published as “Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.” After she returned from this journey, she came to a realization that her relationship with Imlay was really over and she attempted suicide once again. This attempt also failed. 

Soon she recovered and returned to the circle of writers surrounding Joseph Johnson. Mary once again started writing for his publishing company. Through this she got the attention of other influential thinkers of that time amongst many was her future husband William Godwin. At first he did not really like her but according to the BBC podcast “In our Time: Philosophy”, he grew fond of her after reading the letters of her journey to Scandinavia. He threw his ideologies overboard to not marry when she fell pregnant with their daughter, Mary. She is later known as Mary Shelly, the author of “Frankenstein”. Unfortunately, just a few days after Mary’s birth, Wollstonecraft died and left her child and its father. 

Godwin in good intention published a memoir on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. It made quite the impact: critics of her used the intimate details of her love life, a scandalous one for her contemporaries, and turned her reputation around. They used her particular lifestyle to argue that educated and independent women live a scandalous, frivolous life and thus must be kept away from it. Critiques used her as a bad example. 

Just during the first wave of feminism in Europe, feminist began to restore the reputation of Mary Wollstonecraft and turned her into the figure we know now. Her life knew many ups and downs, but whose life is never rocky, right? Thanks to all her writing, her arguing for women’s education and her efforts as suffragist, she influenced society in such a way that women today have the opportunities of which Mary Wollstonecraft only dreamt during her life. She always knew that society had to change: “till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education” is something she wrote in her “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” Still, our work is not done: all over the world girls remain excluded from education. In honour of Mary Wollstonecraft, we have to remain attentive and strive for equality in society. 


Author: Charlotte Hermanns
Image: John Opie

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