“Mrs. Wollstonecraft,” engraved by William Ridley after John Opie’s portrait in oils, was published in 1796. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

In James Gillray’s 1790 caricature, Edmund Burke pays a call on the “Atheistical-Revolutionist” Richard Price. NYPL, Print Collection   More information

One of the six illustrations designed and engraved by William Blake for Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1791). NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

In her revolutionary polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft argued women were — or ought to be — autonomous beings with lives, minds, and identities of their own. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Other female writers “only seek for flowers,” but she, Wollstonecraft tells Catherine Macaulay, “contends for laurels.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Writing on December 30, 1790, Macaulay responded with warmth to Wollstonecraft’s admiring letter. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Wollstonecraft’s last three notes to Godwin, August 30, 1797. The midwife has assured her that “Every thing is in a fair way.” Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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Necklace fashioned from Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair, ca. 1851–57. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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Miniature portrait of Hellen and Margaret Shelley, by Sir William Ross, RA, ca. 1851–57. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Mary Wollstonecraft: Early Feminist

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Professional Writer, Ahead of Her Time

The Makings of a Proto-Feminist

Her “Powers and Talents” Verified

The Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was a central figure in the English Enlightenment, famous as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a radical and groundbreaking work that addressed the plight of the voiceless half of the human race passed over by the architects of the revolutions in America and France. Like other advocates of social change, she placed her faith in reason, arguing that education would break the mind-forged manacles that had kept women in submission throughout the ages.

In 1797, Wollstonecraft married William Godwin, the most celebrated philosopher of the day. They had already been lovers for about a year, and five months after the marriage, their daughter, Mary, was born. It was a difficult birth, and Wollstonecraft died just 10 days later. This engraved portrait of the author — who perhaps for the sake of respectability is described as “Mrs. Wollstonecraft” — was published in the Monthly Mirror in 1796. The oil portrait from which it was taken dates probably from 1792, shortly after the publication of The Rights of Woman. Shown with manuscript and quill pen, the original portrait depicts Wollstonecraft as the very model of a professional writer.

Wollstonecraft’s opinions were formed by experience. She survived a haphazard upbringing in a household headed by a despotic, drunken father and a neglectful mother. After turning age 18, she escaped and established a school at Newington Green, where she became acquainted with a number of Dissenters, including the radical clergyman Richard Price.

From 1786 to 1788, Wollstonecraft served as governess to Lord Kingsborough’s children in Ireland. She wrote of the experience to her mentor, the radical publisher Joseph Johnson: “A state of dependence must be ever irksome to me... I have most of the [n]ative comforts of life — yet when weighed with liberty they are of little value.” On her return to London, Johnson introduced Wollstonecraft to the leading radicals of the day. He also published her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and, two years later, The Rights of Woman.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft travelled to Revolutionary France, where she met an American speculator, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter, Fanny, out of wedlock in 1794. Wollstonecraft returned to London in 1795 and, neglected by Imlay, attempted suicide. She then travelled to Scandinavia on business matters for Imlay; her account of this journey was later published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Imlay’s continuing neglect prompted a second suicide attempt in October 1795, but, shortly afterward, she became the lover of William Godwin.

Wollstonecraft’s writings were wide ranging but, in polemic and fiction alike, education remained her central concern. Both Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and its companion piece, Mary, a Fiction (1788), argued for a revolution in the treatment of children, a subtext in later books she ostensibly wrote for children themselves, such as Original Stories from Real Life (1791).

Original Stories shows the widowed Mrs. Mason taking on the moral formation of Mary and Caroline, two orphaned girls of 12 and 14, chiefly through examples of good behavior and bad behavior among their neighbors, who include Lady Sly, Jane Fretful, and Mrs. Trueman, the poor curate’s wife. Original Stories was successful enough to warrant a second edition, with illustrations by William Blake.

In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft argued that if women were educated in the same way that men were, they would perform as well as men — and that society was wasting its assets by failing to educate women, thereby providing them with the opportunity to work in the same areas as men and to become economically independent.

In December 1790, two years before the Vindication of the Rights of Woman made her famous, Wollstonecraft wrote a fan letter, seen here, to the celebrated historian, educator, and political radical Catherine Macaulay, enclosing a copy of her earlier publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. On the back of the letter Macaulay copied out her reply, in which she assured Wollstonecraft that she was “highly pleased that this publication which I have so greatly admired from its pathos & sentiment should have been written by a woman and thus to see my opinion of the powers and talents of the Sex in your person so early verified.”

Even after their marriage in 1797, Wollstonecraft and Godwin preferred to live independently during the day, communicating by correspondence. They regularly exchanged everything, from long, carefully composed letters to short notes dashed off on scraps of paper. Seen here are Mary’s last three notes to Godwin, written while she was waiting impatiently for the delivery of their child (“the animal”) and seeking reassurance from the midwife, Mrs. Blenkinsop.

The months that the husband and wife spent together were the most memorable of Godwin’s long life, recorded in the pages of his daily journal and more fully in the many letters and notes that he and Mary exchanged. Godwin drew upon these for a memoir of Wollstonecraft that he wrote immediately following her death. The frankness of the book, often called the first modern biography, was unprecedented and damaged Wollstonecraft’s reputation for decades to come.

The fashioning of jewelry from locks of hair, either for sentimental reasons or as a mark of mourning for a loved one, was popular during the Victorian period. Godwin sent a lock of Wollstonecraft’s hair to at least one friend in the days following her death, and must have kept a larger mass, later made into the necklace that is seen here. Suspended from the necklace are two lockets, each containing hair, with the initials “PBS” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and “MWS” (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley). In the accompanying miniature, which captures the two longest-lived of Shelley’s sisters, Hellen and Margaret, on the right, who appears to be wearing the necklace. The sitting was probably arranged by Lady Shelley, Mary Shelley’s daughter-in-law. Always keen to bring the various branches of the family together, Lady Shelley engaged Sir William Ross, RA, the foremost miniaturist of his day and a favorite of Queen Victoria.

 

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