The Founder of Feminism: Who Was Mary Wollstonecraft? | History Hit

The Founder of Feminism: Who Was Mary Wollstonecraft?

Lily Johnson

04 Dec 2020
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‘I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves’

In the 18th century, women had few autonomous rights. Their sphere of interest was meant to begin and end with the household, managing its upkeep and the education of its children. The world of politics was too harsh for their weak sensibilities, and a formal education would be of no use to one incapable of forming rational thought.

Thus in 1792 when A Vindication of the Rights of Woman entered the public sphere, Mary Wollstonecraft was projected into renown as a radical reformer and champion of women’s rights, and her place as the founder of feminism was cemented.

Her ideas were bold, her actions controversial, and though her life was marred by tragedy she left behind an undeniable legacy.

Childhood

From an early age, Wollstonecraft was ruthlessly exposed to the inequalities and injustices afforded her gender. She was born in 1759 to a family struggling financially due to her father’s reckless spending. She would lament in later life the reduced options of employment for women with no inheritance.

Her father openly and brutally abused her mother. A teenage Wollstonecraft would camp outside her mother’s bedroom door to prevent her father from entering when he returned home, an experience that would influence her staunch opposition to the marriage institution. 

When Wollstonecraft was 21 her mother died, and she escaped her traumatic family home and went to live with the Blood family, whose youngest daughter Fanny she had formed a deep attachment to. The pair dreamt of living together, supporting each other financially and emotionally, yet as women this dream was largely unattainable.

Early career

At 25, alongside Fanny and her sister Eliza, Wollstonecraft established a girls’ boarding school in the non-conformist area of Newington Green, London. Here she began mixing with radicals through her attendance of the Unitarian church, whose teachings would push her towards a political awakening.

Newington Green Unitarian Church, influential in expanding Wollstonecraft’s intellectual ideas. (Image Credit: CC)

The school soon fell into dire financial straits however and was forced to close. In order to support herself financially, Wollstonecraft held a brief and unhappy post as a governess in County Cork, Ireland, before deciding against social protocol to become an author.

When back in London she joined publisher Joseph Johnson’s circle of intellectuals, attending weekly dinners with the likes of William Wordsworth, Thomas Paine, and William BlakeHer intellectual horizons began to expand, and she grew more informed through her role as a reviewer and translator of radical texts for Johnson’s newspaper.

Unconventional views

Wollstonecraft held a number of controversial views throughout her life, and while her work has inspired many feminists in the modern day, her unapologetic lifestyle too attracts comment.

For example, having fallen in love with married artist Henry Fuseli, she boldly proposed they begin a three-way living arrangement with his wife – who was of course disturbed by this prospect and shut down the relationship.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c.1790-91, Tate Britain (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Her views on society were also outspoken, and would eventually lead her to acclaim. In 1790, Whig MP Edmund Burke published a pamphlet criticising the ongoing French Revolution that enraged Wollstonecraft so much that she furiously set about writing a rebuttal, which was published just 28 days later.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men advocated republicanism and rejected Burke’s reliance on tradition and custom, ideas that would fuel her next and most significant work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792

In this work, Wollstonecraft attacks the belief that education has no place in a woman’s life. In the 18th century, women were thought largely unable to form rational thought, being too emotional to think clearly.

Wollstonecraft argued that women only appear incapable of education because men do not allow them the opportunity to try, and instead encourage superficial or frivolous activities, such as extensive beautification.

She wrote:

‘taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison’

With education, she argued, women could instead contribute to society, hold jobs, educate their children in a more meaningful way and enter equal companionship with their husbands.

Dan talks to Bee Rowlatt about the life and death of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft.
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Despite a period of public revulsion towards her bold lifestyle following her death, Vindication was welcomed back into the public sphere by leading suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, when she wrote the introduction to its centenary edition in 1892.

It would be hailed to the modern day for its insightful comments on women’s rights, providing a basis for many modern feminist arguments today.

Paris and the Revolution

‘I cannot yet give up the hope, that a fairer day is dawning on Europe’

Following her publications on human rights, Wollstonecraft undertook another bold move. In 1792, she travelled to Paris at the height of the revolution (about a month before the execution of Louis XVI), to see first-hand the world-altering events that were unfolding.

She affiliated herself with the Girondin political faction, and made many close friends amongst their ranks, each seeking great social change. While in Paris, Wollstonecraft also fell deeply in love with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, rejecting societal norms by engaging in a sexual relationship with him out of wedlock.

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The Terror

Though the revolution had reached its goal of republicanism, Wollstonecraft was horrified by the following Reign of Terror. France became increasingly hostile, particularly towards foreigners such as Wollstonecraft, and she herself was under heavy suspicion due to her links to other social reformers.

The bloody massacres of the Terror saw many of Wollstonecraft’s Girondin friends executed. On 31st October, 22 of the group were killed, with the bloodthirsty and efficient nature of the guillotine evident – it took a mere 36 minutes to cut off all 22 heads. When Imlay told Wollstonecraft of their fate, she collapsed.

These experiences in France would stay with her for life, writing darkly to her sister that

‘death and misery, in every shape of terror, haunts this devoted country’

The execution of the Girondins by Unknown, 1793 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Heartbreak

In 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to Imlay’s illegitimate child, whom she named Fanny after her cherished friend. Though she was overjoyed, his affections soon turned cold. In an attempt to patch up the relationship, Mary and her infant daughter travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf for business.

Upon her return however, she found Imlay had begun an affair and subsequently deserted her. Falling into a deep depression, she attempted suicide, leaving a note that stated: 

‘May you never know by experience what you have made me endure.’

She jumped into the Thames, yet was saved by a passing boatman.

Rejoining society

Eventually she recovered and rejoined society, writing a successful piece on her travels in Scandinavia and reconnecting with an old acquaintance – fellow social reformer William Godwin. Godwin had read her travel writing and recounted: 

‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’

The pair indeed fell in love, and Wollstonecraft was once again pregnant out of wedlock. Though both were severely anti-marriage – Godwin even advocated for its abolishment – they wed in 1797, not wanting their child to grow up in disgrace. The couple enjoyed a loving yet unconventional marriage, living in houses side-by-side as to not relinquish their independence, and often communicated via letter between them.

William Godwin by James Northcote, 1802, National Portrait Gallery (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Their baby was born the same year and was named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, taking both parents’ names as a sign of her intellectual heritage. Wollstonecraft would not live to know her daughter however, as 11 days later she died from complications with the birth. Godwin was distraught, and later published a memoir of her life in her honour.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would spend her life avenging her mother’s intellectual pursuits in great admiration, and lived as unapologetically as her mother. She would come to write one of the most well-known works in history, Frankenstein, and be known to us as Mary Shelley. 

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840, National Portrait Gallery (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Lily Johnson