The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer and feminist. She is one of the founders of American and British feminism, whose most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is widely viewed as the first great feminist treatise. In the late 18th century, Wollstonecraft became a member of a London circle of libertarian authors, among them Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Godwin, whom she later married. Wollstonecraft embraced the Enlightenment, a social revolution that celebrated reason as the core of human identity and which sought to reconstruct social institutions, such as the family, by our rational understanding. Her contributions to this approach included applying the principle of personal liberty to the sexual realm and her insistence that women were “rational creatures.” She rejected the traditional methods of educating girls, demanding their education accord with those dedicated by Enlightenment views on how children should be raised. Wollstonecraft’s life embraced drama and tragedy as she pursued the intellectual, financial, and sexual independence her writings promoted. She died at the age of 38, shortly after giving birth to her second child, the future Mary Shelley.

Wollstonecraft was born in London into a working-class family. In 1784, she cofounded a school in the village of Newington Green, where she befriended its radical minister Richard Price. Price was one of the leaders of a group known as the Rational Dissenters and the author of an influential book titled Review of the Principal Questions of Morals (1758), which argued that individual conscience and reason should determine moral choices. Through Price, Wollstonecraft became acquainted with England’s leading reformers.

The radical publisher Joseph Johnson commissioned her to write the pamphlet “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” (1787). In 1788, he published her first two books: a biographical novel, Mary, a Fiction, which depicted how women’s social limitations oppressed them; and a children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life. Wollstonecraft began working for Johnson as a reviewer for his monthly “Analytical Review” and as a translator, rendering Jacques Necker’s On the Importance of Religious Opinions into English.

The French Revolution (1789) was a pivotal event for Wollstonecraft, who viewed it as a struggle for individual liberty against tyrannical monarchy. When Price publicly argued that Britain should support the rights that the French were exercising to dethrone a bad king, the statesman Edmund Burke replied with Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he argued in favor of the French monarchy. In turn, Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (1790) in support of Price and revolution and against social practices such as the slave trade. Wollestonescraft’s pamphlet was well received by other radicals, such as Thomas Paine. Her manifesto, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, appeared the following year. In it, she examined women’s education, the status of woman and her rights, as well as the role of private versus public life. She excoriated the educational system for keeping women in “ignorance and slavish dependence,” she advocated the identical rights of women and men, and famously referred to marriage as “legal prostitution.” The Vindication also argued against monarchy.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft moved to France to witness the revolution. Her book, Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), documents her disillusionment, which sprang from the Revolution’s violence, chaos, and unrealized goals. While in France, Wollstonecraft became pregnant by the American writer Gilbert Imlay, whom she did not marry and by whom she was abandoned. With her newborn daughter, Wollstonecraft followed Imlay back to London in 1795, where she twice attempted suicide over the failed romance. In 1796, her book Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark was published; it mixed travelogue with political theory and emotional outbursts. Recovering from Imlay, Wollstonecraft rejoined the London radicals, among whose ranks were Paine, William Blake, and William Wordsworth. She reestablished contact with Godwin—the founder of philosophical anarchism—with whom she had quarreled years before, and they soon became lovers. They married in 1797, although both had repudiated marriage in their writings. Soon thereafter, Mary gave birth to a second daughter, Mary, who would later marry Percy Bysshe Shelley and write Frankenstein among several other novels. Less than 2 weeks later, Wollstonecraft died of septicemia.

In 1798, a heartbroken Godwin published the Posthumous Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, which included her unfinished novel Maria, or, the Wrongs of Woman: A Posthumous Fragment and his own Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of WomanMaria likened the life of working women to imprisonment. The Memoirs candidly described Wollstonecraft’s struggles due to her sex, including Imlay’s betrayal, her illegitimate daughter, and single motherhood. Wollstonecraft’s legacy, which rests on the pioneering Vindication of the Rights of Woman, has been enhanced by the drama and tragedy of her life, which is often pointed to as a reminder of the high price women paid for freedom.


Further Readings

Falso, Maria J., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1996.

Ferguson, Moira, and Janet Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Putnam, 1972.

George, Margaret. One Woman’s “Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London, 1798; New York: Penguin, 1987.

Originally published .