Born April 27, 1759, influencer Mary Wollstonecraft is probably the most significant writer and philosopher that most people have never heard of. I use the trendy modern term influencer because it so appropriately applies. In contrast to Wollstonecraft’s relative obscurity, her daughter’s popular fiction is read or viewed daily throughout the world.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a product of the Enlightenment, believing reason, fostered through education, could solve the world’s problems. In her first work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) she rejected the traditional, limited method of educating girls and argued women as the intellectual equal of men and should so be treated and taught.
She celebrated the American and French revolutions as the real world results of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality as articulated by Locke, Jefferson and Rousseau. In response to Edmund Burke’s defense of monarchy, Wollstonecraft wrote a pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) in support of revolution, and in opposition to a range of social practices such as the slave trade. (Thomas Paine’s response to Burke was The Rights of Man in 1791.) Wollstonecraft took the principle of equality beyond the individual and applied it to human rights and international politics. Her next book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was a response to Rousseau who argued women’s roles should be limited to supporting men and Tallyrand who argued women should only receive a domestic education.
Wollstonecraft traveled in a circle of Enlightenment radicals which included Percy Bysse Shelley, William Godwin, Samuel Coleridge, Joseph Priestly, William Blake, Thomas Paine and William Wordsworth. These men wanted a social revolution in which reason would redefine the social institutions of the family, government and education in order to achieve the best for society. Mary took it further and said all these fine sentiments should apply to women as well since women are the moral and intellectual equals of men, a radical idea at the time, even among radicals! At a dinner party in London to introduce Thomas Paine to their circle, Wollstonecraft so dominated the conversation no one else could get a word in edgewise, including the normally dominant personality Paine. This was documented by the political philosopher William Godwin, who took deep dislike to Wollstonecraft, and her to him.
Mary lived an unconventional life, especially in the 18th century. She did not come from money, none in fact, yet she was single and able to support herself with her writing. She also had daughter with a married man and then proceeded to travel with and raise the child alone. She wrote a book Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) which is regarded as a seminal political travel book. Godwin was taken by the book, reconnected with Wollstonecraft and they married in 1797. Unfortunately, she died shortly after at the age of 38, while giving birth to a child they named Mary. Her husband was shaken and wanted to world to know who this amazing woman was. Shortly after her death, Godwin published the Posthumous Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798) in which he shocked readers with details of her illegitimate children, love affairs, and depression. Thereafter, Wollstonecraft was generally denigrated and forgotten by men and women alike. It wasn’t so much that her personal life was unusually perverse, at least for men, it just was not openly disclosed, especially concerning women.
Still, her influencer legacy has slowly over the last two hundred years been recognized. Although never mentioning her by name, Jane Austen did not seem put off by Mary’s ideas or life. Austen’s sensational novels Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) carry themes clearly articulated by Wollstonecraft a generation earlier.
In the early 20th century, another English writer Virginia Woolf, stated about Wollstonecraft, “Many millions have died and been forgotten in the 130 years that have passed since she was buried; and yet as we read her letters and listen to her arguments and consider her experiments, above all that most fruitful experiment, her relations with Godwin, and realize the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”
It may have taken almost two hundred years, but women’s advances realized since the 1970s have their genesis in the words of Mary Wollstonecraft.
The daughter she had before dying a few days later, Mary Shelley, is the author of Frankenstein (1818), so us fans of Young Frankenstein have another reason to appreciate Mary Wollstonecraft as well.