A Signpost for the Future: Mary Wollstonecraft as Pioneer Feminist

Abstract: The paper largely exposes the characteristics of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing as a leading feminist who believed that women were made out to be inferior to men in society solely because they lacked the access to education to be able to climb the social ladder. She was a devoted women’s rights advocate who fought tirelessly to uproot women from their patriarchal induced oppression.

Keywords: A Vindication of the Rights of Women, women’s oppression, patriarchy, women’s struggle for rights, women’s movements, women’s access to education

I love man as my fellow; but his spectre, real or usurped, extends not to me.

(Rights 37)

In a complex social context when women were undermined and denied all exercise of power, when the very idea of social empowerment through education and enlightenment through reason was heresy, here emerged a woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, inveighing against all authority and clamouring for the unthinkable. ‘I am going to be first of a new generation [. . .). You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track: the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on’ (Paul 191-192).

The peculiar bent of Wollstonecraft’s nature which resulted in her experiential writing was a response both to her experiences as a woman and to the dominant literary tradition of contempt for women. She was born in London in 1759, the second of the seven children of a rather prosperous silk merchant. The family was constantly on the move and Wollstonecraft saw at first hand the decline of the family’s fortunes, her father’s dominant behaviour, his drunken bouts and the absolute subservience of her mother. Their eldest son, who was the mother’s favourite, was as irresponsible as the father. At this stage, Wollstonecraft started despising the custom of primogeniture and privilege which still prevailed.

In 1775, during one of the family’s constant travels, Wollstonecraft , met her closest friend and companion ‘a women after her own heart’, Fanny Blood. Fanny remained the emotional centre of her early life. At nineteen, she was forced to earn her own living and she took up a position as companion to a wealthy widow in Bath. Here she struggled to maintain her own self respect as she hated subservience. Her spirits were broken. ‘My head aches with holding it down’ (Cameron 955). Here she learned how the wealthy waste their time and squander their wealth. From here she was called home to nurse her dying mother in 1780. In 1782, after her mother’s death, she took upon herself responsibility of looking after her siblings and organising their lives. After Eliza’s marriage, Wollstonecraft moved in with Fanny Blood. She found that she had to care for the impoverished Blood family too. Soon Eliza, who was apparently deranged from the difficult birth of her child and also the abuse of her husband, sent for her and Wollstonecraft brought her back to London. This was probably the reason why probably Wollstonecraft wrote in favour of divorce later.

In 1784, the three ladies set up a school in Newington Green, where Wollstonecraft became acquainted with liberals and intellectual dissenters like ’Dr. Richard Price. She was deeply influenced by Price’s moral and political philosophy and it stimulated her to think of the social basis of tyranny at home and the political struggle for independence and the necessity of freedom to combat tyranny in all fronts.

Meanwhile, Fanny’s marriage to Hugh Skeys in 1785, her stay in Lisbon and her eventual pregnancy and sickness made Wollstonecraft rush to Lisbon. Fanny’s death along with her child created a terrible void in her life. She returned to her school which had declined during her absence. She closed it and brought out her first work in 1786 — a pamphlet on Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. The same year, she accepted the position of governess to the daughters of Lord Kingsborough and moved to Ireland. It was here that she wrote her first book Mary, a Fiction, an autobiographical novel which revealed her self-pity. In a year’s time, Mary found herself dismissed due to her insubordinate behaviour. She decided to earn her living as author and be independent.

Back in London, she began her work with Joseph Johnson as translator, reviewer and later as editorial assistant of Johnson’s journal, Analytical Review.

His support was invaluable. She translated Jacques Necker’s On the Importance of Religious Opinions and Gotthilf Salzmann’s Elements of Morality for the Use of Children. Salzmann later reciprocated by translating her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Johnson began publishing her work. She moved into a comfortable home and felt quite independent and settled. A small unfortunate relationship with Henri Fuseli alone marred this period.

The year 1790 gave Wollstonecraft the brilliant opportunity to throw down her gauntlet in public. With brilliant eloquence, she countered the ideas of Edmund Burke, which he had espoused in his sentimental and irrational Reflections. Edmund Burke was the foremost philosopher of his time and Mary wrote her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men openly questioning his assumptions. The public reaction was quick; scathing criticism for her ‘unlady- like’ rational thinking; a woman, who, dissatisfied with the lot of women had dared to think. Around this time, she met William Godwin, but neither party was impressed with the other. In 1792, she brought out her most polemical controversial work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a powerful document of radical philosophy that overshadowed her earlier work. Soon Mary left for France.

While on tour, Mary met an American businessman Gilbert Imlay with whom she fell in love but did not marry. Instead, she simply registered as his wife in order to stay at the American Embassy for protection. In 1794, their daughter Fanny was born. However, Imlay proved that he was thoroughly unfaithful to her. Disgusted with his infidelity, Mary attempted suicide twice before finally parting with him for good.

In 1794, Wollstonecraft’s ‘Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution’ was published by Johnson. The relationship with William Godwin started soon after. In 1797, they got married in a private ceremony. Their daughter, who was later to become famous as Mary Shelley, was born in the same year and Wollstonecraft died a few days later of childbed fever on 10 September 1797. Of this marriage, Godwin was to reminisce later that ‘no two persons ever found in each other’s society a satisfaction more pure and refined’ (Memoirs 129).

Yet, no life, however eventful, could testify to the passion for intellectual thinking and humanitarian ideas that Wollstonecraft displayed in her creative output. Her courage and talent were exemplary. The faculty of reason was not exactly a prerogative of man, she argued. Since it was the common possession of men and women, both were capable of intellectual action and intellectual pursuits. Reason and civilisation were essential to virtue. Character was determined by environment and upbringing, she asserted. Social ills were the result of political institutions and privilege. In fact, she even questioned the time-honoured law of primogeniture and the unequal distribution of property. Despite her belief in God, she felt doctrinal Christianity was a fable. Her rationalistic belief in the perfectability of humanity superseded the Christian belief in human limitation. She felt that compensation could and must occur in this life.

Wollstonecraft is a repetitive writer and her major ideas on ‘roman, their rights, education and capabilities are dealt with in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Commenting on the education of daughters, she condemns the current respect for affectation and hypocrisy and she wishes girls to be taught to think and acquire a respect for ordinary values, kindness and self-respect. Wollstonerraft also emphasised the importance of training the body simultaneously with the mind. Women should have a good constitution so that they can feed their children and create healthy infants. Girls and boys should be educated together with enough free time in between, so that they can develop a taste for the beauties of nature. Girls should also be taught to be modest and virtuous.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is the most argumentative and controversial of all her works. Inspired by Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education, it is a philosophical treatise dedicated to the French thinker Talleyrand. This is a classical feminist text that appeals to egalitarian social philosophy as the basis for the creation and preservation of equal rights and opportunities for women. The book has a specific feminist agenda; but what is radical is her assent on that female traits are not innate, but culturally acquired in a society where men use various strategies like the idealisation of the feminine to ensure that women are kept powerless and frivolous. Education has to emancipate the woman and thus create a social, economic and political change. Women were not merely sexual, infantile beings, as Rousseau asserted. Despite her personal tone and loose structure of incremental repetitions, the treatise is very powerful and rhetorical. Some of the statements speak for themselves.

‘What have women to do in a society [. . .] to loiter with easy grace and suckle fools’? (Todd 103). Or,

Women must have more understanding to possess domestic taste [. . .]. Fragile, in every sense of the word, they are obliged to look up to man for every comfort. In the most trifling dangers, they cling to their support, with parasitical tenacity, piteously demanding succour, and their natural protector extends his arm, or lifts up his voice, to guard this lonely trembler — from what? Perhaps, the frown of an old cow or the jump of a mouse or rat, would be a serious danger. In the name of reason and […] common sense, what can save such beings from contempt, even though they be soft and fair? (Todd 99)

As a rationalist philosopher, we find Wollstonecraft thundering against all forms of tyranny exercised by men and calling for the legitimacy of Reason, Equality and Freedom. Reason is supreme. Virtues and Civilisation have to be based on Reason. Freedom and Equality is natural in a society governed by Reason. Justice is incompatible with inequality. Morals too must be based on Reason and immutable principles. All these apply to man and woman alike. In fact, Wollstonecraft blames men solely for the oppression of women. ‘I address you as a legislator,’ she argues, ‘who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of Reason?’ (Gaber, Online 21-1-06). As free and natural creatures, women would become good wives and mothers. In fact, in a society, men and women must be free in a physical, moral and civil sense.

Yet, for all her vehement advocacy of the supremacy of Reason, her simplicity and natural taste for rural scenery is seen in the significance and value she gives to spontaneous emotion and aesthetic appreciation of Nature. In the essay, ‘On Poetry and Our Relish for the beauties Of Nature’, and in the letters in Sweden — ‘God is seen in every floating cloud and comes from the misty mountain to receive the noblest homage of an intelligent creature — praise’ (Todd 17 1). Reason is the mother of wisdom and flights of imagination sometimes reach what wisdom cannot reach, a sublimity that reaches perfection almost.

Other works may not be so controversial but they are significant nevertheless, as they all mark the stamp of her indelible personality. Her novel Mary, a Fiction, a novel of sensibility, directed attention to social evils like inequality and poverty. Her unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman or Maria also deals with women’s oppression. Here she speaks of women who live unhappily within their homes just to preserve their reputation. She was also a reviewer of other novels, of educational books and travel accounts. She was a prolific writer of letters and many of them are also powerful documents. They show her deep knowledge of women, their emotions and status in society.

After her death, Wollstonecraft was publicly criticised and vilified. She was branded a vicious and licentious woman whose early death was providential and deserved. Some even considered her neurotic. A few women, like her friend Mary Hays, however praised her intellectual power and personal warmth. It was only in the late nineteenth century, when the struggle for women’s rights started, that a few writers tried to reclaim the work of Wollstonecraft. She soon became acclaimed as one of the first feminists. However she had achieved what she had set out to do. She had effected a revolution in female manners. She had restored to them their lost dignity. She had taught women to think.


Cameron, Kenneth Neill, ed. (1961) Shelley and His Circle, 1773-1822, Vol 2.

Harward UP, Cambridge.

Gaber, Paula. <http: //www.info umd.edu. 21/1/06.>

Godwin, William. (1798), Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Joseph Johnson, London.

Paul, Charles Kegan. (1876) William Godwin, His Friends and Contemporaries – 1 H.S. King, London.

Todd, Janet, ed. (1977), A Wollstonecraft Anthology. University Press, Indiana;

Polity P, Cambridge, 1989.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. (1722), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political arid Moral Subjects, Joseph Johnson, London; Rpt. Penguin 1975.


ESTHER JAYANTHI. Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory.

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Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory.

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