"I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves."
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is one of the first people to argue for gender equality, and is best remembered for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She led a radical and exciting life, mainly in London, but with significant time in France during the Revolution, and with life-changing visits to Ireland, Lisbon, Derbyshire, and Scandinavia.
Mary had a hard time growing up. She was born in London into a family sliding down the social scale, and received only scanty schooling. Her father was violent towards his wife and children, so even as a child Mary was acutely aware of the injustice caused by the abuse of power. It set her on her life’s course, to pursue education, to stand up for the underdog, to earn her own living, and to settle for nothing less than love with an equal.
When she was 25, Mary set up a boarding school in Newington Green, then a village a couple of miles north of the City, now part of London itself. This enterprise allowed her to rent a house and make a home with her best friend and with two sisters, one of whom she rescued from an abusive marriage. It also allowed her to mix with a group of Rational Dissenters, high-minded non-conformists who stretched her spiritual and mental frontiers. The Green itself remains, as does Newington Green Unitarian Church, still radical, where Mary heard sermons that changed her life. The people who gathered around its minister, Dr Richard Price, contributed to the intellectual milieu that shaped Mary: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and the second president of the United States, John Adams, and his wife Abigail.
The experiences during Mary’s years at Newington Green led her to write her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. She was an inspiring teacher and an innovative educationalist, arguing for equal education for girls and boys, drawing out children’s spirit and curiosity without stifling them. Later, building on the contacts she had made through the Dissenters, she created a career for herself as a writer, one of the first women to do so, starting off with reviews and translations.
When Edmund Burke attacked her mentor Dr Price, she responded quickly with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in support of what we would now call human rights, in the context of the French Revolution. This work made her an intellectual celebrity, and a year later she followed this up with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works arguing the essential equality of the sexes. She went to Paris to document the unfolding revolution, where she met Gilbert Imlay, an American by whom she bore a daughter. Later she journeyed to Scandinavia on his behalf, searching for a missing ship. Each of these adventures led to another book.
All her journeys led her home, back to London, where she eventually married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. She died giving birth to a daughter who grew up to elope with a married poet, and who is known to us a Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein.
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Read more about Mary Wollstonecraft's life and work. (We are fortunate that the Wikipedia pages on Mary herself, all of her major works, and many of the important people in her life are Featured Articles, meaning that they are of excellent quality: well researched, correctly sourced, and clearly written.)
Image based on portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie © National Portrait Gallery, London