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Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstonecraft

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Best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), Mary Wollstonecraft was a political and moral theorist whose writings on the condition of women, including the advocation for equal education opportunities inspired many other feminists after her time influencing the writings of Catherine Macaulay, and those of her own daughter, Mary Shelley.

Timeline and Published Works


  • 1759: Mary was born in London, the second of four children to John Edward Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dickson
  • 1768: The Wollstonecraft family moves to Yorkshire. Mary meets neighboring clergyman, Mr. Clare where she begins to develop intellectually.
  • 1784: Mary, her companion Fanny Blood, and her sister Eliza open a school in Islington for women.
  • 1786: Mary's school closes, writes her first work Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.
  • 1790: Mary writes A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections of The Revolution in Fance
  • 1792: A Vindication of the Rights of Women is published.
  • 1796: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is published. Mary also meets William Godwin, the two becoming lovers. 
  • March 29 1797: Mary and Godwin marry
  • August 30, 1797: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley) is born
  • September 10, 1797: Mary Wollstonecraft dies of "childbed fever" 
  • 1798: Godwin's work, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft is published, along with Mary's unfinished work, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (Oregon State).

ReceptionEdit

Despite working in the “properly female” realms of literature such as conductbooks, children’s stories (such as Mary, a Fiction), ladies’ anthologies and various translations, Mary Wollstonecraft considered herself (and is often portrayed by biographers) as a heroic pioneer moving towards a sense of unique destiny (Taylor 31). This sense of “creating oneself” is often seen in the various literary personas employed in her literary works: from the straight-laced moralist tone derived from Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) to the more sarcastic, bluntly radical personae displayed in both Vindication of the Rights of Man and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Taylor 31).  The continuing thread of similarity between these varied works, as well as her other various writings, translations and letters, is her emphasis on self-expression - an almost obsessive fixation on possessing and expressing a writer’s true self and authenticity. This sentiment is especially noted in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, rejecting the conventionally desired character traits such as docility, meekness, and a yielding nature that “conventional womanliness” emphasized and encouraged. (Johnson 88).

While being accepted at the time of its publication, Vindication of the Rights of Woman was not considered to be a necessarily “groundbreaking” political treatise, nor was it celebrated posthumously until the early 20th century (Janes 295). In its own time, the reviews of the work were split between two parties: individuals sympathetic towards the rights of man and the events transpiring in France lauded her work, while negative reception came more in the form of indifference as opposed to open attacks; the reason being that Vindication was read more as a sensible treatise on the emphasis of female education and ignored the content that recommended more social, professional equality between the sexes (Janes 297). Interestingly enough, this ability to ignore Wollstonecraft’s more political proposals also crossed party lines (Janes 295).

Legacy

Despite gaining slight notoriety through her writings, her reputation both professionally as a writer and socially was smeared by Godwin’s exposure of her intimate relationships in his work Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (Tomaselli). Though Godwin attempted to describe her affair with American businessman Gilbert Imlay and her consequent suicide attempts in an objective, honest manner, her reputation was ruined; transforming into a “warning” to other emerging female writers as an example of the moral decay that could occur when women were insistent on societal equality with their male counterparts (Tomaselli). Despite this legacy of shame, Mary Wollstonecraft was rediscovered throughout the suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Her radical notions of class and work equality along with more equal education opportunities for women became common-place notions throughout the 20th century (Taylor 243). Her writings influenced several other feminist writers throughout the ages such as Virigina Woolf, Emma Goldman, and even writings of her own daughter, Mary Shelley - despite her mother's death eleven days after her birth (Taylor 250).

Influence on Mary Shelley

While Mary Shelley never got to know her mother, she held her in the deepest veneration and could be considered to be her best student, reading her mother’s writings numerous times (Biography). This influence can also be seen in Mary Shelley’s work, notably: the emphasis of travel-literature in Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); the picturesque descriptions of Monte Blanc, and Victor’s languid excursion through the Rhineland, Holland, England, and Ireland seems to emulate her mother’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. By describing the vistas and scenery of both majestic mountain crags and idyllic riverside villages, Shelley relates this “Grand Tour”-esque excursion to her mother’s travels (class notes 9-25-13).  

Another theme in Shelley’s work paralleling her mother’s is a sense of isolation prevalent in the protagonist’s actions, thoughts, and conditions. This can be best seen in the comparison between Frankenstein’s Creature’s isolation in Shelley’s work and the isolation prevalent in Maria’s situation in Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1792) (Johnson 263). Shelley was well aware of her mother’s celebrated status as not only a female author of merit, but also as of a participant in intellectually radical circles along with her husband, which would influence the young Shelley throughout her entire life. Mary Shelley seemed to embody her mother’s free spirit and self-agency in her decision to defy her father and elope with the already-married Percy Shelley at the age of sixteen (Biography).

Despite her early death, Mary Wollstonecraft has influenced countless writers, poets, politicians, and theorists of both sexes and championed causes such as female education well before they were seriously considered and applied to contemporary societal constructs. With a free-spirited lifestyle gave her the freedom to express herself truly as herself, and throughout the years she has aptly gained the nickname the “mother of feminism”.

Works Cited and Other Readings

Janes, R.M. "On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." Journal of the History of Ideas. 39. (1978): 293-302. Print. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2708781?uid=2134&uid=2474625553&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2474625543&uid=60&purchase-type=article&accessType=none&sid=21102700711583&showMyJstorPss=false&seq=2&showAccess=false>.

Johnson, Claudia. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

"Mary Shelley". 2013. The Biography Channel website. Sep 27 2013, 11:57http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497.

"Mary Wollstonecraft." Oregon State University. N.p.. Web. 27 Sep 2013. <http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/wollstonecraft.html>.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. 1st. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Tomaselli Sylvana, "Mary Wollstonecraft", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/wollstonecraft/>.

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