Mary Wollstonecraft: Britain’s First Feminist

512px-Mary_Wollstonecraft_cph.3b11901Born on 27th April, 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft came into a prosperous family. Sadly, her father was a drunkard and misogamist and squandered this prosperity, denying his daughters a decent education. Her brother Ned did receive the benefits of extended formal schooling, but she would not be allowed the same opportunity.

With admirable determination, she began educating herself, and aged 25, opened a small girls school with her two sisters and a friend, Fanny Blood. She soon began to move in radical circles and became friendly with Richard Price, a Presbyterian minister and Fellow of The Royal Society. Through him, she began to frequent the company of other radical thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the founding fathers of the American Constitution. But the school, her only source of independent income, had to close due to financial difficulties and the death of Fanny Blood in childbirth. Mary was forced to take employment as a governess to Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Cork. But after a year of quarreling with them and suffering from depression, she returned to London, almost penniless.

Mary decided to begin a career as a writer at this point, and a radical publisher, Joseph Johnson, agreed to print her first book, “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”, which advocated a full education for girls on the same footing as boys. She began regular contributions to Johnson’s magazine, “The Analytic Review”, and through Johnson she began to meet to meet thinkers like Thomas Paine and William Godwin, who both campaigned for the extension of the franchise in England.

In 1792, Mary published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in which she argued that women were not naturally inferior to men but only appeared to be because they lacked equal educational opportunity, and that they should be treated as rational beings.

In 1793, Louie XVI of France was deposed and Mary, who had travelled to France to witness the revolution, left Paris in a hurry, horrified at the brutality of its bloodthirsty mob.

Back in London, she began living with an American, Gilbert Imlay, and in 1794 gave birth (out of wedlock) to her first child. However, she quickly became bitterly disillusioned with Imlay’s serial infidelities and in desperation attempted suicide, throwing herself off Putney bridge. Fortunately, she was dragged from the river by a passing boatman.

In 1791 she began her last relationship, with the philosopher William Godwin, with whom she had an unconventional domestic arrangement, living seperately and communicating by notes. She died on 10th September, 1797, giving birth to her second daughter, Mary, from puerperal child fever.

See more by

Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

Connect with Oxford Home Schooling