Mary Wollstonecraft broke new ground in the battle for women’s rights with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and today, she’s remembered as a pioneer of early feminism—but there’s far more to her legacy than you might be aware of. Here’s what you should know about her life and work.
April 27, 1759, London, England
September 10, 1797, London, England
‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men,’ ‘Vindication on the Rights of Woman’
1. Mary Wollstonecraft had a difficult childhood.
Born in London in 1759 to Edward John and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft, the future author had a difficult childhood; the family struggled financially, and her father was capable of being aggressive and violent. (When she thought that he might lash out physically at her mother, Mary often stepped between them.) In her early twenties, she took on caring responsibilities for her mother and then some of her siblings; becoming a writer helped her to earn a living and gain her independence. “Struggle with any obstacles rather than go into a state of dependance [sic],” she once wrote to a friend. “I have felt the weight, and would have you by all means avoid it.”
2. She ran a school with her sisters and a female friend.
Though she had little formal education herself, Wollstonecraft—who was just 25 at the time—opened a school in London with her sister Eliza and her closest friend Fanny Blood in 1784; they were later joined by another Wollstonecraft sister, Everina.
Mary published her thoughts on women’s learning a few years later in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, her first book. According to author Vivien Jones, professor of 18th century gender and culture at Leeds University, it was a “conduct” book that “combine[d] education with conduct and duty”; it was written in an attempt to help Wollstonecraft escape the few jobs which were available to a woman in her position, like teacher and governess. Wollstonecraft would go on to develop her philosophy of education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
3. Wollstonecraft helped save the lives of passengers on a ship in distress.
In 1785, Wollstonecraft traveled by sea to Portugal to help look after Fanny Blood, who had moved there and was experiencing a difficult pregnancy. Sadly, both Fanny and her child died following the birth. On Wollstonecraft’s return journey, the vessel she was on encountered another ship that was floundering. She pressed the captain to collect the survivors, who would have drowned had they been left behind; the captain was reluctant to bring them aboard, but Wollstonecraft persisted until he agreed.
4. She first made her name as a political writer with A Vindication of the Rights of Men.
In addition to Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Wollstonecraft’s early publications included a novel (Mary: A Fiction) and a children’s book (Original Stories from Real Life). But the first work that garnered her reputation as a political writer from her contemporaries was A Vindication of the Rights of Men. It was one of the first responses to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a conservative work that lamented the changes brought about by the still-ongoing revolution. In contrast, Wollstonecraft argued in favor of the aims of the revolution and against the idea of hereditary power and privilege (including titles that were passed down from one generation to the next and the way this gave some people wealth and land and power over others).
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was initially published anonymously in November 1790, but a second edition appeared a few weeks later with Wollstonecraft’s name on the title page.
5. Wollstonecraft wrote her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in only six weeks.
However, it was Wollstonecraft’s following work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that would truly cement her legacy. It was written partly in response to a speech by the French politician Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord in 1791, who had argued that education for women and girls was unnecessary and might be detrimental to their ability to fulfill their primary role: motherhood.
Wollstonecraft was furious. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she argued for equality between the sexes and the necessity of women being given as good an education as men, arguing that a woman being educated enhanced rather than detracted from her ability to bring up her children, and that society as a whole also benefitted from women being well-educated. She completed the 13-chapter-long book in only six weeks.
6. Wollstonecraft worked as a war correspondent during the French Revolution.
Following A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft went to Paris to report on the French Revolution; her writings on the subject would later be published by her editor, Joseph Johnson. She has sometimes been described as the first female war correspondent, although it would be more accurate to say she was one of the first, as other writers like Helen Maria Williams were also reporting from Paris at the time.
7. She was threatened with arrest during the Reign of Terror in Paris.
As the revolution progressed from the optimistic early years to the dark days of the Reign of Terror from 1793-‘94, Wollstonecraft’s position in France began to come under threat. By 1793, Britain was at war with France, and British citizens in the country were treated with extreme hostility: Wollstonecraft was denied an application to leave Paris during this period, and foreign citizens in general were vulnerable to arrest. Helen Maria Williams was imprisoned for several weeks that year; philosopher Thomas Paine was also sent to prison and spent nearly a year there, despite the fact that he had been granted citizenship by America—he was imprisoned specifically on the grounds of being “a native of England,” where he was born.
During her time in Paris, Wollstonecraft met and fell in love with an American businessman, Gilbert Imlay, who would father her first child, Fanny. Wollstonecraft’s romance with him would turn out to be one of the great disappointments of her life: His affections were inconsistent, and she was devastated by his numerous infidelities and eventual abandonment of her after they returned to London, which led her to attempt suicide. But one of his few acts of loyalty during their relationship was to register her as his wife with the American embassy in Paris, even though they were never actually married. Being “married” to an American man made her an American citizen in the eyes of the law, and therefore gave her protection that she had not had as a British citizen in Paris.
8. She traveled to Scandinavia to track down a ship full of silver.
In June 1794, Imlay bought a ship and enlisted a Norwegian captain to secretly carry bars of silver under a neutral banner through a British blockade. At some point along the journey, however, the valuable cargo vanished. In 1795, Imlay asked Wollstonecraft—who had supervised the loading of the silver onto the ship herself—to take a trip to Scandinavia to aid with the investigation of the silver’s whereabouts, giving her power of attorney to make decisions on his behalf.
Wollstonecraft set off with her daughter and a maid. The silver was never recovered, and its fate remains a mystery—but the trip wasn’t a total wash, at least not for Wollstonecraft: She would later publish the missives she had written to Imlay during that time in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, which won her acclaim in London’s literary circles. Her admirers included William Godwin, who had been unimpressed with Wollstonecraft on a past meeting: As he later wrote in his biography of her, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.”
9. Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft and Godwin met again in 1796 and began a romantic relationship. Wollstonecraft was soon pregnant—and despite the fact that both she and Godwin were critical of the idea of marriage, they chose to wed in March 1797 to avoid a scandal.
Wollstonecraft gave birth to their daughter on August 30, 1797. The delivery was difficult, however, and led to a serious infection; Wollstonecraft passed away 10 days later. Godwin was devastated and named their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin after her mother. Wollstonecraft’s daughter would grow up to an author in her own right, writing under her married name of Mary Shelley and achieving literary fame as the author of Frankenstein.
10. Wollstonecraft’s reputation suffered after her death, before being revived by the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Following Wollstonecraft’s death, a grief-stricken Godwin sought to tell and preserve her life story in his 1798 book Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He did so in exceptionally honest detail, disclosing her love affairs, her daughter with Imlay outside of marriage, and her attempts to die by suicide.
Godwin’s intentions were good, but he miscalculated the extent to which the public would be receptive—people were scandalized by what he had revealed, and Wollstonecraft’s reputation suffered as a result.
During the 19th century, Wollstonecraft was frequently denounced for her private life and her writings were often overlooked; no new edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published after her death until 1844. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the suffragette movements in both England and America rediscovered her and began to reclaim and highlight her life and legacy. English activist Millicent Fawcett even wrote an introduction to a reissued version of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1891.