Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Mary was born in Spitalfields, London, in April 1759, the second of seven children. As a female in the eighteenth century, she was allowed little formal education. But as a restless free-thinker from an early age, she balked against the social norms and educated herself, created her own professional path, and lived her own life – forging an independent career as a writer.
“My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed – my dearest pleasure when free.”
Mary’s acclaimed work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is now considered an essential work of feminism. Arguing that the educational system of her day trained women to be incapable, she proposed an equitable educational system which would enable women to be capable and valuable professionals.
Later that same year, Wollstonecraft traveled to Paris to observe firsthand the French Revolution. There she began a relationship with American diplomat Gilbert Imlay and, although they didn’t marry, had a daughter with him two years later. In 1796, she became pregnant again, this time with new her partner William Godwin. Both had criticized marriage as a vehicle of exploitation, but they married early the following year.
All of her published work came in the ten-year period before her death—due to complications following the birth of her daughter Mary—in September 1797. In the years after her death, Wollstonecraft was often derided, partly due to her unconventional lifestyle and partly due to her controversial ideas. But a growing movement saw her as a role model and embraced the ideas that started to influence nineteenth century writers.
In several of her novels, Jane Austen makes positive allusions to Wollstonecraft's ideas, and writers such as George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Emma Goldman, and Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelley embraced Wollstonecraft's feminist philosophy.
Similarly, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leading lights in American rights for women, created the Seneca Falls Convention after reading Wollstonecraft’s works, paving the way for women’s suffrage in the US.
Today, she is regarded as one of the founding feminist voices, a pioneer of women’s rights, and one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century.
“We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” –Virginia Woolf