A forerunner of the modern feminist movement, Wollstonecraft challenged social conventions and stereotypes. She is best known for her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’, one of the earliest examples of Feminist philosophy.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an English Feminist writer and philosopher and was born in London in 1759. Wollstonecraft wrote in various genres, but is best known for her Feminist philosophical work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She challenged social conventions throughout her life, criticizing restrictive social norms. Her works, in which she advocates for equality between men and women and critiques conventional and stereotypical ideas of the notion of femininity, are regarded as greatly significant to the modern-day Feminist movement and strike a clear resonance with modern Feminist theory.
In contradiction to prevailing social conventions, Wollstonecraft embarked on a career as a writer. As a founding Feminist philosopher, Wollstonecraft’s most well-known works include the Vindication of the Rights of Men, a response to criticisms of the French Revolution by Edmund Burke, a British Member of Parliament. Initially published anonymously in 1790, it was only in the second edition that Wollstonecraft was identified as the author. In this work, Wollstonecraft advocated Republicanism as opposed to Monarchy and attacked Burke’s support for hereditary privilege.
In 1792, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. The work advanced the argument that women should be given rights on an equal footing with men, and discussed topics such as political power and hereditary privileges, while arguing that women and men have the same inclination for reason and calling for a ‘revolution in female manners’. It remains a hugely influential contribution to modern Feminist thought.
During the Revolutionary years, Wollstonecraft traveled to France, where she witnessed King Louis XVI being taken to his trial before the French National Assembly. She associated herself with the Girondins, a political faction known for being less radical than the Jacobins. Wollstonecraft was markedly unimpressed with the Jacobins’ failure to grant women equal rights and their continued adherence to the restrictive ideas on the role of women that existed before the Revolution.
Wollstonecraft remained in France after the declaration of war with England in 1793, a decision that placed her under suspicion due to her nationality. Her lover at the time, the American businessman, Gilbert Imlay, told the French authorities that the pair were in fact married (which would have meant that Wollstonecraft would have automatically received US citizenship) in order to protect Wollstonecraft from possible arrest. Wollstonecraft gave birth to her first child, a daughter, after becoming pregnant by Imlay, but she continued to write and publish. She remained in France, even after Imlay moved to London, as she was aware of the increasing crackdowns on civil liberties and freedom of expression in England.
Wollstonecraft left France in 1795 to join Imlay in London, but devastated by his rejection, attempted suicide – once in 1795 and again the following year. She returned to writing and became reacquainted with her old associates, including William Godwin, whom she went on to marry and with whom she had her second child, another daughter (this daughter went on to write Frankenstein). Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth, following medical complications. After her death, Godwin wrote his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which was meant as a celebration of his wife’s work, but inadvertently damaged her reputation with its references to her lovers, illegitimate first child, and suicide attempts, a demonstration in itself of the rigid social constraints and expectations that Wollstonecraft had tried to challenge. Today, Wollstonecraft is celebrated as a groundbreaking thinker and a forerunner of the modern Feminist movement.
“Virtue can only flourish among equals.”
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger.”
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