Mary Wollstonecraft

By: Victoria Yates

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on the 27th of April 1759. She was initially born into comfortable surroundings but, due to her father's unsuccessful ventures, she lived in financially difficult circumstances. Her father bullied her mother, often beating her in drunken rages. Mary's role within the family was pivotal, proving a maternal figure for her sisters - she convinced her sister Eliza to run away from her husband, an early instance of Mary breaking social norms.

Wollstonecraft formed a school, Newington Green, with her sisters and closest friend Fanny Blood. However she had to abandon it to tend to an ailing friend in France which led to its failure. Mary then took on a position as Governess. Her students were inspired by her liberating education, but she didn't get on with her mistress and, frustrated with the options available to women, decided to become a writer.

Mary moved to London, read widely and met with some of the most progressive thinkers of the time, expanding her ideas and finding a forum for debate. She was enraptured with Henry Fuseli, fascinated by his brilliance and seeking to live with him and his wife in a platonic situation. Unable to do this, Fuseli left Mary, and she moved to France. Her most famous work "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" was published in 1792, giving her instant fame, and setting her apart as a serious thinker.

In France Mary began her second affair, this time with the American explorer George Imlay with whom she had her first child, Fanny, in 1794. Living in France at this time meant being in the heart of the revolution. Mary and other Britons found themselves in considerable danger. Imlay stepped in by registering her as his wife, despite their unmarried state but he still abandoned her and their child.

She returned to London in 1795 in order to find Imlay but on his rejection she attempted to commit suicide. She then travelled, accompanied only by a nurse and her daughter to Scandinavia in order to try and repair some of Imlay's fortune and win back his affection. On returning to Imlay's continued rejection Mary attempted suicide again, this time jumping into the river Thames. However she survived and gradually Mary rejoined her intellectual circle. She started a relationship with the philosopher William Godwin. The two married when Mary became pregnant in 1779, leading to criticism of Mary over her previous lies about her 'marriage' to Imlay. Godwin subsequently called for the abolition of marriage in his work "Political Justice."

The short and happy relationship was at best seen as unconventional, as the pair lived in adjoining houses to maintain their independence. The birth of her daughter Mary (Shelley, later the author of "Frankenstein", and herself a progressive female in a conservative society) led to Mary's death only days later from septicaemia.

Mary's life was shrouded with scandal, heightened by the memoirs published by her husband upon her death which didn't shy away from her romantic relations and suicide attempts, all social taboo. The importance of her work wasn't recognised until years later when the feminist movement truly took hold. Only in the 19th century could Mary's progressive, approach and personal courage to transgress the norm truly become appreciated, embraced by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Emma Goldman.

A truly controversial figure who broke the mold for the 18th century woman, her perseverance to her beliefs and her strength of opinion helped the next generation of women take on the male-dominated establishment.