A ‘Speculative and Dissenting Spirit’

Mary Wollstonecraft made a powerful case for liberating and educating women; at the same time she lived out her theories. Often reviled by her contemporaries, today she is considered a ‘modern’ heroine.

Engraving of Mary Wollestonecraft

The dissenter

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published at the end of the 18th century – a century marked by the emergence of the philosophical spirit and the concept of ‘enlightenment’, by the gradual erosion of monarchical authority (which reached its apex with the French Revolution in 1789), and by the birth of democracy. While the question of the rights of men engendered lively debate at that time, a woman’s lot remained unconsidered. Wollstonecraft, however, was determined to change this and to add a dissenting female voice to the chorus debating political emancipation.

Mary was the second child, and eldest girl, in a family of seven. Her childhood was marked by her parents’ downward social spiral and by her envy of her eldest brother, who was singled out by their mother’s favour and by a wealthy grandfather’s will. Her early years were spent, with her family, in following her feckless and violent father across England and Wales – he had given up the weaving for which he had been trained, and was making hopeless attempts to be a gentleman farmer.

In 1787, aged 19, she left home to work as lady’s companion to a Mrs Dawson, in Bath. Unhappy with her situation, Mary was sustained by a dream of life alone with her beloved friend Fanny Blood, and by a strenuous piety that allowed her to believe in a blissful afterlife, to compensate for her present misery.

Her work was interrupted by a series of family disasters. Her mother became ill, and Mary returned to London in 1780-81 to nurse her through her fatal illness. Then, in 1784, Mary faced the depression of her newly married sister Eliza. She responded by encouraging Eliza to leave her unhappy marriage and her new baby. When Mary encountered the inevitable criticism for this behaviour, she gave a robust reply: ‘I knew I should be the … shameful incendiary in this shocking affair of a woman’s leaving her bed-fellow.’

To help keep Eliza, Fanny Blood, Fanny’s sister, and herself – she founded a small school in the progressive Dissenting community of Newington Green. (The Dissenters were people committed to combining reason with piety, and who looked forward to a more just and egalitarian future brought about by individual effort.) The following years saw much intellectual growth for Mary, who learned to broaden her resentment towards her family into an analysis of general social injustice.


A woman of sensibility

The school collapsed in 1785, when Mary abandoned it to be with Fanny, who had married and was living in Portugal, but was now dying from consumption. After Fanny’s death in 1786, Mary had little choice but take up work as a governess, and she took a post with the daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Ireland. ‘I by no means like the proposal of being a governess,’ she wrote, ‘I should be shut out from society – and be debarred the imperfect pleasures of friendship’. She had made a similar point in the book she had just written, a stern advice manual Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), in which she spoke movingly of the horror of intelligent women being subject to rich fools.

As she had expected, Mary was unhappy in Ireland. She comforted herself with a belief in her own ‘sensibility’ – which she thought was a woman’s glory, and was proof of superiority. Sensibility was a loaded 18th-century term relating directly to gender, and at that time indicated extreme delicacy and keenness of feeling in a woman. In her tale ‘The Cave of Fancy’ Mary describes it as ‘The result of acute senses, finely fashioned nerves, which vibrate at the slightest touch, and convey such clear intelligence to the brain, that it does not require to be arranged by the judgment.’ She says that for those who possess sensibility, ‘Exquisite pain and pleasure is their portion.’

She noticed little about the social and economic situation around her and her time in Ireland simply confirmed her in her Englishness, despite her own Irish ancestry through her mother. The main legacy from this period was her loathing for Lady Kingsborough. In Mary’s eyes, as she developed her feminist philosophy, her employer came to stand for all that was wrong in women – their coquetry, their exaggerated weakness, their corrupt manipulating power and their dependence on men for identity.

After a year of suffering depressive illness, and of surviving prickly encounters with Lady Kingsborough, Mary was dismissed in 1787. Then occurred the most momentous event in her life: her radical London publisher, Joseph Johnson, took her on as an editorial assistant, writer – and later reviewer – for his new magazine, Analytical Review. Declaring herself ‘the first of a new genus’, she embraced this new life, and in Johnson’s vibrant intellectual circle her ideas developed rapidly.


A new genus

As she grew intellectually, Mary saw that her problem was not her family history, nor a God-given sense of dissatisfaction, but a response to a general social situation in which some improperly privileged and educated men systematically denied education and autonomy to women. She became more sure of her own intellectual gifts; despite having to suffer the social stigma associated with being a spinster, she felt that unthinking married women were her ‘inferiors’.

During this time Mary wrote her two polemical works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (published anonymously in 1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), both public letters in angry reaction to texts by men whom she considered powerful and wrong-headed. The first answered Edmund’s Burke’s nostalgic and conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France, which argued for the status quo because human nature could not take too much change or reality, and the second responded to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s educational work Emile, which proposed that a girl’s education should aim at making her useful to and supportive of a rational man.

Mary’s loathing for Lady Kingsborough emerges in the latter work, where the aristocratic lady is portrayed sitting at the corrupt apex of the class and gender systems. She is a failed mother, typifying the trivial sexualised female, obsessed with appearance and living an empty self-gratifying life aimed at male admiration. In this woman, ‘the wife, mother, and human creature, were all swallowed up by the factitious character which an improper education and the selfish vanity of beauty had produced.’ Reason, through education, independence and the need to struggle, were the antidotes to this thoughtless existence, and Mary argued for equal educational opportunities as a right, while she continued to insist on the importance of motherhood in a woman’s life.


Revolution and passion

As she was insisting on reason over the sensibility she had earlier embraced, Mary conceived an unacknowledged passion for the married painter and philosopher Henry Fuseli. When her feelings threatened to overwhelm her, she left for France to join other English intellectuals, such as Thomas Paine, in celebrating the French Revolution.

The fourth year of the Revolution was approaching, and the Jacobin Terror was about to begin. Vulnerable and yearning for old friends, Mary replaced Fuseli in her heart with the handsome Gilbert Imlay, an American speculator and liberal author. Their love blossomed. When the French grew antagonistic to English well-wishers once war broke out between the two countries, Mary had to move from Paris to a nearby village and declare herself the American Imlay’s wife – though no marriage occurred. Throughout the next months in Paris, Le Havre (where their child was born), London and Scandinavia (where she was sent alone on a business trip for Imlay), her moving, haunted letters chart the breakdown of her relationship with the man she loved.

Before she went to Scandinavia Mary attempted suicide; she tried again on her return. The beginning of the recovery of her health and peace of mind was marked by publication of her description of her Scandinavian trip, Letters from Sweden (1796). In this she portrays herself as a romantic unhappy wanderer in the midst of sublime nature. The work links her earlier belief in sensibility with her subsequent more rigorous rationalism, and shows how she has accepted the mind-body connection that had troubled her throughout her life. Together with her private letters to Imlay, it reveals her vacillations between neediness and dependence on the one hand, and her longing for freedom and autonomy on the other.

In her letters to Imlay she grappled with the problem of female sexual desire within society, which in The Rights of Woman she had described as needing to be controlled; she also addressed the value, power and seduction of the imagination within human relationships. ‘I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.’


Life with William Godwin

Letters from Sweden was admired by William Godwin, the political writer and novelist, whom Mary had met when she first entered the circle of Joseph Johnson. Then he had found her and The Rights of Woman strident and unprepossessing. Now, in 1796, he was impressed with her grief-induced mellowness. They became close friends and, soon, lovers. It was a fulfilling, less fraught and romantic relationship than the one with Imlay; it resulted quickly in a second pregnancy.

Fearing social opprobrium if it was known that she had two illegitimate children – she had been passing as Mrs Imlay in public – Mary persuaded Godwin to marry her. During the few months of their life together Mary worked on a final book, The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria, a kind of sequel to The Rights of Woman. In it she revealed the need of women for companionship and freedom to express their sexuality, as well as for reason and independence. The originality of the book lies in its depiction of a working class prostitute who, along with the sensitive and adulterous heroine, is allowed a voice as she tells her story of immense and continuing suffering.

The novel was unfinished, for death came tragically to Mary. She gave birth to a second daughter, named for herself, who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. The birth was followed by complications, and Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days later. She was 38.

After her death Godwin published her radical novel, as well as a memoir of her life. This revealed the fact that Mary had not been married while having a sexual relationship with Imlay. As a result her demand for rational female education, which had been accepted by most thinking women, became almost forgotten in the light of her implied demand for sexual freedom. She was hugely reviled as a ‘prostitute’ and ‘unsex’d female’. Few of the later feminists of the more conservative 19th century would dare to admit her influence openly, as they made their gains for women by limiting the feminist agenda.


A woman’s lot

Throughout her life, Mary Wollstonecraft grappled with the complexities of women’s lot: their emotional neediness as well as their wish for independence; their anxiety over motherhood as well as their enthusiasm for it; and their desire for romance, which they might theoretically despise. She believed in getting to truth through investigating personal experience – so her mode of writing was in the main intensely personal. And honest, for she would not repudiate her own experience. So in her novels she was candid about female passion, and would not reward it with a man or money. In her letters she constantly referred to her body, nerves and depressions, while in her early published works she demanded response only to her intellect.

Mary said she was a signpost to others, marked for special suffering. She is remarkable not so much for this pardonable vanity as for her constant effort to express a predicament. She seems modern: with a few changes of language, she could be a 1970s American feminist or an ambitious and self-obsessed post-modern woman demanding fulfilment on all fronts.

Mary Hays, a close friend in the last days, wrote: ‘Vigorous minds are with difficulty restrained within the trammels of authority…it is to speculative and enterprising spirits, whom stronger powers and more impetuous passions impel forward, regardless of established usages, that all great changes and improvements in society have owed their origin.’ Probably Mary, and certainly Godwin, when he revealed her life to the public, misjudged the price she would pay for her unconventionality. But, although she was in many ways foiled by her own flaws, and even more by the shifts of cultural fashion, she tried – almost uniquely for the times – to be true to her sense of common female needs: for education and for legal and political significance, as well as for sex, affection and esteem.


Retrieved from BBC History – By Professor Janet Todd:




Wollstonecraft Time Line



1759 April 27, Wollstonecraft was born in London to John Edward Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dickson. She had an older brother, Edward and four other children, James, Charles, Eliza and Everina were born after her.
1759-1768 The Wollstonecraft family moves frequently during this time. John Edward attempts farming in Epping, Whalebone, and Essex.
1768 The Wollstonecraft family moves to a farm in Yorkshire. Mary’s education followed the common course of day-school. But, she also becomes friends with a neighboring clergyman, Mr. Clare. It is at Mr. Clare’s home where she begins to develop intellectually.
1775 Wollstonecraft meets Francis (Fanny) Blood, who became her closest friend and companion until Blood’s death.
1776 The Wollstonecraft family moves again to a farm in Wales.
1777 The Wollstonecraft family returns to London. Mary, at eighteen was able to exert some pressure upon her father to live in the village of Walworth which was near London and her friend, Fanny Blood. She also insisted upon a room of her own for quiet and study.
1778 Wollstonecraft leaves the family home to become a companion to Widow Dawson of Bath.
1780 Wollstonecraft is called home to be with her failing mother.
1782 Elizabeth Dickson Wollstonecraft dies. Mary’s sister, Eliza marries Meredith Bishop. Mary moves in with Fanny Blood.
1784 Wollstonecraft is called to nurse her sister Eliza who is apparently deranged from the difficult birth of her daughter and some sources say, the abuse of the husband. Wollstonecraft, Fanny Blood, and Eliza open a school in Islington where they are joined by the other Wollstonecraft sister, Everina. Wollstonecraft becomes acquainted with Dr. Richard Price and other liberals.
1785 24 of February, Fanny Blood marries Hugh Skeys in Lisbon. She becomes pregnant and sends for Wollstoncraft.
‑‑29 of November, Fanny dies in Wollstonecraft’s arms of complications from premature birth. Her child dies as well.
1786 Wollstonecraft returns to England to find the school had suffered from her absence. She closes the school and writes her first work, a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. She then accepts the position of governess to the daughters of Lord Viscount Kingsborough and moves to Ireland to fulfill her duties.
1788 Wollstonecraft spends the summer with the Kingsborough family at Bristol Hot-Wells. She writes her first book, Mary, a Fiction, a children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life, and translates Jacques Necker’s On The Importance Of Religious Opinions. She also becomes involved in her publisher, Joseph Johnson’s monthly periodical The Analytical Review as well as beginning translation of Christian Gotthilf Salzmann’s Elements Of Morality For The Use Of Children. Her work with Salzman’s book led to correspondence and a later reciprocation when Salzmann translated her A Vindication of The Rights of Woman.
1789 Johnson publishes Wollstonecraft’s The Female Reader, no copies of which have apparently survived.
1790 Wollstonecraft completes and publishes her translation of Salzmann’s Elements…, writes A Vindication Of The Rights Of Men in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on The Revolution In France.
1791 Wollstonecraft establishes a comfortable home on Store Street and begins writing A Vindication of The Rights of Woman.She meets William Godwin several times over the course of the year, but neither party is impressed with the other.
1792 A Vindication of The Rights of Womanis published by Johnson. Leaves for France.
1793 Meets Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman. Moves to the suburbs of Paris for safety. By the end of the year, Wollstonecraft is attached to Imlay yet does not marry him, preferring instead to simply register as his wife at the American Embassy in Paris for protection purposes. Wollstonecraft and Imlay move back into Paris together. Wollstonecraft becomes pregnant. Imlay leaves for Le Havre on a business trip.
1794 Wollstonecraft travels to Le Havre to join Imlay. Daughter Fanny is born May 14. Imlay returns to Paris and is followed by Wollstonecraft and Fanny a short time later. Imlay leaves Wollstonecraft and Fanny and travels to London. Johnson publishes her Historical and Moral View Of The Origin and Progress of The French Revolution.
1795 Wollstonecraft takes her daughter and follows Imlay to London. On discovering his infidelity, she begins to contemplate suicide. Imlay thwarts her first attempt. Wollstonecraft leaves on a business trip for Imlay with her child and a nurse to Sweden Norway and Denmark. She returns to find Imlay involved with an actress and attempts suicide by jumping off Putney Bridge.
1796 Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark,is published by Johnson. Wollstonecraft meets William Godwin again and the two become lovers.
1797 29 March, Wollstonecraft and Godwin marry in a private ceremony due to Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy. They announce their marriage in April. The two maintained separate quarters to work in during the day, but entertained guests in the evening at No. 29 The Polygon.
‑‑30 August Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin is born.
‑‑10 September, Wollstonecraft dies of “childbed fever”.
1798 Goodwin’s book Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft is published.

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