Mary Wollstonecraft


Early in her life, Mary Wollstonecraft began making great contributions and brought forth new and not well-received views on women and society. When she was nineteen, she and her sister founded and taught in a school, an experience which led her to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. In this, she asserted her view that the young girls she taught had been "enslaved" by men through their social training. Wollstonecraft disagreed with the traditional teachings and believed that girls should study new topics.

Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel, and friend to Wollstonecraft preached a sermon praising the French Revolution. He believed that the French had a right to remove a bad king from the throne. Edmund Burke wrote a reply to this sermon called Reflections on the Revolution in France. In his reply he argued that there should be inherited rights of the monarchy. Wollstonecraft was upset by this and wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in defense of Price’s sermon. She not only defended Price but also included what she thought was wrong in society, including slave trade and the manner in which the poor were treated. 

Wollstonecraft's most famous work, through which she gained her the reputation as a feminist, was A Vindication of the Rights of Women. This controversial work argued for the need for more civil rights for women, a cause which Wollstonecraft believed could only be furthered by permitting women better education .She asserted that a woman was capable of any intellectual feat that a man was--provided that her early training did not brainwash her into deference to man. Wollstonecraft believed that women's freedom should extend to their sexual lives. In her writings, she compared married life for a woman to prostitution. She pursued her own sexual freedom through an affair, and bore an illegitimate child.

The ideas in Wollstonecraft’s book were revolutionary and caused much controversy at the time. Her ideas that were once considered to be absurd are now what a majority of what the Western World believe. Later, she fell in love with William Godwin, the father of her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Tragically, Mary died from complications while delivering her child. 

During her lifetime, Wollstonecraft raised arguments in support of women's rights that would figure prominently in the women's rights movements of the following two centuries. Her work in pursuit of equality for women led to her being dubbed the founder of the British Women's Rights Movement. 

Annotated Bibliography

Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography. New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, Inc. 1972.

 This book contains not only bibliographic information, but also letters that were previously un-cited in other books about Wollstonecraft. Flexner highlights how Wollstonecraft's early life had a great impact on the development of her ideas.  It also updates the biography by Ralph Wardle from 1951.  Flexner tone is somewhat critical of Wollstonecraft.

George, Margaret. One Woman's Situation. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Except for a passive and negative history, Margaret George maintains that women do not have a history; however, women do have a pre-history in which Mary Wollstonecraft's achievements are an important pre-historic document. This is the basis for George's biography of Wollstonecraft, in which she focuses on Mary's position as one of the earliest feminists.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
 Vindication brings about new ideas on how she influenced early American political thought in England. It also places emphasis on how much influence Wollstonecraft’s writings had on American figures. Gordon has written biographies on other famous individuals such as T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte,  and Virginia Woolf.

Gordon, Lyndall. Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genius, UK: Warner Books, 2005.Other biographers have focused on the negative characteristics of Wollstonecraft, such as her self-pitying and egocentric tones, but Gordon examines her life without these negative judgments. Gordon discusses the lives of Wollstonecraft's first lover, Imlay, and his friend Joel Barlow. She provides great detail of their lives and also explains  the business venture of Imlay's that took Wollstonecraft to Scandinavia.  This book would be good if you wanted a deeper look in Wollstonecraft's personal dealings in addition to her contributions and literature.

Ingpen, Roger. Preface. The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay. By Wollstonecraft. Folcroft: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.
Roger Ingpen has gathered what he calls "the most passionate love letters in our literature," the letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay. Ingpen begins the book with a brief biography contained in the preface. The biography is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather simply an introduction to Wollstonecraft. This book would be useful for anyone researching the love affair of Wollstonecraft and Imlay. It also illustrates Mary's unconventional existence, and the actions for which many of her time would have condemned her.

Kemerling, Garth. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797). 1996. <> (November 13, 2000).
This site reiterates some of Wollstonecraft's observations at the school where she taught. It also mentions her book, History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution, written as a result of her interest in revolutionary politics. Kemerling states that this interest was connected to the democratic ideals inherent in the Revolution, which also factored in women's rights. Wollstonecraft's political leanings are examined in some detail. 

Kreis, Steven. The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. (May 13, 2004).
This website provides a short biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. It is important because it does provide links to her writings and to important people in her life. This site would be good if the reader is just looking for an overview of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: overview of the life and work of England's early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. (2005).This website provides an overview of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and literature works. It also provides links to quotations, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, other writings, a book list, and also analysis and criticism of her work. 

O'Quinn, Daniel. "Trembling: Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and the resistance to literature." EHL 64 (1997): 761-88.
This scholarly article would be beneficial for those studying resistance to literature. The goal of the article is to "tease out how the resistance to novels participates in a formulation of community and class consolidation."

Smith, Amy Elizabeth. "Roles for readers in Mary Wollstonecraft's A vindication of the rights of women." Studies in English Literature 32 (1992): 555-70.
The focus of this article is the debate by scholars over the primary audience intended by Mary Wollstonecraft in "The Vindication of the Rights of Women." One side of the debate justifies this as intended for a female audience. Because women were unaccustomed to rational discourse, this might have been why Wollstonecraft wrote in such an informal manner for her intended female audience.

Sunstein, Emily. A Different Face. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1975.
Sunstein's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft focuses on her search for personal independence, and how it contributed to the larger feminist movement. The author writes a comprehensive biography in which she follows the trials and triumphs of Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Sunstein then asks, "What kind of life should a woman ask for?"

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge,U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
This book provides an in-depth look at the thoughts and works of Mary Wollstonecraft. An important aspect of this book is that Taylor makes a connection between her troubled personal life and her feminist radicalism. Taylor states that this book is “a study of Mary Wollstonecraft’s radical imagination, particularly her feminist imaginings.” This book can be difficult to read without prior knowledge of feminism and the history of Britain in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Claire Tomalin looks at the life of Mary Wollstonecraft with emphasis on her reputation both before and after her death. She explores the influence and relationship between Mary's life and that of other feminists, such as Jane Austen and Helen Maria Williams. Claire Tomalin has written several other noted biographies.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft A Revolutionary Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000.
This biography examines that it was Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and letters that have remained her most lasting legacy. Todd includes Mary Wollstonecraft’s published work as well as her letters and examines the psychological revelations between them. This biography is easy to follow and reads like a novel. Janet Todd  is a Research Professor of English at the University of Glasgow. She is the editor of A Wollstonecraft Anthology.

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Original written by Aleisha Cheatle, 1998
Revised by Dawn Drumin, November 2000
Revised by Melissa Stout, October 2005 
Last Revision: 14 December 2005
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