Women’s History Month Profiles: Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft's writing seriously shows that the personal is political, for she took the fact her family viewed her education as less important than her brother’s and made it her political raison d’être.

To mark Women’s History Month, due to run throughout March, Left Foot Forward will be running a series of profiles of women who have shaped the world we live in; here, Becky Ridgewell profiles the mother of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft’s life had the usual mix of tragedy and luck that is a familiar backdrop to the work of  many eighteenth century writers.  Her  early life saw much despair: her violent father with ideas of grandeur that constantly eluded him, her education devalued below her brother’s and  her best friend Fanny dying of consumption. Her career choices were limited:  she served as lady’s companion, governess, and teacher.

The closing down of the school she had established, along with the death of Fanny, was her moment of political radicalisaion. She started writing, asserting that the personal is political – much of Wollstonecraft’s writings and thoughts are grounded in her reaction to her family’s view that her education was less important than her brother’s.

Wollstonecraft constantly challenged the position of women in society at a time when the concept of human rights was flourishing and yet very few were looking at the role of women within this new framework. When Wollstonecraft was offered a position which involved writing, reviewing and editing at the Analytical Review she was able to turn her back on teaching.

Whilst working at the Review she built on earlier works such as ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787)’ and wrote her polemical text ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)’.

Wollstonecraft fought for women’s education rights throughout her life and like others, such as Thomas Paine, was much inspired by post-revolutionary France, going there to live for several years after the revolution. She lived as she wrote – unrestrained by conventions; Wollstonecraft lived with men, had a child as an unmarried mother and through her writing she examined female sexuality and the right to explore this whilst being independent.  She died shortly after giving birth to her second child Mary, who would go on to write Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft was only 38 when she died but she challenged inequalities throughout her short life and left us with a great opus which well reflects the values and myriad changes brought on by enlightenment thinkers, of which she was one of the greatest.

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