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.