Mary Wollstonecraft: 'Britain's first feminist'

Painted into history

In 2013 graffiti was mysteriously daubed on the side of a church in Stoke Newington, London. This was no wanton vandalism. Hands clasped behind her back, staring out from the wall stood an 18th Century writer and radical – Mary Wollstonecraft.

Who was she? And why does she still hold such powerful currency today? Trace the highs and lows of Wollstonecraft’s extraordinary life and discover how she came to be ‘Britain’s first feminist’.

1759

A woman's place

Mary was born into prosperity but her father, a drunk, squandered the family money. Like her mother, she often suffered abuse at his hands.

While her older brother, Ned, received an extensive formal education, Mary spent just a few years in a day school. The disparity rankled. Why should she be denied the opportunities afforded to her brother just because she was a girl? She resolved, with characteristic determination, to educate herself.

What is the significance of Mary Wollstonecraft's tumultuous early life? Professor Karen O'Brien explains. (Clip from In Our Time, BBC Radio 4)

1784

Expanding horizons

By the age of 25, Wollstonecraft had opened a small girls’ school with her two sisters and her friend Fanny Blood. It was a financial struggle.

Yet Mary’s intellectual horizons expanded. She befriended Richard Price, a Presbyterian minister, fellow of the Royal Society and a committed advocate of political reform. Price counted Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin among his clique of radical friends. Wollstonecraft discovered a forum for debate among this group of enlightened thinkers, grasping the opportunity to shape her own ideas.

Watch Amanda Vickery explain how teaching shaped Wollstonecraft’s views. (Clip from 'Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power', BBC Two)

1786

Governess in Ireland

The school closed after Mary’s friend Fanny died in childbirth. Wollstonecraft reluctantly took work as a governess.

Her employers were the Irish aristocrats Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Cork. Mary soon came to despise her mistress. In Lady Kingsborough she saw everything she disliked in fashionable femininity, describing her as ‘frivolous’ with ‘neither sense nor feeling’. Restlessly ambitious, Wollstonecraft also yearned for the company of her intellectually curious friends back in London. After a year of quarrels and depression, she was fired.

Mary Wollstonecraft moved into Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork to work for the aristocratic Kingsborough family as a governess.

1787

A new genus

Wollstonecraft returned to London broke and miserable. But she soon found new purpose as an author.

The radical publisher Joseph Johnson agreed to publish Wollstonecraft’s first book – the didactic Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Mary went on to become a regular contributor to Johnson’s new literary magazine, the Analytical Review. At Johnson’s weekly dinners Mary met and shared ideas with radical thinkers including Thomas Paine, Anna Barbauld and William Godwin. She thrived in this vibrant intellectual circle.

Mary Wollstonecraft's first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1787 by Joseph Johnson.

1790

A vindication of the rights of men

A more equal society seemed within reach with the revolution unfolding across the channel in France. It was the change Mary's radical set longed for.

In England the prominent politician Edmund Burke condemned the social upheaval in his conservative tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary was incensed by his writings. She quickly penned a furious defence of the revolution's egalitarian ideals: A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This was the first shot fired in a critical war of words, known as the Revolution Controversy, which would include the publication of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man a year later.

Edmund Burke's denouncing of the French Revolution sparked a backlash from Wollstonecraft and others. (Credit: Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds)

1792

A vindication of the rights of woman

Wollstonecraft had written passionately in defence of the revolution's ideals. Now she went further and claimed equality for her sex.

How could true liberty and equality be achieved if restricted to men alone? In her best-selling book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft took the principles of the revolution to their logical conclusion. Wollstonecraft outlined a vision of equality between the sexes. If women were afforded the same opportunities and education, she wrote, they could contribute as much to society as men. The book made Wollstonecraft’s name.

Watch Professor Barbara Taylor explain Mary Wollstonecraft's radical views. (Clip from 'Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power', BBC Two)

1793

Reign of Terror

Like many prominent reformers, Mary left for Paris. She was embraced by the radicals shaping a new social order in France.

The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 swiftly dispelled her euphoria. In the terror that followed, more than 25,000 people were guillotined. Wollstonecraft despaired at the corruption of the revolution’s ideals. That same year, she met the American Gilbert Imlay. Defying moral convention, they became lovers and, in 1794, she gave birth to her first child, Fanny, out of wedlock. The relationship proved both short-lived and devastating for Mary.

Watch: How did Wollstonecraft react to the horror of the terror in France? (Clip from Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power)

1795

A desperate act

Wollstonecraft learned Imlay was having an affair, but she was desperate to save the relationship.

Imlay persuaded her to go to Scandinavia. A ship had been stolen from him by a Norwegian ship captain and he wanted compensation. Mary was unsuccessful and returned to London to discover Imlay had betrayed her again. Distraught, she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames only to be saved by the intervention of passing watermen. This episode led to her finest literary work – a travelogue of her Scandinavian journey told through an imaginary correspondence with Imlay.

Wollstonecraft tried to end her life by leaping off Putney Bridge, pictured here in a drawing from circa 1790.

March 1797

Married with children

Wollstonecraft emerged from the depths of her despair and found personal happiness with an unlikely partner.

William Godwin was a famous radical philosopher. Wollstonecraft first met him at a dinner held by her publisher, Joseph Johnson, in 1791. Godwin had attended excited to meet Thomas Paine. Instead, Mary and Godwin argued all evening and he left, irritated. In 1796, with typical disregard for convention, Wollstonecraft took the lead and renewed his acquaintance. They fell in love. Although Godwin was opposed to the principle of marriage, when Wollstonecraft fell pregnant they wed in March 1797.

Wollstonecraft's husband William Godwin was among the foremost radical philosophers of the day. (Credit: William Godwin by James Northcote)

November 1797

Death

Despite being married, the couple maintained an unconventional domestic arrangement, living in two homes, communicating through notes.

On 30 August, Wollstonecraft went into labour and after about 18 hours she gave birth to her second child, a daughter, also named Mary (who went on to write Frankenstein aged 21). But there were minor complications which the surgeon mishandled (Wollstonecraft wanted a midwife, who should have known what to do) and she suffered acute haemorrhaging. Infection followed. Eleven days later, Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38.

Mary Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley. (Credit: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell)

1798

Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft

Godwin’s commitment to truth led to the publication of a well-meaning, if misjudged, account of Mary’s life.

Conservative propagandists seized upon the candid tales of her sexual history and unorthodox religious opinions. On the basis of her perceived sexual immorality, they trashed her memory. The slurs stuck. More than a century after her death, Wollstonecraft’s reputation remained a stick with which to beat campaigners for women’s suffrage.

Watch Amanda Vickery detail the trashing of Mary Wollstonecraft's reputation. (Clip from Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power)

Today

A feminist pioneer

Today Wollstonecraft is widely recognised as a principal architect in the fight for sexual equality. Her work is still published around the world.

The ebbs and flows of Wollstonecraft’s reputation are inextricably tied to society’s wider view of women’s rights. Her rehabilitation has been championed by some of the most preeminent feminists of the 20th Century, suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett and writer Virginia Woolf among them. By the time the bicentenary edition of Rights of Woman was published, Mary was an established feminist icon. Today she remains an enduring symbol of the ongoing fight against misogyny and sexual injustice.

Graffiti painted on the wall of Newington Green Unitarian Church in North London by Stewy.