In 1792 a
young woman published a work so controversial that it is still debated two centuries
later. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was not the first book to demand equality for
women, but it was the first to achieve real public influence. Readers across Britain,
Europe and North America discussed its arguments. Within a few years, its author, a hack
writer and translator named Mary Wollstonecraft, had become an international celebrity,
and womens rights had entered the political lexicon. If modern feminism
could be said to have an inventor, Mary Wollstonecraft was that woman.
Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in 1759, into a modestly affluent middle-class
family. Her childhood was unhappy. Her father, fancying himself a gentleman farmer,
dragged his wife and children from one failing farm to another, bankrupting himself in the
process. He was a drunk and a bully and Mary, who often defended her mother from his
beatings, loathed him. [Mary] was not formed to be the contented and unresisting
subject of a despot, her husband, William Godwin, later commented.
These wretched beginnings determined Wollstonecraft to live independently. She would never
tie her fate to any mans, she decided. She sought employment, first as a ladys
companion and then, in the mid 1780s, as a schoolteacher in Stoke Newington.
Stoke Newington in the late eighteenth century was a hotbed of radicalism.
Every Sunday the Unitarian chapel on Newington Green rang with calls for political reform.
The chapels pastor, Richard Price, was a well-known philosopher whose congregation
contained many radical celebrities, including the poet Anna Barbauld. Soon after arriving
on the Green, Wollstonecraft began attending the chapel (her pew can still be seen there),
and joining in political discussions.She and Richard Price became friends. She was an
ambitious young wannabe writer. He was old and ill, but with a powerful intellect still,
and he made a great impact on her.
These were auspicious times for the radically-minded. In 1789 the French Revolution
broke out, and soon Wollstonecraft, like many of her Stoke Newington
associates, was lending her pen to the revolutionary cause. She wrote a book defending
democratic principles and then, even more controversially, womens rights, which the
new French government had refused to grant. Liberté and egalité did not apply to women,
it seemed. When men contend for their freedom
[is it] not unjust to subjugate
women? she demanded of French politicians. Who made man the exclusive judge,
if woman partake with him of the gift of reason?
At the end of 1792 Wollstonecraft went to Paris where she met and fell in love with an
American radical, Gilbert Imlay, and became pregnant by him. France was rapidly skidding
toward war and terrorism, and her position was soon very perilous. Imlay registered her at
the American embassy as his wife, which saved Wollstonecraft from possible imprisonment or
even death. But after her daughter Fanny was born, her lover began to draw away from her,
leaving her heartbroken and suicidal. Alarmed at her misery, Imlay persuaded her to make a
business trip to Scandinavia, which revived her spirits. But on returning to London in
1795, Wollstonecraft found him living with a new mistress and tried to drown herself in
the Thames, from which she was only narrowly rescued.
By this time Wollstonecraft was Britains foremost female intellectual. But she was
also a single mother, and lonely. Then in the spring of 1796 she fell in love again, this
time with the radical philosopher William Godwin. He was a much happier choice than Imlay,
and soon the couple had set up house together in Somers Town, near Kings
Cross. Godwin was a feminist of sorts, and a public opponent of marriage. But when
Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they married, to the amusement of friends and enemies
alike. She gave birth to a second daughter, the future Mary Shelley, in September 1797,
but died ten days later from puerperal fever.
At the time of her death, Wollstonecraft was widely
respected in progressive circles. But French wars and fear of home-grown revolution were
chilling the political atmosphere in Britain. Six months after her death, Godwin published
a biography that revealed Wollstonecrafts unorthodox sexual history. The reaction
was immediate and savage: she was denounced as a philosophical wanton, a
revolutionary whore. Both her memory and her ideas were cast into a political
wilderness where they remained for many decades, scorned even by fellow feminists. But by
the end of the nineteenth century her reputation was on the climb again, and by the late
twentieth century she had become feminisms foremost heroine, an icon of liberated
Today Mary Wollstonecraft is known and celebrated worldwide. A woman whose political
career began very modestly, in rural Stoke Newington, is now a global emblem of feminist
struggle. It is a status she is likely to retain so long as many women lack equal rights
and opportunities or, in some cases, even basic freedoms. Wollstonecrafts feminism
still has plenty of mileage left in it.
Barbara Taylors Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination
is published by Cambridge University Press (2003). ISNB 0521004179. £16.95 paperback