March is Women’s History Month! To celebrate, we’re taking a look at one of the most celebrated female authors in our collection: Mary Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft’s literary career began in 1787, when she arrived in London following failed ventures as a governess and schoolmistress. She quickly became friends with the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, a relationship that proved highly beneficial. Johnson published her first work, “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,” in 1787, and her autobiographical novel “Mary: A Fiction” followed in 1788. He also hired her as an editor for his periodical the Analytical Review, which was known for having radical leanings and serving as a forum for criticism against the British government; and brought her into his social circle, a lively group of intellectuals that included political activist Thomas Paine, painter Henry Fuseli, and writer William Godwin.
One of the most scintillating topics of political debate in the late 1700s was the French Revolution. In 1790, the conservative Irish statesman Edmund Burke argued in his pamphlet “Reflections on the Revolution in France” that the French experiment in republicanism was doomed to fail. He believed the revolutionaries were too concerned with abstract rights (a category that included the right to food and medicine); that gradual reform, rather than revolution, was the proper course of action; and that inherited rights formed the basis of a stable society. His opinion drew swift rebuttals, and the first to fly off the presses was Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” published anonymously by Johnson. In it, Wollstonecraft decried Burke’s defense of rank and hierarchy and argued in favor of tearing down traditional structures if they didn’t serve the common good. The pamphlet sold well enough to merit a second edition – this one with Wollstonecraft’s name on the title page.
But the “Vindication of the Rights of Men” was only the beginning. In 1791, the French political leader Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord declared that the only kind of education necessary for girls was a domestic one. Wollstonecraft did not take kindly to this blatant sexism, and immediately began penning a response. The result was her most famous work: “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” cemented Wollstonecraft’s reputation as one of the most important early feminist authors. In it, she makes the case for treating women as rational beings who are capable of contributing to society – as she put it, “I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.” In other words, don’t define women by their sex, but treat them first and foremost as human beings. To that end, Wollstonecraft called for women and men to be given the same education, and she criticized the culture of sexism that forced women into positions of subservience and being treated as a “swarm of ephemeron triflers.”
Wollstonecraft married William Godwin on March, 29 1797, when she was already pregnant with their child. She gave birth to a daughter on Aug. 30, and, like so many other women in the 18th century, was struck by childbed fever and died just a few days later. Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, would go on to write one of the most influential novels of all time: “Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus.”