Also known as: Mr. Cresswick
Born: April 27, 1759 in Hoxton, England
Died: September 10, 1797
Nearly two centuries after her death in 1797 from complications following the birth of her famous daughter, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft occupies an important place in feminist literary studies. During her life, the popular press attacked her "radical" views; after her death, Wollstonecraft served as an example to women of the 19th century, either as an "unsex'd female" or, to an important few, as a model author in the male-dominated world of letters. The 20th century has witnessed Wollstonecraft's emergence as a seminal figure in feminist writing.
Wollstonecraft's early life exercised an important influence on the books she would write and predisposed her to find the radical politics of the 1780s and 1790s appealing. From her family experience as the second of seven children born to an abusive father, she learned first-hand the limits of her gendered social position. The young Wollstonecraft attempted all of the respectable employment options for unmarried middle-class women: she worked as a paid companion in the fashionable resort of Bath, as a governess in an aristocratic family, and as the proprietor of a school. She witnessed the failure of contemporary education for girls and young women, as well as the powerless position of women in unhappy marriages. During the mid-1780s, she met Dr. Richard Price and his circle of Dissenters in Newington Green, and her conversations with them introduced her to authors who helped shape her political and social thinking, as well as to an important resource for her career change, liberal publisher Joseph Johnson.
Her first publication, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), may seem conventional to modern readers, but it argued against many accepted child-rearing and educational practices of the 18th century. With this conduct book--written to satisfy the growing appetite of an emerging middle class--Wollstonecraft worked within an accepted genre for women writers. Still, in this collection of essays on forming the moral character of girls, she also applies the lessons of her self-education, drawing on the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and other liberal writers. Her moralistic pronouncements on the proper education for daughters clearly anticipate her later critique of the condescending social construction of gender for girls and women.
Wollstonecraft again remains very clearly within the female tradition of authorship with her 1788 novel, Mary: A Fiction. Published by Johnson (like all her books), the novel fuses autobiographical elements with an assessment of the self-defeating effects of morbid sentimentalism. A third-person account of a woman dissatisfied with her arranged marriage and overcome with affection for another man, Mary's story admits of only one outcome--her death from a fever after she accepts the hopelessness of her life. The novel concludes with its heroine "hastening to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage."
Also published in 1788, Original Stories, from Real Life intensifies her earlier critique of the inadequacies of contemporary education for females, in this case two sisters, the vain Caroline and the hypercritical Mary. Suffering from the neglect of wealthy, fashionable parents who have relegated the important matter of their education to servants, the sisters listen to the "moral conversations and stories" of a female relative--the wise and virtuous Mrs. Mason, chosen by their father to provide a much needed corrective to the girls' moral training. Selections ranging from animal parables to allegorical warnings in the accounts of such figures as Mrs. Trueman, Mr. Lofty, and Jane Fretful, echo Wollstonecraft's own conviction that reason is God's gift to all humans, whatever their gender. Reasoned Christian virtue can guide every aspect of human life from the treatment of animals to the design of clothing for females.
In London, Wollstonecraft's friendship with Johnson and her success as a professional writer brought her into association with some of the leading radical and dissenting minds of the time at dinners the publisher hosted. Along with such figures as artist and poet William Blake, she became friends with Thomas Christie, Johnson's partner in launching his new periodical, The New Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft's self-confidence no doubt benefited from her new friendships as she entered the traditionally male domain of authorship. During the early years of the French Revolution, she would contribute reviews on subjects ranging from poetry to medicine to The New Analytical Review, as well as translating philosophical works from German and French, both languages she learned on her own.
In 1789 Wollstonecraft assumed the pseudonym "Mr. Cresswick, Teacher of Elocution" for her The Female Reader, a collection of instructional prose and verse "selected from the best writers." Along with excerpts from the Bible and Shakespeare, Wollstonecraft includes "A Conversation on Truth" from her own Original Stories and an admonition on the vanity of dress signed "M. Wollstonecraft." Under her pseudonym, she prefaces The Female Reader with an essay on female education based on the development of reason and virtue--"the improvement of her [every young woman's] mind and heart ... the business of her whole life."
Johnson, who would later be imprisoned for selling Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, encouraged the radicals among his authors, and he supported Wollstonecraft when she responded to an attack on the ideals of the French Revolution by one of England's leading political figures, Edmund Burke. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, Burke set the tone for reactionary opposition and inspired a series of responses from liberal and radical authors. Burke's personal attacks on her friend and mentor, Richard Price, his complacency over social and economic injustices, and his style and reasoning, which she attacked as "effeminate" and "sentimental," deeply offended Wollstonecraft. Her Vindication of the Rights of Man was published anonymously by Johnson the following month, a second edition appearing shortly afterwards bearing her name on the title page.
Unlike the women who had attacked the slave trade two years earlier in poems with sentimental appeal, Wollstonecraft chose argumentative prose and responded by reasoning from immutable principles. Although she attacks Burke, the individual, as well as his conservative, "organic" notions of political development, and employs sarcasm as a weapon, she emphasizes reason, individual merit, and moral virtue in her argument. She was not the first woman to enter the male-dominated domain of political discourse, but she was clearly the most visible and least diffident female to challenge publicly such an eminent male politician and rhetorician. A hostile notice of the second edition in the Critical Review bears testament to just how unconventional her work was considered.
Early in 1792 Wollstonecraft made the connection which few others would make between the rights of men and the situation of women. By far her best known book--and the one on which her reputation as an early feminist rests--Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman stimulated a new debate on sexual injustice and earned her the moral condemnation of conservative men and women alike. Her appeal opens with a dedication to Tallyrand, one of the principle figures behind reform of education in revolutionary France; it then assaults Rousseau's sexist notions of female education in his otherwise enlightened Émile. In this protest against social inequality, Wollstonecraft combines her early dissatisfaction with the education of girls with a heightened political awareness to produce one of the first revolutionary feminist statements.
Although acknowledging certain differences between men and women from the outset, Vindication of the Rights of Woman bases its argument on the spiritual equality of all human beings. From this first principle, she ridicules the contemporary gender construction of females as weak and modest, attractive and shallow playthings for men, reinforced by an education based in sentiment and focused on luring a suitable mate, however deceptively. Wollstonecraft reasons that if women are indeed capable of being moral beings, then their education should be designed to help them achieve a moral and intellectual development equal (or very nearly so) to men's. In marriage, she maintains, women should be the equal partners of their husbands, not merely attractive and desirable objects of male passion. As the basis of relations between the sexes, education, as Wollstonecraft envisions it, can become an agent for a change in power relations within the family and society at large. The implications of considering women as "human creatures," Wollstonecraft clearly understands, include a challenge to the double standard of sexual behavior and artificial social distinctions. If her book is not explicitly subversive in political terms, reactions to her thinking leave little doubt that conservatives, from Horace Walpole and Hannah More to Richard Polwhele, considered it nothing less than revolutionary.
After publication of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to Paris for the express purpose of writing a history of the revolution. Her experiences in France during the terror softened her views on the revolution, a change reflected in the sole volume of her series, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe. Wollstonecraft's French Revolution continues her attack on injustice in France and the social construction of gender, but as history it suffers from her lack of understanding of the nation and the limited scope of the only volume completed. She wrote under considerable pressure and with the awareness that, like her friend Helen Maria Williams, she could become a victim of the current hysteria. Her personal distractions--a relationship with Gilbert Imlay, the first real love of her life, and the birth of their daughter Fanny in 1794--were not conducive to writing something so different from her previous work.
After her relationship with Imlay soured, Wollstonecraft left France with Fanny to tour Scandinavia as his business agent. During these months, she kept up a personal correspondence with Imlay, chronicling the manners of the people she observed during her travels. These letters, returned by her estranged lover, formed the bulk of Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the book Godwin later claimed led him to fall in love with its author. The work is generally regarded as stylistically her best writing.
Wollstonecraft's last important work, the unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, appeared posthumously in Godwin's candid Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), which inspired scores of attacks on her moral character and radical politics. In the novel, Wollstonecraft confronts legal injustices perpetrated against women in regard to property, child custody, sexual and reproductive freedom, extra-legal incarceration, and divorce. The heroine, Maria, "bastiled" in a mental institution by her husband, consummates a "natural" marriage with a fellow inmate and eventually escapes with him. During a subsequent trial for adultery, Maria delivers an impassioned argument against British law and legal system and extends the scope of Wollstonecraft's social and political criticism.
Maria's keeper and later confidante, Jemima, relates her own story of sexual oppression, rape, abortion, and prostitution during the course of the novel. By including a laboring class women in this final protest against sexual oppression, Wollstonecraft offers a broader critique of patriarchy. In contrast to her earlier focus on the bourgeois woman--and a sometimes disdainful attitude toward the lower orders--Maria depicts sympathetically the plight of a plebeian woman oppressed by class as well as gender. Education, the primary concern of Wollstonecraft's social and political commentary from the beginning, plays a secondary role in the world of Maria and Jemima, a world in which the tyranny of the status quo imprisons women at every turn. This final comment on the status of women tantalizes with its hints of the possible direction of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist thinking had she survived the medical practices of her day.
Also wrote as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Pseudonym: Mr. Cresswick. Nationality: British. Born: Hoxton, England, 27 April 1759. Education: Self-educated. Family: Companion of Captain Gilbert Imlay beginning 1792; one daughter; married William Godwin in 1797; one daughter, the author Mary Shelley. Career: Lived in Beverly, Yorkshire, 1768-73, London, 1774-75, and 1777, and Laugharne, Wales, 1776; paid companion to Mrs. Dawson, Bath, England, 1778-80; cared for her invalid mother, 1780-82; with sisters and friend Fanny Blood, started a school in Islington, then Newington Green, 1784-86; governess to family of Lord Kingsborough, Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, 1786-87; reader, writer, and translator for Joseph Johnson (publisher), and editorial assistant for his journal Analytical Review, London, 1787-92, and 1797; met Thomas Paine and Henry Fuseli; lived in Paris with American soldier Gilbert Imlay, beginning 1792; reported on the French Revolution, 1792-95; travelled with Imlay in Scandinavia, 1795; attempted suicide, 1795. Died: 10 September 1797.