Mary Wollstonecraft's 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' (1792) in Historical Context

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kwon, Hyungee
Term Paper, AP European History Class, March 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Early Influences
II.1 The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft's Mother
II.2 Eliza Wollstonecraft
II.3 Frances (Fanny) Blood
II.4 Newington Green Circle
III. On A Vindication of Rights of Women
II.1 Historical Background
II.2 Main Points of A Vindication of Rights of Woman
II.3 Mary Wollstonecraft vs. Rousseau
II.4 Mary Wollstonecraft as a Radical Socialist
II.5 Mary Wollstonecraft Lifestyle Contradicting Her Political Philosophy
IV. Life with William Godwin
V. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bbliography

I. Introduction
            Many tend to mark the start of modern-day feminism with Betty Friedan's landmark book The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which she coined the phrase "The Housewife Blahs" to describe millions of unfulfilled women (1). However, most historians claim that the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was written in 1792. (2) An eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft is responsible for stirring up a controversy on the rights of women.
            This paper is about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft and her book, Vindication of the Rights of Women. This paper will focus on Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas and life, but some interesting yet contradicting points will be shown. Looking back at her work, this paper will show that Mary Wollstonecraft is far from the modern-day feminist.

II. Early Influences
            Mary Wollstonecraft's interest in women rights was steadily made since she was a young child. Other women who were treated badly intrigued forced Mary Wollstonecraft to question herself about her status as a woman. Looking at the life of her mother, younger sisters, and two close friends, Mary Wollstonecraft started to form her philosophy on women rights. Also the Newington Green Circle helped Mary Wollstonecraft publish her ideas.

II.1 The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft's Mother
            Mary Wollstonecraft's mother, Elizabeth Dickson, lived a miserable life. Mary Wollstonecraft's father, Edward Wollstonecraft, inherited a great fortune from Mary's grandfather who became rich as a master weaver in London. Mary's grandfather's profitable real estate investments were successful as well, leaving Edward a lot of money. Edward Wollstonecraft tried to become a gentleman farmer. A gentleman farmer is a respected landowning male who has sufficient private income or funds that he does not have to work (3). However, Edward squandered much of the inheritance and his family had to move several times because of their economic hardships (4). Eventually he started to drink heavily and act abusively verbally and perhaps physically. The usual victim was Mary Wollstonecraft's mother. (5) Mary often slept on the landing near her mother's bedroom to protect her when her father was in one of his drunken rages (6). This situation had a profound impact on Mary Wollstonecraft's attitude towards marriage.

II.2 Eliza Wollstonecraft
            In 1783 Mary's sister Eliza suffered a mental breakdown following the birth of a daughter. Eliza was the only one of the sister who was married at that time. She actually had a hurried marriage. Believing that her brother-in-law was the cause of Eliza's distress, Mary arranged to remove Eliza from his house and later obtained a legal separation (7). Mary had to see her parents' and her sisterí»s marriage fall apart.

II.3. Frances (Fanny) Blood
            Before Mary Wollstonecraft's family started to move frequently, Mary Wollstonecraft's family lived in Yorkshire from 1768 to 1774. She was sent to a local country school for girls. Her curriculum was skewed toward housekeeping arts like sewing and gardening. The goal of the school was to prepare adolescent girls for their future roles as wives, mothers, and proper middle-class ladies (8). However, her real tutor was a neighboring clergyman, Mr. Clare. It is at Mr. Clare's home where she begins to develop intellectually (9). Mr. Clare was a keen reader and took charge of Mary's education in an informal way. He and his wife were surrogate parents to Mary Wollstonecraft when she was about 17 (10). Her best friend then was a schoolgirl named Jane Arden. The two girls exchanged letters in which they gossiped about "macaronis", the young fashionable men in the town. Then some incident led Mary to accuse Jane of favoring another girl. Mary wrote to her, "I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none." This shows Mary's great desire to find a girl companion that would be there for her at all times. Eventually, Mary found a new friend, Frances Blood (11).
            It was actually Mr. Clare who introduced Mary to her future best friend, Frances, or Fanny, Blood. Mary was fascinated with Fanny's intelligence like love at first sight. They instantly bounded. Fanny Blood, a girl one year older than Mary, whose father was also addicted to drink and dissipation (12). Their relationship would endure through additional relocations.
            Fanny is a great influence because she was the one who taught economical independence to Mary Wollstonecraft. Fanny was the oldest daughter of her family. With an alcoholic father and many siblings, Fanny was the on responsible for putting food on the table. As a talented artist, Fanny would draw in a laboratory to feed her family. Mary, who looked up to Fanny, wanted to be like her - an independent woman who can earn her own money. With this influence, Mary would actually disobey her parents' will and start working the one occupation a middle-class woman could do ? becoming a companion for an old lady. In 1778, Mary found employment as a companion to a wealthy widow. The job, despite its amiable name, could be quite unpleasant, for it required the hired person to cater to the whims of her employer. Having a few fights with her employer, Mary eventually quits the job after two years and returns home to look after her sick mother (13).
            However, Fanny's early death influenced Mary Wollstonecraft to rethink about the rights of women. When Fanny gets pregnant, she hurries to get married and moves to Portugal. Fanny's health seemed like it was getting better, but she died due to complications from childbirth. Wollstonecraft was actually on her way to visit Fanny in Portugal, but Fanny was already dead when Mary arrived (14).
            Seeing her parents', her sister's, and Fanny's miserable marriages, Mary Wollstonecraft could not have a good image of marriage. Also, the bad treatment that her mother and sister got from their husbands triggered Mary to think deeply about women rights, eventually leading her to become the spokesmen of women rights.

II.4. Frances (Fanny) Blood
            After saving her sister Eliza from a terrible marriage, Mary opened a school at Newington Green, near London, with Fanny Blood, Eliza, and her other sister, Everina (15). Mary actually got some help from a new friend to start this school. Mrs. Burgh, a widow of a well-known Dissident educator, helped them out. Mrs. Burgh had a great social relationship with people, and believing that teaching was an honorable career, she persuaded Mary, Eliza, Everina, and Fanny to open a school. Mrs.Burgh quickly rustled up twenty-odd students and found them a house near Newington Green. When Fanny died, the absence of Mary lead this school to collapse, but until then, the school was actually a success (16).
            This school experience actually lead Mary Wollstonecraft to a new community called the Newington Green Circle. This groups consisted liberal-minded intellectuals, whom were headed by a Unitarian minister, Richard Price. The Unitarian Church was actually the center of the Newington Green Circle. There were many religious Dissenters. Many of these Dissenters wanted social change. They would give up sugar, for instance, to protest slavery. They did value success but scorned a life full of pleasure (17). The Newington Green Circle widened Mary's friendships. She became a close friend of Richard Price, who introduced her to Joseph Priestley (the co-discoverer of oxygen), William Godwin ( a journalist, novelist, and forefather of the anarchist movement), and Joseph Johnson (18). Publisher Joseph Johnson was the editor of the New Analytical Review, which was instituted in May 1788. Joseph Johnson published many important authors in England. He was bold enough to publish Mary's book, A Vindication of Rights of Woman, in 1792 and publish Benjamin Franklin at the height of America's war against England's king (19). Later, when Mary decides to walk the road as a writer, he helps her by letting her publish remarks to the magazine on a regular term basis. Joseph even later calls that Mary "wrote many articles" in his magazine (20).
            Actually, when Mary's school collapsed, she had to write a book for financial reasons. The title was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life. John Hewlett, an Anglican clergyman and author who was a close friend of Mary's, promised her that he would take this to Joseph Johnson. Joseph Johnson accepted the book right away (21). The work was a collection of essays for parents concerning schooling and self-esteem issues for girls and young women.

III. On A Vindication of Rights of Woman
            A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was published after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790). These two books both stirred up a great controversy now known as the Revolution Controversy.

III.1. Historical Background
            When the French Revolution of 1789 happened a rush of new books were printed. As a part of the Newington Green Circle, Mary Wollstonecraft also became a part of the Johnson Circle as she started to write for the New Analytical Review. The Johnson Circle was outraged with Edmund Burke's book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edmund Burke was a well known member of the House of Commons who had formerly supported the revolt of the American colonies against the British crown. However, Burke argued in his book that a hereditary monarchy and an aristocratic class was needed and France's revolution would end badly (22). Burke's treatise immediately offended the Johnson Circle. Mary Wollstonecraft quickly wrote A vindication of the Rights of Man, which was published anonymously by Johnson in December of 1790. She later published it with her name on it (23). Along with Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine and William Godwin responded with their own books. Thomas Paine published his Rights of Men in 1791 and William Godwin published his Political Justice in 1793. This debate was called the Revolution Controversy, a British debate over the French Revolution that lasted from 1789 to 1795. This was basically a pamphlet war that started with Edmund Burke's publication (24).
            Then Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord presented his Rapport sur L'instruction publique to the National Assembly in France. His recommendation for a national system of education was to educate women but only to a domestic level. Wollstonecraft dedicated her next book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to Talleyrand. She was delighted that Talleyrand thought of women rights but wanted to advance it to a higher level (25).

III.2. Main Points of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
            It was very rare for a woman to take part in such a big controversy. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her most famous book that affirmed her place in feminist history, argued that all human beings are spiritually equal and therefore women should be given the same educational opportunities as men.
            Mary Wollstonecraft believed that women should be educated rationally in order to give them the opportunity to contribute to society. In the eighteenth century, many believed that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. They thought that women were susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly However, Mary Wollstonecraft said that women were not only capable of thinking but also deserve to be educated. Also, Mary Wollstonecraft points out that women are mothers whom are primary educators of young children. For the education for the children, women should be educated.

III.3. Mary Wollstonecraft vs. Rousseau
            Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft share similar points of view. However, they have on great disagreement; Mary Wollstonecraft wanted the ideals that Rousseau portrayed extended to women but Rousseau did not. Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft agree that people should have moral autonomy and that this autonomy should be acquired through education. However, Mary Wollstonecraft attacks Rousseau directly in many way in A Vindication of Rights of Woman.
            Before Mary Wollstonecraft's attacks, it must be understood that the education that Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft are debating about is the education of the middle-class women. Middle-class women were well educated and intelligent but had no clear value in society except for marriage. In the past when there was no middle-class society and the society was divided into the poor and the extremely wealthy, women did have a role in society. Farm wife and mother were essential to the agricultural economy. Since the women had some work to do, they had an identity. Middle-class women were living easier lives than their ancestors, but they lacked a meaningful occupation which conferred upon them a sense of value.
            Since middle-class women's most important goal in life is marriage, Rousseau talks about how women should view marriage. In his book Emile, Rousseau questions himself if people are to have a sense of freedom, then why would a free man bother to stick around the house long enough to raise children? Rousseau replies by saying that the wife is responsible to keep the man at home. She had to maintain in him a sense of his freedom and yet at the same time use all sorts of feminine charms and intelligent deceptions to make sure that he wants to stay home. Therefore, Rousseau thinks that the education of women must only be conducted to please her husband (26).
            This is the part of Emile that offended Mary Wollstonecraft. She directly quotes Rousseau's work in chapter 5 and argues against him. She says that the education to only please their husbands would lead women "to adultery" (27) and society will not be able to see advantage with the abilities of women. She, therefore, calls for a public education in which "boys and girls are educated together" (28). Proper education for women as mothers and citizens will truly benefit the society (29). Mary Wollstonecraft made herself clear that she is against what Rousseau says about education for women.

III.4. Mary Wollstonecraft vs. as a Radical Socialist
            Mary Wollstonecraft is said to be the start of feminism, but her ideas were actually not very radical at that time. Her ideals were just not said; her book stirred up a controversy but was not considered very shocking. It was more that a woman published a book about women rights was what startled the public.
            Wollstonecraft has her philosophical basis on a clich? ideal of the late eighteenth century. That human beings have natural rights and that those states which deny human beings natural rights are going against common sense was actually a common idea. There was nothing particularly alarming for many other authors wrote about the same topic. Her occasional attacks on the aristocracy were also another clich? part of her book. By the 1790s, criticism of the aristocracy was widespread (30.
            Despite these occasional clich? parts of her book, A Vindication of Rights of Woman is still considered revolutionary because it was the first book that stirred the controversy and gave people a chance to think about the rights of women.

III.5. Mary Wollstonecraft Lifestyle Contradicting Her Political Philosophy
            According to Mary Wollstonecraft, men and women should be in equal places when it comes to marriage. She believed that marriage is just an extension of true friendship. So when she platonically fell in love with a married man, Henry Fuseli, she proposed a threesome to the wife. Henry Fuseli was a Swiss painter and writer. Mary proposed a non-sexual marital threesome to his wife, Sophia, but was refused. Mary Wollstonecraft actually thought it was okay since this threesome marriage would just be an extension of their friendship (31). However, later in her life, Mary Wollstonecraft falls deeply in love, ironically going against her own opinion of marriage.
            The love of her life, Gilbert Imlay, was an American explorer. Gilbert Imlay was actually a participant in the American War of Independence. He left the United States in 1786 to base himself in London as a business speculator and trader. That same year he went to Paris as a diplomatic representative of the United States, where he met Mary Wollstonecraft (32). They became lovers. In Paris Gilbert Imlay would sell alum and soap with Mary Wollstonecraft on his side. Although Mary Wollstonecraft pictured herself as Imlay's wife, he did not intend to marry her. During this summer she and Imlay became lovers, and, though they did not marry, she was registered as his wife at the American embassy in September. Mary soon was pregnant with the daughter who was born the next year and was named Fanny Imlay. For their mutual benefit as foreigners, the two moved to Le Havre, where Imlay succeeded in business by running the British blockade. The next year he was back in London, and while Mary and their daughter went to Sweden where she served as agent for his business interests, he blithely contracted another affair (33).
            This is when Mary Wollstonecraft contradicts her own words. Finding out that Gilbert Imlay was constantly having affairs, Mary Wollstonecraft was devastated. She responded with a suicidal attempt by ingesting Laudanum, an opium derivative and painkiller of that time, in May of 1795 (34). When she failed, she gave Gilbert Imlay another chance. However, after she came back from Sweden, she found Imlay living with another woman. Distraught, she walked to a bridge over the Thames River, where she tried to commit suicide once again by jumping into the river. However, she was saved by a fisherman. By trying to commit suicide twice, obviously sensibility and emotion took over Mary Wollstonecraft. According to her, sexual passion does not belong as a major priority and love will not last. For a woman who believes that love does not last, suicide was quite a radical decision. After writing in her book that women were just as rational as men, these incidents were disgrace for Mary Wollstonecraft's career.
            There is another ironic part of Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Mary Wollstonecraft talks about the equality of women in education but she never says that women and men are equal in every aspect. Therefore she only states that men and women are equal in virtue, so they are equal in front of God. She is considered the start of feminism, but she did not state that women are equal to men.

IV. Life with William Godwin
            William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft first met when Mary lived in Newington Green town. However, their deep friendship started when Mary Wollstonecraft ended her relationship with Imlay and got involved with Joseph Johnson again. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft started to gradually accumulate their friendship. Soon, they were in a serious relationship. As soon as Mary Wollstonecraft got pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. After their marriage on March 1797, they moved to two adjoining houses, known as the Polygon. In this house, they both could retain their independence. However, their marriage was short because after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary, she got infected and died. After her death Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798).

V Conclusion
            Despite the obvious title of her famous book, Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas are not that obvious in modern-people's eyes. She was a feminist, but not in the sense of the modern-day feminist. Sometimes even contradicting her own words, it is hard to say that Mary Wollstonecraft was fighting for the equality of women. Still, there is no doubt that she started the controversy about women rights.
            There is still an on going debate on Mary Wollstonecraft's legacy. Some people like the idea that she is the mother of feminism, but some think that she was not revolutionary enough to be called the mother of feminism. Some even say that her best legacy was her daughter, Mary, who grows to write the novel Frankenstein.
            Nonetheless, people should acknowledge that because Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this book, the controversy over women rights could start. Without her, equality among all human beings might have been delayed.


(1)      Feminism, from Probe Ministries
(2)      Article : Feminism : History, from Infoplease
(3)      Article : Gentleman Farmer, from The Phrase Finder
(4)      Mary Wollstonecraft, from Spartacus Educational
(5)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft, from About.Com
(6)      Article : The Monsters, from Washington Post
(7)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft, from Enotes
(8)      Article : "Mary Wollstonecraft", from
(9)      Wollstonecraft Time Lines, from Oregon State
(10)      Jill Kitson : Mary Wollstonecraft : The New Genus
(11)      Article : The Monsters, form Washington Post
(12)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, from Classic Encyclopedia
(13)      Article : The Monsters, from Washington Post
(14)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft, from
(15)      Mary Wollstonecraft, from Enotes
(16)      Jacobs 2003 chapter II : Her Own Woman
(17)      ibid.
(18)      Article : Unitarian Church, from Wikipedia
(19)      Jacobs 2003 chapter II : Her Own Woman
(20)      Wardle 1947
(21)      Jacobs 2003 chapter II : Her Own Woman
(22)      Article : Edmund Burke, from The History Guide
(23)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft, from
(24)      Article : Revolution Controversy, from Wikipedia
(25)      Article : A Vindication of Rights of Woman, from Wikipedia
(26)      Rousseau : Emile
(27)      Wollstonecraft (1792) 1992 p.84
(28)      ibid. p.165
(29)      Miall, Summary
(30)      Johnston, Lecture
(31)      Lienhard, Fuseli's Nightmare
(32)      Gilbert Imlay, from KNARF
(33)      Merriam, Compelling Letters
(34)      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft : Became Single Parent, from


Note : websites quoted below were visited in March 2008.
1.      Article : "A Vindication of Rights of Woman", from Wikipedia. .
2.      Article : "Mary Wollstonecraft : Became Single Parent". from .
3.      "Feminism", from Probe Ministries. .
4.      Article : "Mary Wollstonercraft", from, .
5.      "Edmund Burke" from The History Guide. .
6.      John E. Lienhard : "Fuseli's Nightmare", posted by Engines of Our Ingenuity. .
7.      Article : "Gentleman Farmer", from : The Phrase Finder. .
8.      "Gilbert Imlay." from KNARF Project, at UPenn English Dept., .
9.      Article : "Feminism : History", from : Infoplease. .
10.      Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman. Simon & Schuster, 2003. . several chapters posted by NY Times
11.      Jill Kitson, "Mary Wollstonecraft : the New Genus." from Radio National; : Book Talk. .
12.      "Mary Wollstonecraft." from : About.Com. .
13.      "Mary Wollstonecraft" from : Enotes. .
14.      Article : "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin", from : Classic Encyclopedia (= Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 edition). .
15.      Ian Johnston, Lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, posted by MALA. .
16.      "Mary Wollstonecraft", from : Spartacus Educational. .
17.      David S. Miall, Summary : Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, .
18.      Article : "Revolution Controversy", from : Wikipedia. .
19.      Jean Jacque Rousseau : Emile, English Edition, posted by Institute for Learning Technologies, translated by Barbara Foxley (1911). .
20.      Katie Merriam, The Compelling Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay. .
21.      Review of Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler "The Monsters. Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein", from : Washington Post.
22.      Article : "Unitarian Church", from Wikipedia. .
23.      Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft, Analytical Reviewer. Vol. 62. PMLA, 1947. .
24.      Wexler, Alice, Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft. Vol. 7. Feminist Studies, 1981. .
25.      Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London : Penguin Classics, (1792) 1992.
26.      Wollstonecraft Time Line, from Great Voyages : the History of Western Philosophy 1492-1776, Philosophy 302, Winter 1997, Oregon State University, .

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