Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Mary Wollstonecraft, Writer & Advocate for Gender Equality

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759, in Spitalfields, London. She was the second of seven children, though only her brother Edward received a formal education. Her father mismanaged his inheritance from Mary’s paternal grandfather and led the family into social and financial decline. Therefore, Mary received an informal and unstructured education, which was common for women, whose education was not prioritized in this era.

In 1778, she was hired as a companion to a Mrs. Dawson in Bath, England, though she returned home in 1781 to care for her ill mother until she died in early 1782. The following year, she moved in with her married sister Eliza and her newborn daughter, though for unexplained reasons in January 1784 they fled and went into hiding. In hiding at age 24, they opened a small girls' school in Newington Green, though it did not last long. These experiences significantly influenced her later works.

In 1785, she sailed to Lisbon, Portugal, to visit her pregnant best friend, Fanny Blood. On the ship, she met a man suffering from tuberculosis, also known as consumption, whom she nursed for the duration of the journey. This experience inspired her first novel, “Mary, a Fiction,” published later in 1788. This work expressed highly negative opinions on Portuguese life and society as she had very unpleasant experiences in Lisbon. Soon after the delivery of Fanny’s baby, both she and her daughter tragically died. Mary soon moved over to Ireland to be a governess for an aristocratic family, and this inspired her second work — “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.”

The London publishing house Joseph Johnson soon became a major part of her life. She worked as a translator there in 1788, and they later published the majority of her literary works.

In 1792, she published arguably her most famous and influential work: “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” It argued that the education system deliberately coached women to be frivolous and dependent, and she pushed for educational equality. The publication of this work caused considerable controversy, though unfortunately led to no reforms. The same year, she moved to Paris and lived with Captain Gilbert Imlay to observe the French Revolution. In 1794, she gave birth to a daughter (by Imlay) named Fanny after her late friend. After the breakdown of her relationship with Imlay, she attempted suicide twice, though survived.

She soon returned to London and joined an influential radical group. This star-studded group included William Godwin, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Thomas Paine. In 1797, she became pregnant with her second daughter with William Godwin, and they married. This second daughter was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Tragically, Mary died 11 days after the birth of her daughter, but her legacy did not end there. In the 1840s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” made a revival, and was an influence on American women’s suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Fuller. She is considered a trailblazing feminist, and her works were highly influential.

by Daisy O’Connor

References

“Mary Wollstonecraft.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft

“Mary Wollstonecraft.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wollstonecraft/

“Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘Britain’s first feminist.’” BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/mary-wollstonecraft-britains-first-feminist/zkpk382

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Rediscover STEAM sheds light on the stories of underrepresented women throughout history and aims to empower the next generation of female change-makers.

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