On this day in 1759, the great writer Mary Wollstonecraft was born. She is probably best remembered today as one of the first and greatest feminist philosophers, but I think that is rather too small a box to cram her into. But there is no doubt that her ideas were far ahead of her time. She was even far ahead of the thinking of many of the suffragettes who came along a hundred years later. And among conservatives, I still commonly hear ideas that would offend Wollstonecraft’s thinking over two centuries ago.
I like to think of her as the female Thomas Paine. And indeed, they were friends. In fact, they were both in France together where they faced the guillotine. Paine was jailed for some time, but it isn’t clear whether or not Wollstonecraft was. She was the first to publish a response to Edmund Burke’s apologia for hereditary rule, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her book was, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. And it contains the kind of fiery rhetoric I associate with Paine. For example, she suggests that Burke would have argued in favor of crucifying Jesus. The sad thing is that I’m sure she’s right.
She followed that book two years later with what is probably her masterpiece, even though it was written hurriedly, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is mostly an argument for the proper education of women. It was generally thought at that time—even by intellectuals—that women needn’t more than a basic education. Rights of Woman is one of the founding documents of modern feminism.
Mary Wollstonecraft died young at the age of 38. It was ten days after the birth of her second daughter who would go on to be Mary Shelley, perhaps the greatest Romantic writer. Her death was due to blood poisoning from a broken placenta. It’s extremely sad and a great tragedy for our culture, but there is something satisfying in the author of Frankenstein killing her creator.
There is much more to say about Wollstonecraft. She wrote a great deal and had a very colorful life. The Wikipedia page on her is rather good, or you could read, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. Or you could read her work, much of it is available at Project Gutenberg. She also wrote narrative fiction. She’s well worth checking out.
Happy birthday Mary Wollstonecraft!