Multicultural Writers from Antiquity to 1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Alba Amoia; Bettina L.Knapp | Go to book overview
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MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (GODWIN)

(1759-1797)

Patricia Owen


BIOGRAPHY

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of seven children of an incompetent businessman and “gentleman farmer” and his Irish wife. Growing up in a household often moving in search of prosperity, she became painfully aware of her father's periodical wife battering and of the privileged status of her elder brother; she later supported a sister who had fled from her husband. Denied a systematic education, she read widely, beyond the narrow range expected of women. At nineteen she left home to work as a paid “lady companion”; later she went to live with the family of her close friend, Fanny Blood. Together with Wollstone-craft's sisters, they attempted to support themselves by running a school in London. Fanny Blood married and went with her husband to Lisbon; in 1785

Wollstonecraft went there to help her friend with her first childbirth, only to find her dying. The school failed, and employment as a governess to an aristocratic family in Ireland ended abruptly after their return to England. Wollstonecraft had formed friendships within dissenting and radical circles in London; she now became a professional writer for the publisher Joseph Johnson in return for board and lodging. Her views of the oppressive nature of marriage and the damage done by the miseducation of women were expressed in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Mary: A Fiction (1788) with strong personal overtones. For Johnson she translated from French, German, and Dutch, reviewed, and acted as his assistant editor. He published her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a point-by-point reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. In 1792 appeared A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the work that made her the honored foremother of feminism, but to many of her own time a “hyena in petticoats.” It was written in the hope of persuading Talleyrand to give girls, like boys, a scientific and factual curriculum in the free, secular education system proposed by the National Assembly.

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