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"Reviled in her day as a 'hyena in petticoats', Mary Wollstonecraft is now recognized as one of the mothers of British and American feminism. In her most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792 in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft applies radical principles of liberty and equality to sexual politics. Rights of Woman is a devastating critique of the 'false system of education' which she argues forced the middle-class women of her time to live within a stifling ideal of femininity: 'Taught from infancy that beauty is women's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage seeks only to adore its prison'. Instead, Wollenstonecraft dares to address women as 'rational creatures', and she urges them to aspire to a wider human ideal which combines feeling with reason and the right to independence.
"Wollstonecraft's difficult, brave and tragically short life was itself a continual quest for financial,
intellectual and sexual independence. Determined to make her own living, she initially endured the
orthodox female occupations of paid companion and governess, but by the time she published
Rights of Woman, she had established herself in radical London circles as a professional writer. In
all her writing, Wollstonecraft struggled to break conventional forms, and to communicate her
ideas to different audiences. Her most experimental works are A Short Residence in Sweden and
her unfinished Maria. In 1795, accompanied only by her two-year-old daughter and a maid,
Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on behalf of her unfaithful lover Gilbert Imlay. A Short
Residence is the story of that journey. Based on a series of personal letters, it defies any simple
categorization as travel writing, political commentary or love story. Maria, or The Wrongs of
Woman is Wollstonecraft's sequel to Rights of Woman. In it, she uses the forms of popular fiction
to paint a disturbing portrait of a society which abuses and excludes women of all classes.
Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever eight days after the birth of her second daughter, the future
Mary Shelley. In 1798 Wollstonecraft's husband, the political philosopher William Godwin,
published his agonizing Memoirs of the Author of 'The Rights of Woman'. Wollstonecraft's
political opponents seized gleefully on the details of her unorthodox personal life, and condemned
her as an 'unsex'd female'. But, as historians are now rediscovering, her work survived as an
example and a challenge to the nineteenth-century women's movement, and two hundred years
later she remains an inspiring figure whose writings are vital to our understanding of the origins of
Source: Penguin Web Site (http://www.futurenet.co.uk/Penguin/Academic/classics96/britclassicsauthor.html) Accessed 4 April 1997.
The University of Toronto English Library is a project of the Department of English and the Faculty of Arts and Science, funded by the Provost's Electronic Courseware Fund. UTEL was created by Ian Lancashire, Christopher Douglas, and Dennis G. Jerz. We wish to thank the University of Toronto Information Commons, and the members of the Centre for Academic Technology, especially John Bradley, Ian Graham, and Allen Forsyth. See individual Works pages for other credits.
The author portrait is by John Opie. (Source: Claire Tomalin. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974. Following page 212. PR 5841 W8Z84 1976b.)
Permission is hereby given to copy the HTML version of poems, plays and novels in the University of Toronto English Library for non-commercial educational uses; that is, for teaching, research, and study, as long as copyright information is not removed from any University of Toronto English Library On-line file and as long as no charge is made for use of the collection.