Better Know a Crazy Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft


A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have no reason, no grounds to be standing up for your rights. They might say you are crazy. You might start to feel crazy, even, at your darkest moments, but don’t despair. There have been people speaking their mind, living their “crazy” values and being called unstable way further back in history than you might think at first.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a hardcore feminist before feminists with even the most mildly muscle-toned cores would be accepted by society to any degree. Wollstonecraft was born in England in 1759 and died in 1797, when she was only 38. Yes, an 18th century feminist. It’s a rough gig, by all accounts.

Wollstonecraft was a prolific writer who published many pieces on civil rights, especially as they pertain to women. Her most famous work,  is required reading in just about any course on feminist literature, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It featured such audacious and outlandish arguments such as “Hey guys, women and men are equal beings. We should really make some changes in the social order to reflect that.” Wollstonecraft was really taking a long shot there, especially with that last part. As intelligent and talented a writer she was, it would take a long time before people would even believe the first part of her claim, that women are equal to men. Her audience was getting revved up on the cries of freedom and liberty that started the French and American Revolutions, but no one was ready to get that crazy.

Wollstonecraft lived a dramatic, somewhat tragic life. She started her career of sticking up for her sex at a young age, when she would attempt to protect her sisters and mother from her abusive father who drained the family finances until Wollstonecraft and her sisters had little to nothing to inherit when they came of age, leaving young Mary and the rest of her family  with a difficult future.

When she grew older, Wollstonecraft tried to open a school with her close, well-off friend Fanny Blood. When Fanny tragically died, she had to close the school and take up work as a governess while continuing her own writing. Much of her work concerned getting girls better educations and doing away with the frustratingly limited career options poor women had in her time. She wrote about the hardships she lived, meaning her work was as passionate and filled with experience as it was rhetorically exacting.

After her time as a governess, she went to France during the Revolution, before it got all bloody and guillotine-y. She fell in love with and had an affair with an American explorer, Gilbert Imlay. She became pregnant with his child, but he left her before the kid was even born. Yeah, classy guy. Wollstonecraft did not do too well trying to live as a single, unmarried new mother in the middle of an increasingly blood thirsty French Revolution for some reason. She got so desperate she attempted suicide, but was prevented. She went back to England eventually, and pretended she was married to the jerk explorer guy so her kid, Fanny, (after her friend,) wouldn’t be considered “illegitimate.”

Of course, when she hit it off with and eventually married radical thinker and early anarchist William Godwin, people realized that she was never married before and they dropped out of the couple’s social circle really fast. Still, the two were a power couple, each radical mind fueling the ideas of the other, and the match was made in heaven.

Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft was not destined to enjoy that relationship for too long. She died giving birth to their first child, a daughter they named Mary, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. (Yeah, they gave her both their names. Do I need to remind you that this was in 1797?!) This Mary would go on to achieve writing fame in her own right. In fact,  while Mary Wollstonecraft is not that well known beyond feminist theory circles today, just about anyone will know her daughter. Technically, they know this Mary by her married name, Mary Shelley. Yes, that Mary Shelley.

So living the life of a radical feminist in 18th century Europe can be hard, but Wollstonecraft proved that it’s a life that can be very fruitfully lived. You might be going through some hard times of your own right now, or in the near future. You might be wondering if you have what it takes to stand for what you believe in. Just remember, you’re not alone. The ghosts of a thousand “crazy” idealists that lived in a time when their ideas fell on mostly deaf ears are behind you, Mary Wollstonecraft among them.