Eighteenth century writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, overcame a difficult childhood to become a philosopher and Women’s Rights Activist. Born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, she was the second of seven children. While her family initially enjoyed a comfortable living, they soon fell on hard times. There financial situation became so dire that Mary was eventually forced to relinquish an inheritance she would have received later in life so that her family could subsist. Wollstonecraft often slept outside her parent’s bedroom door to protect her mother from the violently drunken rages of her alcoholic father. Because her education was limited, Mary taught herself by frequently visiting the home of a friend with an extensive library.
Mary was infamous for her uncommon friendships. With Jane Arden, she read books and attended lectures. With Fanny Blood, she was introduced to Sarah Dawson eventually becoming her lady’s maid. An avid reader and prolific writer, she became famous for her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792, it argued that women are not inferior to men and would fare better in the world if they were afforded the same opportunities for education and employment.
She championed the rights of women to be treated as equals. Mary Wollstonecraft openly challenged the conventions and social norms of her day, saying, “Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”
Her mission in life was to help women understand that they were more than beautiful faces. She fought to see women receive education on the same level as men and to see them take leadership roles in their society. In her book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, she lamented the limited career choices for women in need of employment. Working as a governess – one of very few respectable jobs available to women – she left that line of employment after only one year to become a writer, a radical move given that few men and even fewer women earned a living wage as a writer.
After two scandalous affairs, one of which produced her first daughter, Mary married philosopher William Godwin. Their marriage also produced a daughter. Wollstonecraft died young, at only 38 years old shortly after the birth of her second daughter. Her short life, replete with scintillating love affairs and scandalous societal challenges left its mark. While she lived, Wollstonecraft advocated for women to live as truly free citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of their male counterparts.
Today women have a voice in politics, science, medicine, education, and technology – all fields formerly dominated by men. With the rise of feminism and the women’s movement, this brave woman is once again in the spotlight. If this notable woman could buck the social strata to live life on her own terms in the eighteenth century, women in the twenty-first century can certainly do the same. We can pave the road for the generation of girls following in our footsteps. Women today have the education, skills, and technological advances to guide a new generation of girls to living authentic lives of their own choosing.