From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27 1759 – September 10 1797) was a British writer, philosopher and feminist. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but only appear to be because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
Among the general public and specifically among feminists, Wollstonecraft's life has received much more attention than her writing because of her unconventional, and often tumultuous, personal relationships. After two complicated and heart-rending affairs with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement; they had one daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft died at the age of thirty-eight due to complications from childbirth, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts.
Today Wollstonecraft is considered to be one of the foundational feminist philosophers. Her early advocacy for women's equality and her critiques of conventional femininity presaged the later claims of the feminist movement. Feminist scholars and activists have often cited both her philosophical ideas and her personal life as important influences on their work.
Both of Wollstonecraft's novels criticize what she viewed as the patriarchal institution of marriage and its deleterious effects on women. In her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), the eponymous heroine is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons; she fulfils her desire for love and affection outside of marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man. Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), an unfinished novel published posthumously and often considered Wollstonecraft's most radical feminist work, revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband; like Mary, Maria also finds fulfilment outside of marriage, in an affair with a fellow inmate and a friendship with one of her keepers. Neither of Wollstonecraft's novels depict successful marriages, although she posits such relationships in the Rights of Woman. At the end of Mary, the heroine believes she is going "to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage," presumably a positive state of affairs.
Both of Wollstonecraft's novels also critique the discourse of sensibility, a moral philosophy and aesthetic that had become popular at the end of the eighteenth century. Mary is itself a novel of sensibility and Wollstonecraft attempts to use the tropes of that genre to undermine sentimentalism itself, a philosophy she believed was damaging to women because it encouraged them to rely overmuch on their emotions. In The Wrongs of Woman the heroine's indulgence on romantic fantasies fostered by novels themselves is depicted as particularly detrimental.
Female friendships are central to both of Wollstonecraft's novels, but it is the friendship between Maria and Jemima, the servant charged with watching over her in the insane asylum, that is the most historically significant. This friendship, based on a sympathetic bond of motherhood, between an upper-class woman and a lower-class woman is one of the first moments in the history of feminist literature that hints at a cross-class argument, that is, that women of different economic positions have the same interests because they are women.