Mary Wollstonecraft is held as being the first modern feminist. She was born in 1759 to a gentry farmer and an unloving mother and is said to have began her protests at an early age by protecting her mother from an abusive father and resenting her brother’s favored position. She worked as a governess for a number of years however she chose to make an unconventional career as an editor and a journalist. In 1786 she wrote the Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and in 1790 published A Vindication of the Rights of Man as a response to the goals brought fourth by the French revolution. However Wolstonecraft owes much of her fame to her feminist social study A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In this work Wollstonecraft addressed the legal, economic and educational disabilities of women. Ultimately she argues that the equal rights that are applied to men should be extended to include women. Women had the right to an education and the progress of all society depended on the fact that both sexes must be equally educated. Wollstonecraft explains that women should move away from their old emotional stereotypes and see education as the fundamental access to achieve a place in society.
The Rights of women contained other unconventional beliefs on society’s standards of which Marriage was a constant theme. Marriage gave the husband legal ownership of his wife, her property, and their children. To divorce meant to leave everything behind. By being against Marriage Wollstonecraft was far ahead of her time, for in 18th century England a good marriage was the goal of most women. However for Wollstonecraft independence was essential and the only true freedom could be obtained from remaining unmarried. Marriage under law Wollstonecraft argued was nothing more than ‘legalized prostitution’. These ideas were highlighted in her fictional tale Maria, where the protagonist is imprisoned in a mental hospital at the hands of her abusive husband. Maria reiterates Wollstonecraft’s view on the disabilities that society imposed on women.
Many criticize that Wollstonecraft’s achievements in the Vindication’s of the Rights of Women were widespread in 18th century England. But it is necessary to review the political background of these times. Wollstonecraft was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French and American revolution, and interacted in the intellectual circles that included, Paine, Burke, Rousseau, and Voltaire. It is important to remember that the French Revolution began in 1789, and that for the next 50 years Europe was petrified of a repetition of the upheaval. Revolutionary ideas such as Paine’s and Wollstonecraft’s were seen as dangers to the foundations of society. Many feared that these unconventional thoughts would spread to other nations across Europe.
Wollstonecraft’s works remains as a cornerstone in women’s rights and laid the foundation for modern feminism, which sees education as the access to achieve greater economic, political, and social status.
Wollstonecraft died in 1797 in the childbirth of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin later to become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Though Wollstonecraft did not live to see her ideals in women’s rights come to fruition, we are left with her vision when she states, “I have thrown down the gauntlet, it is time to restore women to their lost dignity and to make them a part of the human species.”