Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She is often referred to as being the ‘mother of feminism’, as she wrote one of the founding western feminist texts, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The pamphlet demands that women reject the oppressive conventions of society based on traditional ideals of femininity and beauty, and argues that women are not naturally inferior to men but appear to be only because they lack educational opportunities. She states that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
I do not wish them [women]to have power over men; but over themselves.
The seeds of Wollstonecraft’s feminism were sown at a young age, with various experiences helping to shape her beliefs. As a young girl, Wollstonecraft often slept in front of her mother’s door to protect her from her drunk, violent father. She felt outraged by the fact that her brother spent more time at school than she did, and questioned why he would inherit more than her. At the age of 25, she set up a school for girls with her sister, an action inspired by her aim to educate women in order to keep them aware of the pitfalls and prejudices of the patriarchy. She quickly became acquainted with key thinkers of the time, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, with whom she engaged in many academic debates. Wollstonecraft then began publishing her writings later on in life.
Mary Wollstonecraft played a vital role in the first wave of feminism, which focused on legal rights and certain legislation (primarily gaining the vote) that could help to advance the lives of many women – a battle which emerged under the revolutionary suffragette movement. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a suffragist and later president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, wrote the introduction to the centenary edition (i.e. 1892) of the Rights of Woman, which cleansed the memory of Wollstonecraft and claimed her as the fore-mother of the struggle for the vote.
Wollstonecraft died 10 days after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Shelley, who herself left her mark on history for her infamous Gothic novel Frankenstein. I feel that she is such an inspiration, as even over 100 years after its publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was, and still is, helping to propel the women’s movement, showing how much of an effect Mary Wollstonecraft had on ‘herstory’.