Mary Wollstonecraft lived a rather short life, she died at the age of 38. She was a woman who dared to live based on her convictions and beliefs, and her story teaches important life lessons. She was born and lived at a time when women were not regarded as equal with men. With limited formal education, she boldly forged a path for herself and many to come after her.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born the second of seven children on April 27, 1759, in Spitalfields, London. Her childhood was not an ideal one. She grew up with a father that was a violent drunk who gradually squandered the family’s finances on speculative projects. Her father would beat his wife in drunken rages and Mary would lie outside the door of her mother’s bedroom in an attempt to protect her.
Mary believed that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. This is perhaps one of the reasons she connected with her friend Jane Arden. Jane and Mary would read books together and they also attended lectures presented by Arden’s father. Mary greatly valued her friendship with Jane, and thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household.
Another friendship that was even more important to Mary, was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, who she said opened up her mind. Fanny was introduced to Mary by a couple – the Clares – that became parental figures to her.
Mary Wollstonecraft decided to leave home to venture out on her own in 1778 at the age of 19. She worked as a lady’s companion to a widow, Sarah Dawson until 1780, when she returned home to care for her dying mother. After her mother’s death, Mary moved in with Fanny Blood’s family. Mary left the Blood’s in 1783, in order to attend to her sister Eliza and her newly born daughter. In January 1784, Mary encouraged her sister to leave her unhappy marriage. The two sisters went into hiding, leaving Eliza’s daughter behind.
Later in 1784, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza, Fanny, and Mary’s other sister Everina set up a school in Newington Green. During this time, Mary experienced much intellectual growth and her resentment towards her family broadened into addressing a general social injustice.
In 1785, Mary’s best friend Fanny Blood moved to Portugal with her husband. Her already precarious health further deteriorated and Mary left the school to care for her. Fanny died in 1786, and a devastated Mary returned to England, only to find her school in dire financial state. The school closed down, and Mary took up a job as a governess where she took time to mourn and recover.
Mary was dismissed as a governess in 1787 and became determined to take up a literary career. She went on to become a translator and an adviser to Joseph Johnson, who was a noted publisher. Some of her translated works include, Jacques Necker’s Of the Importance of Religious Opinions (1788) from French into English, Rev. C. G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children; with an Introductory Address to Parents (1790) from German, and Madame de Cambon’s Young Grandison (1790) from Dutch.
Within four years, she published her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In the book, she addressed the prevailing notion of the time that women were simply helpless adornments of a household. She advocated for educational reform, that would give women access to the same educational opportunities as men.
She experienced periods of failed relationships, depression and suicide attempts. Mary married William Godwin in March 1797. On August 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary Godwin (best known as Mary Shelley an accomplished writer and the author of Frankenstein). She died 11 days after on September 10, 1797, due to infections from a broken placenta during the birth.
4 Life Lessons From Her Story
1. No one is perfect: Mary made her fair shares of mistakes and just like each and every one of us, was sometimes given to prejudice, depression and bitterness. In spite of her imperfections, and some less than ideal life decisions, she was still able to live her truth, go for what she believed in and leave her mark in the world. This is one of the most important life lessons I had to learn, that not only is it impossible, you do not need to be perfect to make a difference.
2. You need to be bold: The world does not respond to timidity. You have to define your truth and be willing to live by it even if the culture around you dictates otherwise. Mary was bold enough to stand in her truth, and defy the odds stacked against her by her family, her society and the fact that she was born as a female at a time when very little was expected from her gender.
3. Find and stay in an environment that allows you to thrive: Right from an early age, she seemed to pick her friends based on exposure to intellectual environments and mindsets. She did not limit herself to the haphazard formal education she received, but rather she sought knowledge, and increased her intellectual capacity, such that she was able to not only write amazing works of literature but was also able to review and translate the works of other notable authors.
4. Be confident in your abilities: Although she was uneducated, and from a disadvantaged background, she lived her life with confidence in her instincts and abilities. She embraced her uniqueness and was comfortable thinking different than those around her. This is one of the important life lessons to imbibe because if you do not believe in yourself, you cannot succeed even if the whole world believes in you.
Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She was a radical and bold woman, who sought to bridge the gap between the present societal norm, and what she considered the ideal relationship between both genders. She advocated for equality in order for women to able to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and their children but also for their husbands and society at large.