Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

12 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

  1. Roberta says:

    You are right to recognise Wollstonecraft not just as a pioneer feminist and civil rights campaigner, but as an educationalist: teacher, school owner, governess, and pedagogical writer. She was, I believe, the first to call for a national education system in which boys and girls, rich and poor, would share the same classrooms for their most formative years.

    Your readers may be interested in my efforts to bring her more attention, an online shrine or compilation I call A Vindication of the Rights of Mary:

    Roberta Wedge

  2. Jol Miskin says:

    You pose a question the answer to which is surely not enough.

  3. gogwit says:

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    Excellent sketch. Good choice and worthy of inclusion.

  4. teresa dufficy says:

    A remarkable, inspiring and brilliant woman who was ahead of her time. I always thought it was ironic though that the two things that held women back at the time (and sadly often still do) impacted on her life so much. She died due to complications related to childbirth – let’s face it this is only applicable to women. But also she tried to commit suicide over a doomed romance with a man. Allegedly it was the air pocket which gathered underneath her voluminous skirts which kept her afloat in the Serpentine long enough to be saved!!! Love and motherhood made an even bigger impact on the first modern day feminist than a lot of women’s lives today. Thanks for writing about her!

  5. Lynne Smith says:

    I have always been in awe of MW and choose her as my “inspiration” for an event to mark International Womens’ Day in Folkestone where she stood tall amongst the likes of Germaine Greer,Mo Mowlem, Bobbie Gentry and Kylie! The younger participants were wowed by her achievements and hopefully will pursue her life in more detail. On a lighter note- I would relish being described as a “hyena in petticoats”-a vivid picture of dogged tenacity and ability. So pleased to have MW in print-thank you all.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks Lynne. Not entirely surprised to learn that you’ve been encouraging younger women to learn about Mary Wollstonecraft – a spirited woman indeed!

  6. Rosemary Mayes says:

    If you haven’t already , do read Claire Tomalin’s MW biography. I re-read it recently , and like Theresa above, I was struck once again by her achievements given the impact of love and motherhood on her life.

  7. Ann Walker says:

    An excellent recommendation Rosemary. Many thanks for sharing the link.

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