In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Writings on the Novels
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Philosophy Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvana Tomaselli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0306


Best known for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft (b. 1759–d. 1797) was a literary and social critic as well as a moralist, novelist, and philosopher. She is remembered today principally for her penetrating assessment of the condition of women, but she continues to elicit much interest for her contributions to philosophy, especially political philosophy, and literature, including travel literature. While she had a good number of detractors following her death, owing mostly to the publication of details about her private life by her husband, William Godwin (b. 1756–d. 1836), she continued to be and remains an engaging author for feminists and political theorists more generally. One of the reasons for this enduring appeal is that her reflections on the status of the female sex were part of a comprehensive understanding of human relations within a civilization she perceived to be increasingly governed by acquisitiveness. Her first publication dealt with the education of daughters; she went on to write about politics, history, and various aspects of philosophy in different genres that included critical reviews, translations, pamphlets, and fiction. Her influence thus went beyond the substantial contribution to feminism with which she is mostly associated and extended to shaping the art of travel writing as a literary genre and, through her account of her journey through Scandinavia, she had an impact on the Romantic movement. Her critique of slavery and inequality as well as her understanding of the nature of modern commercial society are gradually being integrated into contemporary philosophical debates. Sandrine Bergès of Bilkent University, Ankara, assisted in the editing and revising of the initial version of this article, and Grace Flanagan and Samuel Harrison, University of Cambridge, in the present one.


This section is limited to the most authoritative biographies of Wollstonecraft, or those that are notable in some respect or other. Godwin 2001 (originally published in 1798) was not only the first biography of Wollstonecraft, but also marked the manner in which she came to be thought of for generations to come by drawing attention to her as a sexual being and by identifying her with a particular work, namely, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and thus putting her other political works in its shade. Many, though not all, of the scholarly works discussed in this article reflect some of Godwin’s continued impact on the reception and understanding of Wollstonecraft. Mary Hays was another contemporary of Wollstonecraft and someone who knew her and her circle. Hays 1800, a tribute, is therefore particularly valuable as a voice from within the intellectual sphere Wollstonecraft inhabited. Likewise Jacobs 2001 helps contextualize Wollstonecraft in the literary milieu created by the publisher Joseph Johnson, without whose support and encouragement of Wollstonecraft she would almost certainly be unknown to us. Gary Kelly’s work more generally and his literary biography in particular, Kelly 1992, widens the circle and places Wollstonecraft within the context of the French Revolution, and his work encourages comparisons with that of other political commentators of the period as well as attention to Wollstonecraft as a writer. Understanding Wollstonecraft by placing her within her political and intellectual context is the shared ambition of Lorch 1990 and Moore 1999. Gordon 2005 belongs to the genre that focuses on Wollstonecraft as a human being more so than as a thinker, but the publication of Wardle 1951 heralded the interest in Wollstonecraft in the 20th century and her gradual admission into the canon of established thinkers. This increased interest was given added momentum by the publication of a widely read and much praised biography, Tomalin 1992, while Janet Todd’s renown as an eminent Wollstonecraft scholar and a feminist enabled her to write candidly in Todd 2000 about Wollstonecraft’s character as well as her familial, social, and political context, not only without denigrating her intellectual achievement, but also bringing insight into it, and thereby accomplishing what Godwin might have aimed, but failed, to do. Ayres 2017 provides a broad overview of Wollstonecraft’s major biographies spanning over two hundred years.

  • Ayres, Brenda. The Betwixt and Between: The Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Anthem, 2017.

    In this biographical survey of the major biographies of Wollstonecraft, Ayres provides an overview of the many ways in which authors have framed Wollstonecraft’s life. The work spans sixteen biographies over 217 years, beginning with William Godwin’s Memoir of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1798. To show that no biography is impartial, Ayres traces how the different features of each account result in quite divergent portrayals of Wollstonecraft.

  • Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Edited by Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001

    Originally published in 1798. The unintended consequence of the frank (arguably unnecessarily frank and detailed) account of the private life of Wollstonecraft by her husband did much to undermine her reputation in 19th-century England.

  • Gordon, Lyndall. Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus. London: Little, Brown, 2005.

    The biography is presented as being less critical than previous biographies of Wollstonecraft. It focuses on her familial and emotional life rather than her intellectual preoccupations or the social and political context in which these unfolded.

  • Hays, Mary. “Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft.” In Annual Necrology for 1797–8. Edited by Thomas Bensley, 411–460. London: Thomas Bensley, 1800.

    Authored by a novelist and polemical writer whose works included Appeal to the Men of Great Britain and Victim of Prejudice (1799) and who belonged to the dissenting circles of which Wollstonecraft knew, this obituary is a contemporary tribute to Wollstonecraft.

  • Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

    This biography casts greater light on Wollstonecraft’s publisher, Joseph Johnson, as it draws of letters by him found in the 1990s. It also gives an insight into Wollstonecraft’s relationship with her lover, Gilbert Imlay.

  • Kelly, Gary. Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-22063-2

    This literary biography is thematic and chronological in format; it places Wollstonecraft within a growing number of professional writers in the period of the French Revolution and provides a study of her writing styles.

  • Lorch, Jennifer. Mary Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Radical Feminist. New York: Berg, 1990.

    Divided into two parts, the first biographical and the second tracing the development of Wollstonecraft’s feminism, this work takes Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman rather than A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as its focus in identifying it as Wollstonecraft’s most important contribution to feminism. It assesses her feminism and her continued relevance.

  • Moore, Jane. Mary Wollstonecraft. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1999.

    This work by a Wollstonecraft scholar aims to show the diversity of Wollstonecraft’s writings within an account of her life and the contexts in which she wrote.

  • Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000.

    This most comprehensive intellectual biography with illustrations, including portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Joseph Johnson (Wollstonecraft’s publisher and supporter), and illustrations by William Blake to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories (2d ed., 1791), is beautifully written by one of the leading Wollstonecraft scholars.

  • Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Rev. ed. London: Penguin, 1992.

    Containing twenty-three illustrations, including from the author’s own collection, this biography won the Whitbread First Book Prize and was first published in 1974. It was reissued to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Well written and sympathetic to both Wollstonecraft and the radical milieu in which she lived in her adulthood, it continues to be an important and accessible introduction to the 18th-century author and her world.

  • Verhoeven, Wil. Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.

    This is a biography of Wollstonecraft’s unfaithful lover and father of her daughter, Fanny. Imlay was an American citizen, novelist, and entrepreneur, and Wollstonecraft passed as his wife as she sought to evade the Reign of Terror during her sojourn in France.

  • Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1951.

    This critical biography remains an important marker in the history of the reception of Wollstonecraft as it was the first scholarly approach to the life and thought of the author, reflecting the renewed interest in her in the second half of the 20th century.

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