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

  • Introduction
  • Critical Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Letters
  • Editions
  • Formative Influences
  • The Philosophical Tradition
  • Enlightenment and Romanticism
  • Sensibility
  • Wollstonecraft and 18th-Century Feminism
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • The 1790s and the Revolution Controversy
  • Other Issues of Race, Slavery, Motherhood, Nation
  • Death and the Struggle Over Reputation
  • Legacy in the 19th and 20th Centuries

British and Irish Literature Mary Wollstonecraft
Catherine Packham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0071


The importance of Mary Wollstonecraft (b. 1759–d. 1797) as a feminist thinker, philosopher, and social and cultural critic, has long been recognized. Her work as a novelist, polemicist, reviewer, historian, travel writer, and correspondent attracts attention across many disciplinary fields, and numerous editions of her many works exist. Primarily remembered as the writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the author of much more, her work draws on a range of Enlightenment traditions of thought on women, society, politics, and culture; it also provides a bridge from that era to the modern feminism of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Vast amounts of scholarship, especially that stimulated by the second-wave feminism of the second half of the 20th century, address Wollstonecraft’s thinking on Gender and Sexuality; this includes historical contextualizations of her ideas, explanations of their origins and influence, and more theoretical and philosophical analyses. From the 1970s onward, feminist literary scholarship has addressed both her fictional writings and her political works; more recently, her history of the early years of the French Revolution and her travel writing have also received attention. Within historical studies, Wollstonecraft is increasingly being viewed as a serious thinker on a range of topics, as well as an important voice in the political debates of the 1790s. Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life, whose narrative is still compelling today, has attracted numerous biographies; her many letters are equally fascinating. Finally, Wollstonecraft’s shockingly early death during childbirth, the ensuing Struggle Over Her Reputation, and her Legacy in the 19th and 20th Centuries, all form important subfields in Wollstonecraft studies.

Critical Overviews

This section lists a number of important works on Wollstonecraft. Most give overviews of her career as a whole; some are more limited in that they address only one or more of her major works. But, in offering original and distinctive arguments, they have become landmarks in the field, providing essential points of reference for other studies. They also bring different disciplinary perspectives to Wollstonecraft, from literary criticism to theoretically informed feminism, political science, and cultural history. Kelly 1992 is an important critical work that consolidates Kelly’s earlier work on Wollstonecraft and did much to secure Wollstonecraft as a figure of continuing importance to late-20th-century feminism and literary scholarship. The terms by which it reads Wollstonecraft’s texts as works of revolutionary feminism still inform much criticism in the 21st century. Poovey 1984, of equal importance, reads Wollstonecraft in the context of ideologies of femininity, and her (not always successful) negotiation of such codes in her work. Like Kaplan 1986, she sees Wollstonecraft as never fully escaping a misogynistic construction of female sexuality inherited from Rousseau. Johnson 1995 offers a more fully historicized approach to these concerns, reading Wollstonecraft in the context of debates over sex and gender in the 1790s. For more on this context, see Binhammer 1996 and Wahrman 1998 (both cited under Gender and Sexuality). Myers 1982 offered an influential reading of Wollstonecraft’s second Vindication, which many critics have built upon in subsequent years. Taylor 2003 is both a critical study and an intellectual biography: a rigorous historical account of the origins, formation, and nature of Wollstonecraft’s thought. Finally Shapiro 1992 offers a political theorist’s account of Wollstonecraft’s political thought, especially focusing on her negotiation of Rousseau’s social theory.

  • Johnson, Claudia. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226401799.001.0001

    Reads Wollstonecraft in the context of debates over gender identity at the end of the 18th century. Johnson argues that Wollstonecraft presses for women’s access to male reason and self-determination, rather than attempting to transcend sexual difference to appeal to women’s common humanity.

  • Kaplan, Cora. “Wild Nights: Pleasure /Sexuality/Feminism.” In Sea Changes: Essays in Culture and Feminism. By Cora Kaplan, 31–56. London: Verso, 1986.

    Influential essay that critiques Wollstonecraft’s failure to address female sexuality and pleasure into her politics. Argues that Wollstonecraft thus replicates a Rousseauvian misogynistic attitude to female sexuality. See Shapiro 1992 for a counter-argument.

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

    Book-length study of Wollstonecraft’s life and works, approaching her as a revolutionary feminist who used male and female genres to engage in gender, class, and cultural revolution. Offers influential readings of Wollstonecraft’s works as revolutionary writing, and accounts for the growth of her ideas in the context of her time.

  • Myers, Mitzi. “Reform or Ruin: ‘A Revolution in Female Manners.’” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 11 (1982): 199–216.

    Reads Wollstonecraft’s second Vindication as primarily concerned with a reformation of women’s domestic roles. Argues that, like her contemporary Hannah More, Wollstonecraft attacks a female middle class corrupted by commercial society and fashionable luxury, to whom a discourse of moral reform and an argument about female potential should be addressed.

  • Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984.

    Reads Wollstonecraft against the late-18th-century ideology of “proper” femininity: modest, self-effacing, relegated to the domestic. Considers how Wollstonecraft grapples with such notions in the style and strategies of her work, and suggests she never fully escapes an ideology she both clearly understands and exhaustively attacks.

  • Shapiro, Virginia. A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    Political scientist’s account of Wollstonecraft that defends her from accusations of bourgeois individualism by arguing that she countered Rousseau’s autonomous male political subject with an emphasis on social collectivity and a resistance of the public/private binary.

  • Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Important study giving detailed attention to Wollstonecraft’s intellectual formation in Rousseau, dissenting thought, but most importantly in religion. Argues that secularizing Wollstonecraft’s thought would be to lose its utopianism; for Taylor, Wollstonecraft’s faith deeply informed her radical political stance.

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