Mary Wollstonecraft’s Historographical Misrepresentation




Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published by William Godwin in 1798.   The husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin felt duty bound to edit and publish Wollstonecraft’s remaining unpublished works after her untimely death in 1797 just eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter (Uzgalis).  This book would decimate Wollstonecraft’s popular reputation for a century and has led many scholars (of History, Gender Studies, Anthropology, and many other fields) to completely write off Wollstonecraft’s impact upon early gender relations and women’s emancipation.  Why eschew Wollstonecraft’s impact upon radical political and philosophical thought with the popular reception of her personal life reviled in Godwin’s Memoirs?

Though Godwin attempted to portray Wollstonecraft with kindness and honesty, late 18th and 19th century society was unwilling to forgive her two Affairs (with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay), the bastard child Fanny Imlay and the other unorthodox life choices she made.  While many scholars assume that a popular distaste for Wollstonecraft makes illegitimate her legacy and impact during the next century, there are many examples of people, both radical and moderate, accepting the logic of her philosophy despite whatever societal distaste was held for the woman who penned them (Tomaselli). 

John Addams, during his tenure as Vice President, “penned extensive marginalia in his copy of Wollstonecraft’s Historical and Moral view of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution,” and was known to call his wife a “Disciple of Wollstonecraft” for her dedication to The Rights of Woman  (Hunt-Botting, and Carry 708-709).Charles Brockden Brown addressed the ideas of Wollstonecraft’s Rights in his Alcuin, published in 1794 (Hunt-Botting, and Carry 709).  A New England schoolgirl named Eliza Southgate penned a letter in 1801 which described her love of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy and her disgust with Godwin’s Memoirs ((Hunt-Botting, and Carry 709).  Such Feminist superstars as Lucrecia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were known to have many copies of Wollstonecraft’s work, Mott and Stanton “upheld Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman as a “talisman” of their cause,” and Stanton “viewed Wollstonecraft as an icon of both female sexual freedom and its oppression” (Hunt-Botting, and Carry, 708).

Despite this veritable mound of evidence, the more popularly repeated scholarly view of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy is that “Wollstonecraft’s political theory failed to have a philosophical impact in transatlantic nineteenth-century political thought an only began to enjoy a serious following once the leading feminist of the early twentieth century (such as Emma Goldman and Virginia Woolf) revived her memory and celebrated her life and works as a part of their own philosophies” (Hunt-Botting, and Carry, 708)  Barbara Caine argues that Godwin’s Memoirs “managed at one stroke to destroy Wollstonecraft’s reputation and to ensure her infamy for nearly a century” and while Virginia Sapiro does acknowledge that many of the leading members of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention were well read in and inspired by Wollstonecraft, she denies her importance by concluding that “there is little indication that anyone who played a key role in women’s history or feminism, other than Lucretia Mott, read Wollstonecraft’s work seriously after her death until the twentieth century” (Hunt-Botting, and Carry 708). 

While it is true that, because of rampant misogyny and conservative social values, Wollstonecraft had little in the way of reputation after the publication of Godwin’s Memoirs, this does not negate her influence upon the minds of radical thinkers and their philosophies considering that many of these thinkers read her work and many of their philosophies ran parallel to Wollstonecraft’s.  Why do the voices of the popular majority continue to drown out the voices of the many (prominent) radicals who continued to identify with Wollstonecraft’s ideas even after the publication of the Memoirs?

In Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft elegantly describes the chains that bound females within Western society, attacking lack of education for women as the reason for women’s “ignorance and slavish dependence” and society which demands that women be “docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else” as well as the institution of marriage, calling it “legal prostitution” (Simkin).  Her ideas were indeed revolutionary as she insisted that the church, military hierarchy and monarchy were the final and most crucial components to creating social equality within society.  Few moderates would accept such ideas.  Many individuals during the late 18th century were prone, much like Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, to romanticize their society and country and think them forces of nature rather than human constructions.

To conclude, it seems nonsensical to me that so many serious scholars of both gender equality and History fail to connect the dots, so to speak, when it comes to their opinions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s impact upon the socio-political world of the 19th century.  John Locke was a radical when he wrote in his Two Treatises of Government that all men have rights to life, liberty, and property and yet he receives credit for sparking much of the philosophical debate of the 18th century and we can see his hand in the anti-slavery movements of the 18th and 19th centuries (Tomaselli).  Why is it that simple honesty would so destroy Wollstonecraft’s reputation (both within society and within scholarly circles) even until this day?  Surely John Locke had some scandal within his life yet he is still looked upon with respect.  It is ridiculous that early 19th century ignorance has kept us from exploring the impact of Mary Wollstonecraft’s work upon radial politics.

Works Cited

 Hunt-Botting, Eileen, and Christine Carry. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth-                                                Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol 48, No. 4 (Oct, 2004), pgs. 707-722.  Web. 19 Feb 2014.   <;.

Keenan, John. Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft. 2011. Painting. Web. 24 Feb 2014. <;.

Simkin, John. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational, n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <;.

Tomaselli, Sylvana, “Mary Wollstonecraft”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed), <http”//>.

Tomaselli, Sylvana, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed), <http”// locke/>.

Uzgalis, Bill. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Great Voyages: The History of Western Philosophy from 1492-1776. Oregon State University, n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2014.