Forerunner of Feminism

  Wendy Broad    

'The Reader' by Jean-Honore Fragonard

The English authoress Mary Wollstonecraft was a forerunner of feminism. She advocated "respecting the rights of woman, and national education" with "the firm tone of humanity" in her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mary dedicated her signature work to bringing the lack of equality to the attention of the Bishop of Autun. She was among the first women of her time to demand that her gender live in equality with the men. She argued forcefully to " strengthen the female mind by enlarging it." She pleaded for women to be allowed an education and predicted that " there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by those in power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter, a play-thing". 1792 was the year in which Mary wrote her most well-known book length essay. This was among the first works that gave birth to feminism.  

Born in London in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was self-educated. She first tried to support herself as a governess and then went on to work for the London publisher, James Johnson, in 1797. By this time, Mary had already written Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), as well as a story titled " Mary" (1788), which had evolved from her friendship with Fanny Blood. She left London in 1792 for Paris, where she lived with Gilbert Imlay, an American with whom she had a daughter, Fanny. Mary then returned to England, marrying the writer and philosopher, William Godwin in 1797. Mary died at age 38, as the result of an infection, 11 days after giving birth to another baby girl. (This second daughter was to become more famous than her mother. She came to be known as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the authoress of the famous novel Frankenstein, which she wrote in 1818.) 

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote essays, stories, and translations. She wrote A Vindication of The Rights of Woman as a critical response to the "New Constitution", written by the Bishop and other "witlings", as she calls them, in France. She not only asks for women's rights " to partake with him of the gift of reason" but also "demands justice for one-half of the human race." She did so with the intelligent, sharp tone of reason.  

Mary reasoned eloquently, with lengthy sentences, such as "the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society: and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively." She was delightfully wordy in this piece. Another example of her exuberant sentences is found in this letter when she said, "But, if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want ever shew that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant, and tyranny, in what ever part of society it rears its brazen front, will ever undermine morality." She communicates her point remarkably well.

I admire her for her selflessness while fighting for women's rights as she says, "For my arguments, Sir, are dictated by a disinterested spirit - I plead for my sex - not for myself. " An outstanding feminist indeed!   In chapter one of her essay, "The Rights and Involved Duties of Mankind Considered," the writer asks many tough questions and answers them with sound reason. She also challenges the "absurd sophisms which daily insult common sense" in 1792.

One of the numerous questions Mary asked concerned God. She says, "When that wise Being who created us and placed us here, saw the fair idea, He willed, by allowing it to be so, that the passions should unfold our reason, because He could see that present evil would produce future good. Could the helpless creature whom he called from nothing break loose from his providence, and boldly learn to know good by practicing evil, without his permission? No. How could that energetic advocate for immortality argue so inconsistently? " In Chapter One of A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, Mary not only questions the power of God, but also challenges power itself. She says, " for all power intoxicates weak man; and its abuse proves, that the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society." God, power, elitism, monarchy and other oppressive acts, are challenged by the classic feminist in her famous writings.  

Maria Or the Wrongs of Woman includes a preface written by her husband, William Godwin. They married "in spite of their support for the principle of personal freedom in 1797, to safeguard the interests of their children." Mary's husband believed that no human should have power over any other. William introduces Maria, Or the Wrongs of Woman as "the last literary attempt of an author". Mary herself describes the novel as her way of expressing "the wrongs of different classes of women, equally oppressive, though, from the difference of education, necessarily various" She says, "these appear to me (matrimonial despotism of the heart) to be the peculiar of wrongs of woman, because they degrade the mind. " In the preface of Maria she explains, "In writing this novel, I have rather endeavored to portray passions than manners...In many instances I could have made the incidents more dramatic, would I have sacrificed my main object, the desire of exhibiting the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society. " She goes on to state, " I cannot suppose any situation more distressing than for a woman of sensibility, with an improving mind, to be bound to such a man as I have described for life; obliged to renounce all the humanizing affections, and to avoid cultivating her taste, lest her perception of grace and refinement to sentiment, should sharpen to agony the pangs of disappointment. I should despise, or rather call her an ordinary woman, who could endure such a husband as I have sketched."

Mary described Maria's husband as, "lolling in an arm-chair, in a dirty powdering gown, soiled linen, ungartered stockings, and tangled hair, yawning and stretching himself. The newspaper was immediately called for, if not brought in on the tea-board, from which he would scarcely lift his eyes while I poured out the tea, excepting to ask for some brandy to put into it, or to declare that he could not eat...He now seldom dined at home, and continually returned at a late hour, drunk, to bed." Maria stated, " I retired to another apartment; I was glad, I own, to escape from his; for personal intimacy without affection, seemed, to me the most degrading, as well as the most painful state in which a woman of any taste, not to speak of the peculiar delicacy of fostered sensibility, could be placed. But my husband's fondness for women was of the grossest kind, and imagination was so wholly out of the question, as to render his indulgences of this sort entirely promiscuous, and of the most brutal nature. My health suffered, before my heart was entirely estranged by the loathsome information; could I then have returned to his sullied arms, but as a victim to the prejudices of mankind, who have made women the property of their husbands? Who indeed, could tolerate such a Man?" Mary boldly demands respect in her writing, and so should we all-- men and women together.  

I have included examples of Mary Wollstonecraft's prose here that I have found most enjoyable. I have displayed excerpts from two of her works: the famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria Or the Wrongs of Woman. Now I am left with an ocean of questions concerning the interesting Ms. Wollstonecraft and I am excited by the desire to probe deeper into her work. I hope that in displaying some of these remarkably creative first feminist writings I will encourage both men and women to appreciate the "mental beauty" of our foremothers and fathers who struggled to create a better society. Mary Wollstonecraft's articulate works have won the admiration of this writer.      


Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia(Grolier Electronic Publishing,Inc.)1996.   Stapleton, Michael. "Wollstonecraft, Mary."

The Cambridge Guide To English Literature. Ed. Nicholas Barker.(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983) .

Wollstonecraft, Mary 1759-1797, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. On line edition: Columbia University, Available at:, 1996.

Wollstonecraft, Mary 1792, "letter to M.Talleyrand-Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun." On line edition: (Columbia University, Available at:, 1996  

Wollstonecraft, Mary 1798, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Ed. Judy Boss: (University of Virginia), Available at: es/modeng&data=3D/lv1/Archive/eng-parsed&tag=3Dpublic, 1994.


Wendy Broad is a second year Communications Major at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. She is working as an Intern for Moondance. Her home is in New Brunswick, Canada. Wendy is interested in writing, feminism, and the creation of a better life for humankind.