11. Mary Wollstonecraft was a prolific author and writer who put her feminist principles into practice, much to the dismay of polite English society
Easily one of the most famous British feminists of all time, Mary Wollstonecraft was a true woman of letters. She was an accomplished novelist, poet and essayist. As well as writing fiction, she also wrote history – including one notable account of the French Revolution – and philosophy, plus she was one of the world’s first proper travel writers. However, it’s for her pioneering work in the field of women’s rights for which Wollstonecraft is best remembered, and for good reason.
A true Londoner, Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 and, thanks to the violent rage of her drunken father, endured an unhappy childhood. She found solace in books and as a teenager attended lectures and seminars across London. It was here where she developed her strong views. She started writing while working as a governess for a wealthy family in London. Most famously, she published her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In it, she argued that men and women are naturally equal and so should enjoy equal respect and opportunities.
Wollstonecraft didn’t just write about feminism, she also lived a fiercely independent life. She married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Their happy union was an open one. Mary had a string of lovers on the side, though largely settled down when she had her first child. She gave birth to a second daughter, the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, in 1797, but died just 11 days later. Her adoring husband subsequently penned a book of memoirs. While written with affection, its truthful account of their marital arrangements scandalized polite society and Wollstonecraft became better known for her love affairs and personal troubles than for her writing.
This only really changed recently. Towards the end of the 20th century, Wollstonecraft was embraced by the modern feminist movements. Her writing is now heralded for its originality of thought and strength of argument. What’s more, her views on marriage, female education and more are seen as truly progressive for her time and an inspiration for the campaigners of today.