Women’s History Month Highlights: Mary Wollstonecraft in Rare Books

As we wrap up Women’s History Month, staff in Special Collections and University Archives would like to briefly highlight two items from proto-feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft that we have here in our Rare Books collection.

Painted portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797

As a quick introduction, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer and philosopher who brought attention to women’s rights at a time when such things were not commonly discussed. She had an unconventional life for her time, pursuing a career as a writer when it was nearly unheard of for a woman to do. She pursued an affair with a married man and bore a child with another out of wedlock.

Wollstonecraft lived in France during the Revolution, sympathizing with the cause of the revolutionaries. During this time, she wrote A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published after the fall of the Jacobins in 1794. It presented Wollstonecraft’s analysis of the conditions and causes of the Revolution and the perspectives of French people.

She returned to England in 1795 and soon embarked on travels through Scandinavia. The letters she wrote to Gilbert Imlay—the father of her daughter, Fanny—would be published in 1796 as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. After her relationship with Imlay broke apart, she eventually ended up marrying William Godwin, who she met through her literary friendships. With Godwin, she became pregnant with her second daughter, Mary, who would grow up to establish her own literary fame as Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Sadly, Wollstonecraft died resulting from an infection following Mary’s birth.

Title page, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects by Mary Wollstonecraft. Printed at Boston, by Peter Edes for Thomas and Andrews: Faust's Statue, No. 45, Newbury-Street, MDCCXCII.

Title page, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects by Mary Wollstonecraft. 1792.

Possibly her most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Published in 1792 and considered by many to be an early feminist manifesto, A Vindication speaks powerfully to the fundamental rights of women, largely concerning a woman’s ability to receive an education and to hold a position of respect in middle-class society equal to that of men.

Introduction, page 1 of A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Introduction, A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

“I shall first consider women as human creatures who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to develop their abilities.”

Wollstonecraft’s strong advocacy for women’s rights would serve as an inspiration for activists to come, including those involves in the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th century. Users of UMW Special Collections and University Archives can come in to view a first edition of the work for themselves and see how Wollstonecraft’s words resonate today.

Title page, Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, by Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul's Church-Yard. 1796.

Title page, Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, by Mary Wollstonecraft. 1796.

The second work of Wollstonecraft’s in our collection is a first edition 1796 printing of her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the last of her books published during her lifetime. This is a travel narrative composed of letters written to her lover, Gilbert Imlay. They were separated at this time, and Wollstonecraft embarked on this journey as an attempt to win him back by locating a ship of silver stolen from Imlay by a Norwegian captain. It didn’t work. The letters explore her own philosophical, social, and emotional perspectives, as well as observations of the communities in which she traveled. As such, scholars have described it as a memoir as much as travel writing.

To see these books in person or to find out more about other items in our collections, please contact us at archives@umw.edu to schedule an appointment or visit us in Simpson Library, Room 217, during our open hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1:30-4pm.

March 31, 2022