Wollstonecraft was not a mother when she wrote [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman], although it touches often on the theme of motherhood. Rearing a family, she argued, was a perfectly proper occupation for a woman, unlike taking an unhealthy interest in one's appearance, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of self-reliance. "To be a good mother, a woman must have sense and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands."
One of the saddest aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's life is how profoundly she was changed by her personal experience of love and motherhood. ... [The Scandinavian Letters] speak of a very different Wollstonecraft to her earlier work. Their tone is sober and tender, particularly about her daughter Fanny:
I feel more than the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread that she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment. I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit - Hapless woman! What fate is thine!
It is impossible not to feel touched by Wollstonecraft's personal tragedy two centuries on. She was a volatile woman who risked all for love. But she also lived in an age where economic independence for women was a rarity and unmarried motherhood a scandal. And, of course, childbirth itself was a far greater physical risk than it is today. Wollstonecraft died of blood poisoning barely two weeks after the birth of her second daughter. It is impossible not to feel deep gratitude to writers like her who have tried to argue for new ways of living for women, men and children, braving ridicule and hatred from the more conventional parts of society.
The Independent, "Historical Notes: From personal tragedy to new ways of living and old", 21 January 1999.