Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is best remembered for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and as such is honoured as a foremother of feminism. Her thoughts and writing tackled a wider range than that would suggest: she made contributions to the fields of political philosophy and education, and to the Romantic appreciation of nature. She led a radical and exciting life, mainly in London, but with significant time in France during the Revolution, and with life-changing visits to Ireland, Lisbon, Derbyshire, and Scandinavia. Although she wrote of rationalism, she was in many cases led by passion. Aside from her fiery love affairs, she lived in a time of unsurpassed drama, in the midst of the English Enlightenment and the French Revolution. She was quite a woman.

Early life
Mary had a hard time growing up. She was born in London into a family sliding down the social scale, and received only scanty schooling as they moved around the country. Her father was violent towards his wife and children, so even as a child Mary was acutely aware of the injustice caused by the abuse of power. It set her on her life’s course, to pursue education, to stand up for the underdog, to earn her own living, and to settle for nothing less than love with an equal.

She was fortunate enough to attract people who wanted to help her, including more than one family who gave her opportunities of learning. In Yorkshire she fell in love with a library, which happened to have a girl attached. She was ardently fond of Jane Arden! Later she transferred her affections to the graceful and gentle Frances Blood, whom she loved unto death. Marrying was out of the question, not only because of her lack of a dowry, but also because she had no wish to trap herself in a situation akin to her mother's, so from the age of 19 she left home in quest of work, and earned her living in the only occupations open to her, as a seamstress, companion, and governess.

A turning point
When she was 25, Mary set up a boarding school in Newington Green, then a village a couple of miles north of the City, now part of London itself. This enterprise allowed her to rent a house and make a home with her best friend and with two sisters, one of whom she rescued from an abusive marriage. It also allowed her to mix with a group of Rational Dissenters, high-minded non-conformists who stretched her spiritual and mental frontiers. They were in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, and supported the demands of the American colonists for liberty. The Green itself remains, as does Newington Green Unitarian Church, still radical, the focus point of the village that changed her life. The people who gathered around its minister, Dr Richard Price, contributed to the intellectual milieu that shaped Mary: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and the second president of the United States, John Adams, and his wife Abigail.

The experiences during Mary’s years at Newington Green led her to write her first book,Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.  She was an inspiring teacher and an innovative educationalist, arguing for equal education for girls and boys, drawing out children’s spirit and curiosity without stifling them. Later, building on the contacts she had made through the Dissenters, she created a career for herself as a writer, one of the first women to do so, starting off with reviews and translations. The publisher Joseph Johnson proved an excellent support and mentor to her; he was not alone in seeing her potential, and nurturing it.

When Edmund Burke attacked her mentor Dr Price, she responded quickly with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in support of what we would now call human rights, in the context of the French Revolution. This work made her an intellectual celebrity, and a year later she followed this up with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works arguing the essential equality of the sexes. She became enamoured of the painter Fuseli and eventually proposed a menage a trois; he was intrigued but his wife was not amused. Mary decided to go to Paris to document the unfolding revolution, where she met Gilbert Imlay, an American by whom she bore a daughter without benefit of church. Later she journeyed to Scandinavia on his behalf, searching for a missing ship. Each of these adventures led to another book. Imlay's betrayal of her, and her subsequent suicide attempts, were at that time not known to the wider public.

Back home
All her journeys led her home, back to London, where she eventually married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. She died giving birth to the girl the world knows as Mary Shelley, who grew up to elope with a married poet and write Frankenstein.