MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (d: 1797) was a proto-feminist English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During a brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
Both of Wollstonecraft’s novels criticize what she viewed as the patriarchal institution of marriage and its deleterious effects on women. In her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), the eponymous heroine is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons; she fulfils her desire for love and affection outside of marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man.
Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), an unfinished novel published posthumously and often considered Wollstonecraft’s most radical feminist work, revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband; like Mary, Maria also finds fulfillment outside of marriage, in an affair with a fellow inmate and a friendship with one of her keepers. Neither of Wollstonecraft’s novels depict successful marriages, although she posits such relationships in the Rights of Woman. At the end of Mary, the heroine believes she is going “to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage”.