Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin: Politics and Essays

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  1. 0:05 Introduction
  2. 1:59 Wollstonecraft's Earliest Work
  3. 4:39 Vindications of Rights
  4. 8:08 Godwin's Early Life
  5. 10:21 Enquiry & Caleb Williams
  6. 12:58 Lesson Summary
Show Timeline
Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Meet THE power couple of the 1790s: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Watch how Wollstonecraft inspires the feminist movement, and thrill to Godwin's early anarchic ways! Plus: how does one betray the other, even after death?


It's time for the non-fiction glasses again because we are entering the exciting world of non-fiction.

When you hear the term 'power couple,' who comes to mind? It might be Jay-Z and Beyonce. It might be Bill and Hillary Clinton. It might be Jim and Pam. I don't know. Maybe Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin? Maybe? Maybe? I can picture your faces right now. You're all going eh, I don't know? You're also probably laughing at the glasses a little bit.

I'm not going to talk about those other people. I'm going to talk about Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. They were married for only a few months in the spring and summer of 1797. They were famous luminaries of eighteenth-century England. They were really smart people, and they ended up together, which is kind of the definition of a power couple. That's why we are talking about them. They both did groundbreaking work in their respective fields. Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as a trailblazing feminist, and Godwin was the first anarchist of the modern era, as well as the first man to write a mystery or thriller novel! So, you can thank him for John Grisham and all those people to come after him.

Together, they produced only one work worth considering. That was their daughter Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein.

Portraits of Wollstonecraft, Godwin and their daughter, Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin Family Portraits

And she also married the poet Percy Shelley, and that's how she got the name Shelley and not Wollstonecraft or Godwin. Though their thoughts and passions and all that stuff had influence on each other, they really wrote separately. They were separate luminaries on their own. Much of Wollstonecraft's work comes first chronologically - and probably has a larger impact and out shadows her husband a little bit in that respect. We'll look at her first and what she did.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Earliest Work

Born in 1759, she didn't live that long. Throughout her short life, she became a pioneer for women's rights. The movement she helped inspire - women's suffrage and feminism, in general, which happened way, long after her death - she does play a part in kicking that off. That's really what she's most significant for.

Her earliest written texts were about education, which is not much of a surprise since her first two jobs were as a schoolteacher and a governess. She had a particular interest in educating women and helping to free them from degraded status in society. Doing this through learning was really what she thought was the path to this. Her earliest work, The Female Reader, is an edited anthology of literary passages, and her own original work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters - these are both works that really express this. They get at the idea that if we want to help women out, we should really educate them, and we should help in any way we can to make that happen. She's arguing that children of both sexes need education in crucial areas of self-discipline, honesty and, especially, reason - reason is really important to her.

This is actually picked up, this strain of the importance of female education, much later in the early 20th century by Virginia Woolf, who is a modernist writer and a feminist, when that movement was really getting going. In her 'Room of One's Own,' which is a famous feminist tract, she picks right up on this idea that women need to be educated. She posits this fictional Shakespeare's sister who could have been a genius, too, but didn't get to go to school. This idea really has long-lasting resonance.

Emphasis in education makes sense. One of the key traits connecting Wollstonecraft and Godwin and all those other major thinkers is the emphasis of rationality over emotion, which is something that you probably have to learn in school. It's not necessarily natural.

In Education of Daughters, aspects of Wollstonecraft's later work can be found. It's not an out-an-out defense of women, and it's not exactly an attack of total patriarchy system that her other texts would be. She says that women need to be educated because then they're in a position to contribute better to society, even if that's as wives and mothers.

They're in a better position to contribute because they've gone to school.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men

Her next famous work - 1790 - she writes this thing called A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This is in response to the 1790 storming of the Bastille as part of the French Revolution. She is writing in response to this guy Edmund Burke. He writes this thing called Reflections on the Revolution in France. She thought that this thing was absurd, that it was the stupidest defense of monarchy ever. She was so mad at him that she wrote this thing called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which is a pro-republic, anti-aristocracy thing that harshly strikes at social convention and government opulence.

She doesn't just rebuke Burke's arguments - she does so using gendered language, and this is the really important part. She's arguing that if the citizens of France were to 'leap from their scabbards' to 'avenge even a look that threatened' Marie Antoinette - that's what Burke was arguing - France's noblemen would be guilty of the same emotional overreaction that's typically made fun of in women. That's basically her argument. They'd be swayed by his theatricality and not convinced by his reason. It's basically a high-brow version of calling them girly men if they listen to this guy, which is a little bit of a low blow but is nonetheless effective.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

She follows this up in 1792 with the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which you might expect would be coming soon from a feminist. The key to the Rights of Woman wouldn't be unfamiliar to people who read her other work, Education of Daughters. It goes back to the same theme that women NEED education. They are essential to a country's operation because they educate the children, and they're companions to men. Also, the key thing is that they are not property. They should have the same basic rights as men, such as the liberty to equally pursue education - kind of the same ideals that were being discussed a lot in reference to the French Revolution. That's what they were after for their citizens.

Wollstonecraft was a radical in her day for saying things like this. If you read it today, you'd probably be a little shocked at how antiquated it still seems, but that just sort of goes to show how backward things really were. Wollstonecraft still refers to marriage as 'the cement of society;' she doesn't want to toss out everything. She harshly critiques subjects, both men and women, who give in too quickly to 'sensibility,' or wild emotions. She's very into reason and things like that. She doesn't outright say - this is the thing that might seem most familiar to modern feminists - that men and women are equal. She just says that they should all have the same fundamental rights. There are bits where she says what men can do and women can't (physical attributes is a lot of what she mentions). What seems barely feminist to us today was like crazy talk in her day. That shows you how far we've come.

Besides these writings - political tracts or educational tracts - she contributed a lot to other literary styles. She wrote a travelogue. She wrote a history of the French Revolution. She wrote a children's book. It was her ideas about women that were the most attention-grabbing.

She sadly died in childbirth, from complications to giving birth to her daughter Mary. Afterward, William Godwin decided to publish a memoir of her that ended up really shocking lots of people. He talked about affairs she had, suicide attempts and cast any scholarship of Wollstonecraft under a dark cloud for a long time that only with the 20th century movement of women's suffrage and feminism did we start to look at her more closely because basically he ruined her legacy by publishing this book. He had the best of intentions in doing so, though. He really didn't think this would mess up her reputation as much as it did. He was grieving, so he wanted to do something to commemorate her. Again, despite his intent, he single-handedly resulted in her falling from critical grace.

William Godwin

Early Life

But let's back up. He didn't just do that. He didn't just mess up his wife's reputation. We mentioned before, he can really be called the first modern anarchist. Anarchists are just people who don't like the government and they think it should go away.

We think of anarchist today as crazy people who want to live in these desert compounds defended by security companies, and they're nuts. If you're me, you might think of Ferris Bueller's nonsensical statement, 'They can be fascist anarchists for all I care, it still wouldn't change the fact that I don't own a car.' Like Wollstonecraft's feminism, Godwin's anarchy was extreme at the time but looks pretty tame by our standards.

Just a little background on him - he was born in Wisbech, England in 1756. He's one of 13 children. That's a lot of kids. He was trained as a minister at Hoxford Academy. Godwin always had an eye toward reform and writing. In 1782, he moved to London, and he wrote several novels and essays, many of which have been ignored or lost to history, probably because they weren't that good. In the same way the French Revolution was important for Mary Wollstonecraft's breakthrough in writing, it would do the same for Godwin in 1793.

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

He's upset about what he considered harmful social structures, like monarchy and even marriage - he's not too into that. He writes An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. They really knew how to do titles back then. Our titles these days are short and to the point. They just crammed everything in there. It was basically a verbal attack on institutions he saw as useless. That's where the anarchy comes in. He's just like why do we need these things? We can just be on our own. He thought that any kind of social institution - government or any kind of regulation - was a restraint on the progress of mankind. He said, 'government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of original mind.' If left to their own devices, he thought that people - employing reason (again that's the key concept here) - would create a better society divorced from all evil that favored what some critics refer to as 'voluntary communism.'

Godwin's ideas might not be sustainable on a grand scale, and even he admits that government has a role in the short term. Honestly, if the key thing is that people are going to behave rationally, I think we can admit that that's probably not a realistic assumption about most people, especially people we see in our daily lives. Ideas like Godwin's earned him the honor of being the first anarchist of the modern era. Although, it's important to say that he's a gradualist anarchist, meaning that he thinks change would come eventually and through calm discussion. He's NOT a revolutionary. He's not going to tear down the wall or whatever.

Caleb Williams

Besides his political text, he also wrote what's considered the first mystery/thriller novel in 1794, called Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams, also a great title. This was a fictional companion to his political work, to the Enquiry that attacked aristocracy. Caleb Williams did it through a story in which the servant learns a dark secret and has to flee his master. Caleb Williams starts at the end and works backwards to establish its events, which is still a tactic still employed by many suspense writers or the movie Momento, which is awesome.

He had a couple of other works up his sleeve, including the memoirs of Wollstonecraft that destroyed her reputation. Enquiry and Caleb Williams are his most significant contributions. After, he mostly focused on novels and children's books and returned to politics later in life, but he didn't make quite the same splash. He eventually passed away eventually in 1836, which was a long time after poor Mary Wollstonecraft.


Just to sum them up - kind of a celebrity power couple of the thinking world; they both produced significant works in their respective areas. Unfortunately, their actual relationship didn't last all that long because she died in childbirth. Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist. Godwin was one of the first anarchists and also lent his hand to developing the mystery genre of the novel.

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