The second of six children, Mary lived a difficult and financially unstable childhood. Her father was a brutish, alcoholic who bullied and mistreated his wife, squandered an inheritance and neglected his children. He, no doubt, had an impact on Mary's future relationships with men.
These experiences, and living at a time in history when women didn't have many rights, probably led to Wollstonecraft's lifelong quest to establish equality and recognition for women.
In Wollstonecraft's best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she put forth that women are not naturally inferior to men, but only appear so because they lack education.
She suggested that both men and women should be treated as rational beings, and advocated a social order founded on reason. She also ridiculed the prevailing notion depicting women as nothing but helpless, charming household adornments.
"Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth," Wollstonecraft felt that women were conditioned by society to be overly sentimental and foolish. She also criticized society for encouraging women to be "docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else." Likewise, women's confined existence and repressed talents produced in them much frustration that transformed them into dissatisfied, unfulfilled mothers and wives. Education, on the other hand would counter this state of affairs and allow women to achieve the confidence and self-respect needed to make use of their capabilities for a better, more productive life.
In some of her other writings Mary asserted that women also had strong sexual desires. To have to deny it, or pretend otherwise, was both degrading and immoral. She also once described marriage as "legal prostitution" and added that women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent."
Wollstonecraft appealed to egalitarian social philosophy as the basis for the creation and preservation of equal rights and opportunities for women. She reminded us that the foundation of morality in all human beings, male or female, is their common possession of the faculty of reason. She also pushed for the rights of all those she thought were victims of a society that assigned people their roles according to the artificial distinctions of class, age, and gender.
Not surprisingly, during her lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft was considered a radical and revolutionary. Her views and her unorthodox lifestyle (out of wedlock child and various love affairs) diminished her reputation for a century and it wasn't until the modern feminist movement resurrected her works that she became a popular and influential figure. Her advocacy of women's equality and critiques of conventional femininity were an inspiration for both the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century women's movements.
Mary Wollstonecraft's legacy has been as the founding feminist philosopher and as a role model for a new era of self-sufficient, socially more powerful women.
According to historian Henry Noel Brailsford, A Vindication of Rights of Woman is: ".....perhaps the most original book of its century. What was absolutely new in the world's history, was that for the first time a woman dared to sit down to write a book which was not an echo of men's thinking, nor an attempt to do rather well what some man had done a little better, but a first exploration of the problems of society and morals from a standpoint which recognised humanity without ignoring sex...."
Mary Wollstonecraft died on September 10, 1797 from complications due to childbirth. Her daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would go on to author the innovative, timeless novel Frankenstein and become famous in her own right.