Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft
By Maria Popova
Six years after Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which became the foundation of what we today call feminism, she fell in love with the radical political philosopher William Godwin. The two forged the original marriage of equals and conceived a daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.
In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”
Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.
One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:
Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.
In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s invigorating wisdom on the courage to be yourself, Wollstonecraft adds:
Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.
Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and W.E.B. Du Bois’s magnificent life-advice to the daughter he did have, then revisit Wollstonecraft on loneliness and the courage of unwavering affection, her stirring love letters to and from Godwin, and her moral primer for children, illustrated by William Blake.
Published August 28, 2019