Wednesday, November 18, 2009

MEETING - The Libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft
Wednesday 9 December at 8 pm
Liz Willis introduces The Libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft
Meetings for the autumn will be at: The Postmen's Office at the North London Community House, 22 Moorefield Road, London N17.[The old Post Office] The venue is just around the corner from Bruce Grove British Rail Station, where Bruce Grove meets the High Road in Tottenham.
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-97: political writer, novelist, translator, reviewer; pioneer of sexual liberation and foremost champion of womens rights, was not ignored in her own time and has not been entirely forgotten at any time since. Nevertheless, despite an intensification of interest in recent decades, aspects of her legacy remain under-appreciated, notably her contribution to the development of libertarian thought.

Recurring themes in her work were rejection of authority and received opinion, insistence on individual autonomy, and the conviction that the liberation of women had to form an integral part of any revolutionary project. To well-known anarchist Emma Goldman she was "the most daring woman of her time". Her most famous book was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), of which William Godwin wrote: "The publication forms an epocha [sic] in the subject to which it belongs".

She spent most of her life in London where she encountered Nonconformist and radical thinkers, first In Newington Green, at that time a stronghold of Dissenters, then in the literary and politically aware circle centred on her friend and publisher, Joseph Johnson. Times were changing as news of the French Revolution stirred up people's ideas. Mary was actively involved with the Analytical Review, writing book reviews and doing translations; at the end of 1792 she went to Paris to see for herself and report on the situation. In France too she associated with a close-knit group of politically-motivated people, mostly affiliated to the Girondin milieu rather than the more authoritarian (and anti-feminist) hard left.

In her personal life Mary eventually teamed up with Godwin, writer and political thinker, who had spoken up for the accused in the Treason Trials of the 1790s. The two kept up their contacts with other radicals and literati in spite of the growing climate of reaction. After her death (following the birth of her daughter Mary), Godwin published a Memoir of her life. Despite the attempts of reactionaries to disparage her achievement her influence continued and extended in many and varied
directions. Many of her observations still have direct relevance today.

Suggestions for Reading
By Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Penguin Classics edition has good intro.)and several other writings can be found in various editions in libraries and/or currently in print.
Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. (Little, Brown 2005) Virago 2006. Recommended - if you only read one biography of Mary W., this is it.
Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft, a Revolutionary Life. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000. Useful for historical background rather than MW's character or significance.
Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1976.
Janet Todd, ed. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Allen Lane 2003.
Claudia L. Johnson, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. CUP 2002.
Black Flag 227 - Summer 2008 includes writing by Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft.

Who they all were:-

An article on the libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft originally published in Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism Spring 1992, can be viewed here.


  1. A print edition of 'Mary Wollstonecraft and the Doctors' (online in two parts at has just been published as a 16-page A5 pamphlet priced £1.50. Housmans have a few copies in stock and it is hoped to make it available in due course at bookfairs, meetings etc.

  2. The pamphlet mentioned is also to be stocked by AK Press and Distribution,