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Biography

In December 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft moved to Paris to be closer to the action of the French Revolution. She soon met an American businessman and adventurer named Gilbert Imlay. For a woman who had always prized reason above all else, Wollstonecraft soon discovered how easily romantic love could kick reason to the backseat. By April, Imlay and Wollstonecraft had begun an affair. Though the two never married, Imlay registered Wollstonecraft as his wife at the American embassy in order to protect her from anti-English prejudice then growing in France. She went along with the deception, a stark departure from her strict principles. In May 1794, she gave birth to the couple's daughter Fanny Imlay, named for her friend Fanny Blood.

Not long after, however, Imlay abandoned the family and went to London. When Wollstonecraft followed him, she found that he had taken up with another woman. A distraught Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice, the second time by throwing herself off Putney Bridge in London. She finally pulled herself together and cut off contact with Imlay in March 1796. Despite her turmoil, between suicide attempts she managed to travel to Scandinavia. She published a well-received travelogue of her experiences there entitled Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Just a month after breaking things off with Imlay, Wollstonecraft met - well, re-met - William Godwin, the anarchist and political philosopher. The couple met for the first time in 1791, when they both attended a dinner for Thomas Paine. At the time Godwin thought Wollstonecraft talked too much, and they parted with an unfavorable impression of each other. This time, things went well. "The partiality we conceived for each other, was in that mode, which I have always regarded as the purest and most refined style of love,"17 Godwin wrote.

It's hard to overstate what a radical pair these two were - an outspoken feminist and an anarchist who had once called marriage "a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies."18 Nevertheless, on 29 March 1797 Godwin and a pregnant Wollstonecraft married at London's St. Pancras Church. On 30 August, Wollstonecraft gave birth to their daughter. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grew up, married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (while pregnant, just like her mom) and gained fame under her married name as the author of Frankenstein.

Sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft did not live to see her daughter's success, nor to enjoy a long marriage. She developed an infection following a primitive, botched operation performed after the baby's birth. She died 10 September 1797. Her final words were that William Godwin was "the kindest, best man in the world."19

After her death, a grief-stricken Godwin wrote a frank biography of Wollstonecraft entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Unfortunately, the book was a little too frank. Godwin's portrayal of Mary's unconventional personal life inadvertently ruined her reputation. With the resurgence of feminist study in the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft's works were rediscovered and she took her place in the pantheon of feminist leaders.

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