FEW PEOPLE change our fundamental view of the world: the Buddha and Jesus, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Freud, a handful of others. Mary Wollstonecraft belongs to that august company. It’s impossible to imagine our lives without her, for she single-handedly got people thinking about the unthinkable: equality between the sexes. Nothing could be simpler, nothing more natural, and judging from the two centuries since her death, nothing harder to achieve.
Born in 1759 to a violent, alcoholic father, she often saw her mother beaten, and that image of oppression and humiliation determined the course of her life. At an early age, she wrote to her sister Everina, “I am going to be the first of a new genus. The peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.” Her nature was complaining and depressive—she attempted suicide twice—but also deeply compassionate and as persevering as Alexander the Great. And it didn’t hurt that she was attractive, charismatic, and brilliant.