This portrait by the Liverpool-based painter John Williamson (1751-1818) is one of few known surviving images of the pioneering author, philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97). Wollstonecraft campaigned tirelessly throughout her life for the rights of women to self-governance and financial independence. She advocated for changes to marriage and property laws, the extension of the rights of equal citizenship to women, and for the introduction of public co-education for all.
Williamson’s painting represents Wollstonecraft as a powerful intellectual woman. Her gaze is directed firmly at the viewer, her pose considered. Pared-down clothes and powdered hair mimic the style of French revolutionary intellectuals and reflect her view that dress should ‘adorn the person and not rival it’. Wollstonecraft had herself moved to France to support the Revolution, but was disappointed that the principles of equality and liberty were rarely fully extended to women. Her struggle for women’s rights was always deeply entwined with the broader class struggle. She argued that female emancipation could not be achieved without a more equal society for both men and women.
Wollstonecraft chose to marry the writer and radical philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) on learning she was pregnant with his child. She was anxious to avoid further social scandal because her first daughter, Fanny, had been born out of wedlock. However, both she and Godwin were strong critics of marriage as an institution and how it made women subservient to men.
In her ground-breaking text Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) Wollstonecraft also made pioneering claims for the rights of women to experience and express sexual desire, paving the way for more liberal attitudes to female sexuality. It has been argued by some biographers that Wollstonecraft was herself bisexual and had what would now be described as a lesbian relationship with childhood friend Fanny Blood. Others claim that her passionate feelings for Blood are typical of the forms of ‘romantic friendship’ between women in her day. It remains unclear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was certainly intense. In his biography of Wollstonecraft, Godwin describes Blood as the ‘ruling passion of her mind’.
Wollstonecraft had also attempted to establish an unconventional relationship with the bisexual but married painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), whose portrait was also painted by Williamson. After falling desperately in love with Fuseli, Wollstonecraft approached his wife Sophia to propose that she moved in with the couple as Fuseli’s ‘spiritual wife’ but she was promptly rebuffed.
Both this painting and the portrait of Fuseli were commissioned by the Liverpool philanthropist, cultural historian and political pamphleteer, William Roscoe (1753-1831). It is thought that Roscoe was introduced to Wollstonecraft by Fuseli, when they first met at her publisher Joseph Johnson’s (1730-1809) home in London in March 1791. Roscoe shared her views on equality and freedom for women, and her support of the French Revolution. In one of several letters between the two, Wollstonecraft refers to the painting: ‘Be it known to you, my dear sir, that I am actually sitting for the picture and that it will be shortly forthcoming. I do not imagine that it will be a very striking likeness; but if you do not find me in it, I will send you a more faithful sketch – a book that I am now writing (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), in which I myself… shall certainly appear, head and heart.’
Reference: Letter from Mary Wollstonecraft to William Roscoe, 6 October 1791, Liverpool Libraries, Roscoe Papers 5328.