The Virtues of Mary Wollstonecraft

“In 1978, the University of Chicago Press journal Signs published a short essay introducing Mary Wollstonecraft’s lost anthology of prose and poetry she had published ‘for the improvement of young women.’ Wollstonecraft’s anthology reproduced edifying fables and poetry; excerpted from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton; and included four Christian prayers Wollstonecraft had authored herself. Among the last is a lengthy ‘Private Morning Prayer’ which reads, in part:

Though knowest whereof I am made, and rememberest that I am but dust: self-convicted I prostrate myself before thy throne of grace, and seek not to hide or palliate my faults; be not extreme to mark what I have done amiss—still allow me to call thee Father, and rejoice in my existence, since I can trace thy goodness and truth on earth, and feel myself allied to that glorious Being who breathed into me the breath of life, and gave me a capacity to know and to serve him.

Though Wollstonecraft is now regarded a canonical thinker in the fields of history, political science, and gender studies, secular feminist scholars still struggle to make sense of her religiosity. Many suggest, as Moira Ferguson did in her 1978 Signs essay, that Wollstonecraft’s own skepticism grew as she crafted her more influential political work. Meanwhile, religious thinkers tend to ignore her religiosity, subscribing to the selfsame interpretation of her as a duly secular proto-feminist.”