Mary Vindicated: The Life & Politics of Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Vindicated: The Life & Politics of Mary Wollstonecraft, Feminist & Intellectual

“But what a weak barrier is truth when it stands in the way of an hypothesis!”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

john-keenan-portrait-of-mary-wollstonecraft-1759-97-c-1793Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical writer and thinker of the 18th century, who not only published her revolutionary thoughts on the need for women to be educated and treated as fellow humans with their male counterparts, but lived out many of her theoretical ideas about what constituted equality in the household. Her political focus on women and their rights was unusual at the time; she was writing during the Enlightenment, a time when ideas about class and rational thought were undergoing a massive revolution, and yet the effect of this on gender roles had remained largely otherwise unexamined.

After her death at the age of 38, Mary’s widower William Godwin published a book as a “memoir” which was intended to cement his wife’s historical legacy, but also detailed her troubled mental health (including suicide attempts), financial woes and unconventional lifestyle. The resulting scandal meant that her words were all but drowned out for nearly a century, Godwin’s book providing all the mud that critics required to denigrate not only Wollstonecraft herself, but the concepts of gender equality and female education which she had advocated throughout her lifetime. The importance of her work and her ideas were finally re-established at the turn of the early 20th century as a cornerstone to the feminist movement, and then thoroughly reclaimed by feminist scholars from the 1970’s onward.

In her seminal and most famous (today) book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft placed great value on reason and rationality, pointing out the logical need for women to be educated as men were, and exposing the fallacy that men were naturally superior. She emphasised the way that women had been kept down in servitude to the family unit, and that women were socialised to value their beauty and other “romantic” notions above all else so that they would more readily sacrifice their needs to support their husbands and children:

“I will go still further, and advance, without dreaming of a paradox, that an unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and that the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

There was a strong idealistic aspect to Wollstonecraft’s theories – she articulated how not only women’s lives would be improved by education and equality, but men’s lives too:

“The man who can be contented to live with a pretty and useful companion who has no mind has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined pleasures; he has never felt the calm and refreshing satisfaction. . . .of being loved by someone who could understand him.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

So much of what Wollstonecraft writes about is horribly familiar to today’s dialogue about feminism, and many of the concepts she outlines are still considered radical by many people (cough, not all men) in the 21st century:

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft grew up in a household full of women – her mother and sisters – who were tyrannised by her father, an abusive drunkard. Protective and pragmatic, Mary slept in front of her mother’s bedroom door as a teenager to keep her father away, and later helped one of her sisters escape a violent husband.

Mary valued friendships with other intelligent women, and for a time ran a school with her sisters and her good friend Fanny Blood. This fell apart after Fanny’s death, during a pregnancy. Mary next tried to be a governess, which was met with mixed success – the children liked her educational style very well, but her employer did not, which leaves me with a wonderful image of Mary as a radical feminist Mary Poppins figure.

Mary’s first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), is a less popular text with modern feminists than her later works because of its focus on the domestic sphere; indeed it is part of a popular genre of the time, the “conduct book” which encouraged ladies in the correct ways to behave. However, she used the opportunity to comment on equality and injustice, with chapters like “The Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left without a Fortune,” which called on her own disastrous history in service as a lady’s companion.

Other works Mary wrote in her lifetime include A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a pamphlet decrying the class issues and aristocratic privilege that led to the French Revolution. This piece was part of the “pamphlet war” of the era, in which Britain was alight with controversy and debate about the matters in France. Rights of Men directly responded to one of the more controversial and bestselling books published that same year, Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, a former critic of monarchical power who surprised Britain when his book came out in passionate support of the aristocracy.

“MR. BURKE’S Reflections on the French Revolution first engaged my attention as the transient topic of the day; and reading it more for amusement than information, my indignation was roused by the sophistical arguments, that every moment crossed me, in the questionable shape of natural feelings and common sense.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France

Wollstonecraft’s piece was written and published at great speed, with the publisher typesetting early pages while she finished writing the document – if only she had lived in the time of blogging and Twitter! (Never mind that, can you imagine her sharing a letter’s page with Joanna Russ?)

For a very long time, Rights of Men was considered a passionately deranged and wholly irrational work, written as it was by a woman criticising the “sensible” reasoning of a man. In the 1970’s, however, feminist scholars finally pointed out that Burke was the one with the florid language and emotional rhetoric while Wollstonecraft was the one appealling to reason and rationality. More to the point, the stylistic elements previously criticised as overly feminine and disorganised were a) standard 18th century literary techniques and b) direct responses to the work she was critiquing.

She also took the opportunity to swing at one of Burke’s previous texts, Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, particularly his harmful attitudes towards women as fantasy creatures whose only value or virtue is their beauty:

“You may have convinced [women] that littleness and weakness are the very essence of beauty; and that the Supreme Being, in giving women beauty in the most supereminent [sic] degree, seemed to command them, by the powerful voice of Nature, not to cultivate the moral virtues that might chance to excite respect, and interfere with the pleasing sensations they were created to inspire. Thus confining truth, fortitude, and humanity, within the rigid pale of manly morals, they might justly argue, that to be loved, woman’s high end and great distinction! they should ‘learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, and nick-name God’s creatures.’”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France

Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_1797Rights of Men was the first written work which earned a profit for Mary Wollstonecraft. (After its first printing sold out she conceded to having her actual name included as the author in the second edition) She was now a professional writer, supporting herself, in the area of publishing considered least appropriate for a woman: political theory. Thanks to her criticisms of Burke’s defence of Marie Antoinette, she also earned the infamous name “hyena in petticoats” from Horace Walpole.

Mary’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, published two years later and now mostly considered on its own terms as a seminal feminist text, was a direct sequel to Rights of Men, building on many of the ideas she first expressed in that pamphlet.

Even Mary’s fiction was political. Based partly on her friendship with Fanny Blood, and inspired by the philosophies of Jacques Rousseau, Mary: A Fiction (1788) was published between Education of Daughters and Rights of Men, and revolved around a self-taught female genius (the modern definition of the word ‘genius’ was only just coming into being at this time) who had passionate friendships with both men and women. Indeed, the novel provides the first known literary depiction of a female genius, and is often remembered for this element. Through her heroine, Mary savagely criticises 18th century sensibilities and the institution of marriage, as concepts highly damaging to women. I can tell you right now, Mary: A Fiction has salmon-laddered its way to the top of my classic novels reading list!

Mary Wollstonecraft herself became greatly dismissive of her debut novel, with later academic opinion agreeing with her that it was a crude piece of writing (again, until the reclaiming of Wollstonecraft by feminist scholars in the 1970’s). However, Mary’s husband William Godwin, who attempted to define his wife’s career after her death with his own book about her, and himself dismissed many of her political writings as minor and unimportant, claimed that Mary: a Fiction was evidence of his wife’s own genius.

Mary’s personal life was just as tumultuous as her professional life. Still disapproving of the notion of marriage, she only married Godwin after she became pregnant with her second daughter Mary, which caused a minor scandal at the time because so many of their friends realised from this that she had never been properly married to Imlay, father of her first daughter Fanny. Godwin himself likewise disapproved of marriage and published texts arguing against it; he and Mary continued to run separate households in adjoining houses after their marriage, and conducted their relationship mostly by cordial letters to each other.

Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 at the age of 38, in childbed fever. Her mother’s death so soon after her own birth would have a powerful emotional effect on Mary Godwin, who went on to live an unconventional lifestyle herself with the poet (her later husband) Percy Shelley, and wrote the novel Frankenstein (which contains all manner of horror imagery and deep feelings about the concept of birth gone wrong) under her married name of Mary Shelley.

Wollstonecraft’s second novel, a gothic “sequel” to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published posthumously by William Godwin: Maria, or: The Wrongs of Woman (1798). She had been working on the novel for many years, including extensive research, and it was unfinished when published, but is still considered an important feminist work. In the novel, the protagonist Maria is committed to an asylum by her husband, and falls in love with a male inmate, Darnford, while befriending one of the attendants, Jemima, who has likewise suffered at the hands of men. There are two possible endings outlined in the fragmentary notes that survive: in both versions, Darnford abandons Maria for another woman and she miscarries his child. In one ending, Maria commits suicide out of despair; in the other, she is saved by Jemima and the two of them form a family with Maria’s living daughter.

Today, Wollstonecraft is remembered for her political activism and her articulate feminist thought on the roles of women under an unjust social system. She has had an asteroid named after her, as well as a new street in King’s Cross, London. More importantly, there is now a wealth of critical and historical work supporting her legacy, which shows that even the most buried and ignored of female figures can be restored by a dedicated academia. While Wollstonecraft’s legacy is now intrinsically linked with that of her daughter, whose own literary reputation has expanded greatly in recent decades, it is her own work and words which ultimately shapes the way that she is remembered as a writer, a feminist and an intellectual whose political ideas, articulated as they were so clearly in a time of such immense social constraint for women, are still deeply resonant today.

“Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose.”
–Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters From Sweden.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Kirstyn McDermott’s wonderful Mary Wollstonecraft story, Mary Mary, was published by Tehani and myself in last year’s Cranky Ladies of History, and was recently picked up to be reprinted by Paula Guran in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror 2016.

Check out my last Great Ladies of History essay, on Marie Curie, Radioactive Lady Scientist!

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