Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Mary Wollstonecraft: An Appreciation

It is a challenge to write about Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century English writer and women's rights advocate whose life is overshadowed by her famous daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, among other works.

The challenge is twofold: While Wollstonecraft would seem to be a founding feminist, she would not have considered herself such. And while this genius of a woman had great powers of observation, she could be extraordinarily dumb about her relationships with men.

During a tragically brief 10-year career (she died at age 38 after giving birth to her second child), Wollstonecraft wrote several provocative treatises and daring novels, a first-person history of the French Revolution, a travelogue, a conduct book and children's book, and left several unfinished manuscripts.

Wollstonecraft is best known for
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so only because they lack education. She believed that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagined a social order founded on reason that was not to be in her fleeting lifetime or afterward.

Wollstonecraft's relative obscurity as a great philosopher-writer is in large part because her writings have been overshadowed by accounts of two unconventional and ill-fated affairs prior to her marriage to a man who inadvertently destroyed her reputation by published a memoir of her personal life. Her work finally became an important influence with the emergence of the modern feminist movement.

* * * * *
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759 in London, the second of six children. Her father gradually squandered his comfortable income, would fly into drunken rages and beat her mother. Mary played a protective role for her mother, who died a broken woman when Mary was 23, and a similar one with her sisters, one of whom she convinced to leave her insensitive husband and infant, which was scandalous behavior for that time.

Early on, Wollstonecraft envisioned creating a female utopia, but economic realities dictated otherwise. She established a girls school with her sisters and close friend Fanny Blood in Newington Green, a community of English Dissenters, Christians who had separated from the Church of England. She was an inspiring teacher, believing that children should not be sheltered from life's realities but made acquainted with them, the better to face and deal with the inevitable crises.

Blood became engaged and soon after her marriage became pregnant. In poor health, her husband took her to Portugal to recuperate. Wollstonecraft left the school and went abroad to nurse her, but she died, devastating Wollstonecraft but inspiring her to write her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), which despite the title was closely based on her own.

After Blood's death, Wollstonecraft's friends helped her obtain a position as governess to a wealthy family in Ireland. She left after a year and began writing, one of the limited number of career options for a respectable woman, although an unorthodox one she was dirt poor and very few women were able to support themselves no matter their calling, let alone as a writer. She eloquently described this economic reality in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787).

Wollstoncraft moved to London, where she was encouraged and sometimes supported by liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, who recognized her deep intellect and talent. She learned
French and German, translated texts, and became one of the very few women in Johnson's circle of friends, who included pamphleteer Thomas Paine and William Godwin.

While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a non-romantic relationship with artist Henry Fuseli although he was married. In the first of a series of unconventional relationships, she proposed a platonic ménage à trois with Fuseli and his wife, but his wife was appalled and he broke off the relationship. Chastened and humiliated by Fuseli's rejection, she sailed to France to see for herself the revolutionary events she had celebrated in her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Her reflections on the French Revolution made her famous and controversial overnight, and she was favorably compared with authors like Paine and controversialist Joseph Priestley.

Next came A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), an outgrowth of Rights of Men, a revolutionary treatise considering that wives were considered to be the property of their husbands, who could legally beat them, divorce prohibited and marital rape was permitted.

Wollstonecraft argued that women, whom she said described as silly and superficial "spaniels," are essential to nation and society, ought to have the fundamental rights and education that men have, and should be "companions" to their husbands rather than mere wives and ornaments. These views were in sharp contrast to educational philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argues in Emilie, ou de l'Education that women should only be educated for the pleasure of men. Sacrebleu!

'The minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement,'' Wollstonecraft wrote. ''Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to show . . . that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being.''

Wollstonecraft was ambiguous, however, on the key point of whether men and women are equal and most certainly was not a feminist in the sense of the word:

"Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God."

Once in Paris, Wollstonecraft met and fell madly in love with Gilbert Imlay, a shady American adventurer, merchant and diplomat, and again attempted an unconventional relationship.

It is unclear whether she wanted to marry, having declared at age 15 that she would never do so, but in any event Imlay most definitely did not want to do so. She lost her virginity and soon became pregnant, giving birth in May 1794 to a daughter that named Fanny after Fanny Blood. (
Even to her sisters, she referred to herself as "Mrs. Imlay" in an attempt to bestow legitimacy on her child.)

The political tumult deepened and she and Imlay fled France as English subjects were being arrested, imprisoned and guillotined.
Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded Wollstonecraft, left her for long absences that convinced her he had found another woman. She pursued him to London, arriving in April 1795. He rejected her and she twice attempted suicide.

Eventually shaking off her deep depression, she returned to writing and Johnson's circle, which included Godwin, a bachelor three years her senior. They began a courtship that became a passionate love affair, she became pregnant and they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. But in yet another unconventional relationship, they lived in separate although adjoining houses.

It was to be the only happy and stable relationship that Wollstonecraft had, but it was tragically brief. On August 30, 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary, who would become a far better known writer, but died 11 days later of septicemia, a common occurrence in the 18th century.

The following January, Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Although well intentioned, many readers were shocked by its intimate details of Wollstonecraft's love affairs, illegitimate children and suicide attempts.

* * * * *
It is not surprising that until fairly recently Wollstencraft's tragically interrupted life was much better known than her writing.

Her literary exhumation began in the late 19th century as women began clamoring for suffrage. Such literary lights as Virginia Woolf embraced not just her critical thought but applauded her lifestyle.

The exhumation was complete with the flowering of the women's movement in the 1960s and academics finally got it right: Mary Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist but was a woman of her time who could not be fit neatly into a contemporary framework.

This post is based in part on Vindication: A Life of Mary
Wollstonecraft (2005)
by Lyndall Gordon.

Click here to go to A Vindication of the Rights of Mary,
a blog dedicated to Wollstonecraft.


Anonymous said...

You may be interested in the talk by Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft:

An Anarchist FAQ

Shaun Mullen said...

Thank you!

Roberta Wedge said...

And you may be interested in my blog, A Vindication of the Rights of Mary. I am delighted to have found this essay. Forgive my brevity, but I am preparing for a talk on Ms Wollstonecraft tomorrow, at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I hope we can correspond later.

Bob Lamm said...

You might find my essay, "Liberating Mary," of interest. It was published in the feminist periodical Ms. Magazine in 2004. It's about a battle I fought with the National Portrait Gallery in London to get a portrait of Wollstonecraft moved out of their "dungeons" and put on display.

Bob Lamm

Bob Lamm said...

Sorry, forgot to add the link to my essay. Here it is:

Shaun Mullen said...

Thank you for caring, Mr. Lamm. Fascinating article.