Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

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Painted by John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 1797.

By Tiffany Johnstone

 

“[Wollstonecraft] is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”
-Virginia Woolf, Qtd. in Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm, 1.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking social critic, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, and advocate of women’s rights in Britain at the end of the 18th century. As an highly influential social thinker and figure in the literary movement of romanticism, she was a vocal participant in Enlightenment debates relating to women’s rights, education reform, and the French Revolution. Her insistence on the equality of women and men was perhaps the most controversial and persistent topic of her writing. While her work met with acclaim during her day, Wollstonecraft’s often unconventional lifestyle overshadowed her intellectual legacy until the 19th century when she became an important icon for suffragists.

Wollstonecraft’s early life involved struggles to free herself from financial insecurities and oppressive gender roles. She was born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, the second of seven children. Her parents, Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon had a difficult marriage plagued by the former’s domestic violence and mishandling of finances. Her father was a handkerchief weaver who squandered his inheritance in various failed ventures as a farmer (Powell). Between 1778 and 1780, Wollstonecraft worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, a commonplace profession for respectable but impoverished daughters that she later critiqued in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and which she left to care for her dying mother. After the latter’s death, Wollstonecraft lived for two years with the family of her close friend and muse, Fanny Blood (d. 1785). The two women, along with Wollstonecraft’s sisters, formed a school in 1784 in Newington Green, home to many 17th century Protestant dissenters. The school, another recurring expedient for women with education but little money, closed when Wollstonecraft left, this time to nurse Blood who was dying from tuberculosis. Wollstonecraft next worked as a governess (her employments ran the gambit of opportunity for women in her predicament) in Ireland for a year, a job that inspired her children’s book Original Stories from Real Life (1788), as well as the decision to pursue the challenging career of professional writing. She moved to London to learn French and German, work as a translator, and write reviews for publisher Joseph Johnson’s (1738-1809) Analytical Review, a leading literary and political periodical of the day.

During this period immediately before the French Revolution, which set Europe and intellectuals afire, Wollstonecraft joined a radical community of activists and writers including the American colonist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and the English philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836). This proved an especially productive period in her life. She made her mark on history in 1790 with the publication of A Vindication on the Rights of Man and, two years later, still more significantly, of A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792). Her relationship with married soi-disant radical artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) helped to precipitate her move to France in December 1792, where the French Revolution further inspired her assessment of the human condition.

In revolutionary Paris, Wollstonecraft began a turbulent affair with American author, businessman, and diplomat, Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). In 1794, she gave birth to Fanny Imlay. That same year, her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution was published in London. Gilbert Imlay and Wollstonecraft never married and her unrequited devotion resulted in two suicide attempts. In 1796, after a northern trip on Imlay’s behalf, she published Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

The last year of Wollstonecraft’s life marked her return to literary friends in Joseph Johnson’s circle. She began a relationship with her old acquaintance, William Godwin. Following her pregnancy, they married in March 1797. Their marriage raised eyebrows once it was known that she had not been married to Imlay, that she had been pregnant out of wedlock twice, and that Godwin had previously denounced marriage. Despite the scandal, Wollstonecraft and Godwin found in each other intellectual equality, respect, and devotion. The two authors famously resided in adjoining houses in order to promote independence within the marriage. She gave birth to Mary, later known as Mary Shelley (1797-1851), who would become the famous author of Frankenstein (1818). Tragically, but like so many women of the time, Wollstonecraft died ten days after childbirth of puerperal fever and septicaemia, leaving a devastated Godwin. In 1798, he reread all of her work, edited, and published her remaining manuscripts, and made the fateful decision to write and publish Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This biography, while an expression of his admiration, was so candid that it caused a scandal that largely eclipsed her political reputation throughout the next century.

Wollstonecraft’s intellectual legacy nevertheless persisted. While many prominent 19th century authors including the popular novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) disparaged her life and work, figures such as the romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the novelist George Eliot (also known as Mary Ann or Marian Evans) (1819-1880) and American philosopher and proto-suffragist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) respected Wollstonecraft. In the widely circulated Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) (Botting and Carey 715), Fuller reinterpreted and defended Godwin’s Memoirs as well as Wollstonecraft’s character and body of work. In the 1880s, amidst a growing international movement for women’s suffrage, she was increasingly invoked as a foremother of feminist thought. American author Elizabeth Robins Pennell published her biography in 1884. In 1892, a centenary edition of Rights of Woman featured an introduction by British suffrage leader Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929) that sought to reinstate Wollstonecraft in a canon of heroines. Wollstonecraft also proved an icon for prominent American suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Lucy Stone (1818-1893). All cited her in arguing for equal political and civil rights (Botting and Carey 716). Stanton and Stone are said to have quoted Wollstonecraft in the first edition of their radical newspaper, The Revolution, in 1868 (Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm 7). Early 20th century activists and writers such as British modernist writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Russian anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and later second wave feminists similarly embraced her as an influential feminist thinker.

Wollstonecraft’s feminist legacy is best expressed in her texts. Her early work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Original Stories from Real Life (1788) made the case in effect for socialization, arguing that middle-class values such as reason and self-discipline could be instilled through education in children and women: inferiority was learned not natural. The much cited A Vindication on the Rights of Man responded to Conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s (1729-1827) condemnation of the French Revolution. She criticized the aristocracy and associated the equality of women with more democratic middle-class values. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman championed co-education and universal schooling (though poorer children would not reap all benefits). Invoking what would later be termed maternal feminism, she suggested that educated women benefit society as better citizens, wives, and mothers.

Wollstonecraft’s occasional deference to conventional gender binaries was understandable considering the iconic male intellectuals with whom she entered into public debate and whose hypocrisies relating to women she set out for readers. She sardonically dismissed male contemporaries such as Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who argued that the end of women’s education was to please men.

Wollstonecraft also pushed genre boundaries. Her novels, Mary: A Fiction (1788) and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) both critiqued the institution of marriage and the pressures on women to pursue romantic goals and prioritized other relationships including strong female friendships. Her thoughtful travel narrative, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, emphasized the subjective lens of the traveller by foregrounding her personal struggles and political ideals. This text was one of the rare pieces by a female author that deeply influenced the male-dominated literary Romantic movement (Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm 2).

Wollstonecraft set invaluable precedents both as a successful professional female writer who sparred with male intellectual heavyweights and someone who struggled not only to theorize but also to embody a commitment to equality. The difficulties she faced and the overwhelming posthumous criticism of her life and work, testify to pervasive misogyny and prejudice. In the 21st century, Mary Wollstonecraft continues to remind readers that the ‘personal’ remains ultimately ‘political.’

Bibliography

Botting, Eileen Hunt, and Christine Carey. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science 48.4 (2004): 707-722. Web. JStor. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

Carlson, Julia Ann. England’s First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Web. University of British Columbia Ebrary. 26 May 2013.

Powell, Jim. “Mary Wollstonecraft—Equal Rights for Women: Wollstonecraft Established the Individualist Roots of Equal Rights.” The Freeman. Foundation for Economic Education. 1 April. 1996. Web. 16 2013.

Ryall, Anka and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Introduction. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Journey to Scandinavia: Essays. Ed. Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Stockholm Studies in English XCIX. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003. 1-21.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Structures on Political and Moral Subjects. 2nd edition. London: J. Johnson, 1792. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. Gale. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

“Wollstonecraft, Mary.” The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Eds. Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. 675-676.