Today is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft who was born on this day in 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was an English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Her belief that women are not naturally inferior to men was unusual at the time. Mary knew from childhood what it was like to be part of a family that was ruled by a domineering and sometimes violent man. Her father was not a good person. When Mary was in her teens she used sometimes to sleep in front of her mother’s bedroom door, to prevent her father getting in and beating her in a drunken rage.
She sought refuge at the houses of friends, where she began to read and attend philosophical lectures. She definitely didn’t want to end up in the same situation as her mother and she thought the way out would be to educate herself and find work that would allow her to be independent. At nineteen, she found a job as a ladies companion, but didn’t get on very well with her employer. She later set up a school with her sisters and her friend Fanny Blood, but it failed to thrive and collapsed completely after Fanny died of tuberculosis. After that she went to work as a governess for an aristocratic Irish family, but although she got on well with the children, she did not like their mother. Mary found out what the upper class was really like and she didn’t care for what she saw.
Her experiences led her to reflect on the sorts of opportunities open to single women of her social standing, and the sort of education they received. These thoughts would lead her to write her first book: ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787. Women of the emerging middle class were generally taught things like how to dance, draw, play cards, look pretty. These were not things that were particularly useful if you found yourself having to make your own way in the world. She didn’t think they were much good for anyone else either. Mary really felt that women should be given the same sort of education as men. That they should be taught to be reasonable and rational human beings instead of being raised to spend all their time thinking about pretty frocks and going to the theatre.
The lot of women in the eighteenth century was generally to become a wife and mother. This meant that they would be largely responsible for caring for and educating the next generation. Mary thought they could probably do this a lot better if they were themselves better educated. For those who did not marry, the sort of employment women such as herself could find: ladies companion, governess, teacher, left you in a sort of limbo between your employer and other servants and disliked by both. It was not a recipe for happiness.
Mary decided that what she really wanted, was to be a writer. At that time, very few women could support themselves by writing. But Mary learned French and German and found work translating texts. She also wrote book reviews for a magazine run by a liberal publisher called Joseph Johnson. Through him she met intellectuals like radical pamphleteer, Thomas Paine and philosopher, William Godwin. Her writing career spanned the years of the French Revolution when there was much debate on both sides of the channel about the future of the monarchy. A lot was written about it by both the pro-aristocracy and the pro-republican camps and there was a huge pamphlet war. Mary became heavily engaged in the political debate.
In 1790 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, in response to a pamphlet published by a man named Edmund Burke, who defended the aristocracy, government, paternalism and chivalry. His argument was; a government was a result of political consensus and that citizens did not have the right to overthrow it. Traditions should not be challenged or the result would be anarchy. Mary countered that everyone should be judged on their merit and not on their birthright. That rights should be conferred because they are just and reasonable, not because they are traditional. She criticised the political elite for their opulence, corruption, and inhumane treatment of the poor. Also she accused the liberals of hypocrisy because they talked about equality but bowed and scraped before the old hierarchy.
In 1792 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which is regarded as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. It was written in response to a treatise read out in the French parliament which suggested that “The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life.” She was further infuriated by the comments of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that women should be educated for the pleasure of men. And who wouldn’t be?
The idea that women were weak, frivolous and unable to think clearly was a common one. Mary argued that women only seemed that way because they were not taught to reason clearly and were encouraged by men to be frivolous. This is what she has to say:
Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
She also pointed out a massive double standard men had as regards morality. They expected women to be virtuous but did not apply the same standards to themselves. She believed that the sanctity of marriage should be respected by both partners.
Mary didn’t have a great time with relationships herself. She was extremely fond of the painter Henry Fuseli and tried to move in with him and his wife. When that didn’t work out, she went to France in 1792, just when it was all turning very nasty. She arrived just a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There, she met and fell in love with American ambassador Gilbert Imlay. She got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who she named Fanny after her friend. Things never worked out with Gilbert and she wound up abandoned with a baby in the middle of the French Revolution. She returned to London, made a couple of attempts to win him back and her failure led to two suicide attempts. But gradually she returned to her literary life and she and William Godwin fell in love. When she became pregnant for a second time, they decided to marry, simply so their children would be legitimate.
Six months later, their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born. You may her know better as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Sadly, Mary died eleven days after her daughter was born. William was devastated . A few months later, he published a book about her life: ‘Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women’. He thought it was a sincere and compassionate portrait of the woman he had grown to love. Those who read it were shocked to learn of her love affairs, her illegitimate child, her suicide attempts. The book blackened her reputation for almost a century.
Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, there was no such thing at the end of the eighteenth century. But she did believe that things could be better for women. Some of her ideas about the way women are expected to be, and the effect that it has on society are very relevant today. If she could see the way that childrens’ toys and clothes are marketed specifically to boys or girls. If she could see the way girls get called ‘little princesses’ and positively encouraged to be frivolous and superficial. If she could see the way that women are forced to judge themselves against the impossible standards of some photo shopped ideal. Well, I think she’d probably cry.