Early Feminist: Mary Wollstonecraft

Earlier this week Meena wrote about the characteristics of ‘good girls’ that include: fear of disappointing others, fear of speaking out for fear of hurting others, need to always excel, avoid conflict, obey rules.

Good girls make up the majority in every generation. And certainly they are no less in any way than the others. But it is the few in each generation, who due to a combination of inbuilt traits, circumstances, passion and perseverance defy these norms. It is these path breakers who open up previously untrodden terrain, and clear the path for their contemporaries, and the generation to follow.

Today it is fashionable to be a ‘feminist’ and women are fighting for “more”. More avenues for better education and employment, more freedom of choice, more say in their own life and matters. This is a good time to remember that this “more” is a luxury compared with a generation of women who did not even have “basic” access to any of these things. And that it is women who have fought hard battles to achieve what we take for granted today.

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of these women.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27, 1759, in London in a family that had once been prosperous but had been reduced in circumstances. While her elder brother, and the favoured child received a proper ‘gentleman’s education’, Mary had only a basic formal education when she learned to read and write. This was probably the root of her life-long battle for equal educational opportunities for women. In the meanwhile Mary taught herself a number of languages and spent considerable time exploring a library that one of her friends had. Through these friends, she met Fanny Blood, two years older and skilled at sewing, painting, and the piano. She inspired Mary to take initiative in cultivating her mind.

The financial situation of her family necessitated that Mary find some form of employment. In those days, opportunities for girls from this background were limited to teaching, needlecraft, and being a lady’s companion. At 19 Mary got a job as a live-in helper for a wealthy widow. She could not take it for more than a year. Her independent mind and belief in a girl’s right to a good education led her to found a small girl’s school in London in 1784, with her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood. The school closed two years later but this period served as the starting point for Mary’s radical ideas about the necessary equality of female and male education, and belief that the government was responsible for making this happen. She expressed these strong views in her book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters which was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson in 1786.

In the meanwhile Mary also made the radical decision to support herself as a professional writer, something very few women of the time could do without an aristocratic sponsor. Settling in London to pursue this new career, she did translations from French and German, read widely, and wrote reviews. She became a regular contributor to Johnson’s new literary magazine, the Analytical Review . During this period she was also introduced to such radical freethinkers as Thomas Paine and William Godwin, and she thrived in this intellectual circle.

In Western Europe during the late 18th century, single women had little protection under the law and married women lost their legal identity. Women couldn’t retain a lawyer, sign a contract, inherit property, vote, or have rights over their children. Mary’s career choice, and especially her decision to write about political and philosophical issues, was not merely unconventional, it was perceived as ‘unwomanly’ and ‘unnatural’. But as she reflected “I am then going to be the first of a new genus”. It was a harsh struggle every step of the way, but Mary continued to pursue her beliefs, and further develop her ideas. Based on her own experience of denial of education, and building upon the thinking in her earlier book, Mary argued that the educational system deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable and that if girls were allowed the same advantages as boys, women would be not only exceptional wives and mothers but individuals who could contribute better to society. She declared that both women and men were human beings endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To suggest women were equal to men was close to blasphemy at the time.

Mary grew up in England during the Enlightenment, an intellectual period that advocated for the use of reason to obtain objective truths. It is this very advocacy for reason that was the guiding principle for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. The book argued that because women share the gift of reason and have the same innate human value as men, both women and men should be educated rationally, allowed to exercise their natural abilities, and held to the same reasonable standards of behaviour. In order to contribute at the same level as men, women must be educated equally to men. If women were not afforded this opportunity, social and intellectual progress would come to a halt. As she wrote in the introduction to the book: My main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue. 

The trailblazing book went a step ahead of education for girls. It argued that girls and boys should be co-educated, and that women and men should share parental responsibilities. It also insisted that women should be free to enter business, pursue professional careers, and vote if they wished.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sold out within a year, and Johnson issued a second edition. An American edition and translations into French and German followed.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s personal life was equally unconventional for the time. While in France she fell in love with an unscrupulous American businessman and had a child with him. He abandoned both mother and child. Mary was heartbroken and even attempted suicide. Later she was in a relationship with William Godwin and when she was carrying his child, the two married but maintained separate domestic establishments. On 30 August 1797 Mary went into labour and after about 18 hours she gave birth to a daughter, also named Mary. Thereafter she had postpartum complications, and died eleven days later at the age of 38.

Her daughter, who grew up to be Mary Shelley the author of the book Frankenstein, never knew her mother in life, but only through her writing. Mary Wollstonecraft had been working on a novel when she died. In this she wrote, almost as if addressing her daughter: Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.

Mary Wollstonecraft lived boldly, and died young. But her ideas went way beyond her own time and life. They planted the seed which eventually led to the Suffrage Movement in the early 20th century. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is considered the earliest and most important treatise advocating equality for women. This essay is often seen a classic of rationalist feminism that laid the foundation of modern women’s rights movements in the Western world.


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