Video Fantastic Women Series – Mary Wollstonecraft

VLOG on Mary Wollstonecraft

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Blogpost/Transcript

We have all heard of Frankenstein, a novel that can be considered the first true science fiction story, written by Mary Shelley in 1818. Perhaps not many of us will know of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer, philosopher and most importantly, an advocate for women’s rights, regarded as one of the founding feminist thinkers.

Born on April 27, 1759, she was the second of seven children and her father was a farmer. Although, her family had a comfortable income, her father squandered it all and their financial situation became unstable. He was also abusive to her mother and to Mary as well. She left home in 1778 to become a lady’s companion but then had to return to take care of her dying mother.

With her sisters and her friend Fanny (Francis) Blood, Mary set up a school in Newington Green, Islington, UK. Fanny, with whom Mary was very close, got married and moved to Portugal, where her health deteriorated when she became pregnant. Mary left the school and went to nurse her, but Fanny died. Because of Mary’s absence the school also failed. Mary was devastated with Fanny’s death and it was part of the inspiration for her first (and only complete) novel Mary: A Fiction written in 1788.

Mary then worked as a governess in Ireland in 1785, but left after a year to become an author, at a time when it was not easy for women to support themselves through writing. In a letter to her sister, Mary wrote that she was trying to become “the first of a new genus”. Her experiences at the school and as a governess inspired her to write Thoughts on Education of Daughterswith reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life in 1787 — her first published work. The book encourages mothers to teach their daughters analytical thinking, self-discipline, honesty, contentment in their social position, and marketable skills (in case they should ever need to support themselves). However, the book primarily confines women to being wives and mothers, urging education for them so they could undertake these roles effectively.

After moving to London, she learned German and French, and in 1788 began working as a translator and reviewer of novels for publisher Joseph Johnson, who also helped her to find a place to live.

Her experiences before and during this time considerably expanded her intellect not least because she met with figures like Thomas Paine and William Godwin at Joseph Johnson’s house. In Londong, she started a relationship with Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, despite him being married.

(Agatha Christie – The Queen of Crime)

Inspired by the French Revolution and in response to Whig MP Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the revolution, she wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, published on November 29, 1790, initially anonymously. In this she criticised the monarchy and hereditary privilege and wrote a scathing response to Burke’s conservative political ideas. The second edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published on December 18, and this time the publisher revealed Wollstonecraft as the author. She became famous overnight.

Writing the Rights of Men and later additions to it, honed her ideas, culminating in one of the earliest works of what we now call feminist philosophy: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects in 1792. In this, she stresses the education of women and maintains that women should have the same fundamental rights as men, as companions to their husbands not as property. Her main aim was to illustrate the limitations that lack of a proper education had on women and that they should be encouraged to expand their minds, rather than focussing on beauty, and not completely rely on feelings, which are harmful to society as a whole. She wanted women to be more rational, using feelings and rationality together. Most of the rhetoric is directed at Jean Jacque Rousseau, who had written Emile in which he had stated — among other things — that women do not need to be educated but for the pleasure of men. Let’s be clear though, Mary did not want to drastically change the order of things. She still considered men stronger, but she wanted women, especially middle class women, to better their situation through education. Her most famous quote is: I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. She was still a woman of her time and did not seem to have extensive empathy for the poor. Mary maintained that after the age of nine, poor children (other than those who are brilliant), should be taught in a separate school from rich children. There is ambiguity in her thinking regarding women’s rights and equality. But still she went beyond the current norms and laid the foundation of what was to later become feminism.

The novel she had written in 1788, Mary: A Fiction and a later one Maria:, or The Wrongs of Woman, published posthumously, both view marriage as a patriarchal institution. The Wrongs of Woman also seems to hint at cross class interests of women. Her book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark from 1796 is a personal travel narrative and talks about the relationship between self and society.

After her relationship with Fuseli inevitably broke down, she went to France to observe the French Revolution. There she lived with the American Captain Gilbert Imlay and had a daughter with him. This relationship also broke down, causing Wollstonecraft to attempt suicide. She returned to London and again started working for Johnson, once again meeting such luminaries as William Godwin, Thomas Paine, William Blake and William Wordsworth. In 1796, she began a relationship with William Godwin and married him in March 1797, after becoming pregnant. However, Mary Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to her daughter on September 10, 1797, at the age of 38.

How did she disappear into obscurity? Her husband William Godwin wrote his memoirs of her, in which he detailed her affairs, illegitimate child and suicide attempts. This set the stage for vitriol against her and ruining her reputation. The disappearance of Wollstonecraft from public imagination had begun and lasted for at least a century. Her attackers stipulated that no self-respecting woman would read her work and they did this through a sustained attack that went on for decades. Poems were written about her and the press lambasted her mercilessly. No one wanted to defend her legacy until the suffragette Millicent Fawcett a 100 years later, who rehabilitated her. It was only by the late 19th century, that women’s rights activists embraced her work.

At the start of the modern feminist movement, Virginia Woolf and others enthusiastically accepted her work and life. By the 1960s and 70s, Mary’s work returned to prominence with the emergence of feminist criticism in academia. In the 1980s and 90s, scholars described her as a woman of her time, demonstrating that there was continuity between her thoughts and the important ideas of the 18th century.

A new statue for Mary Wollstonecraft by artist Maggi Hambling CBE went on display recently on Newington Green, Islington, near the school that Mary founded. The sculpture is not OF Mary; the inscription says it is FOR her. It shows a nude ‘everywoman’ and has garnered simultaneous critique and admiration from various circles. What we think of the statue is not important. What is important is that we remember the woman who was Mary Wollstonecraft — someone who considered education and rationality in women important, who was a rebel and a pioneer and who is regarded as the mother of feminism.

(More Fantastic Women: Mary Anning, NASA’s Computers and Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin)

All images Creative Commons and Public Domain Music: Title music: Hovering Thoughts by Spence (YouTube Music Archive)

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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