MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. LESSON 14 super advanced course
Wollstonecraft became part of a circles of radical intellectuals. Among them were a Swiss painter named Henry Fuseli. She was also welcomed cordially by Joseph Priestly. Priestly is best known for his discovery of oxygen. Mary was not fascinated by Science. What appealed to her about Joseph Priestly was his political radicalism and his Dissenting form of Christianity. She also met William Blake the artist, poet and radical. Most significantly she met William Godwin who was a radical writer and coffee house owner. This coterie of those of advanced opinions met at Joseph Johnson’s bookshop or Godwin’s coffeehouse. Even for the most broadminded people what she was doing was at the very least surprising. Mary herself wrote that she was, ”the first of a new genus” – a woman who earned her keep through her pen. In this sense she was a trailblazer for authoresses ever since.
Radicals of the time were coruscating about the artificiality of the establishment. The establishment’s support for systemic disparities in wealth and political sway as well as their taste for extravagant fashion all seemed deeply wrong to radicals. Radicali tended to favour reason. But there was a fissure in the radical movement. Should they reform society on rational lines or should they leave things to nature? Some radicals said that people are born good and it is human falsity that turns people bad. The best analogy is that or a garden. Some radicals preferred trees planted in straight lines with bushes carefully pruned and flowerbeds in neat rows. Others said a garden should be a wilderness. The very disorderliness of a garden was part of its untamed appeal. Mary Wollstonecraft favoured the rational and orderly garden over uncontrolled nature.
Mary became infatuated with an artist named Henry Fusseli. Fuseli found her captivating company but he did not like her clothes and coiffeur. He called her ‘a philosophical sloven’. She did not spend time on her hair or waste money on fashionable clothes. She was disinclined to fuss over looks anyway but this attitude was reinforced by what she had seen with Lady Kingsborough caring for little else besides appearance. She fell for Fusseli because of his cleverness and creativity. The trouble was the Fusseli was already married. She suggested living platonically with Fusseli and his wife. As you might guess Mrs Fusseli was aghast at the idea and demanded her husband stop seeing Mary. Mr Fusseli ended his dalliance with Mary. Miss Wollstonecraft was emotionally wounded. She moved to France to forget this heart breaking episode.
It was 1790 and Paris was by far the most exciting city in the world. The French Revolution had broken out the year before. It was a time of heady optimism and also of severe suffering. Mary published her Vindication of the Rights of Man. ‘Man’ was used to mean humankind in those days and not only to indicate to mean male adults as it is now. This was a riposte to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was an MP and anti-revolutionary. He had scorned the French Revolution as being destructive and foolishly predicated on abstract theorems. In her Vindication of the Rights of Man Mary offered an elucidation of why the revolution was desirable and indeed vital. Her invective against Edmund Burke’s opinions, to whom the book was addressed, caused a sensation in the UK. The MP for Bristol and one of the most prominent thinkers of the day was being given what for by a woman. Mary excoriated l’ancien regime as ” profligates of rank emasculated by hereditary effeminacy. ” She noted the irony that those who like Burke demanded that the two sexes stay in their allotted gender roles championed such an effeminate system in France. She was making a name for herself as an outstanding polemicist.
Wollstonecraft was coruscating about Burke’s exaggerated compassion for the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, in contrast to his cold heartedness towards millions of poverty stricken Frenchwomen, ” Misery to reach your heart, I perceive, must have its cap and bells; your tears are reserved, very naturally considering your character, for the declamation of the theatre, or for the downfall of queens, whose rank alters the nature of folly, and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration though they might extort alms.”
It was just typical of an 18th century conservative to feel compassion for the mightiest and most affluent yet to be merciless about the penniless. Burke wrote with pathos about inconveniences for the Shepherdess of Versailles (Marie-Antoniette) but could not find it in him to want to better the lot of malnourished children.
Thomas Paine moved to Paris at the same time as Mary Wollstonecraft. He had been involved in the American Revolution too and as he said with trademark understatement, ”I have lived to some purpose.” He too had been a schoolteacher and he was scathing about the Church of England. Mary agreed with his belief that radicals were duty-bound to assist revolutions in other countries because as Paine said, ”My country is the world and my religion is to do good.”
The next year her friend Tom Paine published the more pithily titled Rights of Man. It is often forgotten that Paine’s book was to a large extent a further articulation of arguments first developed in Wollstonecraft’s book.
In 1792 Mary published her epoch-making A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It took moral courage on the part of Joseph Johnson to print something so tendentious. In 80 000 words she takes aim at male dominance, the undereducation of woman and the sophistry of using the Bible to support injustice. She was unsparing of members of her own sex, ”I have throughout supposed myself talking to ignorant women – for ignorant ye are in the most emphatic sense of the word.” The very title of her book was in itself contentious. The notion that women had rights was doubted by traditionalists. Sir William Blackstone, the exalted British jurist, had said that when a woman married her rights were handed to her husband. She was to do with as he wished short of killing her. Wollstonecraft dismissed this as unjust and called it ”the divine right of hubands” which was as unreasonable and invidious as the divine right of kings.
Mary was unimpressed by French womanhood. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women she castigated Frenchwomen, ” Personal reserve, sacred respect for cleanliness and delicacy in domestic life Frenchwomen almost despise. ”
Mary was an enthusiast of the French Revolution. Indeed she dedicated a second edition of Vindication to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand was to rise to be Foreign Minister of France. She endeavoured to persuade this former Catholic bishop to make sex equality part of the Revolution’s programme. She achieved only temporary success in this regard.
Wollstonecraft was highly excited when France granted women the right to vote. Unfortunately for her this right was soon taken away. New Jersey in the United States also briefly experimented with women’s suffrage. She was optimistic that the world could move towards gender equality rapidly.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is the seminal text of feminism. This book is what made Wollstonecraft’s name. The word feminism was not invented at the time. This book is not the originary text of feminism as many think. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694) by Mary Astell had foreshadowed the gravamen of Vindication. Vindication nevertheless is an enthralling and trenchant critique of gender relations in the 18th century. Its orotund and polysyllabic style is typical of its day. Many sentences are over 50 words long and have several subordinate clauses. It is a text that demands full attention.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women Wollstonecraft wrote at length about what education should and should not be given to women. She lamented the situation current to the 1790s, ” A girl condemned [is] to sit for hours together listening to idle chat of weak nurses, or to attend at her mother’s toilet, will endeavour to join the conversation, is, indeed, very natural; and that she will imitate her mother or aunts, and amuse herself by adorning her lifeless doll, as they do in dressing the poor innocent babe is undoubtedly a most natural consequence. ” Back then ‘toilet’ meant a session of hair and makeup.
Mary castigated what passed for female education in her own day, ”A steady diet of novel reading interrupted by music and poetry, the whole undertaken in the cloying company of women much like herself of no education. All their thoughts turn on things calculated to excite the emotions, when they should reason and their conduct is unstable.” Wollstonecraft was not opposed to reading some fiction and poetry. What she disliked was creative subjects and works of imagination forming almost the entirety the female curriculum. She called for women to learn more factual subjects including Mathematics and the Sciences. Incidentally she was not keen on these subjects herself but realised that they were vital. She acknowledged that women could not be blamed for being overly sentimental and flighty. They had been conditioned into that mode. She remarked than men too behave as they are taught to. She wrote that men who wrote on the education of women, ”from Rousseau to Dr Gregory have contributed to render women more artificial…to degrade one half of the human species and render women pleasing at the expense of all virtue.”
Women were not always taught the facts of life. Wollstonecraft held that they needed to be, ”No sensible mother will restrain the natural frankness of youth by instilling such indecent cautions.”
Wollstonecraft wrote that men ‘‘in the middle rank of life are prepared for the professions…whilst women on the contrary have no scheme to sharpen their faculties.”
Wollstonecraft excoriated the way that women were trained to be vapid, ” Men condescendingly use pretty feminine phrases to soften our slavish dependence and [make us have] weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility and sweet docility of manners supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel. ” She said that women should be active and that girls should take exercise as part of their education. She described the male chauvinist view of women as being, ”Surely these weak creatures are fit only for the seraglio.” This allusion to a Turkish harem would have rammed home her point. Many Westerners viewed the Turks as licentious and decadent.
It was not enough to simply pour scorn on the extant miseducation of women. Wollstonecraft set out her stall on what sort of education she wished to institute, ”The most perfect education… is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart… to enable the individual to obtain habits of virtue as will render it independent.”
Wollstonecraft argued for faithful relationships. She slammed male philandering. She said women who gave birth unmarried should not be degraded. She also pleaded for compassion towards prostitutes. These luckless women were driven to that occupation by abject poverty. This in turn was caused by women being denied education and the chance of a decently paid job.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ranges far beyond education in its scope. She expresses a radical view on almost every issue. She voiced disapproval of monarchy. She predicted the monarchical backlash aided by the clerical authorities, ” …an outcry – the Church or the State is in danger, if faith in the wisdom of antiquity is not implicit; and they who roused by the sight of human calamity dare to attack human authority are called despisers of God, and enemies of man. These are bitter calumnies. ” She also criticised the irrationality of hereditary titles, ”After attacking the sacred majesty of kings, I shall scarcely excite surprise by adding my firm persuasion that every profession, in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power, is highly injurious to morality.”
La Nouvelle Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most popular novels of the day. Rousseaus’ retelling of the mediaeval romance of Eloise and Abelard was thought to be irresistibly romantic. Mary disliked his ‘back to nature’ radicalism. She felt he was foolish and irrational. He also called for women to be subordinated to the male sex. Wollstonecraft summed it up, ”Rosseau celebrates barbarism.”
Mary said men should not judge themselves by how men view them. This craving of male approbation made women obsess over their looks and neglect worthier subjects.
Mary was not necessarily against traditional family life, ”I do not mean to insinuate that women should be torn out of their families.”
Mary went so far as to suggest women should be allowed to become doctors. ”How many woman waste away who instead might have practised as physicians?” Within 65 years of her death a woman, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, was admitted to a medical school in the United Kingdom.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women enraged the political mainstream. For a woman to publish a book at all was not the done thing. Yet in this tome a middle class woman had launched an all out attack on the Settled Order of Things. The writer Horace Walpole savaged her as ”a hyena in petticoats.” Walpole, being the son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, was a typical member of the Tory commentariat. Other unprintable epithets were applied to her. The Church of England denounced her as doubting the Bible. They cited verses in the Good Book that prescribed male mastery over the female. In Genesis Adam says ”This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’‘ St Paul writes, ” Wives submit to your husbands”
Mary went on a journey around Scandinavia. She took her baby and a nursemaid with her. A woman embarking on a journey of several months like this was bold in itself. She wrote a series of letters which were later published. They are entitled Letters from Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This epistolary evidence shows that she was still developing her feminist and political philosophy. This was no idle holiday. She asked pertinent questions and closely observed the social system in each country. She looked for a better political model for her own country. She commented of Norway: ” You will be surprised to hear me talk of liberty; yet the Norwegians appear to me to be the most free community I have ever observed”
Mary saw the consequences of shaming women for giving birth outside of matrimony. This was a subject close to her heart since she had two children whilst unmarried. She wrote of a single mother being condemned to death for infanticide and then being spared by the King of Denmark. ” At this town he pardoned a girl condemned to die for murdering an illegitimate child, a crime seldom committed in this country. She is since married, and become the careful mother of a family. This might be given as an instance, that a desperate act is not always a proof of an incorrigible depravity of character, the only plausible excuse that has been brought forward to justify the infliction of capital punishments ”
Mary inquired into the Danish system of education and found it wanting: ” All the children learn to read, write, and cast accounts, for the purposes of common life. They have no university; and nothing that deserves the name of science is taught; nor do individuals, by pursuing any branch of knowledge, excite a degree of curiosity which is the forerunner of improvement. Knowledge is not absolutely necessary to enable a considerable portion of the community to live; and, till it is, I fear it never becomes general. ” She was fair-minded enough to be critical too. She slammed Denmark for dominating Norway. Norway was then a vassal state of Denmark.
Whilst in Paris Mary began a romantic relationship with an American resident of Paris named Gilbert Imlay. He did not wish to marry. She was uninterested in marriage because she saw it was a system for enfeoffing women. She gave birth to Imlay’s daughter.
Imlay later left her and the baby. Mary was emotionally wiped out. She tried to take her own life using laudanam. When that failed she went to Putney Bridge in London in the dead of night. She wanted to make sure no one would see her and try to rescue her. Having left careful written instructions for the upbringing of her child she then leapt into the River Thames. She was seen and saved by a passerby. She then lifted out of her severe depression. She rekindled her friendship with William Godwin. Politically they were of one mind. Their friendship blossomed into an intimate relationship. She became pregnant by Godwin and they chose to marry. Some of Godwin’s friends deprecated him for this because he had previously spoken out against matrimony and an outdated and oppressive institution. In August 1797 Mary gave birth to her second daughter who was named Mary Godwin. Unfortunately Mary Wollstonecraft caught puerperal fever. This was a perinatal illness. She died ten days later. She is interred in St Pancras Old Cemetery, London. Her grave was neglected for over a century. In recent times it has been restored and is a place of pilgrimage by her countless admirers.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an outstanding teacher and a brilliant governess. It is a pity that she did not stay in these professions for longer. What made her such a superb educator? She was ardent in her quest for truth and justice. Her pupils held her in awe. She was personable, energetic and brave. These are qualities that stand any governor, governess or tutor in good stead today.
After her death Mary Wollstonecraft was largely forgotten for a century. Those who campaigned for greater rights for women tended not to mention her even if they were conscious of the tremendous contribution she had made to the furtherance of female rights. People felt that citing Wollstonecraft would not assist the advancement of women. She was regarded as too controversial even for a radical movement. Her scepticism about religion was seen as being counterproductive to feminism. Feminism had plenty of enemies and did not need any more. The fact that she had cohabited with a man and had a child with him was regarded as scandalous in puritanical society.
Her daughter went on to run away with Shelley despite Shelley being married to Harriet at the time. Like mother, like daughter! After Harriet committed suicide over this abandonment Mary Godwin married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Therefore Wollstonecraft’s daughter is remembered as Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein.