This Day In Writing History
On April 27th, 1759, the famous Anglo-Irish writer Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, England. She was born into an upper middle class family. At first, the Wollstonecrafts had a comfortable income, but then Mary's father squandered most of their money away on bad investments. As a result, the family moved frequently to avoid creditors.
Mary Wollstonecraft's father was also a violent alcoholic and often beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Mary would stand guard outside her mother's door to protect her from her father. She would continue to be a protector, later convincing her sister Eliza to leave her husband. Unfortunately, at the time, divorce was considered disgraceful by society, so even though Eliza was able to escape her husband, her decision to leave him doomed her to a life of poverty and hard work.
Mary would have two close relationships that shaped her early life, philosophy, and writings. The first was with her friend Jane Arden. The two women developed a love of reading and read voraciously. They also attended lectures by Jane's father, a philosopher and scientist. The insecurities of Mary's childhood, being caught in the middle of her parents' volatile marriage, led her to be emotionally possessive of her friend and prone to mood swings and depression.
Mary's next great friend was Fanny Blood. Together, they envisioned living in a female utopia free from the control and influence of men. The economic realities of the day made that dream impossible. So, to support themselves, Mary, Fanny, and Mary's sisters set up a school for girls in Newington Green, which at the time was a community of Dissenters - English Protestants who had broken away from the Church of England.
Not long after the school was in operation, Fanny became engaged. She had been in chronically poor health, so after they were married, Fanny's husband took her on a trip through Europe in the hopes of restoring her health. Unfortunately, after she became pregnant, Fanny's health began to deteriorate. Mary Wollstonecraft nursed her ailing friend, and was devastated when Fanny died. Meanwhile, during her absence, her school failed. These experiences would play a part in her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788) which was a fictionalization of her life.
After Fanny Blood's death, Mary took a job as governess for a family in Ireland. She loved the children that were placed in her care, but she hated their mother, so she eventually resigned. This experience resulted in Mary's only children's book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788). After leaving her job as governess, Mary became frustrated by the few options available for a poor but respectable single woman to support herself. She would write about it in her first work of feminist philosophy, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787).
While living in London, Mary fell in love with the artist Henry Fuseli, with whom she had struck up a friendship. Unfortunately, Fuseli was married. When Mary proposed a platonic living arrangement where she would move in with Fuseli and his wife, Mrs. Fuseli was outraged. Henry broke off all ties with Mary. Hurt and humiliated by his total rejection, she decided to travel to Paris. She supported the French Revolution and had written a political pamphlet, Vindication of the Rights of Men (1791), where she attacked the aristocracy and the monarchy, promoting the constitutional republic form of government. It was a scathing retort to an essay by British conservative Edmund Burke where he defended the rule of the monarchy and the aristocracy.
Mary would use her ideas of freedom, equality, and civil rights as the backbone of her next work, which would be her most famous book. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is considered to be one of the first major works of feminist philosophy. In it, Mary proclaimed men and women equal in the eyes of God and called for equal rights for women, including the right to an education and the right to work. She believed that women should neither deny their natural sexual impulses nor allow themselves to be enslaved by them. A woman should be sensible, and sensibility meant do what you will, but harm none - including yourself.
Contrary to popular belief, Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist manifesto was mostly well received when it was published, as the subject of women's rights was a prominent issue at the time - it was even being debated in Parliament. Of course, Mary was loudly derided by staunch conservatives, including conservative women.
When she arrived in Paris in December of 1792, Mary found France in turmoil. King Louis XVI would be guillotined a month later. Nevertheless, she decided to stay and joined in the community of British and American expatriates living in Paris. She met and fell in love with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. She became pregnant with his child and gave birth in May of 1794, naming her baby daughter after her old and dear friend, Fanny Blood. Unfortunately, Imlay had no intention of becoming a husband and father.
After England declared war on France, British subjects living in France found themselves in danger. Though they weren't married, Imlay registered Mary as his wife to protect her and the baby. Some of her friends, including Thomas Paine, weren't as lucky. Some were arrested and some were even guillotined. Eventually, Imlay left Mary. He promised he would return, but never did.
Mary returned to England in 1795 and found Imlay living in London, but he rejected her. She attempted suicide - most likely by an overdose of laudanum (tincture of opium) - and Imlay saved her life. When her last attempt at winning Imlay back failed, Mary tried to drown herself in the Thames, but a stranger saw her jump into the river and rescued her. Though she had deemed suicide a rational solution to her predicament, she gave up on the idea of killing herself.
Gradually, Mary resumed her writing career and rejoined Joseph Johnson's literary circle, which at the time included novelist and philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship started slowly, but soon blossomed into a passionate love affair. When Mary became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Their marriage would reveal the fact that Mary had never been married to her daughter Fanny's father, Gilbert Imlay. They lost many friends in the ensuing scandal. William Godwin didn't care. No stranger to controversy, he was an outspoken anarchist who had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise, Political Justice (1793).
Mary and William Godwin's marriage would prove to be happy, loving, and stable. Sadly, it would also be tragically cut short. After she gave birth to their child, a daughter she named after herself, Mary contracted a serious infection when the placenta broke apart during the delivery, which was a common occurrence in the 18th century. After enduring several days of agony, Mary Wollstonecraft died in September of 1797 at the age of 38. Her husband was devastated.
Though she wouldn't live to see it, her new baby daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would grow up to marry legendary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and become a famous writer like her mother, authoring the classic horror novel, Frankenstein (1818).
Quote Of The Day
"Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives - that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers." - Mary Wollstonecraft
Today's video features a short documentary on the reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist philosophy in early post-Revolution America. Enjoy!