Monday, 27 April 2009

Happy birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft

250 years ago today Mary Wollstonecraft, 'mother of feminism' was born. Feminist ideas had, of course, existed before her publication A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but in her work they began to take on their modern form.

Wollstonecraft's life was often difficult, personally and financially. Born in London, she moved to the country as a child; her father's attempt at being a gentleman farmer ruined the family financially. Wollstonecraft then had to earn her own living, and would set up a girls' school in Newington Green with her sisters and close friend Fanny Blood. However, the school was not a financial success and Blood married. When she became ill during pregnancy, Wollstonecraft went to Europe to nurse her but the illness proved fatal. Wollstonecraft returned, deeply distressed by her friend's death, and took a job as governess in Ireland.

After returning to London once more, Wollstonecraft began a career as a writer. She was again living in Newington Green, and worshipping at its Unitarian Church. The minister, Dr Richard Price, was an important friend to her and shared her enthusiasm for the American and French Revolutions. Both were part of a wider intellectual circle of political and religious radicals.

One of her books, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, drew not only upon her own teaching experience but also upon her struggle to support herself, and bemoaned the lack of careers for respectable women. In 1792, Wollstonecraft expanded upon these themes in her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This book argued that women as well as men were capable of rational reasoning and thus entitled to the rights claimed by liberalism. The granting of such rights, not least to education, would enable women to exert a more positive influence upon those around them and thus improve society as a whole. The radical nature of her arguments is apparent from the fact that women would have to wait until the twentieth century to achieve those rights.

Meanwhile, her personal life was complicated: she had relationships first with married artist Henry Fuseli and subsequently with the American Gilbert Imlay, whom she met while observing the Revolution in France (she would write an early history of it before leaving the country). The couple did not marry but had a child, Fanny, together. However, Imlay left her and she returned to London once more to try to find him. After travelling to Scandinavia with her baby and a maid to transact business for Imlay, she returned to the realisation that their relationship was definitely over and attempted suicide but was rescued.

Wollstonecraft's final relationship was perhaps her happiest: she and William Godwin, a fellow member of her literary and political circle, fell in love. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant, the couple married (incidentally scandalising many of the couple's friends since their marriage demonstrated that there had been no marriage to Imlay and Fanny was illegitimate). They lived in separate but adjacent homes, retaining their independence.

Tragically, Mary would die soon after the marriage as a conseqence of giving birth to daughter Mary. A devastated Godwin made a mistake which would damage Wollstonecraft's reputation for many years: he published a memoir which revealed her love affairs and illegitimate child. (That child would go on to marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and, as Mary Shelley, write the novel Frankenstein). As a result, she was rarely referred to publicly by the feminist movement she had inspired, until a revival of interest in her work in the late twentieth century. Today, her reputation is such that Newington Green Unitarian Church is proud to claim its place as 'birthplace of feminism'.

Image: Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, from Wikimedia Commons.


Roberta Wedge said...

Lots going on for Mary's birthday! I came across this today, apparently from a man working in social change :

An Australian law professor wrote a syndicated article:

The tombstone tribute was a moving ceremony:

Some psychogeographers did a Mary walk:

Lots of fun!

CarolineLD said...

Thank you for these great links!

Adam said...

Very interesting. I wonder if there are any traces left of her time in France?

CarolineLD said...

An interesting point: I don't know of any, although perhaps Le Havre still has records of her daughter Fanny's birth.