Mary Wollstonecraft: The first of the modern feminists

Mary Wollstonecraft: The first of the modern feminists

Who was this woman who could outrage learned men and women, causing her to be named "A Hyena in Petticoats"? Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759 - September 10, 1797) was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Her husband William Godwin was one of the most prominent atheists of his day and a forefather of the anarchist movement. Her father—a quick-tempered and unsettled man, capable of beating wife, or child, or dog—was the son of a manufacturer who made money in Spitalfields, when Spitalfields was prosperous. Her mother was a rigorous Irishwoman. In 1778, when she was nineteen, Mary Wollstonecraft left home to take a situation as companion with a rich tradesman's widow at Bath. After two years she returned home to nurse her sick mother, who died after long suffering, wholly dependent on her daughter Mary's constant care. The mother's last words were often quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft in her own last years of distress—"A little patience, and all will be over." After the mother's death, Mary Wollstonecraft left home again, to live with her friend, Fanny Blood, an artist, who was at Walham Green. In 1782 she went to nurse a married sister through a dangerous illness. The father's need of support next pressed upon her. He had spent not only his own money, but also the little that had been specially reserved for his children. In 1783 Mary Wollstonecraft—aged twenty-four—with two of her sisters, joined Fanny Blood in setting up a day school at Islington, which was removed in a few months to Newington Green. Early in 1785 Fanny Blood, far gone in consumption, sailed for Lisbon to marry an Irish surgeon who was settled there. After her marriage it was evident that she had but a few months to live; Mary Wollstonecraft, deaf to all opposing counsel, then left her school, and, with help of money from a friendly woman, she went out to nurse her, and was by her when she died. Mary Wollstonecraft remembered her loss ten years afterwards in these Letters from Sweden and Norway, when she wrote: "The grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth; still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath." Mary Wollstonecraft left Lisbon for England late in December, 1785. When she came back she found Fanny's poor parents anxious to go back to Ireland; and as she had been often told that she could earn by writing, she wrote a pamphlet of 162 pages, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and was paid ten pounds for it. This she gave to her friend's parents to enable them to go back to their kindred. In all she did there is clear evidence of an ardent, generous, impulsive nature. The little payment for her pamphlet on the Education of Daughters caused Mary Wollstonecraft to think more seriously of earning by her pen. The pamphlet seems also to have advanced her credit as a teacher. After giving up her day school, she spent some weeks at Eton College with the Rev. Mr. Prior, one of the masters there, who recommended her as governess to the daughters of Lord Kingsborough, an Irish viscount, eldest son of the Earl of Kingston. In the summer of 1787, Lord Kingsborough's family, including Mary Wollstonecraft, was at Bristol Hot-wells, before going to the continent (the mainland of Europe). While there, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her little tale published as Mary, a Fiction, wherein there was much based on the memory of her own friendship for Fanny Blood. The publisher of Mary Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was the same Joseph Johnson who in 1785 was the publisher of Cowper's Task. With her little story written and a little money saved, the resolve to live by her pen could now be carried out. Mary Wollstonecraft, therefore, parted from her friends at Bristol, went to London, saw her publisher, and frankly told him her determination. He met her with fatherly kindness, and received her as a guest in his house while she was making her arrangements. At Michaelmas, 1787, she settled in a house in George Street, on the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge. There she produced a little book for children, Original Stories from Real Life, and earned by drudgery for Joseph Johnson. She translated, she abridged, she made a volume of Selections, and she wrote for an Analytical Review, which Mr. Johnson founded in the middle of the year 1788. With all this hard work she lived as sparely as she could, that she might help her family. She supported her father. That she might enable her sisters to earn their living as teachers, she sent one of them to Paris, and maintained her there for two years; the other she placed in a school near London as parlour-boarder until she was admitted into it as a paid teacher. She placed one brother at Woolwich to qualify for the Royal Navy, and he obtained a lieutenant's commission. For another brother, articled to an attorney whom he did not like, she obtained a transfer of indentures; and when it became clear that his quarrel was more with law than with the lawyers, she placed him with a farmer before fitting him out for emigration to America. She then sent him, so well prepared for his work there that he prospered well. She tried even to disentangle her father's affairs; but the confusion in them was beyond her powers of arrangement. Added to all this faithful work, she took upon herself the charge of an orphan child, seven years old, whose mother had been in the number of her friends. That was the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, thirty years old, in 1789, the year of the Fall of the Bastille; the noble life now to be touched in its enthusiasms by the spirit of the Revolution, to be caught in the great storm, shattered, and lost among its wrecks. To Burke's attack on the French Revolution Mary Wollstonecraft wrote an Answer—one of many answers provoked by it—that attracted much attention. This was followed by her Vindication of the Rights of Woman while the air was full of declamation on the Rights of Man. The claims made in this little book were in advance of the opinion of that day (the essayist Horace Walpole called her a "hyena in petticoats"), but they are claims that have in our day been conceded. They are certainly not revolutionary in the opinion of the world that has become a hundred years older since the book was written, except for her opinion of abortion. The pro-life feminist view has been largely forgotten in modern political debates, but Wollstonecraft was an avid opponent of abortion. Parts of Vindication of the Rights of Woman were damning of the sexual exploitation of women and the practice of abortion. Wollstonecraft reasoned that: Women becoming, consequently, weaker...than they ought to be...have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection...either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast if off when born. Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity. At this the Mary Wollstonecraft had moved to rooms in Store Street, Bedford Square. She was fascinated by John Henry Fuseli the romantic painter, and he was a married man. She felt herself to be too strongly drawn towards him, and she went to Paris at the close of the year 1792, to break the spell. She felt lonely and sad, and was not the happier for being in a mansion lent to her, from which the owner was away, and in which she lived surrounded by his servants. Four months after she had gone to Paris, Mary Wollstonecraft met at the house of a merchant, with whose wife she had become intimate, an American named Gilbert Imlay. He won her affections. That was in April, 1793. He had no means, and she had home embarrassments, for which she was unwilling that he should become in any way responsible. When Gilbert Imlay would have married Mary Wollstonecraft, she herself refused to bind him; she would keep him legally exempt from her responsibilities towards the father, sisters, brothers, whom she was supporting. She took his name and called herself his wife, but she did not marry. By so doing, she protected herself (as an Englishwoman, i.e. from a monarchist state) from bloodthirsty French Revolutionaries, who may have suspected her as a Fifth Columnist. A child was born to her—a girl whom she named after the dead friend of her own girlhood. And then she found that she had leant upon a reed. She was neglected; and was at last forsaken. Having sent her to London, Imlay there visited her, to explain himself away. She resolved on suicide, and in dissuading her from that he gave her hope again. He needed somebody who had good judgment, and who cared for his interests, to represent him in some business affairs in Norway. She undertook to act for him, and set out on the voyage only a week after she had determined to destroy herself. Gilbert Imlay had promised to meet her upon her return, and go with her to Switzerland. But the letters she had from him in Sweden and Norway were cold, and she came back to find that she was wholly forsaken for an actress from a strolling company of players. Then she went up the river to drown herself. She paced the road at Putney on an October night, in 1795, in heavy rain, until her clothes were drenched, that she might sink more surely, and then threw herself from the top of Putney Bridge, leaving a note for Imlay; "Let my wrongs sleep with me". She was rescued, and lived on with deadened spirit. She had lost eveything except her child; her faith in revolution, in the virtue of the people and in the possibilities of an independent woman's life. In 1796 the Letters from Sweden and Norway were published. Early in 1797 she was married to William Godwin, a philosopher who was notorious for his rejection of romance and marriage. Though they had sworn not to get married, the feminist and the enemy of matrimony were wedded at Saint Pancras' Church and settled into conjugal happiness. At least in private, Godwin was prepared to admit the force of emotion as well as of thought. Both Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin seemed - at last - to have found the emotional happiness and intellectual kinship they both sought, which made what was to come seem unbearably cruel. On September 10, 1797, at the age of thirty-eight, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin succumbed to puerperal fever after the birth of her daughter. Having survived so many difficult situations, she died when she had so much to live for. After her death, Godwin wrote to a friend, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." She is rightly remembered as one of the founders of modern feminism. Her daughter inherited her name and later become Mary Shelley, author of the classic novel: Frankenstein.

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This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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