During the late eighteenth century in Western Europe, single women had little rights under the law. Married women totally lost their legal identity. No right to vote, to sign a contract, to retain a lawyer among others. Oxford law professor William Blackstone stated in 1758 on the “Laws of England.” He said the legal existence of the woman is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband. He concludes the husband and wife are one person under the law under whose wing she performs everything. Then came the bold Mary Wollstonecraft who caused a sensation with her writings. Mary is the mother of feminism. In this article, we will be delving into Mary’s massive contribution to the right of women.
Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?
It was on the 27th of April 1759 when Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft welcomed their second child. This baby girl would grow up to become Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in Spitalfields in London, she was the second of seven children. Her family became financially unstable, and she had to forfeit her inheritance. Her father was a very violent man and would always beat his wife. Mary used to sleep outside her mother’s room to protect her. Unhappy with her family life, she struck out on her own in 1778. She accepted a job as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson who was a widow. However, she has issues getting along with her describing her as an angry woman. She returned home in 1780 to care for her dying mother. She later died in 1782.
Mary was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s right. She dared do what no other woman had done as she pursued a career as a full-time professional writer without an aristocratic sponsor. She wrote many novels but is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She had affairs with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (whom she had a daughter for Fanny Imlay). Mary later married a philosopher William Godwin, one of the forefathers of the anarchist movement. Mary died at the age of 38, few days after giving birth to her second daughter (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin). This daughter later became a prolific writer herself, the author Frankenstein. The book centers on what happens when the laws of nature get violated. “I am then going to be the first of a new genius,” she said
Mary’s view on feminism through her works
- Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: In 1787, Mary released her first work. In this book, she talked about education for children. Incorporating self-discipline, honesty, social content and others in education were her opinions. She argued that women would be better wives and mothers if educated and contribute positively to the nation.
- Novels: In 1788, she wrote a biographical novel called Mary, a fiction which focussed on the social limitations oppressing women. The heroine in the story gets forced into marriage for economic purpose against her wish. Her second novel also talks about broken marriage. Her aims with the novels were to undermine sentimentalism in women. Female friendships are mutual in both novels. The friendship based on the loving bond between the upper class and a lower-class woman. It is the first time in feminist literature that women of a different economic class would have the same interest.
- Vindication of the Rights of Women: On September 10, 1791, Bishop Talleyrand advocated girls would stop at eighth grade, thus making it clear that talks of equal rights for genders were merely words. Mary began writing her famous work which took her about three months. Published on January 3, 1792, the book was sold out within a year. Johnson then issued a second edition. An American, French, and German version followed. Johnson published the book in three volumes.
Instead of seeing women as ornaments to be traded in marriage, Mary saw women as human beings who deserve the same fundamental right as men. She talks about men and women’s right to life, pursuit, and happiness. She said the lack of education is what makes women look inferior and called for women to get educated. She argued that both men and women are rational beings and that women are not inferior. She believed education could be the salvation for women. She saw a future where women could pursue any career of their choice. She agreed that women have to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers but still has an excellent cast of usefulness.
A large part of the books was used to attack book writers who were against women education. People like James Fordyce, John Gregory, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The later had written that women should be educated just for the pleasure of men. One of the most scathing critiques of this book is the issue of false and excessive sensibility. Those who succumb to sensibility cannot think rationally. She claims such women can destroy the civilization of the eighteenth century.
Adverse effect of Mary’s impact
After her death, Godwin (her husband) released a memoir about her unsettled personal life which became an easy excuse to belittle her ideas. Thought it damaged her reputation at that time, it couldn’t destroy the legacy she had left behind. Cora Kaplan in 2002 labeled her legacy as one that evolved over time. George Eliot, a prolific writer also wrote an essay on the roles and right of women in 1855. Comparing Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller who are both women activist.
Mary’s work gave rise to the movement to give women a political voice. British writer Caitlin Moran, author of the best-selling How to Be a Woman described herself as “half Wollstonecraft.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a political writer, cited the Rights of Woman in her book Infidel. She wrote that Mary Wollstonecraft inspired her. She referred to Mary as the pioneering feminist thinker who gave women the ability to reason and deserve rights like men.
Hilary Clinton might have lost the chance of becoming the first female and 45th president of the United States of America. However, we believe we will still have a female American president someday. This only shows how great women of this century have attained. Thanks to the unrelenting effort of one great woman, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Photo Credit: feministsforlife