If I could sit down and talk to Mary Wollstonecraft, our interview might look something like this…
Who you are: Mary Wollstonecraft
What you do: Write
Where you do what you do: I have lived in various places around London, as well as Paris. At one point, I had hoped to live in America. I had fond visions of the simple and free life I might live there, but those visions were not to become reality.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood and background.
Honestly, I would really rather not. I do not have many fond memories of my childhood. My father was a gambler who pretended to be a farmer. We were shuffled around quite a bit growing up. Moving residences often become quite a common theme throughout my life. My father had a quick and fierce temper, the full force of which my mother, my siblings, and I often felt. I hated my father’s brutality, though it might be said that I inherited more from him than from my weak-willed mother. I have heard it said that I have his temper and the same hatred of restrictions. Better those than weakness, I suppose. I never understood why my mother didn’t fight back. Why she didn’t try harder to give herself and her children a better life. But, had she left, she would not have been able to support herself. And leaving him would have meant loosing her children (we were, after all, his property) and facing social ostracism. Early in life I vowed I would never be dependent upon anyone for my happiness and well-being. I grew to abhor the image of marriage my parents presented. I, instead, have sought a relationship between equals in which both parties are esteemed and respected. As I wrote in my Vindication, a woman who values and flaunts her weakness might “excite tenderness and gratify the arrogant pride of a man, but the lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected.”
My mother, though I most certainly never desired to be like her, was nevertheless dear to me. I yearned for her love and attention, like any child does. However, her affections were taken completely by my eldest brother, Ned. In him she saw no fault, and though it was I who held her hand as she breathed her last, I am certain her affection toward him remained steadfast. I will admit, I have felt resentment and jealousy towards him. He, who was free to pursue the desires of his heart without thought to family duties. He entered the military, and though I repeatedly asked for his assistance in the support of our sisters, he was aloof and unfazed in regard to our struggles.
Most abrasive to me was the education I was restricted from pursuing. At home I had learned to read, but I was hungry for more. I was finally able to attend school when we moved to Beverley in the summer of 1770, but I was sorely disappointed in the curriculum at the local girl’s school. While my brothers studied history, mathematics, and Latin, I was expected to be content to learn skills suitable to women, like needlework and simple addition. I have always resented this, and have written several treatises on the importance of education for women and girls. Indeed, how can men judge women as less intelligent and less capable if we are not even given the opportunity to increase our intellect. Determined as I was to be entirely self-reliant, and as I understood that education was the gateway to opportunity, I read and educated myself in earnest. Happily, men such as John Arden helped shaped my intellect and feed my curiosity early on.
Education was the primary focus of your early work. Tell us a bit about the role education played in shaping your life, as well as that of your sisters.
My thoughts on the matter are expressed in my book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, but the topic is touched upon in other works as well.
Indeed, I recognized that a girl would certainly not get anywhere in life without the most basic of an education. However, I am not so naive as to think that education alone is a perfect savior. Growing up I heard girls be advised to hide their intellect as not to scare away suitors. What rubbish! Clearly, it is not only the education of girls that needs reforming, but the whole of society itself. As I wrote in Vindication, “men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in…till society can be differently constituted, much cannot be expected by education.”
Nevertheless, education of the whole mind has always been important to me. I myself held many teaching positions early in life, and was gracious enough to employ my sisters in similar positions. However, I never saw teaching as my heart’s passion. As a woman in the 1700s being a governess or an educator are the only somewhat respectable vocations one may consider. So, I took positions as both, and even ran a school of my own at one point, as a means to an end. The end goal, of course, being to maintain my independence and self-reliance.
And what was your heart’s passion, if not teaching?
I wanted above all to be heard. I found the norms of society rather silly and outrageously confining. I wanted to shake people–especially women–out of their haze. Did they not see the bars they were behind? Beautiful though the bars they may be, they were bars just the same. The home is not the only stage on which a woman can shine. I have always been very aware of my social standing and the expectations put on me. And, when possible I have tried to meet them. For instance, as the eldest daughter, it fell on me to provide care for my mother as her health failed, and to support my sisters as they were unwed. I put my plans on hold to be by my mother’s side as she passed from this world. I rescued my sister from an abusive marriage, even when she had second thoughts about leaving her baby behind (again, the child, as the wife, was the property of the husband). I found gainful employment for my sisters, though they continued to complain about their circumstances. When I found constant work as a writer, I sent most of my earnings to them and subsided on less than what would have been considered reasonable.
So, you see, I did not abandon all the trappings of being a woman in the 1700s. But I so deeply desired to. My independence was of the utmost importance to me. I found the fight for independence in France invigorating and inspiring. I longed for a revolution for women, and was hopeful it would come to pass in Paris. After the king was de-throned, women gained many rights they had not enjoyed before, like the right to divorce and inherit property. But, their freedom was short-lived as those who rebelled against the king’s authority began showing us that they would be no better as rulers. Robespierre’s regime put women back under men’s thumbs, and began executing anyone who did not agree with them. They were bloodthirsty and vengeful, and I turned to images of America for inspiration. There, one could be truly free. There, I could be equal to any man.
And that, I suppose, was my heart’s true passion. The equality of all and the end of injustice and oppression.
Your most influential work is A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Can you talk a little bit about your argument in the book?
Well, in the book I observed that men are in the habit of complaining about the silly and weak nature of women’s habits, and have thereby justified restricting women from obtaining an education. However, it is clear to me that women behave in this manner precisely because education has been withheld from them. Men who have advised women to only render themselves gentle, domestic brutes have done us a gross injustice indeed! Men who try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood are foolish. Let us give women the chance to prove themselves– give them the opportunity to exercise reason and develop virtue. And, if they really be capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves. Especially upsetting to me are the characteristics upheld as the cardinal virtues of femininity: gentleness, docility, and spaniel-like affection. Women are taught to only please, but such a skill is only useful to a mistress. The over-arching theme is that women are rational creatures, as men are, and deserved to be respected and educated as such.
I believe a popular saying now is that well-behaved women seldom make history. I wrote something similar in Vindication: “if we revert to history we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful or the most gentle of their sex.” They have been the ones who eschewed such notions as aspirations worthy of attainment.
How would you define beauty?
Beauty? What a silly notion, beauty. It is a phantom. A farce. It is constantly changing and therefore can never be truly attained. Furthermore, it is not at all an ideal to which one should aspire. In my lifetime, women were praised as beautiful and feminine if they were docile, gentle, affectionate, and eager to please men. These actions and mannerisms are ridiculous. Why should we appear weak and dainty? Can not a woman bear the pains of childbirth and carry the weight of raising up the next generation of leaders? Why should we act as though we do not understand the conversations of men? Can not a woman, when educated alongside a man, discuss the nature of politics and religion and philosophy alongside him as well? Why should we occupy ourselves with needlework and sewing? Can not a woman change the course of history, just as a man? Why should we prescribe to these notions of beauty when beauty is merely physical and the physical is fleeting?
No, an educated mind and a strong voice–those are the things a woman should aspire to attain. So if we must define beauty as something worth attaining, let beauty be intelligence. And passion. And independence. Let it be what you say it is. Only then will no one have the power to take it away from you.
After reading about Mary, I can’t help but notice the swings in her personality that were likely due to her tumultuous childhood. When she loved, she was fierce and jealous. She suggested unorthodox (and a little bit crazy) living conditions a couple of times in her lifetime. She suggested she move in with Henry Fuseli and his wife so she could talk to him daily. She proposed a similar arrangement when the father of her first child, Gilbert Imlay left her and moved in with his mistress. She moved in with Imlay and his mistress, insisting at Imlay be present in their daughter’s life. This arrangement was short lived, and the mistress kicked Mary out. When she and William Godwin were wed, he rented a separate apartment and spent his days there. Some of her letters, especially to Imlay while he was away on business, expressed bitterness and anger towards him for being pre-occupied with making money. She would list his faults and seem to disdain him, then turn around and beg him to love her again as he had in the beginning of their relationship. She recognized that her moods seemed to change in an instant, and called her frequent periods of depression her “dark moods.” I wonder how her mental states would be diagnosed today.
Mary Wollstonecraft had a daughter by Imlay, who they named Fanny after a dear friend of Mary’s who had died too young. She and Godwin also had a daughter who was given Mary’s name. Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to little Mary. According to the biography written by her husband, her death was due to some of the placenta being left in her uterus. The official cause of death has been determined as septicaemia.
William Godwin was devastated by his wife’s death, writing 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.” He published his biography of her just four months after her death. I would describe the biography as tender, but very matter-of-fact (he does not sugar coat his critique of some of her writings), when it was published it was highly criticized. Just as Godwin didn’t sugar coat his late wife’s works, he did not hide any aspect of her history either. People were aghast that he detailed her affections for the married Fuseli, her affair with Imlay, and her attempts to end her own life.
Mary was a fascinating woman, the life and character of whom I have only scratched the surface here.
Her second daughter followed in her footsteps, becoming acclaimed author of Frankenstein.
Wanna learn more? Check these sources out!
Memoirs of the author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ by William Godwin
Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft