We Need Their Voices Today: Mary Wollstonecraft



The first of a new genus

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London 1n 1759. Although her family had a comfortable income during her childhood, Mary’s father later lost his fortune through speculation, and the family entered a period of severe financial difficulties. He also subjected his wife to physical violence, and Mary often  slept in front of her mother’s door in order to protect her.

Because of the family’s financial problems, Mary was forced to take a number of jobs which she found very distasteful, for example as companion to an unpleasant old lady. However, while working, she tried her hand as a writer, producing a children’s book, “Original Stories From Real Life” (1788), and two pioneering feminist books, “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” and “Mary: A Fiction” (1788).

Mary Wollstonecraft then bravely decided to try to support herself through writing. As she wrote to her sister, had decided to become the first of a new genus: a professional female writer. Having learned French and German, she translated Necker’s “Of the Importance of Religious Opinions” and Saltzman’s

“Elements of Morality for the Use of Children”. Mary was helped in her new career by the liberal publisher, Joseph Johnson, who was also the publisher of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Mary met these already famous authors at Johnson’s dinner parties, and conversations with them helped to expand her knowledge and ambitions. Joseph Johnson was a very brave man. By publishing the works of radical authors, he was risking arrest by England’s repressive government. In her letters, Mary described Johnson as “a father and brother”.

Scandalous love affairs

Mary Wollstonecraft had two scandalous love affairs. At that time, according to the strict rules for female behavior, these placed her completely outside the bounds of society.

The first of these unconventional love affairs was with the already married artist Henry Fuseli. Mary proposed to Fuseli’s wife that all three of them should live together, but (not surprisingly) Fuseli’s wife rejected this plan in horror and forced her husband to break off the relationship with Mary.

Mary then decided to travel to France, where the French Revolution had just taken place. She arrived there in 1792, about a month before the execution of Louis XVI. There she fell passionately in love with an American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter named Fanny. When Britain declared war on France in 1794, Imlay registered Mary as his wife in order to protect her from the French authorities, even though they were not married.

Vindication of the Rights of Women

While in France, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution”, which was published in London in 1794. She also wrote “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) and “Vindication of the Rights of Man” (1792). Both of these were replies to Edmund Burke’s argument for conservatism,  “Reflection on the Revolution in France”.

In her book on the rights of women, Mary wrote: “My main argument is built on this simple principle, that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all”,

Wollstonecraft contends that society will degenerate without educated women, particularly because mothers are the primary educators of young children. She attributes the problem of uneducated women to men and to “…a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who [consider] females rather as women than human creatures.”

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.

“I then would fain convince reasonable men of the importance of some of my remarks; and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the whole tenor of my observations. I appeal to their understandings; and, as a fellow-creature, claim, in the name of my sex, some interest in their hearts. I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion, to make her a help meet for them! Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers: in a word, better citizens.”

Return to England and marriage to William Godwin

When France became too dangerous, Imlay had traveled to London, and Mary joined him there in 1794, hoping to continue their relationship. When he rejected her, she attempted suicide. In another attempt to win Imlay’s affections. Mary traveled to Norway to take care of Imlay’s business dealings there. But when she returned to London, Imlay once again rejected her, and she once again attempted suicide. Once again was saved, this time by someone who saw her leap from a bridge into the Thames.

Gradually recognizing that her pursuit of Imlay was hopeless, Mary resumed her writing career, encouraged, as before by by the brave publisher Joseph Johnson. At Johnson’s parties she once again met the famous novelist and philosopher William Godwin. This time, they both formed a higher opinion of each other than at their first meeting. A passionate love affair developed between them, and when Mary became pregnant, they were married. Tragically, Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. Her daughter with William Godwin would later become the wife of Godwin’s admirer, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley continued the family tradition by becoming a famous author: She created the masterpiece “Frankenstein”.

Mary Wollstonecraft, pioneering advocate of the rights of women and all human rights, we need your voice today!

This article is a chapter of John Avery’s new book “We Need Their Voices Today”. Rest of the chapters can be read HERE

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.  In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm.


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