Tuesday, 13 December 2016

"A Vindication of the Rights of Women" - Feminism's First Book

By John Opie, National Portrait Gallery


The trials of Mary Wollstonecraft who challenged church, monarchy and the social order with "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792. They called her "A Hyena in Petticoats".
    


It takes great courage and purpose to become a trailblazer within an environment in which your demands are considered scandalous, outrageous, even insane. In her greatest book, published when she was 33 years old, Mary Wollstonecraft demanded a decent education for women as a right. Further, she envisaged that the monarchy should be abolished and the church disestablished. She said, "Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man," and in this manner she pointed the way for Universal Suffrage.
Early Life
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in London in 1759. The family fell on hard times when her father lost the family money while pursuing an unsuccessful career as a gentleman farmer. Wollstonecraft moved around between Wales and England with her family, from farm to farm, and despite a short spell at day-school, she was mostly self-taught. In Hoxton near London, she met Fanny Blood, with whom she formed an attachment.
Aged 19, Wollstonecraft was obliged to take a post as a companion to a widow in Bath. Unfortunately, she hated the lifestyle but in 1781, she had to return to look after her sick mother in Enfield, eventually taking over the care of her younger siblings when her mother died. Mary, her sisters and Fanny opened a school in Newington Green, but the school failed and Fanny Blood died. Mary Woollstonecraft turned to writing.
Writing a Feminist Philosophy
Her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was published in 1787, and that same year, she travelled to Ireland to become Lord Kingsborough's daughters' governess, another unpleasant post from which she was dismissed in 1787. So Wollstonecraft took up writing again as well as translating, reading, reviewing and eventually editing Joseph Johnson's Analytical Review, a liberal journal. Through Johnson she met cultured people, Thomas Paine, Henry Fuseli, (with whom she had a relationship) William Blake and William Godwin (her final relationship) among them.
In her Reflections on the Revolution in France, she upholds the democratic programmes of the Enlightenment and condemns the trivialisation of women, before finally launching on her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Unable to Work, Ashamed to Beg
Feminine Singular by Roxane Arnold & Olive Chandler, includes a chapter from A Vindication of the Rights of Women, entitled "The bitter breed of dependents," from which the following quotation is taken:
"Girls who have been thus weakly educated are often cruelly left by their parents without any provision, and, of course, are dependent on not only the reason but the bounty of their brothers... In this equivocal humiliating situation a docile female may remain some time with a tolerable degree of comfort. But when the brother marries - a probable circumstance - from being considered as the mistress of the family, she is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden..."
Wollstonecraft continues by describing in detail the painful feelings of the dependent woman who is "unable to work, and ashamed to beg." The new wife is likely to be jealous of the little affection her husband might show to his sister "...for the present mode of education does not tend to enlarge the heart any more than the understanding." Eventually, "the spy is worked out of her home and thrown on the world, unprepared."
Travels in France
Mary Wollstonecraft's relationship with Fuseli was strained and she left him to travel on her own to France in 1792. As a result she wrote History and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, which, while upholding the principles of the Revolution, condemns specific events. While in France, she formed a deep attachment to Gilbert Imlay and the couple had a daughter, Fanny, in 1794. After returning to England, Mary learned her lover had been unfaithful and she tried to commit suicide. Imlay remained indifferent, and she made another attempt on her life in 1796 before beginning to recover from the affair.
A Birth and a Death
Her final relationship was with William Godwin who encouraged her in writing her novel The Wrongs of Woman. The couple married when she became pregnant with their daughter, the future Mary Shelley, who was to write Frankenstein. Sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft died eleven days after her daughter's birth in 1797.
The saddest aspect of her death is described by Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born. Rich says: "...the potential sources of the disease went unexplored, and women continued to die -- not from giving birth but from acute streptococcal infection of the uterus, in no way inevitably linked with the birth-process. It killed one Mary Wollstonecraft, of whom we know, and thousands of women of whom we know nothing, whose potential genius and influence we can only try to imagine."
Rich also quotes a certain Rev. Richard Polwhele: "... she [Wollstonecraft] had died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they were peculiarly liable."
Cruel labels persisted after the death of this brave and exceptional woman. She was described as "unsexed", "a philosophizing serpent" and the Anti-Jacobins claimed her work represented the propagation of whores.
Sources:
  • Feminine Singular, Roxane Arnold & Olive Chandler, Femina Books Ltd. London, 1974.
  • Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich, Virago, London, 1977.
  • Philosophy, 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood, Quercus, London, 2010.
  • The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ed. Ian Ousby, Cambridge University Press, 1988


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