When feminism was not yet as mainstream as it is today, when women were relegated to the home, Frankenstein’s grandmother began to lead the way. It is about Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, a woman truly atypical for the times in which she had to live. Philosopher and writer, she has lived her whole life between two letters.
The figure of Mary, unfortunately, got involved in the controversy. She has been severely criticized and questioned by her peers. She died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Shelley, from an infection during childbirth.
After her death, her husband, also a writer and philosopher, William Godwin, tried to pay tribute to her by publishing his memoirs. But despite Godwin’s good will, Wollstonecraft will only be remembered for his controversies. She will therefore be a figure rejected by most of the intellectuals of the time.
His story and his work have been silenced. Kept a secret so that no one, like Mary, dares to think about and claim women’s rights. It was only later that the new wave of feminism at the start of the 20th century took on the task of dusting off its texts and bringing them to light.
Virginia Woolf and other feminists of the time took it upon themselves to bring to life the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, a misunderstood woman, arguably ahead of her time.
Mary Wollstonecraft: childhood and youth
On April 27, 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields (London, United Kingdom). She was born into a family with a stable economy, but her father ended up wasting all the family savings. In addition, his father drank too much and beat his wife. Wollstonecraft, during this time, bonded strongly with her sisters and became an important pillar of their existence.
Mary Wollstonecraft has always championed the independence of women and tried to defy convention. So she advised her sister Eliza to abandon her family. However, the world was not ready for such a thing and the fate of Eliza was rather precarious.
Mary had two important friendships in her youth that would greatly influence her professional future. They are Jane Arden and Fanny Blood. Arden brought her closer to the world of philosophy under the influence of her father. Blood died after giving birth and this fact left a huge mark on Marie.
After the death of her friend, Wollstonecraft makes a fundamental decision: to become a writer. Her first texts are a small reflection on the problems of women in the education and work system. When she wanted to look for a job, she realized that her options were reduced to two choices. Be a governess or caregiver. In addition, the education that women received at that time was very different from that of men. Therefore, it turned out to be extremely limited.
Subsequently, she began to work as a housekeeper, proving to be quite atypical in the education she gave to children. As a result of this experience, she wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Original Stories from Real Lif e (1778), her only work of children’s literature. His first work followed a fairly common style at the time. However, it is true that he did advance some of the thinking about single women, especially their economic limitations.
She later got a job at the publishing house run by Joseph Johnson. She worked there as a translator and published A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790). This text was in fact a response to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). Wollstonecraft attacked hereditary rights and the aristocracy enormously, defending the republic. But this controversial text was only the first stone of the work that was to follow.
The first feminism
Mary Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris in 1792, in a chaotic capital, where Louis XVI was to be guillotined. C ‘is when Wollstonecraft is beginning to destabilize the one hand, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1972) ; on the other, she falls madly in love with Gilbert Imlay, with whom she has a daughter. The relationship with Imlay was a failure and Wollstonecraft wrote desperate letters due to the depression she was plunged into.
It was the 18th century, a time of revolution, and Wollstonecraft was alone with her daughter. Back in the UK, she attempted suicide. Paradoxically, this vindictive woman who defended her rights and her independence was in a deep state of depression because of her sentimental failure. Talking about feminism in Wollstonecraft is somewhat contradictory, as the term was subsequently consolidated.
However, when we read A Vindication of the Rights of Women , we realize that the first steps in this struggle are here. What exactly did Mary criticize? Mary saw a problem in the rosewater novel associated with women’s lives. Indeed, women somehow justified this dependence on men and prevented themselves, but also other women, from thinking. She advocated rational education. The goal for her was to educate girls from an early age and give them the same opportunities as men.
The capacities of women are not a cause of their nature, but reside in the system itself and, more precisely, in the education received. Mary Wollstonecraft slapped almost every thinker of her time. But she went beyond the text, pushing her break with convention almost to the extreme.
She even went so far as to suggest to the artist and writer Henry Fuseli to open up his relationship with his wife and thus live together, as a threesome. Of course, at a time when polyamory was much more than a taboo, the consequences of this proposition were very harsh.
The last stage of his life
Mary Wollstonecraft struggled to overcome her romantic disillusionment. She then wrote countless letters and tried to kill herself for the second time.
In 1796, she published a work in which she collects one of her travels: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796). She set out on this journey with the intention of retrieving Imlay, but found that all was lost. In this work, she reflects on various social issues. But also on his own identity and on the relation of the “me” with the world. She calls once again for the freedom and education of women. She also finally accepts the end of her affair with Imlay.
In London, she meets William Godwin, a pioneer philosopher and writer of anarchist thought. They got married and set a standard for respecting their independence: living in separate but contiguous houses.
From that moment on, Wollstonecraft immersed herself again in her work as a writer. Unfortunately, happiness quickly disappears. Mary died shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, at the age of 38. His daughters were left in the care of Godwin, who later remarried.
Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, although its reception, as was fairly predictable, was not entirely good. In this work, Godwin documented himself through people who had known Wollstonecraft, bringing together all of his letters and works.
Today, what Wollstonecraft asked for seems the most logical thing to us, but at the time it sparked a great deal of controversy. Maybe the world wasn’t ready to welcome a woman like Mary Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft has sometimes been regarded as the first feminist. In a way, she was. Yet she is not the only woman in history to have dared to claim her rights. Feminism did not yet exist, but she began to develop it in her work, which will be recovered in the twentieth century. With Wollstonecraft, feminism was a little closer to its advent.