When feminism was not yet such an important current, when women were relegated to the domestic, Frankenstein’s grandmother began to open the way. We speak of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, a woman really atypical for the time in which he lived. Philosopher and writer, lived a lifetime between letters.
The figure of Mary, unfortunately, was involved in the controversy, was harshly criticized and questioned by their peers. He died shortly after bringing his daughter, Mary Shelley, to the world for an infection resulting from childbirth.
After her death, her husband, also a writer and philosopher, William Godwin, tried to pay homage by publishing his memoirs. But, despite Godwin’s goodwill, Wollstonecraft would only be remembered for his polemics and, consequently, would be a figure rejected by the intellectuals of the moment.
Her story and her work were silenced, kept secret so that no one, like Mary, would dare to think, to claim the rights of women. It will not be until some time later when the new wave of feminism of the early twentieth century was commissioned to dust off their texts and give them back the light.
Virginia Woolf and other feminists of the time were responsible for resurrecting Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman misunderstood and undoubtedly ahead of her time.
“The proper use of reason is the only thing that makes us independent of everything, except for the same clear reason, at whose service is perfect freedom.”
Mary Wollstonecraft: childhood and youth
On April 27, 1759 Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields (London, United Kingdom). He was born into a family with a stable economic position, but his father ended up wasting all the family savings. His father also used to drink too much and beat his wife. Wollstonecraft became deeply attached to her sisters and became an important pillar for them.
Wollstonecraft always defended the independence of the woman and tried to defy the conventions. Thus, he advised his sister Eliza to leave his family, but the world was not prepared for such a thing and the fate of Eliza was quite precarious.
Mary had two important friendships in her youth that would greatly influence her professional future: Jane Arden and Fanny Blood. Arden brought her by the influence of her father to the world of philosophy. Blood died after giving birth and this fact marked Mary greatly.
After the death of her friend, Wollstonecraft makes a fundamental decision: to become a writer. His first texts are a small reflection on the problems of women in the education and labor system. When she wanted to find a job, she realized that her chances were reduced to two: being a governess or caregiver. In addition, the education received by women was very different from that of men and, as a consequence, it was tremendously limited.
She began working as a governess, proving to be quite atypical with the education she taught to children. As a result of this experience, he writes Reflections on the education of daughters (1787) and original stories of real life (1778), his only work of children’s literature. His first work was a fairly common style at the time, but it is true that he advanced some of the reflections on the single woman, especially their economic limitations.
Later, she obtained employment in the publishing house run by Joseph Johnson, worked as a translator and published Vindication of the rights of man (1790). This text, in fact, was a response to the publication of Burke Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). Wollstonecraft attacked enormously the hereditary rights and the aristocracy, defending the republic. But this controversial text was only the first stone for what would come next…
“As from childhood they are taught that beauty is the scepter of women, the mind adapts to the body and, wandering in its golden cage, only seeks to adore its prison”.
The first feminism
Mary Wollstonecraft landed in Paris in 1792, in a Paris plunged into chaos and in which Louis XVI was to be guillotined. At this moment, Wollstonecraft begins to destabilize: on the one hand, he writes Vindication of the rights of women (1972); and, on the other, he falls madly in love with Gilbert Imlay, with whom he has a daughter. The relationship with Imlay was a failure and Wollstonecraft wrote him desperate letters as a result of the depression in which he was plunged.
It was the eighteenth century, it was a time of revolution and Wollstonecraft was alone with a daughter. Upon his return to the United Kingdom, he tried to commit suicide. Paradoxically, this vindicating woman who defended both her rights and her independence was in a deep depression due to sentimental failure. Talking about feminism in Wollstonecraft is somewhat contradictory, since the term was consolidated later.
However, when we read Vindication of women’s rights, we realize that the first steps of this struggle are there. What exactly did Mary criticize? Mary saw a problem in the pink novel that was associated with women, because they justified in some way that dependence on man and prevented her from thinking about women. He advocated for a rational education, for educating girls early in thinking and being able to have the same opportunities as men.
The skills of women were not a cause of their nature, but resided in the system itself and, more specifically, in the education received. Mary slapped like this to almost all the thinkers of her time. But Wollstonecraft went beyond the text, taking its break with conventions to the extreme.
He even proposed to the artist and writer Henry Fuseli to open his relationship with his wife and, thus, live together the three. Of course, at a time when polyamory was much more than a taboo, the consequences of this proposition were very hard.
Mary Wollstonecraft had a hard time overcoming her love disappointment, for this reason, she wrote countless letters and tried to commit suicide for the second time in a row.
In 1796, he published a work in which he collected one of his trips: Letters written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. She undertook this trip with the intention of recovering Imlay, but discovered that everything was lost. In this work, he reflects on various social issues and even on his own identity and the relationship of the “I” with the world. It vindicates again the freedom and the education of the women and, finally, it accepts that its history with Imlay has finished.
In London, he met William Godwin, philosopher and forerunner of anarchist thought. Both married and established a norm to respect their independence: to live in separate but contiguous houses.
From this moment, Wollstonecraft is immersed again in his work as a writer. Unfortunately, happiness quickly vanished and Mary died shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, at the age of 38. Their daughters were in charge of Godwin who, later, returned to contract marriage.
Godwin published in 1798 Memories of the author of Vindication on the rights of women, although its reception, as we have anticipated, was not entirely good. In this work, Godwin was documented through people who had known Wollstonecraft, regrouped all his letters and works.
Today, what Wollstonecraft asked for seems to us the most logical, but at the time generated a great controversy. Perhaps, the world was not prepared to receive a woman like Mary Wollstonecraft.
At times, Wollstonecraft has been seen as the first feminist and, in a way, it was; although she is not the only woman in history who dared to claim her rights. Feminism was not yet born, but she began to develop it in her work, which would be recovered in the 20th century. With Wollstonecraft, feminism was a little closer.
“Let us make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers, that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”