Mary Wollstonecraft, the first feminist, was a pioneer of women’s rights and recognition of equality. Although she lived over two centuries ago, her writing still resonates today. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a seminal work that fed into the Suffragette era.
It argued the equality of woman to man, a new idea. She argued for the first time that education of girls would result in better wives and mothers as they would enjoy fulfilment and could contribute to society. Perhaps it was her early life that moulded her into a ferocious advocate for the feminine.
Cycle Of Abuse
Born in England in 1759 to an unhappily married couple locked in a cycle of abuse. Mary learnt early about the bondage of women within marriage and the gender restrictions of the patriarchy.
After her mother’s untimely death, she rescued her sister Eliza from another abusive marriage. In 1784, she took young Eliza and a family friend, Fanny Blood, with her to establish a school in outer London. Soon her other sister, Everina joined them. In 1785 Fanny left the school to marry and move to Lisbon. Sadly, she died shortly after in childbirth.
This devastated Mary and compounded her misery, as the school was struggling financially. She wrote a didactic collection of stories on her experience called Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which was later published. She also channelled her frustrations at the lot of women into a novel, Mary, A Fiction (1788), with a partly autobiographical storyline.
Needing immediate income, Mary had no choice but to find employment as the governess of two young girls. During this posting, she realised that being a governess was just another demeaning position for young women, slightly better than servitude.
Writing For A Living
This made her more determined to write for a living, as she could direct her observations and emotions concerning the lot of women into the didactic prose of the time. This was no easy matter for a woman.
But having met Samuel Johnson, an eminent publisher, she approached him about publication of her previous works and next work, one based on her governess experience. Johnson published Original Stories from Real Life in 1787. She also received an income by translating works from French and contributing to Johnson’s Analytical Review.
Circle Of Intellectuals For The First Feminist
Now in contact with intellectuals, she thrived in the company of the radical thinkers, William Blake, William Wordsmith, Thomas Paine and William Godwin. William was certainly a popular name in her time!
Emboldened by the intellectual discussions, she dared to respond in writing to Edmund Burke’s patriarchal diatribe against democracy and human rights entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary, the first feminist, wrote a fiery response to Burke’s work and Johnson published it anonymously as A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Only the second edition carried her name.
She followed this work with another, the aforementioned, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. ‘How grossly they insult us who advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic.’ she writes. A modern feminist was Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Ginsburg.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution was still in progress. Curious about this, she daringly travelled to Paris. ‘I am not born to tread the beaten track,’ she famously said.
This ‘track’ referred to the limited opportunities for women. Lady’s companion or governess were the best that life could offer for a woman wanting independence from the more common role, marriage. Florence Nightingale stood out in her time, as a woman who would not be bound by conventions.
Paris And Love For The First Feminist
In Paris, Mary fell in love with and lived with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay. In 1794 she bore a daughter to him, but a year later they separated. Devastated, she attempted suicide.
Mary then returned to London and shortly after started an affair with William Godwin, who she had known before, in the intellectual circle of Johnson. Another pregnancy forced the couple to marry, though they both opposed the institution. A daughter, Mary, was born but this happy event ended the mother Mary’s life, as she died 11 days later.
Mary, the daughter, would become Mary Shelley the writer of Frankenstein and another amazing woman of her time.
Voice Of The First Feminist
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s influence was not immediate. It took almost another century to start the wheels of societal change turning. The Suffragette movement of the Victorian era eventually championed women’s rights. But it was Mary’s early voice and strength that paved the way for such change.
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Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The last Hotel. She co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.