This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
Mary Wollenscraft is one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of. Her presence in the school curriculum is minimal; her only appearance comes as a contextual note for ‘Frankenstein’ – the popular book written by Mary Shelley, her daughter.
Born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Wollenscraft’s early life was complicated by an erratic family. Her father was a violent drunk, who was said to have been abusive towards her mother. He constantly moved the family around England in pursuit of entrepreneurial success, once notoriously trying to establish himself as a farmer in Epping. This erratic behaviour had an economic impact: the sizeable fortune inherited by the Wollenscraft family was steadily splurged, reducing their status and rank.
To this end, Wollenscraft’s brother was the only member of the seven siblings to receive a formal education. Mary Wollenscraft had received only a few days of proper education during a short stint in Yorkshire – just enough time for her to learn how to read and write. However, it is important to note that Wollenscraft’s education, albeit largely informal, was beyond many other women of her age. She had an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare and Milton through her own love of reading, yet by the time she was a teenager she was set to enter a respectable profession.
The modern definition of feminism – that being the ideology of equality for men and women – was something Wollenscraft seemed to comply with in part, her entire life. For example, Wollstonecraft’s earliest feminist tract was ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughter’s’, published in 1786 by the radical Joseph Johnson. The tract promoted Wollstonecraft’s idea that women’s oppression stemmed from a poor education system. Joseph Johnson was also instrumental in aiding Wollenscraft’s move into the male-dominated political sphere. Whilst political activity was something incompatible with 18th Century ideals of women as elegant and passive, female literary authors were ultimately able to exhibit some creativity.
Wollstonecraft explored her identity through her works of fiction. In her book ‘Mary: A Fiction’ (1788) she explored the obstacles faced by women who were self-made and orphaned. This drew from her own experiences with the death of her mother in 1782, and the ever-absent nature of her father. Perhaps her ability to infiltrate the male-dominated world of politics owed something to this sense of undetermined identity. Her work writing for the ‘Analytical Review’ gave her a platform in which she could contribute to the literary genre and expand her knowledge, without appearing to be acting outside of her sex. In 1790, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’ was published; Wollenscraft’s infamous rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s negative analysis of the French Revolution was the first of many responses, a privilege gained through her position at the ‘Analytical Review’. Evidently, Wollenscraft was able to use her literary skill to access the highest levels of academic society, something not previously seen. Writing over 200 articles for the review proved her strength as a writer, irrespective of her sex.
Wollenscraft published her most overt feminist work, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, in 1791. Immediately, the tract was very popular: selling out three times over. By further emphasising the importance of education in ensuring equality for women, Wollenscraft directly opposed popular philosophers of the day such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that women should be educated for the ‘pleasure of men’. Perhaps Wollenscraft took inspiration from the jumbled education she had received, concluding that women were not incapable of reason, yet were simply disadvantaged by a society which prioritised literate and privileged males.
Wollstonecraft’s tract seemed radically progressive during the late 18th Century, and was rapidly translated into both German and French, whilst also becoming a hit across the Atlantic. Contemporary reactions to the book varied: esteemed male authors such as Horace Warpole condemned the book, as did female literary figures such as Hannah More. More, now viewed by some scholars as a ‘conservative feminist’, actually responded to the book by arguing that women were in fact the animal which was most ‘indebted to subordination’. Clearly, the idea of gender equality was still far off from being accepted.
Wollstonecraft’s branch of feminism may seem somewhat unimpressive to a modern audience. Amongst the pragmatic and eloquent phrases appeared to be a darker, almost misogynistic undertone. She continually condemns her sex, calling women ‘weak beings’ who more often than not are found to be ‘irrational, indolent and superstitious’. To this end, accepting Wollstonecraft as the ‘Founder of Feminism’ is problematic. Wollstonecraft, through her fortune and privilege, was able to access the male-dominated political sphere, usually through her close connections, unlike the vast majority of women she criticised.
It is interesting that Wollstonecraft’s legacy suffered so much in the period following her death; instead of being remembered as a pioneer of equal education, contemporary audiences were hasty to reprimand her as someone who transgressed gender norms. The publication of her husband’s Memoirs in 1798 did nothing to improve her image posthumously, instead portraying her as irreligious and erratic. We should be cautious to award Wollstonecraft the title of ‘Founder of Feminism’; indeed, feminism should be regarded as a movement towards gender equality that certainly predates Wollstonecraft. However, it is true that European feminists have continually been inspired by Wollstonecraft’s penetration of the male political sphere.
We will never know whether Wollstonecraft’s writings intended to draw attention to women’s social oppression, or instead solely were a product of her philosophical education. However, Wollstonecraft’s early emphasis on an education system which was fundamentally equal is an unequivocally important part of feminist history, and more generally the history of women’s struggle against oppression.