Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797 ) was a radical in the sense that she desired to bridge the gap between mankind’s present circumstances and ultimate perfection. She was truly a child of the French Revolution and saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand. Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands. Of course, it took more than a century before society began to put her views into effect.
In 1792, she published her Vindication on the Rights of Woman, an important work which, advocating equality of the sexes, and the main doctrines of the later women’s movement, made her both famous and infamous in her own time.In this classical feminist text, she appealed to egalitarian social philosophy as the basis for the creation and preservation of equal rights and opportunities for women. The foundation of morality in all human beings, male or female, is their common possession of the faculty of reason, Wollstonecraft argued, and women must claim their equality by accepting its unemotional dictates.
Excessive concern for romantic love and physical desirability, she believed, are not the natural conditions of female existence but rather the socially-imposed means by which male domination enslaves them. She ridiculed prevailing notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. Society had bred “gentle domestic brutes.” “Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth,” women were too often nauseatingly sentimental and foolish. A confined existence also produced the sheer frustration that transformed these angels of the household into tyrants over child and servant.Education held the key to achieving a sense of self-respect and anew self-image that would enable women to put their capacities to good use. …
The ideas in Wollstonecraft’s book were truly revolutionary and caused tremendous controversy. One critic described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats”. Mary Wollstonecraft argued that to obtain social equality society must rid itself of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Mary Wollstonecraft’s views even shocked fellow radicals. Whereas advocates of parliamentary reform such as Jeremy Bentham and John Cartwright had rejected the idea of female suffrage, Wollstonecraft argued that the rights of man and the rights of women were one and the same thing.
In 1793 Edmund Burke led the attack on the radicals in Britain. He described the London Corresponding Society and the Unitarian Society as “loathsome insects that might, if they were allowed, grow into giant spiders as large as oxen”. King George IIIissued a proclamation against seditious writings and meetings, threatening serious punishments for those who refused to accept his authority.
…After being rebuffed romantically by painter Henry Fuseli, she set out for Paris in 1792. There, as a witness of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, she collected materials for An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution: and the effect it has Produced in Europe (vol I, 1794), a book which was sharply critical of the violence evident even in the early stages of the French Revolution.
At the home of some English friends in Paris Mary met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American, who was ostensibly a timber-merchant,but was involved in selling Scandinavian gunpowder to the French by running the English blockade. He was also a writer of sorts,having published “The Emigrants” a far fetched account of life and love in the wilds of America. She agreed to become his common law wife and at Le Havre in May 1794, she bore him a daughter, Fanny. In November 1795, after a four months’ visit to Scandinavia as his “wife,” she tried to drown herself from Putney Bridge, Imlay having deserted her.
Though this desperate incident was almost the end of Mary, at least it was the end of the Imlay episode. He had the decency to send a doctor to care for her, but they rarely met again. Since mary had no money, she set about providing for herself and fanny in the way she knew. The faithful Joseph Johnson had already brought out Volume I of her history of the French Revolution. Now she set to work editing and revising her “Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, a kind of thoughtful travelogue. The book was well received and widely translated.
“In this she portrays herself as a romantic unhappy wanderer in the midst of sublime nature. The work links her earlier belief in sensibility with her subsequent more rigorous rationalism, and shows how she has accepted the mind-body connection that had troubled her throughout her life. Together with her private letters to Imlay, it reveals her vacillations between neediness and dependence on the one hand, and her longing for freedom and autonomy on the other.
In her letters to Imlay she grappled with the problem of female sexual desire within society, which in The Rights of Woman she had described as needing to be controlled; she also addressed the value, power and seduction of the imagination within human relationships. ‘I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.’ ” ( Janet Todd )
And it also revived the memory of mary Wollstonecraft in the mind of an old acquaintance, William Godwin. As the author of the treatise “Political Justice” he was now as famous a philosophizing serpent as mary and was widely admired and hated as a “free thinker.” He came to call on Mary. They became friends and then lovers. Early in 1797 mary was again pregnant. William Godwin was an avowed atheist who had publicly denounced the very institution of marriage. On march 29, 1797, he ate his words and went peaceably, though reluctantly to the altar with Mary and made her his wife.
The Godwin’s were happy together, however William’s theories may have been outraged. He adored his small stepdaughter and took pride in his brilliant wife. Awaiting the birth of her child throughout the summer, Mary worked on a new novel and made plans for a book on the “management of infants”; t would have been the first of its kind. She expected to have another easy delivery and promised to come downstairs to dinner the day following. But when the labor began, on August 30, it proved to be long and agonizing. A daughter named mary Wollstonecraft, was born; ten days later, the mother died.
Occasionally, when a gifted writer dies young, one can feel, as in the example of Shelly, that perhaps he had at any rate accomplished his best work.But so recently had Mary come into her full intellectual and emotional growth that her death at the age of thirty-eight is bleak indeed. There is no knowing what mary might have accomplished now that she enjoyed a measure of domestic stability. Its possible she may have achieved little, or nothing further as a writer. But she might have been able to protect her daughters from some part of the sadness that overtook them; for as things turned out, both Fanny and mary were to sacrifice themselves.
Fanny grew up to be a shy young girl, required to feel grateful for the roof over her head, overshadowed by her prettier half sister, Mary. Godwin, for his part, married a formidable widow named Mrs. Clairmont, who brought her own daughter into the house, the Claire Clairmont who grew up to become Byron’s mistress and the mother of his daughter Allegra. Over the years Godwin turned into a hypocrite and a miser who nevertheless continued to pose as the great liberal of the day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, born the same year that “Vindication of the Rights of Women” was published, came to be a devoted admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. As a young man he therefore came with his wife to call upon Godwin. What he really sought, however, were Mary’s daughters, because they were her daughters. First he approached Fanny, but later changed his mind. Mary Godwin was then sixteen, the perfect potential soulmate for a man whose needs for soul mates knew no bounds.
They conducted their courtship in the most up-to-the-minute romantic style: beneath a tree near her mother’s grave they read aloud to each other from the “Vindication” . Soon they eloped, having pledged their “troth” in the cemetery. Godwin, the celebrated freethinker, was enraged. To make matters worse, Claire Clairmont had run off to Switzerland with them.
Not long afterward Fanny, too, ran away. She went to an inn in a distant town and drank a fatal dose of laudanum. It has been surmised that unrequited love for Shelley drove her to this pass, but there is no evidence one way or the other. One suicide that can more justly be laid at Shelly’s door is that of his first wife, which occurred a month after Fanny’sand which at any rate left him free to wed his mistress, Mary Godwin. Wife or mistress, she had to endure poverty, ostracism, and Percy,s constant infidelities. But now, at last, her father could, and did, boast to his relations that he was father-in-law to a baronet’s son. “Oh, philosophy!” as Mary Godwin Shelley remarked.
If in practice, Shelley was merely a womanizer, ompaper he was a convinced feminist. He had learned this creed from Mary Wollstonecraft. Through his verse Mary’s ideas began to be disseminated. They were one part of the vat tidal wave of political, social, and artistic revolution that arose in the late eighteenth century, the romantic movement. But because of Mary’s unconventional way of life, her name fell into disrepute during the nineteenth century, and her book failed to exert its rightful influence on the development of feminism.
Emma Willard and other pioneers of the early Victorian period indignantly refused to claim mary as their forbear. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were mercifully less straight-laced on the subject. In 1889, when Mrs Stanton and Susan B. Anthony published their “History of Woman Suffrage” , they dedicated the book to Mary. Though Mary Wollstonecraft can in no sense be said to have founded the woman’s rights movement, she was, by the late nineteenth century, recognized as its inspiration, and the “Vindication” was vindicated for the highly original work it was, a landmark in the history of society.
“Throughout her life, Mary Wollstonecraft grappled with the complexities of women’s lot: their emotional neediness as well as their wish for independence; their anxiety over motherhood as well as their enthusiasm for it; and their desire for romance, which they might theoretically despise. She believed in getting to truth through investigating personal experience – so her mode of writing was in the main intensely personal. And honest, for she would not repudiate her own experience. So in her novels she was candid about female passion, and would not reward it with a man or money. In her letters she constantly referred to her body, nerves and depressions, while in her early published works she demanded response only to her intellect.
Mary said she was a signpost to others, marked for special suffering. She is remarkable not so much for this pardonable vanity as for her constant effort to express a predicament. She seems modern: with a few changes of language, she could be a 1970s American feminist or an ambitious and self-obsessed post-modern woman demanding fulfilment on all fronts.”( Janet Todd )
“… feminist art itself also furnishes numerous examples that subvert older models of fine art, but with added layers of meaning that distinguish it from earlier iconoclastic movements. Because of the gendered significance of the major concepts of the aesthetic tradition, feminist challenges often systematically deconstruct the concepts of art and aesthetic value reviewed above. Feminist art has joined—and sometimes has led—movements within the artworld that perplex, astound, offend, and exasperate, reversing virtually all the aesthetic values of earlier times. As art-critic Lucy Lippard put it, “feminism questions all the percepts of art as we know it” . Feminist artists have challenged the ideas that art’s main value is aesthetic, that it is for contemplation rather than use, that it is ideally the vision of a single creator, that it should be interpreted as an object of autonomous value. Feminism itself came under internal criticism for its original focus on white, western women’s social situations, a familiar critique in feminist circles that has a presence in aesthetic debates. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the energies of feminist and postfeminist artists of diverse racial and national backgrounds have made the presence of women in the contemporary artworld today powerful and dramatic.