Mary Wollstonecraft: A Radical Feminist, Then and Now

250px-MarywollstonecraftIt’s Women’s History Month, so I want to offer a shout-out to a radical thinker who believed vehemently in the equality of the sexes at a time when many thought the idea preposterous. She advocated for equal access education, contested the necessity of marriage, and dabbled in free love. She suggested that only a classless society could truly free women from the power of men.

Her name: Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

It’s not just what Wollstonecraft argued for that moves me. It’s when she did it.

Growing up, I clenched my fists and stomped my feet at the idea that being a girl made me somehow lesser than my brother or the boys in my class. I strove to run faster, get smarter, be stronger. I learned to put a worm on a hook, hold a snake, and eventually, change a tire to prove my worth.

I self-identified as a feminist, but I didn’t experience feminism as a collective thing. For me, feminism amounted to the actions of an individual girl who would not accept that her gender diminished her.

I knew of the suffragists; I’d seen images of “bra-burning” feminists from the ’60s, but the former felt distant and the latter were always presented in a negative context. That left me with what I could garner from Hollywood, where, in comedic films like Nine to Five (1980), and Mr. Mom (1983), women struggled for respect in the workplace.

Without a mentor, I didn’t have any real understanding that there were writers, teachers, and activists who were theorizing, organizing, and lobbying on behalf of me, on behalf of all women. When the Equal Rights Amendment expired in 1982, I despaired. I longed for someone to validate my ideas about women and religion, fashion, domesticity, sexuality.

I don’t think I realized how frustrated I was, or how lonely I felt, until I began reading feminist literature and theory in my twenties. The discovery of a whole body of literature that both expressed my frustrations and gave me a language through which to express them myself, electrified me.

The flood gates opened. Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Gloria Anzaldúa, the list goes on. But nothing matched the feeling I had when I first read Mary Wollstonecraft.

If I could feel so isolated during my teens in the 1980s, what could she have felt as a thirty-something in 1792? And how many other women shared her views but were further isolated by the circumstances of privilege that denied them a voice? I imagined her floating alone in a great roiling patriarchal sea, with just a few intellectual allies on her raft, shouting her convictions into the disinterested roar and spray.

In reality, the late 18th century was a relatively welcome time for such a treatise. With the social upheavals of the American and French Revolutions, the time was ripe for A Vindication, which was fairly well received, if only for a short time.

Still, with one child out-of-wedlock and another in her future, Wollstonecraft (whose daughter Mary Shelly would later write the classic Frankenstein) lived a life of daring. It must have taken tremendous courage to sit at her lonely desk and pen her disgust for the frivolities of fashion and vanity, her vision for what we’d now call public education, her belief that the degradation of women amounted to the degradation of society, and her still needed assurance to men that, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

I marveled that I could sit at my own desk almost exactly 200 years later and feel so completely connected to her. Did she long for validation too? Could she have anticipated me as her eventual audience? Would she have celebrated her inclusion in a feminist canon that she helped to originate but could hardly have dared to imagine?

I wanted to tell her, “We are here! You are right!”

Watching the relentless attacks on reproductive rights in the past year, the defeat of the Paycheck Fairness Act in June, and the delay of the Violence Against Women Act this winter—even watching the Oscars, I have experienced renewed moments of despair. But Wollstonecraft bolsters me. If she could stand up to the entrenched social mores of an aristocracy in 1792, then I can stand up to the Tea Party in 2013.

And if I need help, she is there, along with all the other women before and since, to remind all of us that: 1) we have come far, and 2) we are not alone in this fight.

Deb Werrlein is a literacy advocate and tutor for dyslexic learners. She is a freelance editor and writer who blogs at Small House Big Picture.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

  • But would Mary Wollstonecraft approve of the modern feminist movement’s position on reproductive rights? Like most early feminists, she didn’t endorse abortion: “Women becoming, consequently weaker, in body and mind, than they ought to be have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and… either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity… [M]en ought to maintain the women they have seduced… on means of stopping an abuse that has an equally fatal effect on population and morals” (Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ch. 8).

  • I am glad to discover this, belatedly. I collect and collate material about Wollstonecraft at A Vindication of the Rights of Mary. There is an irregular, intermittent series of guest posts called “Mary and Me”, about how modern individuals (author, teacher, activist) first came across Mary Wollstonecraft, and how their personal and professional lives were shaped by this encounter. Would you like to develop this piece for that new audience? Or may I just re-post it there?

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