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Mary Wollstonecraft

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Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives;….
Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft recognized long ago what the modern world is only now acknowledging ‘to educate a man is to educate an individual; to educate a woman is to educate a nation’. How ironic, that separated by time and distance the same ideas reverberate today; the very ideas that plagued Mary Wollstonecraft and labeled her a woman of dubious character. Tragically, society was too interested in what she did and not in what she said. It was only at the start of the twentieth century when women’s movements gained ground, that Wollstonecraft’s true genius was recognized and acknowledged.

It galled Wollstonecraft to see how:

Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.” (Wollstonecraft)

She was of the opinion that men and women are both born equal, with equal intelligence and abilities. However, women, even the educated ones, are expected to be subservient to men and that she felt was such a waste of an educated mind. She abhorred the ‘mindless’ tittering socialites, who never harbored a serious notion in their heads and behaved as though they were helpless without their men. The simpering socialites sickened her and turned her stomach, especially after she had served as ladies maid to Sarah Dawson, and later as governess to a titled family.

Mary Wollstonecraft was an unconventional person; her home life was rather dreary and dour and compelled her to seek her own fortune. Sadly, the job she landed was as a ladies maid, and was no better than her life at home. She was forced to return home to nurse her ailing mother until her mother passed away.

The most daring feat that Mary probably ever performed is getting her sister out of a miserable marriage. She encouraged her sister to leave her husband and his intimidating ways; she hide her until a divorce could be arranged, and then along with her sister and her girlhood friend, Fanny Blood, moved away to start a new life. Fanny Blood’s sister joined them too and the women together set up a school. The school’s purpose was to secure financial independence for them and it was located in the liberal-minded Newington Green, home to he Dissenters; a progressive minded group of people who believed in equality for all.

Wollstonecraft was a product of the French Revolution, especially in her ideas. She embraced the ideas of liberty and equality and was rather mortified when Edmund Burke reviled the revolution. In response to his work she penned ‘A Vindication on The Rights of Men’. This was followed by her most popular and famed work ‘A Vindication on the Rights of Women’. The book clearly spelled out her observations and beliefs that women are kept subservient only so that men may be proud of their own maleness. It is men who describe the desirable qualities of good women and women take up the refrain and behave true to type. The flittering and fluttering social beings, leading an unproductive existence of beauty routines and fainting spells nauseated her and she made no bones about it.

Wollstonecraft abhorred marriage and refused to marry the men she had affairs with; not that they wanted to marry her either. Finally, when expecting her second daughter she convinced William Godwin to marry her. She gave birth to a daughter – Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – who later became the prolific writer of FrankensteinMary Shelly.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s earlier works dealt with women and independence of thought. But her later work, described the more intimate notion of women being entitled to enjoying sexual relations. This made her famously and infamous, and for almost a century she was reviled. It was only with the birth of the feminist movements that she was vindicated.

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