Mary Wollstonecraft: a pioneer advocate for equality

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REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Diane Jacobs
Abacus, 2001
333 pages, $28 (pb)

A "hyena in petticoats", wrote London literary eminence Horace Walpole in 1795 in a fit of misogynist pique against Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the groundbreaking feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. "Discharging her ink and gall on Marie Antoinette", he added for spiteful good measure against a feminist who was doubly dangerous as a supporter of the French Revolution.

Diane Jacobs' biography of Wollstonecraft is a tribute to a pioneering advocate for equality for women and justice for the poor.

Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a father with inherited wealth, and acquired alcoholism and domestic violence. He only prepared his sons for meaningful futures. Wollstonecraft was served the standard educational fare for middle-class girls of that era — sewing, simple arithmetic and just enough reading to be able to please a husband, the getting of which was the highest aim of a woman's life.

The young Wollstonecraft aimed higher, and rebelled, quietly. She borrowed and devoured books but self education, by sharpening her penetrating intellect, merely increased her dissatisfaction as her mind was blunted against the walls of social constraint faced by women.

Bored and languishing at home, "not free, not loved, not happy, not valued", Wollstonecraft made the break from her family prison when she helped her sister escape, dramatically by midnight coach, from an unhappy marriage. This successful adventure fed Wollstonecraft's assertiveness, but she first had to endure privation in a dreary Hackney boardinghouse with her rescued sister whilst working as a teacher, governess and private tutor.

Her passion for ideas undimmed, Wollstonecraft turned to writing — literary criticism and woe-filled, melancholy stories — under the patronage of a radical publisher. From this literary launchpad, Wollstonecraft rocketed to prominence when France erupted into revolution and electrified the ideals of equality and democracy throughout the world.

When Edmund Burke, spearheading the counter-charge of all alarmed conservatives in England, trashed the revolution in 1790 with Reflections on the Revolution in France, hundreds of angry replies were quick in coming.

Wollstonecraft beat them all with her pamphlet, Vindications of the Rights of Men. It was a spirited defence of democracy. With furious contempt for a society divided by birth and wealth, Wollstonecraft wrote as she thought, with emotions in full flight.

A radical, levelling pulse runs through all Wollstonecraft's writing, whether castigating the division between the "security of property" of the rich and the "misery and sweat of the labourious poor", or as in her next pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the subordination of women to men.

In the "first feminist manifesto in the history of human rights", a sprawling and enraged polemic written in haste and passion and published in 1792, Wollstonecraft argues that women were not made for men's pleasure, amusement and sexual gratification.

There should be more to life for the female half of humanity than being the "toy and rattle" of men, devoting themselves to beautifying their appearance and displaying their sexual charms whilst "hiding their minds". Independence for women was crucial to freeing them from control by men and promoting genuine relationships between men and women based on equality.

It is no surprise that Wollstonecraft was attracted to the French Revolution. The English Channel was only a narrow stretch of water but it separated two different universes.

Royalty and riches ruled in Britannia but in revolutionary France, the king was dethroned and the poor had bread and a voice in politics.

In England, women had no rights — marriage was sacrosanct and divorce could be obtained by rich men only. In France, during the height of the revolution, daughters could inherit property, divorce was legalised and the militant women of Paris marched for six hours in the rain to chase down the king and queen who had fled to organise a counter-revolutionary army from the monarchs of Europe.

Whilst many soft-centred liberals in Britain abandoned the revolutionary cause when it resorted to violent measures to quell royalist reaction, Wollstonecraft refused to betray revolutionary principles merely because "some of the instruments of the Revolution were too sharp".

She went to France to breathe the air of the future where the so-called divine right of kings to rule over their "subjects", and of men to rule over women, was under challenge. With her interest in the education of girls, Wollstonecraft was appointed to assist a commission on education and she befriended most of the moderate (Girondist) faction of the revolutionary bourgeois in the national parliament.

Wollstonecraft, for all her sympathy with the poor, nevertheless retained the professional intellectual's suspicion of "the mob", the common people, active, organised and influential over the more radical Jacobin faction.

In France, Wollstonecraft was unprepared for the harshness of some of the extremes adopted by a revolution in its life and death struggle, where fear and panic contributed to many of the excesses of its survival measures. Her criticisms of the "extremist" Jacobin leaders and popular forces surfaced in her book on the French Revolution.

The anti-Jacobin tone of her book, however, reflects not so much disappointed betrayal as "embattled idealism" — the justness of the revolution and its principles will survive when the "effervescence" of the revolutionary "terror" subsides, she argued.

Coupled with her status as a British citizen in a country now at war with Britain, her anti-Jacobin views placed her at risk of arrest. Wollstonecraft managed to avoid that by registering as the "wife" of her American lover in France, the radical bourgeois rogue Gilbert Imlay, with whom she discovered love and sexual passion. With a child born out of wedlock to Imlay, Wollstonecraft now added immorality to her list of political and feminist sins in the eyes of conservatives in London.

She returned to a London of the starving poor, political unrest, and state repression. A penniless, unwed mother, now deserted by the father of her child, Wollstonecraft fell into personal despair and twice attempted suicide.

She found renewed hope in a love affair with the radical philosopher, William Godwin. With a rekindled personal determination and social zeal, Wollstonecraft returned to writing. She began her novel Maria, Or the Wrongs of Women, advocated relationships based on independence and equality. The novel boldly promotes the right of women to freedom from unhappy marriages which keep women in poverty and despair.

The novel remained unfinished, however, as Wollstonecraft fell victim in 1797, at just 38 years of age, to one of the many "wrongs of women" at the time: an avoidable death from childbirth.

Her new child, Mary, survived and would go on to become the famous author (Mary Shelley) of Frankenstein. This novel by Wollstonecraft's daughter joined those of her mother as remarkable literary monuments in the great campaign for personal and social equality for all humanity.

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