“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. “- Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, England on 27 April 1759, the second eldest of six children. Emotionally neglected by both parents, she often slept outside her mother’s bedroom to protect her from Mary’s father when he came home in drunken fits. Neither parent cared about her education, resulting in Mary only having a few years of schooling.
From an early age, Mary decided, “I must be independent and earn my own subsistence or be very uncomfortable.” She escaped home at the age of nineteen and became a companion to a wealthy widow. In 1783 , with the money she’d earned, Mary opened a school at Newington Green, outside of London. Around this time, she penned her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which advocated independent thought, self-discipline, and rationality. It was published by Joseph Johnson in 1787. After informing him of her plans of becoming a full-time writer, he helped Mary find an abode in London.
There, Mary entered a new world of ideas and intellectual debate. Invited to Johnson’s afternoon dinners she conversed with other writers, artists, and political revolutionaries. The liberal Johnson had published works by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the mystical poet and painter, William Blake. Mary fell madly in love with the artist, Henry Fuseli, most famous for his erotic painting, The Nightmare. Mary was twenty-nine to his forty-seven. He fascinated her with his tales of visiting prostitutes and his pornographic drawings. At a time when proper ladies were supposed to deny their own sexual desires, Mary welcomed Fuseli speaking to her in such a frank manner. And not treating her as a fragile doll who shouldn’t hear of such things. She was devastated when he broke up with her and married one of his models, Sophia Rawlins.
To escape her pain, Mary threw herself into her writing. The French Revolution which had begun in 1789 inspired Mary and her circle. Many believed it would spread to England. Parliment member, Edmund Burke, condemned the destruction of the French aristocracy in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary defended the Revolution in Vindication of the Rights of Man. In 1790, the second printing had her name attached to it, and she became a bonafide heroine to all English supporters of the cause.
The Revolution with its dreams of liberty inspired many female writers to critique their subservient place in society. Six weeks later Mary wrote, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In it she urged women to fight for their civil and political rights. She claimed the only difference between men and women stemmed from upbringing rather than biology. If girls were granted the same education as boys they would be able to find employment and be financially independent. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. “ She encouraged women to rise “from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away.” The book made Mary one of the most famous women in Europe.
In 1792 she traveled to France. The common people had triumphed. Joie de vivre spilled out through the streets. Love affairs were encouraged; celibacy denounced as unhealthy and unnatural.
But for all the mirth, the Revolution was entering a heightened, dangerous phase. In January 1793, after King Louis XVI was guillotined, England and Spain declared war on France. Now, in France, foreigners were looked upon with suspicion. Rumors spread of guards arresting people in the middle of the night. Mary feared for her life and almost fled the country. But she had met a new man: American Gilbert Imlay.
Imlay, born in New Jersey, had fought in the American Revolution, and now worked in business (much of it shady). Even though Imlay admitted to having simultaneous relationships with other women, Mary fell deeply in love. With Imlay, she wrote in her diary, she experienced orgasms for the first time.
The happiness did not last. On a personal level, Imlay began spending much time away on business. On a global scale, the radical French leader, Robespierre, rose to power and the Terror began. Thousands of people (including many of Mary’s own friends who had supported the Revolution) were sent to the guillotine. In October, the British people living in Paris were rounded up. Luckily, Imlay had registered Mary as both his wife and an American citizen. It was at this perilous time that Mary discovered she was pregnant. She spent her days working on a new book, A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. To report accurately, she forced herself to go to the Place de la Revolution and watch the daily beheadings.
On May 14th, Mary gave birth to Fanny. When Mary joined Imlay, who had gone back to London, he informed her he didn’t want to be husband or father. Mary attempted suicide by taking laudanum. Imlay discovered the note she’d left and found her in time. Afterwards, Mary tried to fight off her depression by traveling around Europe with Fanny and a nursemaid. Nevertheless, when she returned to London and discovered Imlay living with another woman, she attempted suicide for a second time. If the first attempt was a mere cry for help, there is little doubt that the second time she really wished to die. Her letter to Imlay expressed: “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold. . . . I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude”
She stepped out one rainy October afternoon, rented a small boat, and rowed it over to the less crowded Putney Bridge. Welcoming death, she plunged into the Thames River. She expected to sink quickly as her clothes had become soaking wet from the rain. Instead, water filled her lungs and she choked. A witness jumped in and rushed Mary to a doctor who resuscitated her.
Of the suicide attempt, Mary wrote: “ I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointment; nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect, I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, it is by other circumstances that I should be dishonoured.”
Afterwards, Imlay offered Mary financial help but she wrote to him for the last time in 1796 refusing his help and saying she departed with him in peace. Since death had not embraced her as she had expected it to, Mary stoically decided to get on with her life. With this new determination, Mary penned, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The book brought her the adoring attention of William Godwin.
From the outside it appeared a bizarre pairing. Mary was passionate and freespirited. William, shy and withdrawn. The former minister had become a founding father of anarchism with his book, Political Justice. In it, Godwin spoke out against government and envisioned a future society where people lived harmoniously in total freedom.
They became very close friends but both were hesitant to make the first step towards romance. William, being naturally timid, and Mary hesitant to give her heart away again after the disasterous affairs with Fuseli and Imlay. But by 1796 they could no longer deny their love. In Godwin, Mary found her soulmate. They wrote several letters every day to each other; sharing a love for literature, philosophy, and idealistic dreams of a future utopian society. They calculated Mary’s menstrual cycle for safe times to have sex. The rhythm method worked as well as always; Mary was pregnant by December.
Godwin considered marriage a form of slavery for women (it should be remembered at this time women surrendered all financial and bodily rights to their husband). But when Mary voiced her fears of another child suffering illegitimacy, he agreed to their getting wed.
On August 30th, Mary went into labor and gave birth to Mary Godwin(who would become famous as the authoress of Frankenstein) that evening. However, the placenta never came out and a doctor was forced to take out the broken pieces by hand. The procedure, without any painkillers, took several hours. The doctor did not sterilize his hands or equipment causing an infection. Eleven days later, with Godwin by her side, Mary Wollstonecraft passed away.
The conservative Anti-Jacobin Review stated the cause of her death clearly depicted the differences in the sexes, and claimed it, “the destiny of woman.”
Godwin was too distraught to attend the funeral. He wrote his friend, Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”
Godwin channeled his grief into devoting all his time to his wife’s memory. Inspired by Rousseau’s candid Confessions, Godwin sought to write a vivid, true portrait of his wife. He gathered all her diaries and letters and published, Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”. He believed the honest portrait would enamor people to his beloved wife. That they would see her as a strong woman who had lived and loved passionately with all her being. In the preface he wrote, “ I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel in ourselves an attachment to their fate and a sympathy in their excellencies.” However, England had become increasingly conservative and the Tory press nearly demonized Mary for enjoying premarital sex and for her suicide attempts.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation remained shattered for over a century. Women were cautioned that no self-respecting female should ever read her works. Largely ignored even by 19th century suffrage activists, it was not until the twentieth century that she was embraced by such luminaries as Virginia Woolfe and Emma Goldman.
Today, Mary Wollstonecraft has reclaimed her place as the mother of the feminist movement. And unlike many of the members who believed they had to deny their feminine side in order to be equal to men, Mary embraced her femininity. She was as unafraid to love as she was to speak out against social and political injustice.
“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream. “- Mary Wollstonecraft