MARY WOLLESTONECRAFT, 18th Century Advocate for Women's Rights
Many people believe that feminism first rose to the forefront during the 19th Century, as an offshoot to the abolitionists movement that lead up to the Civil War in America. Few people realize that Feminist thought started much earlier, but struggled for acceptance.
During the Revolutionary War and the early years of the American Republic, women were arguing to be included in this new idea of Independence, with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being available to all, including women. Great ladies like Abigail Adams pleaded with their husbands to "Remember the Ladies" when drawing up the Constitution of the United States, to include women in the bid for rights.
But where did this progressive thinking come from?
Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first modern feminists.
She was an English woman born in the mid-eighteenth century to a middle class
family. From her earliest years, she fought against the traditional roles
imposed upon women. She left home at seventeen to work as a ladies companion,
rather than be forced to marry a man she did not care for. She traveled to
Ireland to become a governess for Lord and Lady Kingsborough's children. She
came back to England and started a school with her sister and two friends as a
way to support herself, again resisting the idea that her financial security
could only be through marriage. Mary also wrote voraciously. After moving to
London, she met and became friends with many visionaries such as Thomas Paine,
who argued for freedom from traditional thought.
Mary went to France--alone--to observe the French Revolution. She spent a few years there, was inspired to write "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792, a passionate discourse on why women should have the same rights as men. Her work was widely read in England and in America. Even John Adams dubbed his wife Abigail as 'a Wollstonecraft disciple' with some amusement on his part.
Mary Wollstonecraft was truly a woman's advocate, as she
argued against the legal traditions that left women without rights and subject
to the rule of a husband by law. She even helped her sister flee a bad
marriage. Such was the climate of English society in the late 18th century that
Mary and her sister, Eliza, had to flee like fugitives and hide out, lest
Eliza's husband find them and force Eliza to return to his household. In the
18th century, men could do that. They could also have a wife committed to an
asylum as a means of discipline or a way to be rid of a troublesome wife. Mary
Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest champion of women's rights.
I admire Mary Wollstonecraft because she lived life her own way. She was scorned for her choices and later vilified by those who sought to quiet her voice--the voice of Freedom for Women. Thus, her works were buried under a moral morass for nearly a century and she was treated as an anathema, a frightening example of what could happen if women were given unlimited freedom. Why? Because she lived with a man she was not married to and had a child by him--way back in the 1790's. As the cloud scandal is lifted over her choice of life partners and for pursuing sexual freedom, we should once more hail her as a true heroine and warrior for women's rights. She was there, shouting out for all of us of the female gender, long before Elizabeth Cady Stanton!
If you are interested in more about her life, visit my blog Romancing History for a short article about her titled, "A Revolutionary Heart" from July 2012 or visit the research files on this site for a complete listing of scholarly books about Mary Wollstonecraft.
Note: Many people confuse Mary Wollstonecraft with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the woman who wrote Frankenstein. Not the same person, but Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary W. Shelley's mother. Mary Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever a few weeks after giving birth to her daughter Mary in 1797. That daughter would grow up to marry the Great Poet, Percy Shelley, and as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, she would give the world the great classic novel, Frankenstein.
In my latest book: Bright Scoundrel, the heroine is a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft's writings. I am also writing a Women's History book featuring women who made a difference (Feminine Voices) including a chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft.