Some time ago I wrote a post about women’s position in literature and about Ada Byron Lovelace, “the Enchantress of Numbers”, a great mathematician who invented the first prototype of a computer programme.
Today I’m going to talk about another important woman that we could define (in modern language) the first feminist philosopher who advanced the cause of women’s rights: Mary Wollstonecraft.
We can understand her support of feminist theories not only thanks to her works, but also through her “unorthodox” lifestyle.
Let’s examine together the most important moments in her “feminist” life.
First of all, she convinced her sister Eliza to leave her husband and child when she was suffering from postpartum depression. Her reply to the people who criticized her behavior was: “I knew I should be the (…) shameful incendiary in this shocking affair of a woman’s leaving her bed-fellow.”
After a difficult period, she became the editorial assistant, writer and later reviewer of a radical London publisher, Joseph Johnson. She declared she was “the first of a new genus”: she couldn’t stand that women were considered inferior to men.
Despite being unpopular because she was a spinster, she believed to be superior to many “unthinking” married women; so she wrote two political works, Thoughts on the education of daughters: with reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), in which she asserted the right of women to be educated and regarded sensibility as a proof of women’s superiority, indicating their emotions, strong feelings, passions.
Her love affairs are very “romantic”: at the beginning, she was attracted by the married painter and philosopher Henry Fuseli; then she fell in love with the liberal author Gilbert Imlay and, when the war between France and England broke out, she had to declare herself Imlay’s wife, even if they didn’t actually marry. She attempted suicide twice and her “Letters from Sweden” (that mark her recovery of mind and health) reveal that she longed for freedom and autonomy while at the same time revealing her neediness and dependence. What a contradictory mind she had, hadn’t she? But don’t forget she lived during the turbulent period of the French Revolution, which exerted a mixture of fascination and repulsion on intellectuals’ minds.
She had an illegitimate child and she finally married the anarchical and atheistic philosopher William Godwin. She wrote her last book (which remained unfinished because of her death) that states the need of women for reason, independence and companionship to express their sexuality.
She died a few days after her daughter, Mary, was born. Her daughter is very well-known, too! She was Mary Godwin Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” and wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was strongly influenced by her mother’s ideas, indeed her masterpiece is a feminist critique against the objectivist, rationalistic and scientific thought typical of male scientists and the usurpation of the female role: she criticized men who had tried to deprive women of their power to create life. Probably, the desire to give new life to her dead mother in part reflects the creation of the monster.
As we have seen, Mary Wollstonecraft overcame many taboos about women, indeed she was reviled as a “prostitute” and she was revalued only by the later feminists of the 19th century. Moreover, she believed that women had been considered inferior to men for centuries not because of their “natural” weakness, but because of their lack of education and independence.
Finally, look at this meaningful picture. It represents “Rosie the Riveter”, an icon of American popular culture. Even though this image was originally a wartime propaganda poster for the company Westinghouse, today it’s more generally seen as an icon for women workers and as a feminist motto.
We can do it because there’re no differences, don’t you agree? 🙂
Have good holidays guys!