Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), the founder of modern liberal feminism, was also a serious philosopher, anonymously writing a Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790, the first counter to Edmund Burke’s treatise on the dangers of the French Revolution. But it was her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with her name appearing on the title page, written in 1792, that made her famous. Responding to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had fetishized romantic love, Wollstonecraft argued that romantic love was an animal appetite which would inevitably fade away, leaving in its wake bitterness, betrayal and debauchery. Rousseau had wanted women:
“To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable”
Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought that women should be more rationally educated, so they would be content to love, get married and then have their passion transition into friendship, “that tender intimacy which is the best refuge from care.”
Although she thought that sexual attraction was a romantic delusion which destroyed friendship and corrupted the relationship between the sexes, she nevertheless fell in love with an eccentric Swiss artist, Henry Fusili, who used to voice out aloud his sexual obsessions. As Fusili was already married, Wollstonecraft attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade his wife that she should move in with them both.
In 1793 she bravely traveled alone to revolutionary Paris, where she had a ringside seat at the daily exhibition of death and destruction, and personally witnessed Louis XVI being marched off to trial. She found a refuge from fear and insecurity in the house of Gilbert Imlay, an American revolutionary soldier. Again, despite her writing about the delusory and destructive nature of romantic passion, she fell madly in love with Imlay, and when he traveled to escape her smothering emotional intensity, she wrote to him demonstrating the same desperation and dependency that she had long despised in women. On discovering that Imlay had a mistress, she twice attempted suicide, although she was still nursing her daughter Fanny from him.
In 1797 she married William Godwin (1756-1836), the anarchist political philosopher and novelist. The marriage was an unlikely affair. Wollstonecraft, who had been raised by a tyrannical, abusive, and alcoholic father, was philosophically opposed to marriage, as was Godwin. However, the two decided to marry after Wollstonecraft became pregnant (they meticulously practiced the most sophisticated birth control of the day: abstention for three days following menstruation and then frequent sex for the remainder of the month) although they maintained their own residences and friends. Godwin was a man of cold, hard reason (he initially remembered Mary as an archetypical female chatterbox who would not shut up when he wanted to listen to Tom Paine at a dinner) but Mary taught Godwin how to love, and Godwin, in return, provided Mary with the stability she needed amidst a life of tumultuous passion.
Unfortunately their happiness was only to last six months, as Mary died in great pain following the birth of her daughter, Mary Godwin. Twenty years later, Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley (she married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), would give birth to what she called her “hideous progeny” as the author of the most famous horror story of all time, Frankenstein. Thus Mary Wollstonecraft became grandmother to the most wounded of motherless children, an allegory combining the dangers of child-rearing, the fear of pregnancy and the destruction and despair that ensue from an unloved child.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s struggles to manage motherhood, career, sexual passion, obsessive love and education are the same struggles as those faced by women today, but her context was a society where women were considered legally dead once they were married. In 18th century England married women had no control of their earnings, inheritance or property and could not appear in court as a witness nor vote. Despite these obstacles Mary had the courage to suck the marrow from life as few knew how, both then and now. William Blake was acquainted with Mary, even illustrating one of her books, so it’s possible that his poem, Mary referred to her. Certainly the following extracts from Mary seem to accurately describe her character and situation:
“Mary moves in soft beauty and conscious delight,”
“Some said she was proud, some call’d her a whore,
And some, when she passèd by, shut to the door”
“O, why was I born with a different face?
Why was I not born like this envious race?
Why did Heaven adorn me with bountiful hand,
And then set me down in an envious land?”