Sharing my learnings from the book, Vindication: a Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon
Vindication: a Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon
The founder of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the most famous woman in Europe and America in her time. Yet her reputation over the years has suffered—until now. Acclaimed biographer Lyndall Gordon mounts a spirited defense of this brilliant, unconventional woman who held strikingly modern notions of education, single motherhood, family responsibilities, working life, domestic affections, friendships, and sexual relationships.
Offering a new interpretation for the 21st century, Gordon paints a vibrant, full portrait of Wollstonecraft, revealing how this remarkable woman’s genius reverberated through the generations, influencing not only her daughter, Mary Shelley, and other heirs, but early political philosophy in England and America as well—including the ideas of John and Abigail Adams.
- Today, Mary Wollstonecraft is enshrined in history as a hero of the women’s rights movement. She was, in her own words, “the first of a new genus”: a woman who dared to question the reigning belief that women were born inferior to men.
- Wollstonecraft’s most famous piece of writing, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, made her a celebrity both in her own time and after her death.
- As the eldest daughter of seven children, Mary bore the brunt of her mother’s discipline. Elizabeth Wollstonecraft “trained” her daughter to be obedient, like a dog. Despite these questionable parenting methods, Mary still had tender feelings for her mother. It was a different story with her father, the household’s resident despot. Edward John Wollstonecraft was an aspiring gentleman. Yet he failed in every respect. His financial endeavors amounted to nothing, he abused alcohol, and he assaulted his wife.
- One of Mary’s younger sisters, Bess, got married in October 1782. Mary frowned upon not just their union, but the entire institution of marriage. Mary resolved never to marry – so as not to be, in her words, “tied to this nasty world.” But Mary had judged Bess’s marriage incorrectly. It was, in fact, far worse than anything she could have imagined.
- At the age of just 24, Mary found herself secretly plotting to smuggle her younger sister out of her home. The plot had succeeded. Now, the question turned to finances. Bess no longer had the support of her husband; Mary was unmarried and, thanks to the law, had no right to her family’s wealth.
- In 1784, Mary and her sister Bess were two homeless, penniless young women with no work experience to speak of. And yet, they had one unexpected advantage: an old woman named Mrs. Burgh. She provided the women with advice on how they could begin a school – despite the gaps in their education – and possibly also financial assistance.
- The women took Mrs. Burgh’s advice to heart, and they set up a school two miles north of London, in Newington Green. Success came quickly.
- Mary have overflowing ideas about how women should be educated. Mary wanted to set up a system that would teach her pupils how to think – not just to learn by rote, but to compare and combine ideas in new ways.
- She taught students a simple, clear writing style, devoid of flowery language and Greek and Latin words intended to signal one’s intelligence.
- she emphasized the needs of individual students, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach that would only benefit certain children.
- Mary also centered domesticity in her work as an educator. She believed that emotional intelligence was not learned at school but at home
- While at Newington Green, Mary also had to deal with a personal tragedy that profoundly affected her for the rest of her life: the illness of her friend, Fanny. Fanny died on November 29. Before Fanny was buried, Mary cut a lock of her hair and made it into a ring. A deep depression descended upon Mary
- Mary’s writing career kicked off while she was teaching at Newington Green. These were later published in a book called Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Eventually, Mary left the school and finally pursue her writing career in earnest.
- In January 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published. In it, she demanded justice “for one-half of the human race.” Her arguments depicted modern women as silly creatures who were condemned to dress in ridiculous styles, remain ignorant, and depend on men. She railed against the marriage laws of the day, which policed both women’s bodies and their property.
- At its core, Vindication returns to the arguments Mary laid out in her first published work, Education. Domestic affections, she writes, are the key to developing a person’s mind. A proper domestic life can cut across the gender divide and help to establish a shared morality.
- Mary dreamed not of a world in which men were feminized, but one in which both sexes were politically empowered and taught the principles of kindness, compromise, nurture, and listening.
- Vindication ultimately sold about three thousand copies. That wasn’t a huge number, but the work transformed Mary into a veritable celebrity nevertheless.
- Mary met an American frontiersman named Gilbert Imlay. Mary’s heart quickly caught fire. Imlay was a living embodiment of the American ideals of freedom and equality. Moreover, he shared Mary’s views on women’s emancipation. His novels confronted issues like rape in marriage, women’s education, and divorce laws; he, like Mary, abhorred slavery. He began pursuing Mary in mid-1793. Before, Mary had argued against the constricting bonds of marriage. And yet she wished for permanence in her relationship with Imlay.
- Meanwhile, in France, the situation was growing even more dangerous for British citizens. Imlay, though, was an American, which meant he enjoyed greater standing – and safety – in the country. To help Mary, Imlay certified her as his wife with the American Ambassador. Through that act, Imlay may have saved Mary’s life. A few weeks later, the French government announced that all foreigners from countries with which France was at war would be imprisoned. That didn’t include Americans – which meant Mary was safe. She soon began referring to herself as “Mary Imlay” even though no legal contract bound her to the man she so adored.
- Mary’s relationship with Imlay would not remain sweet for long. On May 10, 1794, she gave birth to a little girl she named after her old, great friend: Fanny Blood. While Mary’s bond with her child grew inseparable, the opposite occurred in her relationship with Imlay. It turned out that Mary was right to suspect him of sleeping with other women. The discovery threw Mary into a deep depression, and Imlay’s indifference drove Mary to attempt suicide on two separate occasions.
- When she finally returned to England, she encountered something much more pleasant: an old acquaintance named William Godwin, who was an anarchist political thinker. Mary and Godwin had met years earlier through a mutual friend. Godwin read Mary’s travelogue of Scandinavia and instantly felt his impression of Mary shift. He fell in love with her. Mary, still recovering from her tortured relationship with Imlay, found her heart pierced by this new man. Ultimately, Mary was persuaded to join him in marriage – a real one this time.
- In late August 1797, Mary gave birth to another little girl, also called Mary. That girl would one day grow into a woman named Mary Shelley, the author of the novel, Frankenstein. But Mary Wollstonecraft would never get to read Frankenstein, nor get to know her newborn daughter. There was a complication during childbirth And on September 10, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft passed away.
- In the 19th century, Mary’s ideas began to gain traction again. Robert Owen, a socialist whose followers circulated passages from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Their efforts resulted in laws allowing women to join trade unions. Then there were the writers whose work glistens with Mary’s influence: George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Olive Schreiner, Henry James – and Virginia Woolf, who wrote her essay “Mary Wollstonecraft” in 1929. In it, she argued that Mary was still very much “active and alive” and that her voice and influence continued to live on in the women’s suffrage movements of the era.