Anniversary Post: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary WollstonecraftOn this day in 1759, the great writer Mary Wollstonecraft was born. She is probably best remembered today as one of the first and greatest feminist philosophers, but I think that is rather too small a box to cram her into. But there is no doubt that her ideas were far ahead of her time. She was even far ahead of the thinking of many of the suffragettes who came along a hundred years later. And among conservatives, I still commonly hear ideas that would offend Wollstonecraft’s thinking over two centuries ago.

I like to think of her as the female Thomas Paine. And indeed, they were friends. In fact, they were both in France together where they faced the guillotine. Paine was jailed for some time, but it isn’t clear whether or not Wollstonecraft was. She was the first to publish a response to Edmund Burke’s apologia for hereditary rule, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her book was, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. And it contains the kind of fiery rhetoric I associate with Paine. For example, she suggests that Burke would have argued in favor of crucifying Jesus. The sad thing is that I’m sure she’s right.

She followed that book two years later with what is probably her masterpiece, even though it was written hurriedly, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is mostly an argument for the proper education of women. It was generally thought at that time—even by intellectuals—that women needn’t more than a basic education. Rights of Woman is one of the founding documents of modern feminism.

Mary Wollstonecraft died young at the age of 38. It was ten days after the birth of her second daughter who would go on to be Mary Shelley, perhaps the greatest Romantic writer. Her death was due to blood poisoning from a broken placenta. It’s extremely sad and a great tragedy for our culture, but there is something satisfying in the author of Frankenstein killing her creator.

There is much more to say about Wollstonecraft. She wrote a great deal and had a very colorful life. The Wikipedia page on her is rather good, or you could read, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. Or you could read her work, much of it is available at Project Gutenberg. She also wrote narrative fiction. She’s well worth checking out.

Happy birthday Mary Wollstonecraft!

32 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

  1. “Mary Shelley, perhaps the greatest Romantic writer”

    I think that’s giving her too much credit. She was the one-hit wonder of that era.

    • But in an era that produced so much dreck, she produced something that was great. Even Jane Austen made fun of the Romantics. As a literary movement, most unfortunate.

  2. Mary Shelley wrote what could be considered today as the making of the Republican Party. Also, we wouldn’t have that wonderful movie “Young Frankenstein”. I am glad she lived and wrote.

    • And let’s not forget the first two Frankenstein movies, which I still watch to cheer myself up — especial Bride of Frankenstein. The book is very different, but amazingly good.

    • Tough contest! If you include every “deal with the devil” story as coming from “Faust” and every “science tempts humans to play God” story as coming from “Frankenstein,” the list is large on both sides. I’d probably give the edge to Shelley, though…

      • Ah, since you brought it up to… Before Faust was Doctor Faustus by Marlowe. And Marlowe got it from an old German legend. What I hate about it is that it makes no sense. No one is interested in Faust; he’s an idiot. I’ve been working with increasing intensity on my own play from the hell side of things: very bureaucratic and a Mephistopheles who falls in love with a contract day trader.

        • I haven’t read “Faust” in 20 years and remember none of it, but your version sounds like a lot of fun . . .

          • I think it’s more interesting, but it is still far too Germanic. It constantly falls into Wim Wenders when I want it to be Edward Albee.

    • I haven’t read that. I will have to get it. You are correct to point out that Shelley wrote lots more. And what piece of Romantic writing can most people name other than Frankenstein and “She Walks in Beauty”? It helps that she lived longer.

      As for Goethe, well, you might say every movie about selling one’s soul to the Devil is by him. But that doesn’t speak well of him, given I hate those movies by and large.

      • It’s actually a plot I’ve always liked, although one could argue it’s never been pulled off properly. The interesting thing about the “deal with the devil” plot is you get what you want, but it turns out what you thought you wanted wasn’t what you wanted.

        Most versions just have the devil using fine print to screw over the customer, and that’s boring. Far more dramatic is the character whose dreams come true and then realizes those dreams were shallow. That predates Goethe, though; there’s the Midas story and many more.

        There’s a nice mixture of both “Faust” and “Frankenstein” in the Spike Jonze film “Her.” (The movie doesn’t quite work, yet it has some compelling ideas which aren’t fully realized.) A futuristic AI operating system is so responsive to customers, they can make it into their perfect soulmate. Still the lonely customers don’t only want a purchased friend; they want someone who chooses to care about them. So, natch, the AI grows beyond Hu-Mans.

        Could be better, as I said, but any Spike Jonze movie is worth watching. And when one’s depressed, this great Jonze video is always worth watching, too:

        • Maybe he should have had Charlie Kaufman write the screenplay.

          The fundamental problem with Faust is that the deal is stupid. Who would take a finite amount of joy in return for an infinite amount of pain? It makes so sense. Of course, Goethe makes it interesting because he provides a loophole. And why would the Devil, in the general sense, want to screw over anyone who is willing to make that deal. It’s like someone saying, “If you give me a dollar today, I will be your slave from tomorrow onward,” would you try to screw them out of the dollar? For a long time, I wanted to stage Doctor Faustus, but I eventually decided that it was hopeless. The text is beautiful, but the story is stupid. Edward II would be much better.

  3. I have yet to read A Vindication of Rights for Women in full. I am not that interested in it although I agree with the basic idea I should have the right to an education despite not being a dude.

    Although I am not sure I agree it is satisfying that the daughter’s birth killed the mother. Obstetrical science was so horrible for so long and so many women died for no reason then no one really thought it was a good idea to do things like wash their hands. And yes, I know, men died for the same reason but I think that since women didn’t have much choice in birth control or right of refusal of sex during marriage and men always have the choice to go to war where they get hurt, it really isn’t the same.

    • Obstetrical medicine was pretty awful, and not that long ago. A prime cause pre-1960 of cerebral palsy (that’s a catch-all term for “brain injuries,” sometimes it involves cognitive functioning, sometimes just body functioning) was forceps. If a birth was difficult, some OBs would grab the fetus’s head with forceps and yank it out. It often caused damage.

      As for the ironic meaning of Shelley’s birth killing the mother of “Frankenstein,” I think our blogger is taking a long (and depressed) view here. Every human effort is pointless and we all end up dead, so at least if someone else’s tragic story amuses us as suitably fitting, it’s worth noting.

      I suspect closer to the blogger’s heart is this bit on the meaning of caring for others, how it does have importance:

      There are times, though, when any of us feel it’s all a waste of energy. And because I’m in one of those times myself right now, I won’t argue that perspective is wrong! But I do think it’s wrong.

      • I am actually not feeling too bad right now.

        Since, unlike you two, I am a theist and believe that there is an afterlife, I am not as sad about how someone dies. Outside of being sad they are no longer in my life directly though and sometimes I get really mad about that.

        • You are much mistaken. I am an atheist. I don’t fear death. My greatest fear is immortality. I can’t think of anything worse because it would include every bad thing happening infinitely many times to me. I don’t want to die right now. But I don’t fear it. At all.

            • I didn’t mean you were mistaken about my atheism; I meant you were mistaken about my atheism making me fear death. But it is an issue that many people grapple with. It helps to get older.

              • I fear death because I have no idea what will happen and worry I am wrong. Then worry I am right and am going to hell since I am a pretty awful person.

                • I’ve seen that. I have a friend who was raised Baptist and was terrified growing up that she would go to hell. I think it is a terrible thing to do to a child. But from my perspective, if God existed in that form, I would just have to accept that was doomed. If I were a Christian, however, I would be a universalist. It is the only form of Christianity that makes any sense at all.

    • It is only satisfying between Frankenstein was killed by his creation. You understand that, right? I’m not suggesting that the world was better for Mary Wollstonecraft having only lived 38 years. Her death was a great tragedy.

  4. On a different note, I am so impressed with the dancing of Walken! I heard he was a song and dance man when he was younger. I believe he also danced in that real happy movie “Pennies from Heaven.” Charles Durning could also hoof it despite his heft. Really talented people.

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