Mary Wollstonecraft: The Oxymoronic Feminist
The writings of Mary Wollstonecraft forecasted a bright future for women in which the “cultivation of the understanding” is superior to “the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment” (Wollstonecraft 313). Modern feminists appreciate her writings for their bold demands for equality, but her avant-garde position on the education of women clashed with the prevailing male-dominated dogma of the time. Wollstonecraft wrote about her conviction that women could only rise to their full potential if they were “allowed to be free in a physical, moral, and civil sense,” while simultaneously trying to reckon this idealized vision of equality to her own fraught life (Wollstonecraft 326). The full manifestation of that vision was conceived in her heart, but not ready to be birthed; a more comprehensive development of her enlightened thinking would not come to fruition until the educational emphasis of her writings could be synthesized with social sanction of women to freely explore their individuality.
Wollstonecraft’s life was unified by an unrelenting pang of discontentment, perhaps stemming from dissatisfaction in her sincere convictions constantly being slighted by a cruel society or inherent mental illness such as depression.
As youth, she watched her father squander her family’s livelihood on ill-advised business endeavors. Later on, Wollstonecraft would spend time as a governess in several households and grew increasingly discontent with the skewed educational standards for the children for which she was responsible.
Eventually, Wollstonecraft sought a more agreeable career in which she could embrace the superior measure of sensibility and intellectual ability that she believed she was endowed with. She began to write essays and treatises on the ways that society unjustly moulds and judges women.
In her book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” she writes that a well-educated woman should be able to embrace singleness and not dependent on male affections for her self worth; in her real life, Wollstonecraft tried to balance her desire for romantic relationship with her desire to be her own person. Meanwhile, Wollstonecraft’s own experience in relationships was hardly this tidy. She fell for a liberal author, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had her first child (Todd). Eventually he grew tired of her and she fell into a bout of depression. During her depression, she wrote many emotional letters in which she tried to reckon with woman’s neediness and their need for freedom. In time, Wollstonecraft met her husband William Godwin, and enjoyed a much more fulfilling relationship with him than with Imlay. She had her second child with Godwin and died in childbirth.
In the end, it was not the writings that were published during her life that really separated her worldview from that of her peers, it was her work that was published posthumously by her husband. After her death, Godwin published her unfinished work in what he thought was memorial and celebration of her life (Todd). The book disclosed her affair with Imlay, her two illegitimate children, and her depressive episodes. Unfortunately, the scandalous tales of her tragic life all but overshadowed what she had accomplished in her work for women’s equality.
Todd, Janet. “Mary Wollstonecraft: A ‘Speculative and Dissenting Spirit'” BBC News. BBC, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The Romantics And Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson Education, 2012. 304-26. Print. The Longman Anthology British Literature.