We're remembering Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist philosopher and total badass
Today is Mary Wollstonecraft’s 256th birthday, and we need to celebrate! Hundreds of years before sites like this one existed, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote treatise after treatise in defense of women’s rights. In her most famous work on women’s place in society, A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, she argued that women are not naturally “inferior” to men, but are treated as such because they aren’t given an equal education—a situation she demanded be rectified. This was revolutionary thinking for a woman living in the 18th century.
But Mary Wollstonecraft’s literary prowess aren’t the only reasons she deserves to be celebrated on this day; below is a list of eight reasons we should toast the woman who presciently commented in 1792, “Taught from infancy that beauty is a woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” While it’s unfortunate that for many these words still ring true today, by celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft we can see how far the women’s movement has come—and how much Mary would claim we have left to go.
She wasn’t afraid of female friendships
Mary loved to love. While her volatile, passionate emotions would plague many of her relationships, when she loved, she loved with her whole heart—and demanded equal loyalty from her friends. “I have formed romantic notions of friendship… I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none.” Mary’s childhood best friend Jane Arden encouraged Mary’s intellectualism: the two friends often attended lectures and read books together. However, it’s Mary’s second best friend Fanny Blood who Mary credits for “opening her mind,” and while the two friends felt differently about a female’s place in society, Mary didn’t let the disagreements get in the way of their friendship.
She helped her family through tough times
Mary’s childhood was far from happy: her father was often abusive and drunk. Mary used to sleep outside her mother’s door to protect her. After her mother’s death, she would continue to protect her sisters. When her sister Eliza battled debilitating post-partum depression, Mary made all the arrangements to help her during a time when the disease was very poorly understood.
She used her sorrows to fuel her writing.
When Mary’s beloved friend Fanny died, she took all her pain and anger out into her first novel Mary: A Fiction. Under the guise of the fictional narrative of a woman’s romantic exploits, Wollstonecraft subtly critiques the 18th-century sensibilities and its damaging effects on women. While Mary would later dismiss this novel, critics today claim Mary: A Fiction helped shape feminist discourse. Her later novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman would also critique the patriarchal nature of marriage.
She stood up for the rights of women.
As we noted before, Mary Wollstonecraft is best known as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Furious at Charles Maurice de Telleyrand-Périgord’s report to the 1791 French National Assembly that women should only receive a domestic education, she called out sexual double standards and criticized men for encouraging women to distract themselves with excessive emotions. Over a hundred years before women had the right to vote, she declared “Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of the government.” Preach.
She followed her heart, even when it was complicated
When Mary fell in love with artist Henry Fuseli, she didn’t care that he was married. Instead, she suggested that she, Fuseli, and his wife, live together. Fuseli and his wife refused. Instead of wallowing in heartbreak, Mary went to France to participate in the burgeoning revolution. There, she met American diplomat George Imlay and preceded to have a relationship that gave Mary her first child, whom she named Fanny after her friend. . Later, Mary would fall in love with intellectualist George Godwin, who was also opposed to the institution of marriage. Though the two did eventually wed, they keep separate apartments for the rest of their lives.
She was a working mom before the term existed.
While Mary was a new mother in a foreign country in the middle of a revolutionary war, she still continued to write. Even when Britain declared war on France, Mary remained in the country. She only fled when it became too dangerous for her or her child—and even then, she continued to write.
She’s the grandmother of Frankenstein.
Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 after giving birth to her second daughter Mary, later known as Mary Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein. It’s probably safe to assume that some of Mary Shelley’s literary genes came from her mother, and some of her fruitful imagination.
Her works continue to inspire women today
While Mary’s ideas were considered “radical” at the time, she’s inspired countless feminist writers. Virginia Woolf wrote of her, “She is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” Inspired by A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning would write her poem “Aurora Leigh” about the importance of education. Later, in 1855, writer George Eliot would compose an essay comparing Mary Wollstonecraft and American women’s right activist Margaret Fuller. More recently, political writer and critic of Islam’s attitude towards women Ayaan Hirsi Ali cites A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in her autobiography Infidel, claiming she was “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men and deserved the same rights.”
Happy birthday, Mary. You left us a lot to celebrate.
Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook and The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook. Her work has appeared on various sites including Jezebel, The Huffington Post, The Independent, The Bold Italic, XOJane, and Narrative. She is currently pursuing her Creative Writing MFA at Otis College of Art and Design, and lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and an invisible cat named Rufus. Her favorite word is murmur