Mary Wollstonecraft: a legacy in language
April 27 1759 is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft, remembered today as one of the earliest modern feminists (although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t record the word ‘feminist’ in usage until 1852). Her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a landmark text in the history of feminist writing, appearing, as it did, at a time when women were not permitted the right to an education, and when many men were discussing whether they should be formally educated at all. Wollstonecraft was part of a cluster of great writers at the tail end of the eighteenth-century, and eventually married the political philosopher William Godwin. They were the parents of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
It might surprise us today that some of Wollstonecraft’s writing was decidedly non-radical; her first book, for instance, was a didactic work on female manners entitled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. But, though there were indeed many other notable women writers in the late 1700s, Wollstonecraft did develop a unique voice, and appearance, as a philosophical firebrand. She took to wearing coarse and unflattering garments, and let her hair hang loose about her shoulders, eschewing her own earlier moralistic advice to daughters. And, by the time she was in her thirties, she was turning her writerly attention towards women’s rights.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792, and its title is a play on Wollstonecraft’s own earlier pamphlet on Republicanism, A Vindication of the Rights of Man (where ‘man’ is used in the universalising sense, as in ‘mankind’). Written as a contribution to heated debates about gender equality that had sprung up against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft produced her 300-plus page book in around three months – an extraordinary feat – and it became an immediate best-seller. The substance of the book itself is less a defence of women than it is an examination of how women might come to appear ‘irrational’ or ‘frivolous’, in Wollstonecraft’s own words. By using these and similar derogatory terms, Wollstonecraft is apparently taking up the rhetoric of misogyny. However, she uses this rhetoric to argue that woman only appears inferior to man because man has deprived woman of proper educational rights. Women are ‘rendered weak and wretched’ not by nature, but by what we might now call patriarchal culture. The book is, in this sense, a precursor to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, which argues that, for great writing to flourish, the right material conditions and rights must first be granted to women writers.
The Vindication is frequently cited in the OED, and the words that Wollstonecraft’s name sits alongside often relate to her critique of female behaviour and types. Woman, she felt, was expected only to fashion herself as something ‘marriageable’, leaving her unfit for matters ‘intelligential’ – two uncommon words that she provides example for in the dictionary. Further dictionary examples are found when she writes that society makes a virtue of a woman’s ‘bashfulness’ and of ‘maidenish’ behaviour, and treats with contempt any deviation from these norms. There is a study of the figure of the ‘coquet’, and of ‘coquettish’ behaviour (meaning ‘flirtatiousness’), another pair of examples she provides in the OED. She also gives evidence of the phrase ‘over-exercised’; woman is, by the routines expected of a house-wife, left over-exercised and is unable to think creatively or intellectually. And, in an early example of the word ‘sexual’ used to refer to an issue of gender, Wollstonecraft sums up the thesis of her work elegantly: ‘A mistaken education, a narrow uncultivated mind, and many sexual prejudices, tend to make women more constant than men’. As Simone de Beauvoir would write, much later, in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.
The final thesis of the book, that woman should and must be permitted the same education as men, as a matter of human rights, is of significance in the history of humanism and equal rights, and Wollstonecraft is still considered an important voice in the struggle for gender equality today. There is, of course, an irony here – Wollstonecraft still matters to us now because we have not yet absorbed the message of feminism.
But there is a worse irony in the reception of Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft died only five years after the publication of the Vindication, in the act of giving birth to her daughter Mary; the following year, her well-meaning but perhaps misguided husband Godwin published the volume Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – a book that shocked the public with candid accounts of Wollstonecraft’s sexual history and several attempts she had made to end her own life. It proved to be greatly damaging to her reputation, and accounts of Wollstonecraft as an immoralist and a dangerously irreligious thinker dogged her memory across the nineteenth century. It is a sorry thing that Wollstonecraft, the great ‘proto-feminist’ as she is called today, was understood for so long by her representation by a man. And it is sad, too, that Wollstonecraft’s own homage to her husband is recorded in one of the very few words in the OED for which she gives the earliest example: Godwinian, ‘An adherent of William Godwin’s radical views on politics, social reform, etc’.