Mary Wollstonecraft, the most radical feminist you've never heard of
Whenever I think about women’s rights, I think of the famous feminist voices of the 60s. I think of Rosie the Riveter and the women who took on “men’s work” during World War II. I might even imagine suffragettes marching in the 1910s. (Fun fact: While American women finally got the right to vote in 1920, some European countries didn’t catch on till the 1970s and 80s!) I don’t, however, think of female philosophers writing books on women’s equality in the 1700s.
Yet that is exactly what British writer Mary Wollstonecraft did. At 33, in the middle of the French Revolution, she published a book that’s still famous among literature buffs, feminists, and historians: A Vindication for the Rights of Women. In it, she argues that women only seemed inferior because they were confined to the realm of housework. This limitation turned them into “gentle domestic brutes,” while men were free to pursue knowledge and power outside the home. Education, she argued, was the key to making women equal to men.
Today, Mary’s ideas would seem mainstream. In the 1700s and 1800s, both her writing and her life were totally radical. She left an abusive home at 19, long before she was married and against her parents’ wishes, to work as a home companion and a governess. Unsatisfied with this “women’s work,” she later decided to become a professional author—unheard of among women at the time.
While she paved the way for modern women to work outside the home, Mary’s life did not always feel like a tale of triumph. In fact, her story was so sensational that her work was attacked and/or ignored for many years. Women and men alike were appalled that she struggled with depression and tried to commit suicide twice. They were even more turned off by the fact that she fell in love with a married artist, and then with an American who left her when she had his baby out of wedlock.
In her late 30s, Mary did get married—to another radical philosopher. He had, interestingly, argued in his writings that marriage should be abolished altogether. True to form, they lived in separate houses to maintain their independence. After a brief but loving relationship, she died giving birth to their child, also named Mary. The younger Mary would eventually write the world-famous Frankenstein. While she never knew her mother, Mary Shelley must certainly have benefited from her mother’s bravery and vision, as countless more women have benefited over the last 200 years.