Some people call Mary Wollstonecraft the first feminist. Quite an impressive title, but what does it even mean? As hopeless as humans can sometimes be, society could not have gotten all the way to Wollstonecraft’s lifetime (1759-1797) before anyone thought, “Hey, this gender thing doesn’t seem fair. How come they get to vote, own property, and go to college and we don’t?”
No, Mary Wollstonecraft was not the first feminist. That’s like saying she was the first woman; it’s just not possible or rational, and negates the thoughts and opinions of many who came before her.
It’s slightly more accurate to say that Mary Wollstonecraft was the first modern feminist. I don’t know that I’m always entirely clear about what that means, either, except that putting the word “modern” in there helps us see that her brand of feminism (though they hadn’t yet coined the term when she lived) is recognizable to us today.
Not only recognizable, but almost eerily similar. Wollstonecraft was an essayist, novelist, and translator; her best-known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she attributes gender disparities in part “to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers; and the understanding of the sex has been so [cheated] by this… that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.”
And if you think that’s not still true, you haven’t watched enough reality TV. I have yet to see an episode of The Bachelor in which the group dates are about which woman is the best reader or most respected mathematician.
Isn’t it frustrating to see that we are STILL working on issues that Wollstonecraft wrote about so eloquently over 200 years ago?
This is just one reason Mary Wollstonecraft should be pretty pissed off.
Wollstonecraft’s ideas lurked in shadows for a long time because after she died her husband tried to do a nice thing. Damn him, anyway.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was controversial but overall quite well-received. After Wollstonecraft died, her husband, William Godwin, wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was a sweet gesture, wanting her to be immortalized that way, but in the book Godwin revealed what few had known, namely that Wollstonecraft had never married the father of her first daughter, Fanny, and had only reluctantly married Godwin after becoming pregnant with her second daughter, Mary.
So, Wollstonecraft has another reason to be pretty pissed off: Details about her personal life soiled her reputation to the point of nearly derailing the feminist movement for a time. (This is not to discount other feminist voices, only to emphasize that Wollstonecraft was perhaps the loudest and best-known, therefore any backlash against her would certainly make others shy away from making similar arguments, lest their own personal lives be trotted out for everyone to judge.)
If you’re wondering, William Godwin’s considerable reputation as a thinker and writer suffered only minimally for revelations that his child with Wollstonecraft was conceived out of wedlock, to which Wollstonecraft would surely exclaim, “Yes! My point exactly! This is what I’ve been writing about in all of my work! A double standard exists that is destructive and dangerous to both men and women!”
I doubt that she would have used that many exclamation points, but I got excited and editorialized it for her.
The final reason (well, the last one I have time to mention here) for Wollstonecraft to be pretty pissed off is also the final irony of her life. When Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, she was assisted by a female midwife. All was well, except that Wollstonecraft did not deliver the placenta. Because of new (for the time) standards for medical practice dictating that doctors should have specific types of degrees, and because women were excluded from higher education, the number of female midwives dropped as the number of college-educated male doctors rose. Combine this fact with a lack of knowledge about germs and Wollstonecraft ends up with a male doctor at her bedside who uses his unwashed hands to try to remove the placenta, and days later Wollstonecraft dies of infection.
Cruel irony, to be sure. But Mary Wollstonecraft has the last laugh, because the very daughter she died giving birth to would go on to become Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein and fierce feminist in her own right.