An English Governess Starts the Movement for Women’s Rights
We live in an age of revolutions, political, social, economic, and technological. But there are good grounds for claiming that the most important revolution of all that the present age has seen lies in the sphere of sexual attitudes and relations. For the first time in history, in all the more civilized countries of the globe, the female sex has achieved a position of practical equality with the male.
Very largely this astonishing transformation has taken place in quite recent times, since about the time of the First World War; but it was prepared for and led up to through many years, generations even, of effort and sacrifice on the part of unnumbered people, both men and women. If there is one person who may be said to have started it all, it was a woman who lived in England in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft, and it is not remembered so often or so gratefully as she deserved that it should be.
Not that she herself would have been surprised at that. She was used to dislike and reprobation and downright hostility, and she had unkinder tilings said about her than that she was a “hyena in petticoats” and a “philosophizing serpent”. After all, she had written a book, which was something which in those days it was considered not altogether proper for a lady to do. Worse still, she had called it A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
“Rights of women!” snorted Mrs Hannah More, one of her female critics; “we will be hearing of the rights of children next!”
Mary Wollstonecraft herself had not much experience of women’s rights, but much more than her share of woman’s wrongs. Like all the women of her time, and for long before her time and a good while after it, she had been taught that a woman’s place was in the home, as dutiful daughter, submissive and affectionate wife, and devoted parent.
That was the theory, but it hadn’t worked out like that with her. She thought of the home into which she had been born (it was in 1759, in one of the villages that then dotted the north-eastern fringe of London), a place in which the dominant personality was the father, who had wasted his patrimony in drink and wild living and made the lives of his wife and family a frequent hell. Many a time, while she was still a child, she had thrown herself between husband and wife in their violent wrangling, and had stood guard over the bedroom door in which her younger brothers and sisters were sleeping.
She had been assured that education was not necessary for a girl: she would marry in due course, and husbands in general did not like their spouses to know too much. Books put ideas into girls’ heads, ideas which they were much better without. Somehow, she had managed to get some sort of education, however; and well it was that she had done so, for the family came to depend on her poor earnings for their subsistence. The brothers who ought to have helped her sponged on her instead, and when her sister married it was to an unfeeling brute who drove her to the verge of insanity, and it was Mary who had to rescue her from the madhouse. When her best friend married, that, too, turned out to be but a poor advertisement for the married state.
At the age of nineteen she went out into the world to earn her livelihood, with no training and no influential friends to help her. She became a lady’s companion, and then a governess, and after that teacher in a school that she started herself. For nine years she kept herself, and her family, afloat in this way. Her last experience in the governessing line was in the employ of an Irish lady of title, and ended in her being given her notice by her ladyship, who with a jealous clearsightedness had noticed that her children were fonder of their governess than they were of her. She had always wanted to write, and already she had had a small book published; it was entitled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and the publisher, Mr Johnson (no relation of the famous Doctor), had paid her ten guineas for it. On the strength of this small success she went to London, where Johnson found some literary work for her to do, not least as a translator, for somehow she had managed to teach herself French.
For the first time in her life she was her own mistress, and she revelled, in her typically quiet way, in her new-found freedom. She rented a room in a back street in the Blackfriars quarter, where she toiled at her books and articles, all through each day and often far into the night. Probably it was because her room was generally in such a mess that she discouraged callers, but among those who ventured to knock at her door was Talleyrand, the French envoy, who had been sent to London with a view to persuading the British Government not to declare war on the newly established Republic. He was much taken with the literary lady, handsome rather than pretty and now arrived at the interesting age of thirty, uotwithstand-ing her untidy hair and ink-stained fingers. He found her intelligent, decidedly so, and an excellent talker, once her armour of shy reserve had been pierced. He remembered that they drank wine together, out of tea-cups since she had no glasses in her cupboard. For some time past she had been working on a book dealing with the position of women in the world, and very likely they discussed it together.
When it was published, in 1792, it bore a dedication to Talleyrand, who by now had returned to Paris and was busily engaged in drawing up a new constitution for the French people. “I dedicate this volume to you,” she wrote, “to induce you to reconsider the subject, and maturely weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education; and I call with the firm tone of humanity, for my arguments, Sir, are dictated by a disinterested spirit, I plead for my gender, not for myself…”
Talleyrand had written in the most eloquent fashion about the iniquity of excluding “one half of the human race from all participation in government”, but the half he had in view were exclusively male, just as the framers of the American Constitution when they asserted that all men are created equal, wrote “men” and meant “men”. So far as their vision and provisions went, “man” did not embrace “woman”.
No-one, with the exception of such cranks as Thomas Paine and the French philosopher Condorcet, thought there was anything in the least strange about this. From the first woman’s mistake in the Garden of Eden, the female sex had been held in subjection, and for ages the situation had been accepted as part of the natural order of things. But Mary Wollstonecraft raised her hand, or should we say, lifted her pen, against the age-old conception. “Consider,” she addressed Talleyrand, “I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason?”
Then she reminded him, and the stroke was a shrewd one, that all tyrants want to crush reason, from the weak king (such as Louis XVI) to the weak father of a family. She was willing to grant that by enlarging the female mind there would be an end to female obedience. But, “as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a plaything”. Talleyrand and his associates in the revolutionary regime had swept away the Divine Right of Kings; surely it was time that the divine right of husbands, “who are often only overgrown children”, should follow it on to the rubbish heap.
Unlike some of the women who have had a part in the feminist movement, there was nothing in the least anti-male in Mary Wollstonecraft’s contention. True, she often found men to be tiresome creatures. She deeply resented the trivial attentions that men think it manly to pay to “the sex”. What can be more insulting, disgusting rather, than the “impudent dross of gallantry” that makes men stare at every female they meet? She thought it ludicrous “when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two”. She had the harshest condemnation for those gentlemen, so-called, who boast of their “conquests”. What have they to boast about, she very pertinently asks?
She thought that something more than the sexual tie should unite husband and wife, urging that when men become more virtuous “they will wish to converse at their fireside with a friend after they cease to play with a mistress”. She protested against the generally accepted notion that woman was created to gratify man’s appetite, or to be a kind of upper servant who provides her husband’s meals and looks after his linen. But she saw nothing reprehensible in the mutual attraction of the sexes, nothing essentially low or degrading in the sexual relationship. It is natural for men to love, she agreed, but it was just as natural for women, since they, too, are human beings, with natural desires and inclinations and appetites which it was no shame to possess or to seek to gratify.
“I love man as my fellow,” she wrote, “but his sceptre, real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.” What she wanted above everything was for woman to be treated as a rational creature, with her own individuality, which she was well within her rights to seek to develop to its fullest potential of flowering.
There were so few jobs open to women, she complained, little beyond becoming milliners and mantua-makers, and of course governesses. They should be allowed to study the art of healing and become physicians as well as nurses and midwives. They might follow certain Hues of business, so that they could earn their own subsistence and not be driven to marry for support and a home, or be driven into prostitution. How many women wasted away their lives, who might have practised as doctors, run a farm, managed a small shop, and stood erect in the face of the world, supported by their own industry! “It is a melancholy truth,” she reflected, “yet such is the blessed effect of civilization, the most respectable women are the most oppressed.” Such women were pitied, of course, but (she remarked sardonically) “I have seldom seen much compassion excited by the helplessness of females, unless they were fair…”
Emboldened by her theme, she suggested that, however ludicrous it might sound, women ought to have some share in the government of the country. But above all, they ought to be educated. At a time when the great majority of the British youth, boys and girls, were left in ignorance, she drew up plans for the establishment in every parish of a day school in which the children of all classes of the community, rich and poor, high born and lowly, boys and girls alike, should be given instruction not only in reading and writing but in the elements of botany, astronomy, mechanics, natural history, and what she called natural philosophy and we know as science. “What, boys and girls together? I hear some readers ask. Yes.” What was there to be afraid of? What if the young people did form some early attachment? They might make early marriages, but this was something that should be welcomed, not deplored and prevented.
So the Vindication runs its course, page after page of excited and often muddled prose. As books go, it is not a good one; she let her pen run away too fast, but even so it could not move fast enough to keep up with the rushing stream of her thought. From beginning to last, it is a moving cry of revolt, against a male-dominated society, a purely male-governed world. If only men would snap women’s chains! If only they would be content with rational fellowship in place of slavish obedience! “They would find us then more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers, in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves.”
Was she wrong? Not surely in the appreciation of the problem and its solution, but in her time-table. She thought that the emancipation of her sex was only just round the corner, but in fact it required a hundred years and more to demonstrate the unanswerable force of her “Vindication”. Eventually her ideas bore fruit in what we know as the Women’s Movement, but this was long after she was dead.
She had pointed the way along the road, but for her the road was a hard one still. Fewer than half a dozen years were left to her after her book was published, and in large part they were filled with sorrow and disappointment. She went to Paris to see the Revolution at close quarters, and soon found that it was nothing like so glorious as she might have expected. She had a passionate affair there with an American businessman; she loved him deeply, but he left her after their child was born, and twice she attempted suicide. The second time was on a stormy November evening in 1795, when she was dragged out of the Thames into which she had plunged from Putney Bridge.
She steeled herself to keep living, and it is good to know that in her last days she met a man, dull but good, who appreciated her worth and did his best to make her happy. When a child was on the way the unconventional pair, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were married, and they set up house together in Somers Town, then a country village. The child who was born to them became the Mary Shelley of the poet’s rhapsodies, but the mother died in giving her birth. So in the end an unkind fate had the final word.
Then for a generation, two generations even, little or nothing was heard of the rights of women, although great changes were brought about in their economic position. Tens of thousands of women went out to work in the factories that were clamouring for ever more labour, and the cheaper the better. At the same time the growth of the business and manufacturing community had also resulted in a large increase in the number of unoccupied “ladies”, who were often at a loose end, as the saying goes, for something to do. It was these “drawing-room rebels” who launched the women’s movement in the middle years of the last century. Step by step, the legal and political disabilities of women were lessened or removed, and the field of their employment was vastly enlarged.
When Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 the possibility of such a transformation was hardly dreamed of, and there were few even, among women who thought it worth while to dream about. Her book seemed to have been forgotten, and her memory grew faint. But all the same, it was she who “started it all”. She found Woman in prison, and she showed how to break the bars and set her free.
- Mary Wollstonecraft on In Our Time at the BBC
- Works by Mary Wollstonecraft at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Mary Wollstonecraft at Internet Archive
- Works by Mary Wollstonecraft at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Works at Open Library
- Mary Wollstonecraft: A ‘Speculative and Dissenting Spirit’ by Janet Todd at BBC History
- Tomaselli, Sylvana. “Mary Wollstonecraft”. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Mary Wollstonecraft manuscript material, 1773–1797, held by the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library
- “Archival material relating to Mary Wollstonecraft”. UK National Archives.
- Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Exhibits relating to Mary Wollstonecraft at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford