” Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
~~ Mary Wollstonecraft ~~
Just over 254 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft entered a world where everyone new their place; from the people who scooped out the organic waste from the privies of the well to do ( effluent from the affluent), to the aristocracy who genuflected and grovelled at the feet of the monarch, in the hope of being mentioned in royal dispatches. Society was a rigid, well ordered structure from top to bottom: but the depths of the foundations of this seemingly inert and granite like edifice were showing signs of wear and tear; some educated people were beginning to question the moral rights and wrongs of their unchangeable existence at the expense of the socially destitute, the disenfranchised, unlettered majority who did all the work and drudgery for less than a pittance, while their masters gained the benefits, and luxuriated in comfort and elegance.
Mary Wollstonecraft applied the emerging arguments of liberalism, which insisted that social status should be determined by individual ability and skill rather than the accident of birth, to women. Her landmark text, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written in 1798, argued that since women have equal reasoning powers to men, they should have equal rights. Education was the cornerstone on which she saw women building their life of equality……..” Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it,” she wrote. It`s blindingly obvious to us now, but back in the day, not only was education for the masses seen as the back door to revolutionary ideas, but education for females was seen as beyond the pale; women were inferior to men in every conceivable department, and should remain a man`s domestic beast of burden.
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their `fascinating` graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
She believed in an absolute ideal of sexual equality; equal education; equal rights; equal employment; equal pay, and picked up a fair few derogatory remarks from men of high social elevation who couldn`t stand the sight or sound of her and what she stood for. A “hyena in a petticoat” is how Horace Walpole vividly described her; now justly famed as one of feminism`s greatest pioneers, she heard worse than that in her time on earth. Her literary career has been overshadowed by her awesome political reputation, her novels, one and one third to be pedantically precise are still there to be read and enjoyed. It is said that she wrote to exorcise the memories of a hard childhood of regular periods of poverty, and of protecting her mother from a drunken husband using her as a punchbag.
She pulled herself up from the gutter by her bootstraps in order to survive; the struggle to escape the depths meant that a strong dose of hard headed, strong minded realism was required, and she had all of those in spades. Her first novel entitled, Mary – A Fiction, written during the summer of 1787 while serving as a governess in Ireland, was anything but fictional. In an age when novels masqueraded as real-life case studies, such as Moll Flanders, her novel was billed as fiction, but was in fact autobiographical, telling the tale of Mary, a self taught rational heroine who believed in defining marriage and femininity on her own terms.
“It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.”
Mary did not write fiction for bored ladies of leisure, who gobbled up winsome heroines and happy ever after endings; she took on board Locke`s idea of the tabula rasa, which was gaining ground among the Romantics and the thinking elite, that patterned behaviour inscribed itself upon the mind of the individual, and we are all the products of the society we live in, not, as was fashionably believed at the time, that behaviour patterns were biologically encoded. She realized that if people are treated as beasts, they will behave as such; give them education and meaning to their lives, and the pattern changes for the better. For such ideas, Mary was considered an undesirable political and social subversive by a ruling elite which did not want education for women and the working classes.
She rejected the masculine idea that women were essentially mentally and physically feeble, and incapable of understanding or learning, because their brain sinapses would implode if they thought too much. Mary wrote her fiction as intelligent protest: upon finishing Mary: A Fiction, she said: “I have lately written, a fiction, it is a tale to illustrate an opinion of mine, that a genius will educate itself.” She knew that knowledge is power; the old guys running the country for their own benefit knew this too, and were determined to thwart the likes of Mary at every turn, because they had the knowledge and the power it brings, and they had no intention of allowing widespread education to take root.
Mary Wollstonecraft had a strong dislike of affectation and pomposity, and possessed a clear concern that writing should be a serious and moral art which educates above all; she had no respect for any “….flimsy kind of writing,” such as that churned out by the tub load from the likes of Fanny Burney. Mary`s writing attempted to awaken readers to the radical and non-conventional, as opposed to lulling them into the soporific mental slumber of false ideals. There is still too much, market soaked, sensation literature of the kind which Mary judged as mental sludge, around today. Leaving me to think that we are desperately in need of modern hyenas in petticoats to stir things up.