Posts Tagged ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’

Another reason to visit NYPL: See the ONLY piece of writing in Mary Wollstonecraft’s hand!

Saturday, December 10th, 2022
Martha Reineke: visiting NYPL for us.

A few weeks ago we gave Reason #1 to visit the New York Public LibraryCharles Dickens‘s desk. Now here’s Reason #2 to visit the NYPL: This is the only piece of writing in Mary Wollstonecraft’s original hand that still exists. And the NYPL has it! says Prof. Martha Reineke of the University of Northern Iowa. She writes:

“I received an excellent education in philosophy in college; however, due to the era, I never learned about Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). She is not only considered a founding feminist philosopher but also she was a major scholar of the French Revolution. Fortunately, college students today can learn about her contributions to philosophy and the study of history.

“Wollstonecraft’s life was profoundly altered by her father, who spent the funds that would have provided her with a dowry; as a consequence, she was ineligible for marriage. She would have to become a governess, which is what young women of a certain class and education did if they were precluded from marrying due to an absence of a dowry. In fact, even in the early 20th century these circumstances held: Wollstonecraft was the founder of modern feminism; Simone de Beauvoir was the founder of contemporary feminism–and, in the absence of a dowry, Beauvoir, like Wollstonecraft, had to make her own way in the world. Beauvoir started out as a teacher but went on to become one of the first generation of women in France to obtain an advanced education and the 4th in France to earn a doctorate. In the absence of dowries, these two women became legends!!!

So here’s a brief bio on Wollstonecraft:

“Wollstonecraft had access to education, largely through the support of her best friend’s father and, after a few years as a governess, she determined that she would make her own way in the world. She moved to London with a plan to support herself through writing and translating books. In pursuit of that career, she moved to Paris and had a first-hand view of the revolution. She grounded her writings on the revolution, which have long been neglected, with the tools of modern historiography: She used primary sources and she addressed with sophisticated arguments the complex political, social, and economic conditions that led to revolution. She also offered a nuanced account of the role of gender in the revolution. In multiple respects, she was 200 years ahead of her time!

Wollstonecroft, painted by John Opie

“While in Paris, Wollstonecraft also developed a relationship with Gilbert Imley, with whom she had a child. Rejected by Imlay, she returned to England and her life there as an author, writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for which she is best known (this is the book that students should read in courses in the history of political philosophy!). Wollstonecraft became involved with William Godwin, with whom she had the child Mary who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She died from an infection shortly after Mary was born. Inexplicably, Godwin published a memoir of her life in which he revealed that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imley, was pregnant with Mary before she married Godwin, had had other love affairs, and had attempted to take her own life after Imley left her. These revelations tainted her reputation, but not only in her own time. It took well over a century for the name “Mary Wollstonecraft” not to be associated with sex and scandal. As a consequence, her brilliance as a philosopher and the contributions she made to philosophy in her lifetime were all but lost forever. 19th century advocates of women’s suffrage began her rehabilitation. She gradually came to prominence during the women’s movement in the 1970s; however, women lacked a critical mass as scholars in history and philosophy during the 1970s-80s that was required for her work to be viewed as important to scholarship in these fields. Only now is she getting the recognition she has long deserved.

It was truly amazing to be able to look into a display case and see 6 inches from me the only piece of writing that still exists from the hand of Mary Wollstonecraft!