Today’s offering is a guest post by Wayne Bodle, who teaches in the History Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 250th birthday. He is the author of The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (2002), and numerous articles on early American history. Professor Bodle notes the general neglect of Wollstonecraft’s landmark birthday compared to other celebrated birthdays this year, and shares with us some of his original research and thinking about family relationships in history. His research has led him to ask why family historians have been so focused on parent-child relations to the exclusion of sibling relationships, which frequently were of much greater endurance than parent-child relationships. This is an especially pertinent question when looking back more than 200 years, because death in childbirth and high infant mortality rates meant that many parent-child relationships were tragically fleeting. He thinks we should consider siblings in family history at least as much as parents.
- Woodcut by William Blake for Wollstonecraft’s “Original Stories from Real Life,” 2nd ed., 1791
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on this date in 1759 in London, the second of seven children and a daughter of the heir to a modest manufacturing fortune who squandered it in a vain search for leisured gentility. Her childhood was marked by repeated residential moves, downward social and economic mobility, her father’s occasionally abusive treatment of her mother, and parental investment in the education of only her oldest brother, Edward (Ned).
Wollstonecraft’s 250th anniversary has been far less noted this year than the bicentennials of the births of Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin. The Unitarian Church at Newington Green, in London, where she met British political and social reformers, held a symposium last Friday on “Mary Wollstonecraft and Newington Green Radicalism.” The University of Exeter sponsored a workshop the same day on “Wollstonecraft is 250: Lives, Works, Influences, Legacies.” The University of Oslo, in Norway (where Wollstonecraft traveled in 1795 to pursue the business interests of her lover, Gilbert Imlay), is today observing “Mary Wollstonecraft, 250 years.” The Council for Parity Democracy in London buries her deeply in a list of “Anniversaries of Distinguished Women: 2009.” The Center for Eighteenth Century Studies at Queen’s University Belfast has just sponsored “1759: An Interdisciplinary Conference” to assess “a year that should be as well known in British history as 1066.” Its call for papers last summer noted the death of General Wolfe, the publication of Voltaire’s Candide, the suppression of the Encyclopedie, the death of Handel, and even “the founding in Dublin of the St. James’ Brewery, by Arthur Guinness.” Wollstonecraft languishes in a long list of suggested “possible topics.” No American institutions have taken even that much notice. Governments have issued no stamps or coins and no flurry of special publications or conferences looms on the horizon.
Wollstonecraft is difficult to teach in a general education environment. Her signal production, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), is a dense text to modern undergraduate eyes. I used it in a university-required course for underclassmen, who call all books “novels” and 90- page Bedford Readers “long.” They unsurprisingly hated it, but when asked to write fictive dialogues between Mary and Benjamin Franklin, they turned in fairly spirited performances. Most of the young women cast Mary as modern and assertive, while their male classmates imagined “Bens” who were more contrite than defensive. This partially convinced me that the rumored generational campus gender “backlash” might be more illusory than real. But it would be helpful if a wider range of Wollstonecraft’s short works, of fiction, children’s literature, didactic theory, political criticism, and book reviews, was more available for classroom use.
I am not a Wollstonecraft scholar, but rather a historian of sibling relations who came to her in that context. Continue reading