Mary Wollstonecraft at 250: Are the Doors of Perception Still Open?

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.   The sibling cohort has been relatively ignored in modern works on family history and in social scientists’ consideration of familism itself.   But some scholars have suggested that this sphere may have served as either a resistive or a buffering mechanism, deflecting if not diluting the dynamics of patriarchal power.  Mary’s experience in her family of origin is muted in most biographies, except for the colorful dysfunctions of her parental household noted above.  She left home to work before her twentieth birthday.  After returning briefly to nurse her dying mother she went to London to begin reinventing herself as the “first of a new genus” and a writer or cultural critic. But during the 1780s, she intervened continually and with meaningful effect in the lives of her sisters, Elizabeth and Everina, and those of her brothers, James and Charles, in ways that recall what the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo calls the “work of kinship,” or “kinwork.”  William Godwin, only briefly and belatedly her husband, perhaps exaggerated in posthumously describing her as “ever a worshiper of domestic life,” but he has the implicit witness of her longtime friend, patron, and publisher Joseph Johnson, in claiming that Mary brought a “parental sort of care” to her relations with most members of her sibling cohort.

I am reconstructing Mary’s youngest and “favourite” brother Charles’s picaresque course into and across America between 1792 and his death in 1817, years in which her American reputation went from cautious acceptance even among conservatives (women, at least) to one of reviled posthumous infamy.  Charles arrived in Philadelphia with his sister’s financial assistance to become a “farmer,” but he was swept up in a virulent fever of postrevolutionary land, currency, and stock speculation. He associated with French Revolution exiles, with members of the radical emigrant circle around the English scientist Joseph Priestley, and with Mary’s revolutionary Irish friend, Archibald Hamilton Rowan.  In 1798 he joined the American army raised for service in the “Quasi-War” with France, then spent the rest of his life as an artillery officer.  In that male and often almost monastic organization-with its major function as a mobile frontier garrison constabulary-his relations with women were complex, contradictory, and substantial.  He was married twice, divorced once, and was the seemingly attentive father of at least one daughter.  He invoked patriarchal prerogatives that his dissolute father would have admired-had he been able to afford them-by sending his first wife home to her father after accusing her of adultery.  He died in New Orleans as a slaveholder in an almost entirely female household, and divided his estate between his second wife and his daughter.  The young girl was later abducted by her birth mother, and a protracted legal struggle ensued.  My research to date has traced Charles’s second wife and widow, Nancy (who a Boston antiquarian publisher mistakenly gave the name “Mary” and described as having assumed the vocation of writing about women’s rights) to her death in a Cuban community of mostly female American convalescent or “invalid” artistic expatriates; his daughter, Jane, to independent widowhood in 1870s New Orleans; and his first wife, Sarah, back into her childhood hearth in the Hudson Valley and after that to no one quite knows where. 

It would be unfair and inaccurate to either charge or credit Mary Wollstonecraft with any of these life courses or their consequences on the basis of some imputed “parental sort of care.”  Most of these trajectories played out long after her own death, and after she had any chance to influence her brother, much less his family of procreation.  But Mary’s relationship with Charles was arguably the most sustained didactic one she ever had with anyone.  Fanny Imlay, the “little twitcher” born to her and Gilbert Imlay–for whose future she touchingly planned throughout her pregnancy–spent only three years in her care.  Mary Shelley, her daughter with Godwin, never knew her mother.  Rather than seeing Wollstonecraft’s lateral kin as merely so many obstacles or constraints to her self-realization, we might ask if they comprised an experimental community (however imperfect) for the implementation of some of her basic philosophical ideas and values. 


NB: This post is dedicated to Rona Zevin, who I don’t actually know, but who as a non-historian M.A. student in my first seminar in graduate school memorably closed a withering critique of one book on our syllabus by conceding about its author that “at least he’s heard of Mary Wollstonecraft!”  I had not at that point–a circumstance I took care not to mention in that context–but it has been very instructive to try to repair that delinquency in the years since.

19 thoughts on “Mary Wollstonecraft at 250: Are the Doors of Perception Still Open?

  1. I was at the tombstone tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft yesterday. Apparently there will be another gathering later today, and a walk to the same spot by psychogeographers — events utterly unrelated to each other. The ceremony, led by Andrew Pakula of the Newington Green Unitarians (an American, by the way), was a simple and moving one, which drew in some passers-by. I had known nothing of the church and its programme of events for her anniversary, but when I found out about them, I offered to help with publicity.

    I too was surprised at how little attention Wollstonecraft was getting; Charles Darwin, as you say, was everywhere a few months ago. My mole in Radio 4 cannot confirm if and when a tribute, already recorded, might be broadcast. Wollstonecraft enjoys, or rather suffers from, a low profile. However, in the course of doing publicity, both hyper-local and web 2.0, I have found some touching tributes, not least that of Australian law professor Helen Irving, who ties Wollstonecraft to current struggles in Afghanistan:


  2. Thanks for your report on the ground, Roberta. Keep us posted about that Radio 4 program, especially if there’s a podcast available.

    Sadly, I’m not surprised that Wollstonecraft’s birthday is little known and not long remembered. Whereas political movements for (male) liberation (independence for India, postcolonialism, the U.S. Civil Rights movements) are seen as heroic and the way history should move and so are celebrated, Wollstonecraft like all feminists after her raises uncomfortable questions so they’re not seen as doing anything heroic (or at least, not something that most of us want to commemorate.) If we acknowlege that feminism was important, that means acknowledging that women have historically been oppressed. And that means raising all kinds of uncomfortable psychological questions about our families and our mothers and grandmothers in particular–did they really love us? Did they have us voluntarily? Were they happy with their lives, or just victims of history?–that we don’t really want to think about.

    That’s my theory anyway why most people want to take Wollstonecraft’s work for granted without commemorating it or her. They don’t necessarily disagree wtih her, but they just don’t want to think about the implications of feminist analysis applied to their own family histories.


  3. Thanks Wayne and Historiann! This is great post! and I will be looking for some Wollstonecraft to read for my own edification this summer.


  4. I’ll posit that one reason for the relative current neglect of MW *may* be that she’s seen as having had her “run” in the early 1970s, and as having absorbed some of the intense interpretive enthusiasms of that era, for better and/or for worse. One biography from that era, for example, says of her brother Charles that his second wife, Nancy, prevailed in her custody struggle with his first wife and the birth mother, over his daughter, Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft. This biographer further claims (probably inaccurately) that Nancy took Jane into Cuba, where her descendants, ze speculates, “may even now be making their contributions to Castro’s revolutionary society.” Some of that sort of argument now reads a tiny bit over-enthusiastic and perhaps naive. It may be that each generation literally needs to excavate its own forbears and exemplars.

    I’d be glad to receive any tips or research leads toward my “Wollstonecraft(s) in America.” Charles W. arrived in late 1792 through New York, spent most of 1793-1798 as a civilian/speculator in Pennsylvania, was stationed at Fort Jay in New York City from c. 1800-1804, married a young woman (girl, really), Sarah Garrison, from Dutchess County across from West Point, in 1804, and was in Louisiana with the army from about that time until his death in 1817. His second wife, Nancy Kingsbury, who he married in 1813, was from Rindge, New Hampshire. Her presence as a widow in Matanzas, Cuba, from c. 1824 until her death in c. 1828 is somewhat inferential and circumstantial, but in my view is quite probable.


  5. I think the point made about the importance of sibling relationships is very interesting. It’s especially interesting considering that among middle-class families, servants did most of the child-rearing, limiting parental influence further. I wonder if it’s a backward projection of today’s family structures which are more vertical than horizontal.


  6. Wayne, that’s a good point about scholars maybe feeling that MW was “played out” as a topic for feminist analysis anyway. Maybe your work will initiate the renaissance in Wollstonecraft studies!

    Thanks again for writing this post–I think your argument about looking for lateral rather than vertical family relationships is right on. Lilian’s point is a good one too–maybe in some elite families, we should look to children’s relationships with servants (if possible) too!


  7. Thanks to you too, Historiann. I should say here that Dallett Hemphill, of Ursinus College, is also working on siblings, as are a number of other people recently. We were even able to work up a well-attended panel at the Berks Conference last summer.

    It was over the top, I thought, in Wollstonecraft-avoidance, to log on to Google this morning and find that they had modified their famous logo for one day to acknowledge–in dots and dashes–the 118th birthday, in 1791, of Samuel F. B. Morse. I mean…


  8. Pingback: Happy 250th Birthday Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) « Knitting Clio

  9. Well, this is great, and I am reproved for not knowing that this was Wollstonecraft’s 250th. I’m usually against all this commemorative stuff anyway, because it is often a way to marginalize a topic afterwards.

    I think one of the problems with Wollstonecraft is that we actually have a difficult relationship to her ideas. I’ve taught The Vindication, and it’s hard going, not least because of the ideas of virtue etc. that run through it. So she’s a foremother, kind of, but few people feel kinship with her ideas. That is different from the problem the 19th c had with her virtue, but it’s still a problem.

    I think this is true of many of the 18th c thinkers — I haven’t seen huge amounts on Burke, or Paine, for instance. Somehow the Enlightenment is more distant than we think.


  10. This post was so interesting for me to read as a lit person who has taught Vindication in the second half of the Brit Lit survey. Wollstonecraft is way out of my time period of specialization, but it’s interesting to me her 250th isn’t more celebrated…. particularly when I think about how prominent figures in literary studies ARE celebrated on just such occasions. For example, for Samuel Beckett’s 100th there were three panels at the MLA, plus I’d imagine the Beckett people did other stuff on the day itself. Joyce’s 100th produced a symposium and an essay collection (heck, even Bloomsday’s 100th produced a year of events, including a symposium, and that was commemorating a day on which a novel was set, not even a real historical event). I suppose my examples, though, may give an indication that even in my neck of the woods we pay more attention to prominent male figures than female ones…. Anyway.

    I will say this, from my scholarship on Virginia Woolf, though. Woolf scholars pay a LOT of attention to her relationships with her siblings, and I’ve actually noticed something similar in my work on Joyce. I’m not sure what it says that literary studies seems to focus on sibling relationships more concretely than does history, but it was interesting to realize that talking about siblings in the discipline of history was somewhat unusual. It had never occurred to me that it would be.


  11. This is fascinating, particularly the sibling angle. I wish I had read it about 10 years ago when I was working on a woman with 13 siblings. I had focused primarily on the influence of her parents and her possible interactions with slaves and servants, all to the exclusion of her brothers and sister.

    Wonderful post! I’m looking forward to reading more about her.


  12. I’m glad my first comment led to such response, and glad too for Historiann and Guest to give us this welcome opportunity to re-evaluate Mary. I maxed out my Google-fu over the past few weeks, drumming up publicity for the Unitarian group, as mentioned above, but over the past few days, especially yesterday, a few other good pieces have been written and posted or otherwise come to light. I have compiled them here:

    There were two academic seminars, for example, one in Norway and one in England; blog posts of a personal, political, or professional bent; news articles, local and international; amusements such as Twitter; source text of her books; location-specific London lore; feminist flights of fancy; etc.

    I wonder if there is a name for the phenomenon of people coming together around a significant anniversary, precisely because it is undercelebrated, and thus the following anniversary (significant year plus one) is marked with rather more noise. I have another idea up my capacious sleeve….


  13. Thanks very much, Roberta. I know one thing, I’m stayin’ around for # 300 to see about this phenomenon, whatever it’s named. They owe us one there!


  14. For those of you who enabled your blog update alerts, and for anyone who is actually checking here, I have belatedly come, in answer to the request above, to announce that the BBC Radio 4 offerings are available (tagged on my Delicious account above). There are three “Letters to Mary”, and two appearances on “Woman’s Hour”. Janet Todd, President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, has a Wollstonecraft book out later this year, so she got both WH slots, and the first letter, in which she writes about ”Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”.

    Richard Reeves, director of the think-tank Demos, gets Letter 2, and writes to Mary about her Republicanism. This guy/chap has balls/cheek (depending on the geography of your anatomical analogies). Between recording and hearing the piece, he held the re-launch party for his think-thank, and it’s almost an all-male line-up! Trustees: 6 men, 1 woman. Advisors: 21 men, 4 women.

    Natasha Walter, author of “The New Feminism”, does the final letter. They are all on Listen Again, hurray for the BBC!


  15. Pingback: 16 Responses to “Mary Wollstonecraft at 250: Are the Doors of Perception Still Open?” | MemePosts

  16. Pingback: 17 Responses to “Mary Wollstonecraft at 250: Are the Doors of Perception Still Open?” | MemePosts

  17. Wollstonecraft fans may be interested to know that in late 2018 Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft’s 1828 manuscript “Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba,” illustrated with many paintings, has been rediscovered in the Cornell University Library, after being lost for 150 years. Cornell plans to digitize it.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.