In the week running up to International Women’s Day on 8th March 2015, we are celebrating women writers who paved the way for the early feminists and are still inspiring women to Make It Happen today.
There is still work to be done for greater equality around the world but let’s take a moment to remember the women who helped us come this far…
4. Mary Robinson (1757?-1800)
‘Man is a despot by nature; he can bear no equal; he dreads the power of woman.’
A letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, 1799
We continue our countdown to International Women’s Day today by profiling Mary Robinson. Married at age 14 to Thomas Robinson, who it quickly turned out had misrepresented his fortune to her family, Mary Robinson found herself caring for her baby daughter in debtor’s prison. It was this painful experience, which prompted her to write her first collection of poetry and begin her lifelong struggle for financial independence to support herself and her daughter. She launched an acting career, which won her extensive praise. In 1779, the seventeen-year-old Prince of Wales saw Robinson perform as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale and, as the story goes, was enraptured. Disappointed with her unfaithful, profligate husband, she eventually agreed to become the Prince’s mistress in return for a promised £20,000. The Prince quickly became bored and abandoned her without paying up. Her reputation ruined by the public affair, Robinson could no longer work as an actress and once again turned to writing – both to earn money and to restore her reputation.
Though she did eventually receive some of the promised money, Robinson continued to rely on her writing to make ends meet. Her poetry was much admired, earning her the title the ‘English Sappho’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called her ‘a woman of undoubted genius’, corresponded with her, and made her the subject of one of his poems. Later in life she developed a friendship with William Godwin, the radical philosopher and late husband of Mary Wollstonecraft. This also brought her into contact with Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. It was during this period when she wrote early feminist polemic, undoubtedly influenced by the intellectual and philosophical exchanges she was enjoying among this group at the time. Her writings reflect the challenges she faced as a great beauty of her day:
‘Why the graces of feminine beauty are to be constituted emblems of a debilitated mind?’
Thoughts on the Condition of Women, 1799
Given these challenges, and that of being a ‘fallen woman’, to manage to make a living, and support her daughter, as the ‘English Sappho’ was an achievement indeed.
Which women writers have inspired you? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, commenting on https://www.facebook.com/ChawtonHouseLibrary or tweeting @ChawtonHouse #makeithappen #womensday