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…
5. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
As we get closer to International Women’s Day, it’s time to celebrate one of the most influential proto-feminists of English literary history. The great Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing challenged the accepted conventions of the day, particularly in relation to women, education and marriage. Wollstonecraft’s most famous publication was written as a response to Rousseau’s Emile (1762), which argues for women’s subjugation and claims that educated women would lose their power over men. She responded by arguing that ‘This is the very point I am at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.’ In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she claims that women’s supposed inadequacies are ‘the natural consequence of their education and station in society.’
Wollstonecraft faced opposition in her lifetime, with Horace Walpole dubbing her a ‘hyena in petticoats’ in 1795. She also came to be reviled after her death when her husband, William Godwin, published her memoirs, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation. It wasn’t until a century later, with the rise of the movement to give women the right to vote, that Wollstonecraft’s work came to be appreciated again, with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, claiming her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. Her reputation was further rehabilitated by second wave feminists embracing her writing in the 1970s, and she continues to inspire feminists today. Referring in 1932 to A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Virginia Woolf said ‘those two eloquent and daring books…which are so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them – their originality has become our commonplace.’ Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), The Common Reader, 1932
Chawton House Library’s holdings include a first edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Remarkably, despite being over two hundred years old, many of its extracts are fresh and relevant today.
‘Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.’
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
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