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Mary Wollstonecraft was a woman who preached the ideas of feminism in a time where the word feminism didn’t even exist. With little discussion about her personal life in class had peaked my interest, I decided to do some research and write my first exploratory essay on her. I was interested in her ideas and views on marriage and how it reflected in her personal life. Reading and reflecting on her life was very fascinating and gave me the inspiration to continue exploring her views on marriage, how it is reflected in her work, and what may have influenced her to write and publish those views.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is considered to be Mary Wollstonecraft’s most well-known pieces, where she addresses the importance of education for women and how men should not be the only ones to deserve that right. She also points out that educating women would most likely benefit a marriage, stating that it would strengthen the relationship between the man and woman. She believed that marriage was more like a partnership between the man and wife (CITE). Therefore, in order for the partnership to be balanced, a woman must have the same knowledge and intellect in order for the marriage to be successful. The only way for this idea to work was to push for women to be educated the same as men, not only to benefit women, but to benefit both partners in the relationship. She also addressed the idea of a stable marriage also aiding to the proper education of children in that it would benefit the entire household.
For Wollstonecraft to be voicing this particular opinion was a new and different belief for women that had not been seen or heard of in society at that time. Her work can definitely be classified as a Romanticism type piece as the views expressed in her work show her concern for people’s feelings, her respect for nature and the importance of sympathy and understanding one another. During that particular point in society, women were considered to be a different species of human compared to men. However, Wollstonecraft’s denied this way of thinking and believed that women were just as equal to men and should be regarded as such.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she states that “I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties” (cite textbook). Here, she says that woman should not only to be considered equal to man, but also to be seen as human beings. This notion represents what Romanticism is all about with the idea that women and men were both created equal, created with thoughts and feelings, or otherwise known as: Reason.
She also continues on to rally against the male writers who saw “females rather as women than human creatures” (cite textbook). Her passion and drive as seen in the two statements above shows the forward, revolutionary thinking of Wollstonecraft which again shows elements of Romanticism. Her fight for women’s rights, which she believed will not only the happiness for women but believed that it will benefit both the men and women who want to have a successful marriage and raise well educated children.
For someone from that era of time to be expressing these type of feelings of feminism was very bold and brave of Mary Wollstonecraft. It makes me curious as to what her influence was behind such strong and diverse opinions. One major factor that may have influenced her feelings could be her difficult past and upbringing. Wollstonecraft’s father was very abusive, drunk and violent towards her mother when Wollstonecraft was only a young teenager. (cite). It got to the point where Wollstonecraft would stay outside her parents’ bedroom incase her mother needed help (CITE). Along with being an abusive drunk, her father also squandered most of the family’s money on failed projects, which resulted in severe financial problems. This led to Wollstonecraft’s father forcing her to hand over her inheritance money that was being saved for when she was of age.
It is clear from the two examples above how bad of a parent Wollstonecraft’s father was. These terrible events that happened early on in her life would have impacted Wollstonecraft’s upbringing severely and may have caused her to have this negative view of men. The role of a parent in a child’s life is huge as it is their duty to set an example for their children. Seeing how poorly Wollstonecraft’s father treated and hurt her mother is a perfect motive for Wollstonecraft persistent urge for change and her fight for equality for women. Also, not only did her father set a bad example of how men treated women in a marriage, but he also failed as a parent to teach and educate his children properly which Wollstonecraft also preaches in her work.
With the death of her mother at the age of 20, Wollstonecraft took over as a more of a motherly figure in her sisters Eliza and Everina’s lives. In doing so, Wollstonecraft learnt that not only was her mother in an unhappy relationship, but so was her sister Eliza. Seeing the effects of what an unhappy relationship did to her mother, Wollstonecraft took the initiative to try and persuade Eliza to leave her husband. During that time, it was unheard of for women to leave their husbands. However, this act of defying the social standards shows how Wollstonecraft wasn’t afraid to go against society’s views and break the social norms. This can also transfer over to her work, because Wollstonecraft wasn’t afraid to publish her feminist views which defied what society was practicing during those times.
Wollstonecraft’s first love of her life may have also impacted her view of marriage. After she published her Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, she cemented herself in some well-known intellectual literary circles and eventually met, fell in love, and had a child with a man by the name of Gilbert Imlay. Gilbert Imlay was an American Diplomat during the French Revolution. After Wollstonecraft and Imlay formed some sort of a relationship, in order to protect Wollstonecraft from the dangers of the Revolution, he listed Wollstonecraft as his wife at the American Embassy. The thing is however, they never actually got married. What makes things even more complicated is that Wollstonecraft and Imlay then had a child together. The complicated relationship with Imlay proved to get even more problematic as Imlay fled to London and abandons Wollstonecraft and their child in Paris. When Wollstonecraft journeys to London to confront Imlay, she is shocked to find Imlay with another woman. A distraught and upset Wollstonecraft was so devastated with this revelation that she ultimately attempted to commit suicide because of what happened.
Firstly, even though Wollstonecraft and Imlay never officially got married, their relationship shared the qualities of what a marriage has, for instance they share a child. I can see Wollstonecraft’s reasoning behind her decision not to get married mainly because her relationship with Imlay in my opinion did not have that partner-ship and equality elements that Wollstonecraft shares in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. However, this was Wollstonecraft’s first serious relationship with a man, and the outcome of this first serious relationship might have strengthened her views on marriage expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman even more. We can assume that Imlay was not a nice guy as he abandons his lover and child in a foreign country while he goes off and has an affair with another woman. In the meantime, Wollstonecraft is left feeling rejected and alone with no help to raise a child. This feeling of loneliness and independence that Wollstonecraft experiences could have highly impacted her stance even more than it was when she first wrote and published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman one year before all this controversy occurred. By going through all those hardships she endured with Imlay, she experienced what a marriage shouldn’t be like and therefore was able to stand by her words and show others, especially woman how a true marriage should be equal.
When Wollstonecraft finally recovered from her break up with Imlay, she starting rejoining with her literary social groups. This is how she connected with William Godwin, who would very soon become her husband and father to her second child. Godwin was a well-known political-philosopher who also shared very similar views on marriage to Wollstonecraft. Their affair was quick and fast and as Wollstonecraft was pregnant with their child, they agreed to get married. What could be confusing is why both Wollstonecraft and Godwin felt the need to get married if they both had strong views on the concept. However, after conducting some research, it is evident that Wollstonecraft’s marriage to Godwin could be considered as more of a partner-ship as described in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
One major factor is that Wollstonecraft was pregnant at the time and their decision to get married could be for the soul purpose to make the child legitimate. Wollstonecraft did have a child with another man from a previous relationship and she may have learnt from how hard and difficult it was to raise a child in that situation where she had no help from the man. Her and Godwin might have agreed to get married for the sake of the child which can relate to Wollstonecraft’s idea of a partnership style of marriage which also has benefits for the child.
Another factor that proves that their relationship was more like a partner-ship was that after they got married, they bought two adjoining houses and lived separate lives. Otherwise known as The Polygon, they decided that this was the best way for them to still have their independence. This is a clear indicator that their marriage was not only different compared to others during their time which was typical of Mary Wollstonecraft to not abide by the rules and standards set by society but it also reflects what Wollstonecraft stood for in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Reading and researching into Mary Wollstonecraft’s crazy and eventful but tragic life, you can definitely grasp an understanding as to why Mary Wollstonecraft had developed these feminist views of marriage expressed in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It all began with her terrible upbringing as she witnessed her so-called father beating her mother. Not only was he an abusive drunk but he also didn’t set a good example for his children in what a husband and a father should behave and act like. Later in her life, it was Wollstonecraft’s turn to experience a relationship with another man, Gilbert Imlay, but that too failed miserably. I am sure that Wollstonecraft learnt a lot from the mistakes that she made during that relationship and was able to stand by her views on marriage even more. Finally, her last relationship with her husband William Godwin does show the elements she voiced in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Their marriage can definitely be viewed as a partnership between a man and a woman that they agreed on that would not only benefit the welfare of their child but to also respect and maintain each other’s view on marriage and what they believed the union of marriage stood for.
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