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Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Columbia University Press
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) has been a controversial figure in history, not only because of her writings and ideas, but also because of her life. Writers have attempted to discover the roots of her various passions, deciphering the language of her life and words. In this book, Janet Todd presents the first new study of Mary Wollstonecraft to appear in 30 years.
Todd follows the life of Wollstonecraft, starting with her early days at home. Her childhood was not a very happy time... Todd writes, "It was all conventional enough, but Mary later resented what she heard of her early life: '[A mother's] parental affection... scarcely deserves the name, when it does not lead her to suckle her children." Todd further writes, "Mary is unlikely to have been silent about her irritation at her family, or, looking at her father, about the uselessness of sacrifice to such a cause."

When she nursed her mother through the final days of her life, Wollstonecraft wrote, "To be a good mother--a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are thought to depend entirely on their husbands."

Beyond Motherhood

Considered by many to be the "mother of feminism", Mary Wollstonecraft was also mother to Fanny and Mary, though she died after giving birth to Mary. Beyond her motherhood roles, she filled many other roles, including those of companion, governess, author, lover, friend, and wife. Todd explores each of these roles in detail, flushing out the family ties as well as the friendships and romantic relationships. She also explains the way in which Wollstonecraft attempted to reconcile the different roles.

Wollstonecraft determined to be an author as she wrote, "I am then going to be the first of a new genus. You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track--the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on." Todd says, "In Wollstonecraft's writing, a new female consciousness comes into being, one that valued and reflected endlessly on its own workings, refusing to acknowledge anything absurd in the stance."
Through the years, her work developed to the point where "A Vindication on the Rights of Women" was possible. The work was published in 1791; and, although she received some praise for the work, the book was also criticized as "unfeminine."

It's probably not surprising that Wollstonecraft's work should be viewed with some shock and consternation. She was, after all, challenging social norms. Wollstonecraft quotes Rousseau as saying, "Educate women like men... and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." She then says, "This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves."
A Life of Turmoil

Wollstonecraft managed to create a substantial body of work, made up of several novels; many essays, reviews, books of advice, and many letters. But, her life was also fraught with disappointment and depression, which let her to attempt suicide several times.

Wollstonecraft writes, "I am a strange compound of weakness and resolution! However, if I must suffer, I will endeavour to suffer in silence. There is certainly a great defect in my mind -- my wayward heart creates its own misery -- Why I am mad thus I cannot tell; and till I can form some idea of the whole of my existence, I must be content to weep and dance like a child--long for a toy, and be tire of it as soon as I get it."

Janet Todd explores this troubled life with care and expertise, never sugar-coating the horrors of Wollstonecraft's life. She argues that Wollstonecraft's life and letters are her most lasting legacy as "She strove to reconcile integrity and sexual desire, the duties and needs of women, motherhood and intellectual life, domesticity and fame."

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