The Liz Library presents Irene Stuber's Women of Achievement - Women's History Month

Episode #WHM-14 for Day 14
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Compiled and Written by Irene Stuber
 who is solely responsible for its content.

Contents of this article may be freely reprinted for educational and nonprofit use.
We would appreciate credit and request that the philosophy of the material not be changed.

"Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure.
        "We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinions of other -- I am not fond of vindications. -- Those who know me sill suppose that I acted from principle. -- Nay, as we in general give others credit for worth, in proportion as we possess it -- I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind. I rest on my own."

          -- Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797.

Horace Walpole called Mary Wollstonecraft "a hyena in petticoats."
      Robert Southey, Poet Laureate of England, was reluctant to admire anybody and said quite frankly that he had praise for no living being except Mary Wollstonecraft.
      Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her famed A Vindication on the Rights of Women that was an answer to the so-called reforms in France; so-called because the reforms only affected men. Women's legal rights, in fact, were lessened in France and in most European countries by the reform movements of the late 18th and early 19th century.
      Even the fledgling United States took away some women's rights when its Constitution was adopted by specifying men's rights instead of the neutral "person."
      Although many "authorities" would have you believe that women in the "olden" days wrote out of boredom, the fact is that Mary Wollstonecraft (and most of the early women writers) wrote because she needed the money to live... her subjects, however, were of her choosing.
      She was so admired that while in London she was part of the highest literary gatherings of the liberal activists of the 18th century England. She learned French and German and traveled to France a number of times.

"...I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness...[dismiss] then those pretty feminine phrases...supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel..."
            -- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

"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."

Mary Wollstonecraft was an honored and influential part of the London radicals which included Thomas Paine. Her works presented argument after argument for women's equality, legally, politically, economically, and socially. Her best known work Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was written in an attempt to offset the ideas of Rousseau about women's inferiority that was gaining ground in France.
      Within a short period of time, regressive laws were being written in France and Germany as well as other European countries that gave men more rights and that took away rights from women. Laws were penned that gave men the right to determine how long a baby could be breast fed (boys longer than girls), women were forbidden to own property, etc.
      As a child Mary Wollstonecraft witnessed her drunken, vicious father openly beat her mother. She left to be a type of servant for others but returned home to nurse her dying mother and then, according to Margaret Olipant in her Literary History of England, 1790-1825,
      "When in 1787...nearly thirty...she made a home for her brothers and sisters, supported her father in his village, and was the head of all family concerns...."

MW had a daughter, Fanny, without marrying the father. She married a man other than the father of her child, became pregnant, and died after giving birth 09-10-1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She was a passionate, all-embracing cosmopolitan woman, anything but a hyena.

"She whose sense of her own existence was so intense, who had cried out even in her misery, 'I cannot bear to think of being no more -- of losing myself -- nay it appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist,' died at the age of 38. But she has her revenge. Many millions have died and been forgotten in the 130 years that have passed since she was buried; and yet as we read her letters and listen to her arguments and consider her experiments, above all that most fruitful experiment, her relations with Goodwin, and realize the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."
            -- Virginia Woolf in her epitaph on Mary Wollstonecraft.

Some Wollstonecraft quotes:

      "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."

      "Besides, if women be educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit right or wrong to power where are we to stop?...
      "Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfill; but they are HUMAN DUTIES, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same."

"From the tyranny of man, I firmly believe the greater number of female follies proceed. I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority...I am scarcely able to govern my muscles when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself... The lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected...

"Make them free... or the injustice which one half of the human race are obliged to submit to, retorting on their oppressors, the virtue of men will be worm-eaten by the insects whom he keeps under his feet."

"If women be not prepared by education to be the comapanion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all."

"Do women not notice how eager men are to degrade the sex from whom they pretend to receive the chief pleasure in life?"

      In a letter to her mother Voltaraine de Cleyre (1866-1912) wrote, "Every individual should have room or rooms for himself[sic] exclusively..a 'closet' where each could 'pray in secret' without some persons who love him assuming the right to walk in and do as they please. And do you know how I was pleased beyond measure the other day to find that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft taught and as far as possible practiced the same thing, just 100 years ago."

    "Swift as a light and as cheering was the ideas that broke in upon me. I have found it! What terrified me till terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story."            
    -- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, creator of one of the most original stories in the annals of fiction: Frankenstein. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. A revisionist movement to discredit Mary Shelly's authorship of Frankenstein attempt to give credit to her lover, the poet Shelley. There is absolutely no proof of such a thing except the "historian's" opinion that she had no background for authorship.

      "I never expect men to GIVE us liberty. No, women, we are not WORTH it, until we TAKE it."
            --Voltaraine de Cleyre (1866-1912).

© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again. The text of the documents may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use. Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are © 1998-2009 the liz library.  All rights reserved. This site is hosted and maintained by the liz library.