Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This Day in Literary History

Social critic Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest and most eloquent proponents of women's rights, marries William Godwin, the most famous radical reformer of his time. Wollstonecraft, who had been raised by a tyrannical, abusive, and alcoholic father, was philosophically opposed to marriage, as was Godwin. However, the two decided to marry after Wollstonecraft became pregnant with his child.

Wollstonecraft supported herself from age 19 as a companion, governess, and teacher. When her sister fled an unhappy marriage, Wollstonecraft took her in and hid her for months from her abusive husband, who had the legal right to force his spouse to return to him. The two, along with another sister, started a school. Initially a success, the school eventually went bankrupt and left Wollstonecraft burdened with debt.

At age 27, Wollstonecraft published a semi-autobiographical novel and a children's book, the latter of which became a smashing success. She began publishing book reviews in a journal of political reform and writing social criticism. In 1790, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man, about the French Revolution. Two years later, she produced A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a coolly reasoned, well-balanced argument for women's rights, published at a time when women had no rights or property of their own.

A supporter of the ideals behind the revolution, she moved to France in 1793, where she fell in love with an American man. After she gave birth to his child, he abandoned her. Depressed, she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself. She returned to London and became part of an influential group of radical intellectuals. In 1796, she fell in love with William Godwin, a well-known writer who associated with the same circles. The couple married when they discovered she was pregnant and lived happily for six months-until Wollstonecraft died after giving birth to a daughter. The baby girl become Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of poet Pierce Bysshe Shelley.

Originally published on History.com.

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