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Her shortcomings as a feminist inspired many, including her daughter, "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley


Mary Wollstonecraft was the original “bad feminist”

By Charlotte Gordon on April 28, 2015

In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women could and should be independently engaged with the world, that they should contribute fully to intellectual life outside of the confines of matrimony. So it is a surprise to learn that this famous advocate for female agency was—to borrow Roxanne Gay’s term—a bad feminist, a very bad feminist. Wollstonecraft is one of the great contradictions in English history. She braved the wrath of society to publish her brilliant Vindication, but in her private life, she struggled to claim and enjoy the independence that she believed was every woman’s birthright.

In 1793, at age 34, she fell in love with a sexy American named Gilbert Imlay. In 1793 you were not supposed to have sex with people you were not married to, but Mary did not believe in marriage. She had met Gilbert in Paris, in the midst of the French Revolution. Aristocrats were on the run. The king had been executed. Wollstonecraft and others were declaring that women had rights. The old rules no longer seemed to matter, and so Mary and Gilbert plunged into their love affair. A year later, they had a baby named Fanny.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley


Delighted with this turn of events, Mary ignored the dangers she faced. If word got out that she had a child out of wedlock, she could lose everything—her place in society and her ability to earn a living with her pen. But Mary was undaunted. She saw herself as the herald of a new era. She was in an equal partnership with her soul mate, Gilbert, an enlightened man. She was proud that they didn’t need the oppressive laws of marriage to shackle them together.

Mary had plenty of evidence to support her negative view of marriage. She’d grown up trying to protect her mother from her alcoholic, violent father. She’d witnessed her own younger sister’s sufferings at the hands of an abusive husband and had engineered her sister’s escape, breaking the law, as wives were not allowed to leave their husbands no matter the horrors they faced. Legally, wives had no recourse. They could not demand a divorce, even if their husbands beat them or raped them. The only limit on domestic abuse was that the whip a husband used should not be thicker than his thumb. Wives could not own property—even those with dowries or an inheritance were subject to the financial control of their husbands. Women were not entitled to hold jobs, and were denied the right to an education.

With Gilbert, Mary believed that she was living out her philosophy of independence. Together, they had created a new paradigm, forming a family in which both partners were free, a nest where their little girl could flourish. But then, emotional disaster struck. In September, when Fanny was four months old, Gilbert left on a business trip and did not come back. Liberty, it seemed, was a two way street. As the weeks passed, Mary suspected that he was gone for good. She wrote him letter after letter, begging him to return.

At last a missive from Gilbert filtered through the unreliable Revolutionary mail. He told her not to worry so much, that he had business in England, and that he still loved her. However, he did not return to Paris, and so after months of waiting for him, Mary set sail for London, hoping to convince Gilbert to live with her and Fanny once again. But when mother and child arrived in England, Gilbert seemed cold, a stranger. He said that he wanted his freedom, that he did not love her anymore. Mary sobbed, accusing him of cruelty, selfishness, and immaturity. What had happened to their philosophy of love? Where were his ideals? Was there another woman? Though he denied her accusations, Mary, exhausted and desolate, took an overdose of laudanum. Fortunately, Gilbert found her before she died and did his best to comfort her, but his idea of consolation was to ask her to embark on a business trip to Scandinavia to search for one of his trade ships that had gone missing. Laden with French Bourbon silver, the boat had last been seen in Norway.

Astonishingly, Mary decided to make the journey. She took one-year-old Fanny with her and conducted interviews in Sweden and Norway, hunting for the ship and its valuable cargo. This investigation, demanding though it was, gave Mary plenty of time to compose long missives to Gilbert. He needed to reconsider their relationship, she declared. A veteran journalist and a skilled political philosopher, Mary was sure she could convince him of his wrongheadedness. But Gilbert grew increasingly angry, writing Mary furious responses, telling her to stop pestering him. Still, she persisted, outlining his many failings. She told him that he embodied the commercial forces of the Industrial Revolution while she stood for the integrity of the mind and heart.

Mary spent considerable intellectual energy on her romantic mission, pouring her ideas onto the page, embarking on what she saw as the argument of her life, a clash of the titans. But when she arrived back home in England, she discovered that there was indeed another woman, a beautiful young actress. This was the end, she felt, not just of her grand love affair, but of her dreams for a better world, one in which men and women could be equal and the institution of marriage would no longer be needed. In despair, she jumped into the River Thames and would have drowned if a fisherman had not spotted her body and fished her out, spluttering and not at all grateful.

A second suicide attempt. What had happened to Mary’s principles? What about women’s independence? Shouldn’t she have been able to live on and thrive without the philandering Gilbert? Yet, paradoxically, Wollstonecraft’s sufferings can both inspire and reassure the modern day “bad feminist.”

Mary had not reneged on her ideals. She was still the brave author who had articulated the rights of women. But her ideals had not protected her from her own humanity or from a flawed society. Ultimately, she had wanted to die not just because Gilbert had abandoned her, but because, after his betrayal, her dream of harmonious, marriage-free gender equality seemed impossible.

Fortunately, Mary conquered her despair. She managed to resurrect herself, writing another book, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, based on her correspondence with Gilbert. Not only did Letters sell well, it helped ignite the Romantic movement, inspiring Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and her future son-in-law Percy Shelley. She even fell in love again, and had another baby, a daughter she named Mary. Sadly, 10 days later, Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever.  She had been hard at work on a novel while pregnant. The unfinished version of this work, The Wrongs of Woman, describes the desperation of a woman betrayed by a man. True to form, Wollstonecraft does not simply point her finger at the villain, but blames society for the inherent power imbalance between men and women, the gap that could drive a woman to depression, despair, and, ultimately, suicide.

Wollstonecraft’s love affair with Imlay hurt her posthumous reputation and embarrassed scholars for more than a century. Nineteenth century reformers regarded her as a fallen woman and distanced themselves from her, even though they admired her principles. Fortunately, her second daughter turned out to be one of her most important legacies. Young Mary idealized her mother, read all of Wollstonecraft’s books and aspired to live according to her mother’s philosophy of freedom. She wrote Frankenstein at age nineteen, authored books that explored the causes of women’s suffering, and promoted women’s independence. But it was a two-edged legacy. Like her mother, Mary was a “bad feminist.” She made many poor decisions about men, ran away to Paris at age sixteen with her married lover, Percy Shelley, loving him too unreservedly and at too great a cost to herself. Yet she persevered to become one of our most famous and important authors.

Maybe there has never been such a thing as a “good feminist.” Today’s “bad feminist” should take heart every time she falls short by rashly following her heart and making unwise choices, by being clingy or needy or heartbroken. After all, isn’t the very definition of an idealist someone who cannot live up to her own standards, but who does not give up or become cynical, even if she cannot achieve her own ideals?

Charlotte Gordon is the author of “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley,” which is being released on April 28.