The Visionary Woman We Owe The Modern Feminist Movement To – Who Is She?

Posted: May 24, 2019

Feminism is a way of life for many women, and we take so many freedoms for granted, But these have been the fruits of the struggle of many women before us, like Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings.

Every year March 8th is observed as international Women’s Day when there are a lot of celebrations – speeches, conferences, demonstrations, writings and contests. Women, who have achieved laurels in various fields such as social, economic, cultural, educational and political, are felicitated! Of course, this year too there was great revelry.

On the retrospective, let’s pause and analyse the progress women have actually made!  Of course, we have accomplished significant development in our lives. The ‘lucky’ ones enjoy freedom of speech, activities, dress and a life of their own. In the government, we had two brilliant ladies- Ms. Sitaraman in the Defence and Ms. Sushma Swaraj in the External Affairs! There are women entrepreneurs, pilots, doctors, IPS, IAS and IFS and in many challenging professions!

But the fraction is small.

What women still face

Many still wallow in domestic violence and gender inequalities. Several girls, especially in rural areas, are forbidden to continue education, forced into labour at home and in the field, while their male siblings enjoy freedom.

Forced and child marriages are not uncommon. Dowry and exorbitant marriages still persist. Some time ago, in Kerala, a young woman was tortured and starved to death over a mere two lakh rupees dowry!

Even educated girls are not permitted to choose their spouses! After marriage, it is the woman who has to adjust and manage household. Career and jobs are considered mere entertainment to fetch pocket money. “I don’t need your money, if you want to earn that is your choice. Don’t expect me to pitch in with the domestic work. I am not used to it, nor do I have the time.” Thus the husband would say. But when she would bring in the pay cheque it would be added into their joint account!

Such are common household problems. Woman is considered a chattel and her ideas frivolous! We are all familiar with gaslighting in many families. A lot of disparity does exist and we need to work more on women’s problem.

The ‘mother’ of modern feminism

But have you ever wondered when the feminist movement started? Who is the progenitor?

Maybe the real originator is unknown. However, the recorded name is of a British lady Mary Wollstonecraft, who is called “The Mother of Feminism” and also “First Feminist”.

Mary Wollstonecraft born on 27th April, 1759, London, England and died on 10th September, 1797, London. She lived for just thirty eight years but during this short span she created ripples in her society! Although she lived in the eighteenth century, she was far ahead of her time and age. She fought for the rights of women at a time when women silently bore the injustices inflicted on them. It was an age when women were well fenced in by convention and customs. All activities-social, economical and educational were channelized to one direction, Marriage, Home and Hearth!

Mary was the daughter of a farmer. The family was financially well-off. But her father spent all money on speculative projects, thus reducing the family to penury. Mary had been a spectator to domestic violence from her very childhood. Although her heart beat with anger at the ill-treatment her father meted to her mother, she was helpless. Every night he would come home drunk and beat her mother. Yet, she would sleep in front of her mother’s bedroom, so she could defend her. She is also said to have mothered her two younger sisters from their spouses’ ill-treatment.

An early advocate of women’s rights

Wollstonecraft was an English writer and a passionate advocate of women’s right and equality in the educational and social milieu. Women at her time had limited job opportunities. Only the needy took up jobs.

Mary began her career as a governess but quit as the job as it was unsatisfactory. Next she took up writing but during her age this profession was not well-paying. Hence, she learnt French and German and went in for translation work. She worked for Johnson in London.

Apart from translation, she did book reviews. In 1792, she published book length essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is a classical study on Feminism and discusses the right of education for women. She argued that women were deliberately educated to be frivolous. They were taught that beauty was of prime importance. Mary argued that if women received equal education as men they could make good professionals. When you educate a woman you educate a family! She insisted woman be treated as rational beings.

This publication made her famous. Her other works include a travelogue, about her trip to Sweden. The Rights of Men was her first political work. She has written two novels which are feminist and deal with loveless and failed marriage, Mary: A Fiction (1788) and her second novel, Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) was an unfinished work. Both are Wollstonecraft’s intensely radical feminist work. Her letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are also of literary and feminist importance.

But an unhappy personal life

Unfortunately, her brilliant works were completely eclipsed by her unconventional life style. Two men dejected her. But society blamed her and felt no decent woman should neither read nor socialize with her. Her works were ignored and those who read never mentioned.

It was in London that she met Henry Fuseli and was infatuated by his genius. Even though he was married, she entered into a relationship and made the preposterous suggestion that they along with his wife live together! Evidently, the wife was enraged and Henry rejected Mary. To avoid further humiliation, Mary left for Paris. She could study the French Revolution too. Here she lived with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay. She gave birth to her first child-Fanny. Sadly, Imlay deserted her. The poor woman was intensely dejected and attempted suicide but was saved.

She returned to London and started working for Johnson. Once again romance entered into her life. She met William Godwin, who turned out to be her sincere lover. They shared a lot of similar ideas. They were opposed to marriage because the bond gave more rights to a man but deprived woman of her rights. But when she became pregnant, they got married. Her second child grew up to be a great writer-Mary Shelly. She is famed for her Frankenstein!

Tragically, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s happiness was short lived. She died due to complications of delivery.

William Godwin published a “Memoirs” of his wife. Although his intention was to eulogize Wollstonecraft, his honesty in depicting her two troubled love life, illegitimate children and suicide attempts created great furore and condemnation. These were the reason The Great Feminist was ignored for a long period. It was a huge intellectual loss for the literary and feminist world.

It was in the 20th century, when Feminism was revived that her works were rediscovered. Finally, Mary Wollstonecraft received her due recognition and applause. She has been named “Mother of Feminism” or the “First Feminist”

Nowadays, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is considered mandatory for Feminist study.

Image source: wiki commons

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