Why Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley were rule breakers

Charlotte Gordon, prize-winning poet and biographer, tells us about the rule breakers that were Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Romantic outlaws

When I am afraid to say something people may not like or write something that seems controversial, I take courage from Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and her daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. They never seemed to flinch. If there was a rule to break, they broke it. If there was something shocking to declare, they proclaimed it. Both had children out of wedlock. Both fought against the injustices women faced and both wrote books that revolutionized history. If they could persevere against their enemies, then so can I.

When Wollstonecraft and Shelley were alive, married women could not own property. If a woman did something her husband didn't like, it was legal for him to beat her. In fact, he was supposed to discipline her, as a husband who did not control an unruly wife was considered weak. Women were considered so irrational and so potentially destructive that a man was supposed to be his wife’s governor, her legal representative, and her economic master.

Enraged at this injustice, Wollstonecraft broke the law by rescuing her sister from an abusive husband – a term that did not even exist back then. There was no such thing as marital rape, since men had the right to have sex with their wives whenever they wanted. Divorce was almost impossible, requiring an act of Parliament, and could never be initiated by a woman. Advice columnists argued that it was dangerous to let women have too much freedom. Females were weak and silly enough to destroy themselves, their lovers, their families, and even the state. And so, when Wollstonecraft had the nerve to argue for women’s independence, with her groundbreaking Vindication, she was castigated as a whore, a 'hyena in petticoats'.

Sadly, in 1797, Wollstonecraft died ten days after giving birth to her daughter Mary. But young Mary idealized her mother. She read all of Wollstonecraft's books and modeled her own life on her mother's philosophy of freedom, running away to Paris at the age of 16 with her married lover Percy Shelley, writing Frankenstein at 19, and authoring articles and books that exposed the causes of women's suffering and promoted women's independence, all while being shunned by 'good' society.

Today, it might seem that we no longer need to remember Wollstonecraft and Shelley. Women can vote, drive, buy and sell property. Domestic abuse is illegal. Men and women share equal legal and political rights. And yet Wollstonecraft and Shelley are still important role models for those of us who fight against the damaging assumptions of our world. Both mother and daughter show us how to have the courage to fight against society's injustices. They endured poverty, hatred, and exile to live lives they were not supposed to live and to write books they were not supposed to write.

When they entered rooms, people turned their backs. They were snubbed in London and while travelling abroad. Their neighbors whispered about them. Their enemies ridiculed them. They were called harlots and 'whores'. But they never stopped writing. They endured loneliness for the sake of their ideals, even when they felt abandoned by those they loved, friendless and alone.

I don't have to suffer these sorts of slights. My problems are of a more trivial nature. I might at times feel invisible or ignored, unsure that my work is having any impact, but no one savages me or calls me names. People don't turn their backs on me.

Today, as I write this, the house is quiet. I picture other people at their jobs, dispensing things and helping others, going down the sidewalk, briefcases in hand. I see lawyers puzzling over briefs. Surgeons rolling up their sleeves. I worry that I am not helping the hungry or spreading peace. I think of Doctors Without Borders, kindergarten teachers, and elected officials. What good is the ‘tap tap tap’ of my fingers on the keyboard? But then I remember Wollstonecraft and Shelley. Neither knew that their books would shape the imaginations of future readers. Frankenstein sold less than 500 copies when it was first published. Vindication made Wollstonecraft a famous author, but she was so vilified that it was impossible to know she would one day be revered as the 'mother of feminism'.

Maybe the most important lesson these two women have to teach us is to speak even when it seems no one is listening, and to trust in the power of books and of thought, even when it seems no one is engaging. Wollstonecraft and Shelley had no notion that their work would one day be taught in school and university classrooms. Instead, they relied on their faith in ideas and their belief that words matter. Ideas can change the world, but only if these ideas are communicated to other people. We must put words down on paper for that change to happen. We cannot be silent.

Thank you, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

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