Feminism, Frankenstein, and Freedom: The Individualistic Works and Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

By Sturgis, Amy H. | Reason, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Feminism, Frankenstein, and Freedom: The Individualistic Works and Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley


Sturgis, Amy H., Reason


Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, Random House, 672 pages, $30

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Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, shared life on earth for a mere 11 days. But though fate kept them apart, the two women together managed to change the Western world's conception of women's rights, human reason, education theory, and romantic love. Not to mention invent modern science fiction. In Romantic Outlaws, biographer Charlotte Gordon makes a compelling case that each woman's intellectual legacy has been under-appreciated. She also argues persuasively that the two were linked by more than just blood: Wollstonecraffs life and principles had a profound impact on her daughter, an influence critics largely have ignored.

Both Marys led lives that captured the public imagination at least as much as their path-breaking writings did. Their dramatic personal stories, coupled with well-meaning family members' attempts to manage their reputations after their deaths, help explain how their ideas got lost in the sensationalist shuffle. But Gordon sees the Marys' private lives not as obstacles to be overcome but as extensions of their philosophies. Mother and daughter, she argues, tried to craft independent and meaningful lives of the mind in times when a self-supporting, freethinking woman wasn't just an oddity but a scandal.

"Without knowing the history of the era, the difficulties Wollstonecraft and Shelley faced are largely invisible, their bravery incomprehensible," Gordon writes. "Even those who revere mother and daughter do not fully realize how profoundly they challenged the moral code of the day. Yet both women were what Wollstonecraft termed 'outlaws.' Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women's conduct, not once but time and again. Their refusal to bow down, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind." Gordon's admiration for the two is clear and contagious.

Mother Mary and Independence

"Independence is the grand blessing of life," Mary Wollstonecraft wrote. Hers certainly was hard-won. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in 1759 to an unhappy family dominated by an alcoholic and abusive father. Self-taught and determined to provide for herself and her younger sisters, Wollstonecraft pursued the only jobs deemed socially acceptable for a woman of the era: a lady's companion, a governess, a teacher, and a school administrator. These experiences gave her a front-row view of the failures of women's education across the social and economic spectrum, inspiring her first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, in 1787.

Drawing on John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Wollstonecraft believed that education could shape people--and, conversely, that miseducation could misshape them. She had witnessed ample evidence that when women were taught at all, they were taught to be ornamental and attractive, not to reason logically or to provide for themselves. She argued that proper education could empower women to become independent, rational individuals in a way that past miseducation or lack of education had not allowed them to be.

This would be Wollstonecraft's lifelong refrain, one that would be repeated often in the classical liberal tradition: Independence is the goal, and education is the road that leads there.

A fan of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's egalitarian philosophy, Wollstonecraft was taken aback at his portrait of the ideal woman Sophie, a vapid character trained to dependence and submission, in Emile, or On Education (1762). Wollstonecraft responded with Mary: A Fiction (1788), now considered the first novel in English literature to celebrate a rational, opinionated genius of a heroine--and the first to highlight the tragedy of shackling such a unique mind in the legal and social chains of a traditional marriage. …

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