Happy Birthday to the Founder of Modern Feminism

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Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.

Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.

These are all quotes from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, British writer and social theorist, who was born 253 years ago today. Think about it: that was before the American and French Revolutions. (She was living in France and had just had her first child as the French Revolution waged around her.) At the time of her birth, there was no such thing as a public railroad or telegraphs. The suffragette movements in England and America were decades away from materializing.

When she was 33 years old, in 1792, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Five years later she died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her second child and daughter (who later became the author of Frankenstein). Although the book was well-received, it fell into disfavor after her widower published a memoir about his wife in which he was unsparingly honest. The problem was that Wollstonecraft had led an unconventional life and in those days, “unconventional” translated into “immoral.” And immorality disqualified you from being considered a serious writer or philosopher, especially if you were a woman.

Not all people view Vindication as a feminist text. That could partly be because Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist. But then, there was no such word as “feminist” in the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft was that ahead of her time.

When I read about a woman like Wollstonecraft (and there were millions like her), whose life’s work was denigrated because of her supposed immorality, I wonder how far we’ve come. Yes, we are more accepting of couples living together and even having children without being married. That alone wouldn’t be enough to condemn Wollstonecraft if she’d been born 200 years later. But it’s still true that a woman can’t get away with what a man can if she wants to be taken seriously.

I say it’s time to give credit where it’s due: Mary Wollstonecraft was both original in her views and courageous in her life. She dared to say and do what she believed in. Her life wasn’t always happy, but she lived on her own terms and left a legacy for all women. Not many of us can say the same.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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