Tuesday, December 4, 2007

An Early Feminist's View of the French Revolution


It is always intriguing to read what contemporaries of the French Revolution thought about it. Mary Wollstonecraft, called the "Mother of Feminism," saw the Revolution as the dawn of a glorious new era, as she describes in an excerpt from her book An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe. When the book was published in 1795, thousands of people had already been killed; the genocide in the Vendée, including the torture, rape and murder of women and children, was at its height.

Yet Mary Wollstonecraft dismisses the mass murders and extreme violence to be merely the result of "
the desperate and engaged factions." Otherwise, she lauds the "grand theatre of political changes" which were leading France "from a state of barbarism to that of polished society...hastening the overthrow of the tremendous empire of superstition and hypocrisy, erected upon the ruins of gothic brutality and ignorance." (I have no doubt that by "empire of superstition and hypocrisy" she was referring to the Catholic Church.) She rejoices that the French were at last to "grasp the sentiments of freedom" while being delivered from the "servility and voluptuousness" of the ancien régime.

Mary Wollstonecraft, unfortunately, was not herself unfamiliar with "voluptuousness and servility," as she later became as famous for her stormy love affairs as for her writings. Why certain women turn to feminism has always interested me; Mary's case is especially sad. Mary was the brilliant and sensitive daughter of an abusive and improvident father; she had to protect her mother and sisters from beatings and heaven knows what else. She later became involved with men who used her then abandoned her, contributing to her struggle with depression and suicidal tendencies.

Mary criticized Edmund Burke's lament for the death of Marie-Antoinette and the end of chivalry; she hated chivalry and thought that women should be able to take care of themselves. Poor Mary, however, could barely support herself and the child she had by one of her lovers. Finally, she found a man who loved her, William Godwin, and they married, their happiness was short-lived. She died as so many other woman died in those days, from complications in childbirth. Nevertheless, before her death she found great satisfaction in her motherly roles that she may not have found in other areas of her life. The child she brought into the world amid such great suffering became the gifted writer Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. All of which, of course, is a story in itself.... Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter is, in my opinion, her most impressive legacy.
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1 comment:

Elisa said...

I read her two fictional works, "Mary" and "Wrongs of Woman" for an elective English literature class as an undergrad. There were parts that I had trouble following because of the period writing style. Or maybe it just her style! Still it was a window into what life was like for English women.