Interview for Women's Day 2008



Lyndall Gordon has written five biographies and "Shared Lives", a memoir of women's friendship in her native South Africa. Her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, "Vindication", was a New York Times Notable Book. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Senior Research Fellow at St. Hilda's College, Oxford.

For those who don't know Mary Wollstonecraft, can you tell us briefly who she was?

Mary Wollstonecraft is famous for her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792), demanding "JUSTICE for one-half of the human race." She deplored the relegation of her sex to a state of "ignorance and slavish dependence," encouraged to see themselves as silly creatures trapped in their sensibilities. An early influence were the political sermons of her mentor, the Revd Dr Price (amongst whose congregants, at that time, in the London of the mid-1780s, were John and Abigail Adams). Dr Price urged reform on the model of the Americans, who had established forms of government favourable in the highest degree to the rights of mankind." the rights of womankind were no more than a logical step from what Dr Price preached. Wollstonecraft herself was extraordinarily adventurous and independent, determined to earn her own living and travelling extensively in Scandinavia at a time when it was off the map for what was known as the Grand Tour. Many of the issues she faced in her life presage the present: women's need to unfold their faculties as this knocks against the rockface of their conflicting need for sexual commitment; the problems of communication between the sexes; the problems and triumphs of the single parent, and so on.

And why she is important?

One way of seeing Wollstonecraft's importance is to place her in her revolutionary generation. She was born in 1759; the American and French Revolutions shaped her thinking on women. Revolutionaries of Wollstonecraft's generation argued that political institutions made men and women what they are; change institutions, discard the mind-forged manacles, and you change human nature itself. Where many until then thought women's inferiority and weakness a fact of nature, Wollstonecraft saw this as a result of mis-education. While a schoolmistress, she began her writing career with a book called "Thoughts on the Education of Daughters." In place of cultivating silence and meekness, girls were to be encouraged to think and act for themselves.

Another way of approaching Wollstonecraft's importance is look beyond what is now self-evident and ask what this woman has to say to the future--our future. She was as interested in women's nature as in public rights. She wanted women to draw on their own skills and traditions, so she did not abjure domesticity. On the contrary. The man she eventually married--the philosopher, William Godwin--was astonished to find her "a worshipper of domesticity." Compassion, resistance to war, tenderness, and the importance of motherhood were all part of her message. This pioneer of women's rights is even more a pioneer of character: she insists on an education in domestic affections as opposed to governance based in contests of power.

What was the condition of women in her day (late 1700's England)?

Western women have never been so disempowered as they were by the new marriage law, the Hardwicke Act of 1753 (which would of course have been enforced in the American colonies). A wife had no right to her own property or earnings, nor to her children, no grounds for divorce, and no recourse to physical protection in the home. In effect, when a woman married she lost the basic right of habeas corpus; since she became the property of her husband, the law allowed him to do with her whatever he wished. Mary Wollstonecraft was appalled by her mother's abject position as victim of her father's violence. As a child she would sometimes sleep on the landing outside her mother's door in the hope of protecting her.

She lived in the age of Samuel Johnson, who said "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." So she had to overcome a good deal of misogyny.

As it happened, Mary Wollstonecraft met Dr Johnson and though their political attitudes could not have been further apart, they actually got on well and had much in common--both suffered from melancholy; both, though volatile in their emotions, venerated reason. Dr Johnson had many friends amongst intellectual women, the "Blues" (the "Blue-stockings"), including Hannah More and novelist Fanny Burney. He adored and depended on the reader and conversationalist, Mrs Thrale. Wollstonecraft wasn't part of this circle; she was central to the Dissenting circle of her wonderful publisher, Joseph Johnson, the kindest, most responsible of men. She was actually very fortunate in the men who recognized and furthered her abilities: Dr Price, her publisher, and the supposedly chilly bachelor, Godwin, whom she eventually married. It may seem odd that she had such a ghastly father that she was prejudiced against marriage for a long time, and yet she got on so well with most men. I think the answer here is that she made an absolute distinction between, on the one hand, violence like her father's and greedy manipulativeness like her eldest brother's, and on the other hand gentleness and benevolence of the kind she encountered really quite a lot.

You have said that Mary Wollstonecraft was slandered and that the slanders stuck for 200 years. Was she so great a threat to the established order, both domestic and political?

The slanders against her in her own time and following immediately on her death in 1797 are two-fold. So long as she was single she was well respected as the moral being she always was, and continued to be. She had a first child, a daughter, with an American Gilbert Imlay. They didn't marry but lived together as though married (as she felt herself to be, for she was utterly devoted to him). There was general sympathy for Wollstonecraft when Imlay left her. Godwin's rather chilly heart was melted by her misery, and he befriended her. They were friends for some months before they became lovers. This is too brief a picture of one of the most fascinating stories in Wollstonecraft's life, but to answer the question: she became pregnant a second time, with the daughter who was to become Mary Shelley. She and Godwin then married, but this made it clear she had not married before, and that her first daughter was illegitimate. This was the basis of the sexual slanders. The slanders that followed her death (after childbirth) had to do with the counter-revolution in England, a monarchy at war with revolutionary France since 1793, and now undergoing the protracted Napoleonic wars.

Wollstonecraft, though actually appalled by the bloodshed of the Terror, shared the early, more moderate principles of the French Revolution--she believed in government by the people and in equal opportunity, etc.--so that to the propaganda machine of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, Wollstonecraft appeared to embody what England was fighting against. The slanders stuck for the simplest of reasons: to read through the comments of academics and critics for two hundred years, is to see how a good number simply bleat the comments of those before them.

The slanders are revealing, aren't they? "A moody sexpot, a wild woman." If she was a sexpot, it is ironic that she died of sex (in childbirth). Why do men always use sexual slander against women who don't conform to men's rules?

I can't easily answer this because it's hard to understand that kind of automatism. Is it because sexual slander has been there ever since Eve became the prototype of untrustworthy temptress or weaker vessel, so a lazy mind finds this conveniently to hand? Virginia Woolf argues (in "Three Guineas") that it's an expression of insecurity. Curiously, women too have slandered Wollstonecraft--in droves. In England, the Literary Review, edited by a woman, published an attack on Wollstonecraft by a well-known woman journalist who was reviewing a biography by a woman which depicts her subject as a wild woman and moody sexpot. The cover of the Literary Review carried an image of Wollstonecraft taking a nose-dive.

"The Rights of Woman"--not even the vote--don't mean much, do they, if women cannot control their own bodies (as Wollstonecraft could not) and be assured of safe childbirth (as she was not)?

Wollstonecraft could not indeed control her body as she had no access to contraception, and though she and Godwin practised abstinence when she was thought to be fertile, their information was incorrect. It wouldn't have been in character to attempt abortion--for her, it wasn't a question of illegality, I shouldn't think, but of abortion simply not being available in an acceptable form. She had high standards of hygiene at a time when cleanliness was not considered important. I'm guessing here, because she didn't try. She certainly had strong and growing feelings for the foetus. She made a brave attempt to retain control over her body in the course of childbirth by refusing doctors and hospitals, where horrendous numbers of women died. She insisted on using midwives, but she lost control over her body when her placenta did not come away, and a doctor was summoned who introduced the fatal infection.

Can you tell us about Wollstonecraft's younger daughter, a remarkable writer in her own right?

This is too large a question to summarise in a few lines. Wollstonecraft's younger daughter became Mary Shelley, the author of "Frankenstein." She never knew her mother who died ten days after her birth, from puerperal fever. All the same, Mary Shelley read and reread her mother's works and followed her ideas. In "Frankenstein," the monster-killer is the unnatural son of an unnatural father, for his inventor, Frankenstein, has detached himself from domestic ties, relying on ingenuity alone. In dramatizing this point, Mary Shelley confirms her mother's case for parental nurture, together with Wollstonecraft's attack on "the cold workings of the brain." Frankenstein is an irresponsible creator who abandons his creature. Uncaring man and monster are one; they reflect each other, and in dramatizing this phenomenon, Mary Shelley, like her mother, aims at refashioning an entire sex. The uncaring might of democracy corrupting its hideous progeny and the monster who is careless of human life, reflect each other's fantasy of power, bearing out the continuing relevance of Mary Shelley's fable where the natural alternative of maternal nurture has no public or political status.

It is said that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. Do you think that women today know enough--remember enough--about women's history to ensure that we don't have to repeat it?

As I said earlier, Wollstonecraft wanted women to draw on their own skills and traditions. Compassion, resistance to war, tenderness, and an education in the "domestic affections" were what women could preserve and teach to future generations, rather than transforming themselves as imitation men. Wollstonecraft deplored aggression. Unfortunately, that's built into our hormones in the form of testosterone--more in men than in women. Wollstonecraft believed that education must train minds and habits to control this, and to enhance the instincts for nurture natural to women as child-bearers (and of course natural to males in many species).

Domestic affections (even more deeply than "rights") were the core of her thinking, and these cut across distinctions of gender, offering a basis for a common morality. It is easy to pass over this domestic ideology as a plea for old-fashioned femininity, but nowhere does she dare more the judgement of her reader. By domesticating an aggressive order she wants to change the whole world. What she actually advocates is the political empowerment of gentleness, nurture, compromise and listening--all the traits which the civilized of both sexes already share.