Notes on a Centuries-Old Scandal

English writer, philosopher and feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1797 but it remained highly influential and controversial throughout the 19th century. Her contemporaries largely respected her. Wollstonecraft’s influence on British-American author and educator Susanna Rowson’s approach to girl’s schooling is obvious, although Rowson embraced sentimentality and used it as an educational tool, rather than rejecting it outright as Wollstonecraft does in Rights of Woman.

Wollstonecraft’s reputation took a turn for the worse in 1798, however. Her unconventional personal life was revealed shortly after her death, oddly through her widower William Godwin’s biography of her, 1799’s Memoirs of the Author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin did not intend to destroy his late wife’s reputation; he looked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions as a model, and wrote in a very frank manner about Mary Wollstonecraft’s personal life. This caused a backlash of vituperative criticism and moral outrage against Wollstonecraft. The revelation of her mental health struggles, her suicide attempts, her affiars with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, the adulterous nature of the former and especially having a child out of wedlock with the latter, ruined her reputation for the next 100 years.

The effects of the Memoirs were far-reaching and devastating, even beyond Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation. Her sisters, who ran a school in Ireland, lost many of their students after the publication of the Memoirs. Her personal scandals were used as arguments against the “Woman Question” of the 19th century; she was seen as depraved, unnatural and unfeminine, despite Godwin’s attempts to appeal to middle-class morality by claiming that she “worshipped” domesticity. Throughout the 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft was publically considered more of a cautionary tale and an outrageous figure of scandal, rather than a feminist icon. 

Godwin also came under criticism, particularly for publishing what many read as a “Manual of speculative debauchery.” In the early 19th century, the status of women’s education was a cause of considerable public anxiety, especially women’s exposure to the passions through novels. Godwin’s explicit detail of Wollstonecraft’s sexual choices and unconventional morals caused panic that young women would read this book and look to Wollstonecraft as a role model, rather than more appropriate feminine figures. Several novelists used her as the template for fallen and scandalous women, and suggested that respectable women would have nothing to do with Wollstonecraft’s writings, in an attempt to undermine the education such impressionable readers could receive through Godwin’s book and Wollstonecraft’s own writings. The early 19th century was the heyday of the morality tale, largely due to the concerns over women’s informal education through literature. Girls academies were established in the late 18th and early 19th century, but many did not complete a lengthy formal education, even among the middle and upper classes, and instead supplemented their education by reading novels. Although novels often presented themselves as edifying texts, the public was very wary of novel-reading as potentially immoral by stimulating the senses and sentiments to excess and drawing women away from domestic duties. The criticism of Wollstonecraft, however, reveals the strong prejudices against women reading philosophy as well; her intellectual interests were used as evidence of her moral depravity and generations of girls and women were discouraged from reading her work. Many still did, despite the general consesus that Wollstonecraft was a wildly inappropriate addition to any respectable person’s library– George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are two notable authors who read Wollstonecraft and were influenced by her views on women’s education and gender equality. Of course, these authors came under criticism and harsh public judgment, as conceptions of gender roles became more restrictive and severe through the mid-19th century. Even after Wollstonecraft’s reputation was ruined, she was as unavoidable as the Woman Question itself.

Advertisements

Biker Chicks

Bicycles are a 19th century invention, and “bicycle crazes” surfaced periodically, beginning in 1819, then again in1868 (in England and France), but the bicycle craze hit the United States in the last two decades of the century. Bicycles were everywhere in late 19th century American cities; cycling clubs were formed in major cities and small towns alike. An 1895 article in the New York Tribue even made the hyperbolic declaration that the bicycle was “of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars” (quoted in Spreng 269). Bicycling was a regular topic in newspapers, even in relatively sparsely-populated areas like Minnesota and North Dakota. However, there was a lot of controversy about bicycles in the 1880s and 1890s; many of the articles were letters to the editor, complaining about bicyclists riding on sidewalks or riding too fast, but the most scandalous of all bicycle-related news was women cyclists.

Biker chick

Part of the controversy was the bicycling costume, pictured above, especially women wearing bloomers. Several letters in daily newspapers from the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, for instance, express horror at the immodesty of female bicyclists. Bloomers first appeared in the 1850s, but had always had a bad reputation due to their drastic departure from the socially accepted and extremely cumbersome women’s fashions of the time. The short, baggy trousers revealed women’s legs, which was very taboo and was considered by many to be outright risque and indecent. The cycling costume also blurred gender lines, allowing women to wear traditionally masculine clothing. Bloomers and bicycles were very closely related to the New Woman and her defiance of traditional gender roles, to the point that cycling and cycling costume were symbols of late 19th century feminism. For instance, the Grand Forks Herald described “bloomers,” a nickname for female bicyclists, as “women who stood on their rights” (quoted in Spreng 272). And when Cambridge University first granted full admission to women in 1897, male undergraduates protested by hanging an effigy of a woman on a bicycle.

Cycling was also a sort of literary hallmark for a New Woman character. In Grant Allen’s novel The Type-Writer Girl, the main character Juliet is a prototypical New Woman figure; she is educated, employed, she rides a bicycle and has a keen sense of adventure. She opens the narrative musing on the theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and she declares, “I will go forth into the world in search of adventures” (Allen 11, 12). For Juliet, exploration, mobility, and employment are essential components of freedom, although, predictably, she longs for romance as well. She observes that “the nineteenth century has a chivalry all its own, which I scruple to depreciate. If it speaks of us as females, it has given us the bicycle, and it almost admits that we are as fit for the franchise as the forty-shilling lodger… That I call magnanimity” (Allen 16). The 19th century has given women the somewhat cold and clinical label “female,” thus erasing the romantic “lady,” but in return it has given these females greater freedom, epitomized by the bicycle. Juliet later describes her love of bicycling:

How light and free I felt! When man first set woman on two wheels with a set of pedals, did he know, I wonder, that he had rent the veil of the harem in twain? … A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will, no man hindering (Allen 43-44).

Grant Allen’s protagonist is not alone in this association between bicycling and women’s freedom. Susan B. Anthony praised the bicylce as a vehicle of feminism: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” The bicycle itself and the less-restrictive clothing worn to operate it were symbols of women casting off patriarchal constraints; freed from the heavy skirts and layers of structured underclothing, “bloomers” could go where they pleased. As The Type-Writer Girl demonstrates, the bicycle was closely related to women’s freedom through independent employment; these New Women often used their bicycles for recreation and transportation to and from their places of employment. The bicycle is a liminal vehicle, allowing a woman to traverse the landscape between the domestic and public spheres, using her own will and physical power.

Works Cited

Allen, Grant. The Type-Writer Girl. Broadview Press, 1897.

Spreng, Ron. “The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley.” Minnesota History, summer 1995.

Image source: http://www.vintag.es/2013/02/a-woman-on-bike-circa-1890s.html