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.