Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin: Politics and Essays

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 1:59 Wollstonecraft's Earliest Work
  • 4:39 Vindications of Rights
  • 8:08 Godwin's Early Life
  • 10:21 Enquiry & Caleb Williams
  • 12:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Meet THE power couple of the 1790s: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Watch how Wollstonecraft inspires the feminist movement, and thrill to Godwin's early anarchic ways! Plus: how does one betray the other, even after death?


It's time for the non-fiction glasses again because we are entering the exciting world of non-fiction.

When you hear the term 'power couple,' who comes to mind? It might be Jay-Z and Beyonce. It might be Bill and Hillary Clinton. It might be Jim and Pam. I don't know. Maybe Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin? Maybe? Maybe? I can picture your faces right now. You're all going eh, I don't know? You're also probably laughing at the glasses a little bit.

I'm not going to talk about those other people. I'm going to talk about Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. They were married for only a few months in the spring and summer of 1797. They were famous luminaries of eighteenth-century England. They were really smart people, and they ended up together, which is kind of the definition of a power couple. That's why we are talking about them. They both did groundbreaking work in their respective fields. Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as a trailblazing feminist, and Godwin was the first anarchist of the modern era, as well as the first man to write a mystery or thriller novel! So, you can thank him for John Grisham and all those people to come after him.

Together, they produced only one work worth considering. That was their daughter Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein.

Portraits of Wollstonecraft, Godwin and their daughter, Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin Family Portraits

And she also married the poet Percy Shelley, and that's how she got the name Shelley and not Wollstonecraft or Godwin. Though their thoughts and passions and all that stuff had influence on each other, they really wrote separately. They were separate luminaries on their own. Much of Wollstonecraft's work comes first chronologically - and probably has a larger impact and out shadows her husband a little bit in that respect. We'll look at her first and what she did.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Earliest Work

Born in 1759, she didn't live that long. Throughout her short life, she became a pioneer for women's rights. The movement she helped inspire - women's suffrage and feminism, in general, which happened way, long after her death - she does play a part in kicking that off. That's really what she's most significant for.

Her earliest written texts were about education, which is not much of a surprise since her first two jobs were as a schoolteacher and a governess. She had a particular interest in educating women and helping to free them from degraded status in society. Doing this through learning was really what she thought was the path to this. Her earliest work, The Female Reader, is an edited anthology of literary passages, and her own original work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters - these are both works that really express this. They get at the idea that if we want to help women out, we should really educate them, and we should help in any way we can to make that happen. She's arguing that children of both sexes need education in crucial areas of self-discipline, honesty and, especially, reason - reason is really important to her.

This is actually picked up, this strain of the importance of female education, much later in the early 20th century by Virginia Woolf, who is a modernist writer and a feminist, when that movement was really getting going. In her 'Room of One's Own,' which is a famous feminist tract, she picks right up on this idea that women need to be educated. She posits this fictional Shakespeare's sister who could have been a genius, too, but didn't get to go to school. This idea really has long-lasting resonance.

Emphasis in education makes sense. One of the key traits connecting Wollstonecraft and Godwin and all those other major thinkers is the emphasis of rationality over emotion, which is something that you probably have to learn in school. It's not necessarily natural.

In Education of Daughters, aspects of Wollstonecraft's later work can be found. It's not an out-an-out defense of women, and it's not exactly an attack of total patriarchy system that her other texts would be. She says that women need to be educated because then they're in a position to contribute better to society, even if that's as wives and mothers.

They're in a better position to contribute because they've gone to school.

A Vindication of the Rights of Men

Her next famous work - 1790 - she writes this thing called A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This is in response to the 1790 storming of the Bastille as part of the French Revolution. She is writing in response to this guy Edmund Burke. He writes this thing called Reflections on the Revolution in France. She thought that this thing was absurd, that it was the stupidest defense of monarchy ever. She was so mad at him that she wrote this thing called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which is a pro-republic, anti-aristocracy thing that harshly strikes at social convention and government opulence.

She doesn't just rebuke Burke's arguments - she does so using gendered language, and this is the really important part. She's arguing that if the citizens of France were to 'leap from their scabbards' to 'avenge even a look that threatened' Marie Antoinette - that's what Burke was arguing - France's noblemen would be guilty of the same emotional overreaction that's typically made fun of in women. That's basically her argument. They'd be swayed by his theatricality and not convinced by his reason. It's basically a high-brow version of calling them girly men if they listen to this guy, which is a little bit of a low blow but is nonetheless effective.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

She follows this up in 1792 with the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which you might expect would be coming soon from a feminist. The key to the Rights of Woman wouldn't be unfamiliar to people who read her other work, Education of Daughters. It goes back to the same theme that women NEED education. They are essential to a country's operation because they educate the children, and they're companions to men. Also, the key thing is that they are not property. They should have the same basic rights as men, such as the liberty to equally pursue education - kind of the same ideals that were being discussed a lot in reference to the French Revolution. That's what they were after for their citizens.

Wollstonecraft was a radical in her day for saying things like this. If you read it today, you'd probably be a little shocked at how antiquated it still seems, but that just sort of goes to show how backward things really were. Wollstonecraft still refers to marriage as 'the cement of society;' she doesn't want to toss out everything. She harshly critiques subjects, both men and women, who give in too quickly to 'sensibility,' or wild emotions. She's very into reason and things like that. She doesn't outright say - this is the thing that might seem most familiar to modern feminists - that men and women are equal. She just says that they should all have the same fundamental rights. There are bits where she says what men can do and women can't (physical attributes is a lot of what she mentions). What seems barely feminist to us today was like crazy talk in her day. That shows you how far we've come.

Besides these writings - political tracts or educational tracts - she contributed a lot to other literary styles. She wrote a travelogue. She wrote a history of the French Revolution. She wrote a children's book. It was her ideas about women that were the most attention-grabbing.

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