Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

Living with Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary A. Favret is Professor of English at Indiana University (Bloomington), an affiliate of the Gender Studies program, and the Director of the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies at IU. She is the author of War at a Distance: The Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton 2009), Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge 1993), and numerous articles on Romanticism, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literatures. Below, Dr. Favret reflects on what it is like for a feminist scholar to indeed “live” with Wollstonecraft.


Virginia Woolf insists that we encounter Mary Wollstonecraft as a living being: “[W]e hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”  On this day of her birth, April 27 2011, I feel called to think of how Wollstonecraft has lived in my lifetime and in my life. The Mary Wollstonecraft I first met as an undergraduate was, quite effectively, the champion of a woman’s right to education and her right to be thought of as a rational creature. As champion, Wollstonecraft’s weapons were her sharp and well-aimed words! Girded with such words I sailed off to graduate school. The Wollstonecraft who accompanied the graduate student, however, lost that indomitability even as the winds seemed to drain from my sails. She was a vexed, unhappy creature, uncertain how to move between the life of the mind with its high values and the worldly demands of love and sexuality. Her feminism opened up this depressive, even whining side: she was the wannabe suicide, dragging her long skirts in the water to weight herself down, her very clothes contributing to her self-destruction. Still she wrote, though, and her Letters from Sweden with its loneliness and almost agonizing intimacy of thought and feeling, made more sense to me then than most other texts I studied. Wollstonecraft survived those dark currents, and so did I.


Now when I talk to graduate students, especially women, it’s not this Wollstonecraft we seem to talk about – the woman struggling to forge a language for her desires intellectual, political, spiritual and physical. Instead it’s Wollstonecraft the self-proclaimed professional woman writer, who gave birth to a daughter and kept on writing; who despaired of love and kept on writing; who married and lived separately from her husband, and kept on writing. What does she have to tell us about working mothers and child care? about reproductive rights? about choosing and not choosing to get married? about writing with and against  the inevitable claims of the body –one’s own and others’? about formulating theories and, as Woolf recognized, finding every day that your experiences might ask you to “thrust aside” your theories? about changing, and daring to change, one’s mind?

Actually Woolf’s words are more loaded than that: “Every day,’ she says of Wollstonecraft, “something was born in her that thrust aside her [own] theories.” My feminisms, our feminisms too are “something . . . born in her.” Every day.


About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by .

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