Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was thus a foremother of feminism. She was also a war reporter, a pedagogue, a spiritual quester, a radical republican, a single mother, a passionate & taboo-breaking lover.
Her story is ripe for the telling. This blog gathers anecdotes, freelance research, resources, and news of current projects: your one-stop Mary Wollstonecraft shop!
Mary Wollstonecraft took religion seriously. She was baptised into the established church, and when she decided to marry, made her vows at St Pancras, safe within the Church of England. Nonetheless, she hung out with Rational Dissenters at just the right time in her life, and was radicalised by the congregation of Newington Green, led by its minister Dr Richard Price. (And that Unitarian Church is still radical.) She criticised the Dissenters, as we have seen, but drew sympathetic parallels between their situation and that of women, denied full participation in civil society.
Newington Green Unitarian Church
Mary was something of an amateur theologian, using first her reason and later her sensibility to explore the divine. Feminists of our time skate merrily across the fact of her deeply theistic worldview. Much of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman deals with ethics, correct behaviour (in the Buddhist sense of right livelihood, rather than merely etiquette), and the nature of God.
Here's a chapter title you don't often hear cited: "Chap. XIII. Some Instances of the Folly Which the Ignorance of Women Generates; with Concluding Reflections on the Moral Improvement That a Revolution in Female Manners Might Naturally Be Expected to Produce." In other words, "Silly Things Ill-Educated Women Do, and How Much Better the World Would Be If Only They Behaved Themselves". It starts by entreating women to reflect on God, and telling them off at length for seeking out fortune-tellers and "fashionable deceptions, practised by the whole tribe of magnetisers" (sounds like the altmed crowd - note to self, another post another time). There is a list of rhetorical questions, to which she expects the answer "yes":
Do you believe that there is but one God, and that he is powerful, wise, and good?Do you believe that all things were created by him, and that all beings are dependent on him?Do you rely on his wisdom, so conspicuous in his works, and in your own frame, and are you convinced that he has ordered all things which do not come under the cognizance of your senses, in the same perfect harmony, to fulfil his designs?
She also writes a long digression "considering the attributes of God":
Positive punishment appears so contrary to the nature of God, discoverable in all his works, and in our own reason, that I could sooner believe that the Deity paid no attention to the conduct of men, than that he punished without the benevolent design of reforming.
To suppose only that an all-wise and powerful Being, as good as he is great, should create a being foreseeing, that after fifty or sixty years of feverish existence, it would be plunged into never ending woe—is blasphemy. I know that many devout people boast of submitting to the Will of God blindly, as to an arbitrary sceptre or rod, on the same principle as the Indians worship the devil. In other words, like people in the common concerns of life, they homage to power, and cringe under the foot that can crush them. Rational religion, on the contrary, is a submission to the will of a being so perfectly wise, that all he wills must be directed by the proper motive—must be reasonable.
This is one of the passages that makes it so unfair that the Victorians vilified her for being an atheist: she was a through-going deist all her life, as far as I can tell. It was dear William Godwin and his ill-considered memoir that inadvertently caused her to be seen as rejecting God on her deathbed. It's a bit like being "accused" of being gay. ( I put the verb in scare-quotes because it presumes that one or both parties perceive gayness to be a bad thing.) What if the answer is, yes I am - so what? Or what if the answer is, no I'm not actually, although there's nothing wrong with it? If that is the truth, further denials can become awkward, and anyway are impossible if one happens to be dead, and the distraught widower, as an avowed atheist, has no interest in protesting on one's behalf. I can't wait to hear what Lyndall Gordon has to say about Mary Wollstonecraft and the Unitarians.