Feminism made a long overdue showing in the 18th Century. Society, as a whole debated important issues, and, naturally, well-informed women began to question their place in the whole structure. These women were not called “feminists,” but rather “female philosophers.” They were nonmilitant…no bra burners among them. Rather I should say no corset burners among them. They did not protest for legal rights. Instead, they focused on the lack of education for females and on the moral autonomy and authority of males within the family structure. Early female writers included Mary Astell and Catherine Macaulay. Although few would call her a feminist, Jane Austen spoke of such issues in her writing. Austen simply gave us sympathetic female characters. Yet, how can we believe that she grudgingly dedicated a novel to a prince she did not admire and then think that Jane Austen was not aware of the moral debate going on about her.
Perhaps the most controversial figure of the feminist movement of this time period was a teacher and novelist: Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. The book sets the “female perspective” in the context of post-revolutionary Europe. The downfall of the book is its emphasize on rational principles. That is also the strength of the book. Wollstonecraft created a firestorm of sorts and alienated many readers by attacking male icons such as John Milton and Rousseau because both men advocated subjugation of the woman in a man’s world. When I taught high school English, my female students (and some of the males) saw parallels to the pro-feminist speeches found in the 1960s and 70s in the U.S. One of Wollstonecraft’s more controversial comments dealt with how the English education system for girls taught them how to attract a man but how to run a man’s house once they landed him.
In 1798, Mary’s husband, William Godwin, wrote a Memoir of her life. This was shortly after Wollstonecraft’s death. Mary lost her life to childbirth. (That child, Mary Godwin, became the wife of Percy Shelley and the author of Frankenstein.) Godwin told the world of his wife’s suicide attempts and of her bearing an illegitimate child, as well as an exaggerated version of Mary’s rejection of Christianity. Mary was labeled an atheist and a whore. Such labels destroyed what good Wollstonecraft created with in her work.