Mary Wollstonecraft & More | Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy
Bring up eighteenth and nineteenth-century “proto”-feminism in conversation and most people will draw a blank, and fair enough. The British education system’s approach to history is haphazard at best, and most of us have enough to be getting on with without trying to fill all the various gaps left by our schooling. For those who touched on the topic at school or university, literary heavyweights like Austen, Eliot and the Brontë sisters will likely spring to mind, as will their equally vivid fictional heroines. For Americans the early suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony might be invoked. Mary Wollstonecraft (d.1797), famously mother to another female literary giant, will probably be the first name to roll off the tongue of anyone who has muddled through a course on early feminism, literature or Enlightenment.
Born in Spitalfields in 1759, Wollstonecraft was the first woman to enter the western philosophical canon. She established a fierce public correspondence with statesman Edmund Burke over the question of the French Revolution. Her defence of the increasingly bloody Revolution against Burke’s concerns made her an overnight sensation in intellectual circles. However, Wollstonecraft is most famous for her 1792 “Vindication on the Rights of Women”. The work, intended to be the first of two volumes, boldly declared how men and women are both born with equal ability to reason, and therefore concluded that power and influence should be available to all regardless of gender.
Although Wollstonecraft’s early death cut short her career, the Vindication was received well by the intelligentsia. Her reputation only soured over the next few decades as a result of her husband William Godwin’s posthumous biography that laid bare the sordid and unusual details of her personal life for all to see. Her popularity was long ago resurrected when in 1932 Virginia Woolf declared that Wollstonecraft’s “originality had become our commonplace”.
Yet during Wollstonecraft’s active years and for several subsequent decades, another woman concerned with the rights of her sex was forging a great path through contemporary consensus. Religious writer and philanthropist Hannah More (d.1833), born (like Wollstonecraft) to an unexceptional middle-class family, was “better known than Wollstonecraft and her books outsold Jane Austen’s many times over”. Her American contemporaries, it is said, were even more familiar with More’s writings, than with William Shakespeare’s. As someone who has studied teh eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries at school and university, including more than a handful of classes on political and intellectual history, I can say with certainty that Hannah More was not once mentioned by my teachers, nor was her work recommended as a topic for extracurricular exploration.
As highlighted by Christina Hoff Somers in her brief pamphlet “Freedom Feminism”, More’s shadow has likely been deliberately obscured by recent scholars because they happen to favour leftist ideologues like Wollstonecraft. More was more popular and just as esteemed as many of her contemporaries, but she is regarded as an “uninvited guest” at the figurative feminist dinner party. Whilst Wollstonecraft was a secularist, revolutionary who in 1792 fled to the French Republic while it was on the brink of war with Britain; More was a patriot, a devout Christian, and found little to disagree with in Adam Smith’s “Welfare of Nations”. Thus the latter’s achievements are dismissed as petty and bourgeoise. Her charity work is smeared as a classist plot to brainwash the proletariat. She is framed as a religious fanatic. Despite outliving Wollstonecraft, More is a dusty old relic as irrelevant to the historical struggle as she is to our present. Yet, shouldn’t those of us interested in the truth of the past be concerned with the facts of More and her influence, rather than discarding her because we find her slightly more inconvenient to our twentieth-century sensibilities than we do Wollstonecraft.
More was a reformer, not a utopian revolutionary, but she was undoubtedly daring and unconventional. I would daresay More had a sight more chutzpah than the circles of progressive professors who chortle at her tameness, whilst not daring themselves to step one toe out of line with their own social circumstances. More fiercely rebuked the English upper classes for their moral hedonism and indifference to the ongoing horrors of slavery ongoing in the British Empire at that time. In a 1795 poem ‘The Sorrows of Yamba’ she boldly parodied the slave trade:
Ye that boast “Ye rule the waves,”
Bid no Slave Ship soil the sea,
Ye that “never will be slaves,”
Bid poor Afric’s land be free.
Along with her sister, she established a large network of Sunday schools in the Mendip area, where she encouraged all students that hard work and morality ought to be prioritised. For More, as with Wollstonecraft, education was at the heart increasing opportunities for all regardless of class or gender. In “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education” (1799), More rebuked contemporary arguments of female intellectual inferiority by pointing out the fact that as women were overwhelmingly not receiving the same form and quality of education as men, there is “no just ground” to suggest their simple-mindedness. She encouraged women to involve themselves in charity, questioning why women ought only to be “captivating for the day” when they could contribute to “effects [which] may be commensurate with eternity”.
In her tract on education, she erupted: “I would call on [women] . . . to raise the depressed tone of public morals . . . On the use . . . which [women] shall . . . make of this influence, will depend . . . the well-being of those states, and the virtue and happiness, nay, perhaps the very existence, of that society.” Whereas Wollstonecraft emphasised the equality of men and women, More focused on how men and women are fundamentally different in particular ways, but that women ought to use their qualities to improve the public sphere, rather than let men command all.
For conservatives, just as progressives, it would be easy to mould More, Wollstonecraft, and indeed plenty of other historical figures, into the people we wish to justify our own ideas, rather than what they really were. From Wollstonecraft’s tracts on France, her unconventional views on marriage and family, we can safely gather that (unlike More) she wished to fundamentally reshape society from the ground up by a notion of reason that, although indiscriminate in regards to sex, detached from historical notions of liberty and rule of law could surely wreak moral chaos- as it did indeed do in France, later in Russia and repeatedly since. Yet her thoughts on women’s right to justice and choice were in many ways a bold and necessary break with the past. More’s gushing over women’s natural caregiving might seem out of place to many of us today, but she is arguably correct about the propensity of women for caring roles, and that these tendencies should not be scoffed at nor denied but celebrated and used toward the betterment of families and society.
In the opening line of Anne Brontë’s “Agnes Grey” (which was almost certainly infused by More’s cultural influence) the eponymous protagonist quips that “all true histories contain instruction”. In this same vein, in locating the true complexity of both Wollstonecraft and More, and the lamentable decline of the latter’s star in recent scholarship, we ought to locate an important lesson. The first lesson ought to be that More’s moderate feminism and its broad appeal in nineteenth-century society ought to receive more credit for its historical role in promoting justice for women. Secondly, that feminism such as More’s which embraces feminity rather than dismissing its existence or shaming it is a better movement. A feminism which is concerned with actually improving the lives of women- and by implication men too- in concrete ways, for example, improving education and access to legal justice regardless of sex, which remains a momentous issue in vast swathes of the world, is worthier of our consideration than a movement which complains that women do not make the “correct” choices if they decide to focus on motherhood over a career, or insists that there are zero palpable differences between men and women.
Moreover, we must take from the sparks generated by the rub of Wollstonecraft’s early “egalitarian” feminism against More’s moderate and maternal take on the pursuit of women’s rights, that both elements may have their place in certain contexts. As Christina Hoff Somers notes in her aforementioned pamphlet, women’s movements have always succeeded best and with appropriate measure, when a plurality of opinion has been permitted, but have failed or wreaked havoc when they become hostile to anything that contradicts radical theories. Thus we must seek to embrace and understand the likes of More and Wollstonecraft without erasing the other, and from their debate find the strength to deny the Marxist-feminist mission to abolish women’s political and social liberties and choices in favour of the utopia of equality of outcome which will always prove dangerous and fruitless.