As my books are set in the Georgian era at present, I’m learning more about this fascinating era and the complex and world-changing French Revolution.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT 1759-1797
Mary Wollstonecraft was the granddaughter of a respectable manufacturer in the Spitalfields weaving trade. Her father, she labeled a domestic tyrant. When he lost his inheritance through a series of unwise investments Mary sought to make her way in the world. She attempted unsuccessfully to run a school and work as a governess.
After publisher Joseph Johnson paid her 10 guineas for her first manuscript, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, she became a respected member of London’s rationalist intelligentsia.
The Great National Debate on the French Revolution was opened by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary Wollstonecraft replied to this attack on the French National Assembly and on the English radicals for rejoicing at the events across the Channel by writing A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) expressing the passionate conviction that the power of reason is the common possession of men and women. Mind, she argued has no gender, but women’s reason had been stolen from them. Her contemporaries regarded her defense as one of the most forceful and persuasive contributions to this famous public argument. She later wrote History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution (1793).
Upon her return to England, Mary joined a radical group whose membership included Blake, Paine, Fuseli, and Wordsworth. Her first child, Fanny, was born in 1795, the daughter of American Gilbert Imlay. After his desertion, she married the radical activist William Godwin, a long-time friend in 1797. Wollstonecraft died a few days after the birth of their daughter, Mary (who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and other novels).OLYMPE DE GOUGES 1748-93 was a butcher's daughter and early feminist who demanded that French women be given the same rights as French men. In her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), she challenged the practice of male authority and the notion of male-female inequality. She was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror for attacking the regime of Maximilien Robespierre and for her close relation with the Girondists. In addition to these provocative writings, her defense of the king was one of the factors leading to her execution. Early in the Revolution she suggested a voluntary, patriotic tax, which was adopted by the National Convention in 1789.
MADAME ROLAND (aka Manon or Marie Roland) 1754-93 was another important female activist. Although she did not specifically focus on women or their liberation, she was a feminist by virtue of the fact that she was a woman working to influence the world. Her personal letters to leaders of the Revolution influenced policy; in addition, she often hosted political gatherings of the Brissotins, a political group which allowed women to join.
Madame Roland took it upon herself to spread Revolutionary ideology. Roland attributed women’s lack of education to the public view that women were too weak or vain to be involved in the serious business of politics. She believed that it was this inferior education that turned them into foolish people, but women ‘could easily be concentrated and solidified upon objects of great significance’ if given the chance. As she was led to the scaffold, Madame Roland shouted "O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!" Her writings were finished by others and published posthumously.
Although women did not gain the right to vote as a result of the Revolution, they still greatly expanded their political participation and involvement in governing. They set precedents for generations of feminists to come.
Women and European Politics: Contemporary Feminism and Public Policy by Joni Lovenduski
Mary Wollstonecraft, Political Writings: A Vindication of the Rights of Men; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, ed. by Janet Todd (Toronto, 1993
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