“The First Modern Woman”

May 8 2013 @ 8:14am

Gary Kelly considers the label for Mary Wollstonecraft:

[A]s a self-educated, militantly independent young woman, she set out to become what she called the ‘first of a new genus’, a ‘female philosopher’. Many at the time would have derided this phrase as an oxymoron, but by it MaryWollstonecraftshe meant a comprehensive social, cultural, and political critic, what we now call a public intellectual, representing women in particular and thereby all of the exploited and oppressed.

As a ‘female philosopher’ Wollstonecraft communicated her vision of modernity, responding to the prolonged crisis of her time, in a wide range of writing including education manuals, novels, criticism and essays, political and social polemic, historiography of the present, and political travelogue. Part of this political and cultural work required both modernizing these forms, reinventing them better to serve her vision of modernity, and inventing a new form of discourse, that of the ‘female philosopher’ rather than of the intellectual woman as some kind of ‘honorary man’. So radical was her invention, so modern, that still today many find it confused and confusing rather than ahead of its time, and perhaps ahead of ours.

Update from a reader:

You know I’m a big fan of E. O. Wilson, and when you mentioned Mary Wollstonecraft, I remembered that he quoted her in Consilience, page 268, in “Chapter 11 Ethics and Religion.”  It is an arresting quote that I have pondered ever since:

Mary Wollstonecraft correctly said, of male domination but extensible to all human behavior, ‘No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness which is the good he seeks.’

The referenced quote is from her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

(Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790-1, by John Opie)