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In Search of Historical Foremothers

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. By Claire Tomalin. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $8.95. The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké. By Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin. University of North Carolina Press. $11.95.

AT a time when women were smothered in silks and crinoline, a talented or aggressive female seemed “monstrous” indeed. Horace Walpole described Mary Wollstonecraft as a “philosophizing serpent,” a “hyena in petticoats,” And the Quaker abolitionist, Angelina Grimké, excited so much wrath that her enemies dubbed her “Devilina Grimalkin.” Both women were extraordinarily gifted, sensitive, and intelligent. In their passionate struggle for human liberation, they were astonished to discover the limitations on their own political freedom. Mary Wollstonecraft ardently defended the principles of the French Revolution against the Tory attacks of Edmund Burke. But she recognized with dismay that the “rights of man” meant just that. Women had not been included.

“The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft” is a fascinating chronicle. Claire Tomalin approaches her subject with psychological penetration tempered by critical restraint. She writes astutely and tries to explode many of the romantic myths initiated by William Godwin’s “Memoirs.”

Mary Wollstonecraft was a fiery idealist and a political dreamer. As a “moral pioneer,” she hated bourgeois convention. She could be impetuous, willful, even domineering. In “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Wollstonecraft raged against the “domestic enslavement” of half of mankind. She described traditional marriage as “legal prostitution” and dared to assert that “mind has no sex.” Recognizing the primacy of “nurture” over “nature,” she vigorously attacked Rousseau’s “Emile.” Wollstonecraft indicted an educational system that preened women to be alluring mistresses and submissive wives. If females were silly and frivolous, she argued, it was because they were trained to be so. She insisted that women should be socialized as intelligent, rational, and independent human beings. “They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”

Mary Wollstonecraft scandalized the British public by several love affairs, two suicide attempts, and a daughter born out of wedlock. Like most idealists, she had visionary faith in the integrity and fidelity of personal commitment. She believed in “free love” and was willing to take the consequences. Now, two centuries later, her behavior seems more prophetic than aberrant. Mary considered her affair with Gilbert Imlay “sacred,” and she delighted in the birth of their child as a pledge of mutual affection.

Claire Tomalin criticizes Wollstonecraft for constructing a glorified mental image of her seducer. But what enamoured individual has not been guilty of idealization? Imlay’s desertion would have tried the constitution of an Amazon, Mary took laudanum, but she was revived. She jumped off Putney bridge, only to be rescued by passing boatmen. Suicide, too, proved taxing.

Most biographers have portrayed William Godwin as the knight who finally rescued Mary from emotional oblivion. They trust Godwin’s “Memoirs,” a cross between “Werther” and “Love Story.” But is Godwin a reliable narrator? Claire Tomalin thinks not. She describes the political philosopher as Wollstonecraft’s “consolation prize.” The union was stormy and plagued by petty jealousies. Furthermore, Godwin was a prude. Unlike Mary, he could not “rationalize” unabashed sexual enjoyment.

Five months following her civil marriage, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to a second daughter. Eleven days later, she died of septicaemia induced by a physician who had neglected to wash his hands. All too ironically, anatomy curtailed the destiny of this feminist “foremother.”

Modern readers who sympathize with Mary Wollstonecraft might be tempted to dismiss Angelina Grimké as a prim Quaker abolitionist. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin provides an admirable corrective to the stereotype. “The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké” is an absorbing portrait of a brilliant, talented, and courageous woman.

Grimké was an eloquent crusader for human emancipation. Fired by the cause of Abolition, she discovered in herself unexpected powers of speech, rhetoric, and forcefulness. When castigated for addressing a “promiscuous” gathering of both males and females, she found herself thrust into the nascent feminist camp. As a “moral being,” she asserted the right to speak before mixed audiences. “I recognize no rights but human rights,” she declared. “The rights of the slave and woman blend.”

Angelina Grimké achieved fame as a persuasive orator in the Antislavery movement of the 1830’s. Why, then, did she retire from public life at the apex of political success? Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin suggests that Grimké’s retreat may have been religiously motivated. Under a barrage of criticism from both her husband, Theodore Weld, and her rivalrous sister, Sarah, Angelina stood condemned of vanity, selfishness, and ambition. She perceived the aggressive use of intellect as a sin of pride against the Almighty. Deferring to the judgment of her religious mentors, Angelina retired to the kitchen and the nursery, obsessed with proving her “Christian humility.” The prime years of her life were devoted to scrupulous domestic duty; to the “Graham diet system”; and to faithful service as amanuensis, researcher, cook, nursemaid, and mother.

During the next twelve years, Grimké fought a difficult battle to regain personal integrity and to escape the dark cloud that overshadowed her marriage. She gradually began to take control of her life and to emancipate herself from stifling family pressures. By 1860, she felt sufficiently at peace with herself to return to public activity. Angelina spoke out, once again, in defense of Abolition ; and she distinguished herself as an advocate in the newly emerging struggle for women’s rights.

“Where are all the women geniuses?” historians ask. The answer is clear. They are in the kitchen with sister Sarah, making bread and honey for Theodore Weld. They have been drowned in the Thames or killed off in childbirth. Considering the circumstances, we must admire the survivors. Both “The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft” and “The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké” convey a fatal sense of unacknowledged tragedy, of human potential wasted. But Wollstonecraft and Grimké did survive long enough to speak their minds, to record their ideas, and to influence the course of history.


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