In the later half of the eighteenth century a woman had certain rights.
If she were not married than she may enter into contracts under her own name, own property, and dispose of the proceeds of such property at her own discretion.
If she married then her status converted from ‘feme sole’ to that of ‘feme covert’. The Latin speaks louder than the law. Legally, she was joined with her husband, both bodily and politically. She had no rights over her natural children and any debts she incurred were ostensibly those of her husband. What we consider a symbolic act joining two families together today, women taking on their husbands last name, was the mark of a civilly disarmed woman.
By taking her husbands last name she became, in part, himself. Although, a much lesser portion of the whole:
Man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth its name, it is carried and recarried with the new associate, it beareth no sway, it possesseth nothing during coverture. A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert, in Latin, nupta, that is, veiled, as it were, clouded and overshadowed, she hath lost her streame . . . To a married woman, her new self is her superior, her companion, her master.
The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights (London, 1603)
You might think, fuck it, I wouldn’t marry.
I don’t have to beat you over the head with the obvious obstacles. That no respectable tutor or profession was admitting women with open arms. Or that the manual labor and low pay associated with domestic service was not an enviable fate for the unmarried.
Even extremely fortunate daughters of the wealthy and the aristocratic had no viable alternative to marriage. She may expect a decent income, but Entailment was her doom. Fathers and husbands would often entail their large properties so that they would not be broken apart and parceled out down their female line. (It turns out not everything about Downton Abbey is complete bullshit.)
These are the bare facts of a woman’s status in the Western world as it spun into the modern era. Against the backdrop of American and French revolutions, woman stood with allies on both sides of the struggle with absolutely nothing to gain politically or legally from her involvement.
A woman with an independent spirit would have married as well as she could and either hoped for a kind husband or a dutiful son. That some widows were very merry should surprise no one at all.
Most women didn’t hope for independence, though. They did not take up arms against their male oppressors or complain much about their situation if it turned sour. They prayed and they had children and they tried to live and die respectably. Their world was an aperture, set to the smallest and most narrow setting.
No one can blame them. They couldn’t see through the pinhole.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft shocked the world by looking up, noticing she was getting a bad rap, and saying so.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects was the Communist Manifesto of it’s time. Deeply unsettling to both genders, it was the philosophical equivalent of teaching dogs algebra.
Never did any author enter into a cause, with a more ardent desire to be found, not a flourishing and empty declaimer, but an effectual champion. She considered herself as standing forth in defence of one half of the human species, labouring under a yoke which, through all the records of time, had degraded them from the station of rational beings, and almost sunk them to the level of the brutes. She saw indeed, that they were often attempted to be held in silken fetters, and bribed into the love of slavery; but the disguise and the treachery served only the more fully to confirm her opposition.
Memoirs. William Godwin
Mary became The Fool in 1792.
Literary critics like dogs tore at her skirt and the unmarried woman surrounded by liberals and revolutionaries was suddenly the most scandalous among them.
Not long after she entered into a physical relationship with an unmarried man, had an illegitimate daughter by him and was dutifully abandoned by the son of the bitch.
So, friendless, she stood at an unknown crossroads. At the time, her only income depended on her writing and in addition to her own skin, she now had a very small and insistent mouth to feed.
She would eventually bounce back, fall in love, and then promptly die in childbirth, but I want you to forget about the facts of her found in a Google search. Pretend you’re sitting with her, near a window or in a coffee shop, the dull and dry roar of social and literary critics at her heels. She is the first of her kind.
What did that feel like? Can you imagine the isolation and the uncertainty of such a place?
Mary Wollstonecraft is The Fool. Absolute freedom and total independence. You can go anywhere you like but you have no idea how to get there. It’s a good time to start over, it’s also a good time to get lost and die in a ditch.
Exciting and promising as it can be, I don’t always read The Fool in a positive light. A lot depends on the cards around her, but acting on a spontaneous change isn’t necessarily safe or sane.
Yes, Mary’s work helped the cause of Suffrage and those natural rights all humans posses, male or female. But it wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always pleasant. When The Fool lands within a read I talk about hope and I defer to caution.
The beginning is always today.