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Sarah Ruden

Women and the Ironies of Providence

Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

The lowest point in my first few weeks in South Africa—which I came to see as a sort of laboratory of modern upheaval—was when one of two young men (probably students) grabbed at my crotch as I walked along the Main Road in the suburb of Rondebosch, below the University of Cape Town. They continued down the sidewalk, laughing, and I whirled around and ran to confront them in my capacity as lecturer (= junior professor) in classical studies, or (as I then considered it) defender of all that is right and good. What did they mean by that? I yelled. How would they like it if men treated their mothers and sisters that way? I wouldn't let them go until they promised never to do such a thing again—but they were laughing as they walked away.

I had more or less zero luck in asserting my rights as a female in isolation, in spite of my Harvard doctorate, my job on an easy tenure track, and the support of my Quaker Meeting. For example, I found myself the client of a bullying misogynist real estate agent who wouldn't agree that the choice of which home to buy was mine. (Down the line, it became clear why he had so many phone numbers within a few blocks, each for an alleged residence of his own: he was a predator who would stash street children away separately so as to control them better, and finally one killed him.)

It was a different story when a man was visibly on my side, as a friendly tenant. A British Quaker working in a local NGO and then a young American running study-abroad programs not only made me physically safer—a sad necessity for single women in Africa—and more respected, but allowed me to look at myself through more authoritative but still congenial eyes and pick battles. Once, when—probably well on my way to a breakdown from stress—I had grabbed the wrong hair color from a store shelf and now looked like a clown, and was intent on blaming the manufacturer for mislabeling, I babbled the story to the young American and ran out to find the package among the garbage (as usual, spilled out of the bins and scattered by the homeless in search of something edible or tradable) at the side of our building.

Ben, with his usual kindness, came along. I had a sense of him watching me, his judgment strained but restrained, and I suddenly became reasonable. I said something like, "Maybe I'm wrong—maybe it was labeled right—and this is a waste of time anyway." I was now sharing the mammoth problem of what a woman could or should do amid myriad opportunities and perils.

My life improved even more when—during a long but hopeless romance and engagement, and also afterward—I shared a house with and worked for an Orthodox Jewish doctor and entrepreneur. Though I had more responsibilities, I also did more of what I felt personally called to (such as journalism and footwork for Quaker charities); and I managed better, in part because those around me—including the doctor's family—not only gave me good advice but also asserted, sometimes with an embarrassing intensity, that I was—this is the proper word—entitled. Once, a neighbor's African maid, starting her own walk to the distant bus stop, saw me emerging and setting off down the road. She snapped, "Where is your car? Only the master has car? You must walk?" This kind of encounter filled me with my own humorous confidence, to replace intimidation and exasperation.

This may seem an absurd statement (treasonable, in some quarters), but it's no less one I stand by: to the extent that I think clearly and work effectively these days, it's due to my happy marriage. On my own, I can't be what I aspire to be, even as a feminist—and I neither reject that label nor consider myself unworthy of it. Whatever I dream of being, I have to try to be it in a fallen world, and part of its fallenness is the male hunting mentality. What is that creature doing separated from the herd or the pack? I can go after it—or I fear it (sick?—wounded?—crazed?—starving?—fearless and desperate from some other cause?) coming after me. Too much of that mentality was on display in post-apartheid South Africa for me to discount milder versions here and lack gratitude for my home.

It's through this lens that I see a book like Romantic Outlaws, about the English mother and daughter who were critical instigators of the debate over women's freedom. "Rights" is not really the correct term, though Mary Wollstonecraft is most famous as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Women's duties and rightful expectations inform a discussion at least as old as written history, if only because women, if let slide (in either their morals or their welfare), so consistently drag down others with them. It's not only that women must stay in line, but woe to anyone lackadaisical about their vindication. That an innocent girl like Tamar, for instance, is raped and rendered an unmarriageable recluse can contribute to a dynastic war.

So energetic are women themselves, as advocates of settled, nonbrawling society, in defending the barriers from undermining both internal and external, that the public question of "freedom"—Can I chuck this housework and travel? Can I have a lover without being ostracized or worse? Can I become a lawyer?—comes up seriously only in an era of significant disruption (which, however, falls short of loyalty- and obedience-enhancing war).

In times like that, Mary Wollstonecraft was born, into the mid-17th century Spitalfields silk-weaving community. Among restless suppliers of luxury goods to the increasingly unpopular elite, the family had risen to prosperity. But her father was bewitched by the—easier than ever—possibility of passing as a "gentleman"; he did nothing but strut, drink, beat his wife, make bad investments, and drag his dependents to live in alternately showy and squalid houses in his search for grandeur and in flight from debt collectors.

He did not dower his daughters with any of his substantial inheritance. Like no previous generation of the "respectable," the family was isolated and mobile enough that there was no social sanction on the men's giving women no protection and no stake. Mary as a child dodged around the countryside in fear of her elder brother's abuse, in which he had a free hand. The mother who reviled her demanded lengthy nursing from her, and her sisters (one of whom she rescued from a husband on a spree of postpartum "gratification") saw in her talents and achievements only pretexts for gouging money from her, which they did with insolent persistence. Why should they teach for a living (work she obtained for them) if she could pension them off?

She came naturally to associate survival and self-respect with independence. She struggled for her own profession as a journalist, for her own home, and for her own sort of casual and comfortable clothes and hairstyle. She was an early advocate of rational education for girls, to cultivate all their abilities. She joined radicals of the Revolutionary period (including her key patron Joseph Johnson, editor of the Analytical Review) in calling marriage into question as the legally oppressive relationship it was at the time.

Her program came to grief not only from predictable establishment resistance and the counter-revolutionary direction general opinion took, but also from personal scandal. This was caused by her affair, undertaken in France during the Revolution, with a feckless American trader; by her two suicide attempts during his slow desertion; and by the illegitimate child who would herself grow up to commit suicide, amid the comprehensive tumult caused by the arrival of Shelley in the next generation's household; Shelley was second only to Byron in prowess as a libertine ideologue.

Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Mary (born within grudging wedlock to the freethinker William Godwin), the married Shelley's lover and eventual wife, and famously the author of Frankenstein, entered before she was out of her teens into a state of what I call radical collapse, the (nowadays) familiar fate of being mercilessly exposed in male-driven social experiments.

If there are female drives to be taken into account, in columns beside those for male drives such as hunting, a partial 'negative' is patient nurturing, the propensity to soothe squalling, gently avert self-destruction, and wait out solipsism, year after year after year.

In one of many woeful episodes, Mary lost a daughter because she rushed with the sick child, in dire conditions, at Shelley's summons to assist at a brief drama (substantially over before she arrived) concerning Byron, a servant, and his illegitimate daughter Allegra by Mary's step-sister Claire Claremont, after Byron had whimsically appropriated this child from her mother. It's hard to follow, I know, because it was all rather scrambled.

Mary was terrified for her daughter but also terrified that Shelley would abandon her (as he had his original wife, who in the course of events killed herself) if she defied him and stayed put. She lost Shelley himself to a mania for boat-racing untempered by any consideration of physics; he was determined to beat Byron by fixing an enormous mast to a modest-sized boat. I blame his domestic arrangements. Nothing restores sense in a man like a kick in the pants from a fearless woman, but he was not blessed with a partner like that.

At any event, Mary Shelley's experiences seem to have shut down any possibility of her advocating for women's welfare, as thoroughly as her own mother's activism had been shut down by death from childbirth. She spent her later years with her one remaining child (out of four), in rural retirement. Mary Wollstonecraft (if not Mary Shelley) had a remarkable mind and a remarkable career, but her strain of feminism seems, almost of necessity, to have gone nowhere—which leaves the uncomfortable question of where its revival has been going now. A Vindication was soon forgotten, but in the 20th century it was enshrined again.

Okay, okay—so where am I going with this? I am, after all (like most modern women), fond of my freedom. I wouldn't want to have been "protected" from my choices (however bad) in my youth, and I hate condescension, especially concerning my own area of expertise. (Granted, that's only the stylistics of ancient sacred literature.) I'm hardly the one to shrill, "Oh, those misguided libbers!" Nor can I fall back entirely on admiration for female founders of Sunday Schools, Abolitionists, reformers of prostitutes, Temperance campaigners, battlefield nurses, and so on—all those who in piety and service learned organizing under men's direction and earned fuller inclusion in public life in an exchange for thoroughly unthreatening demonstrations of what women can offer there. No—if there are female drives to be taken into account, in columns beside those for male drives such as hunting, a partial negative is patient nurturing, the propensity to soothe squalling, gently avert self-destruction, and wait out solipsism, year after year after year. That did work as a way to treat the world, but now time is clearly running out.

It's all a toughie. But I do at least see a widely shared problem—which I know intimately, because I share it—in women's tendency to take on too much, to grasp for physical and intellectual and moral responsibility that's beyond individual capacity, or even beyond the capacity of the whole gender. The motivating dread of a future lost (see the end of the last paragraph!) is after all built into the maternal apparatus. But it's—face it—an oversensitive dread, a dread best directed at babies.

Charlotte Gordon's big contribution in this volume isn't the joint, comparative biography of mother and daughter, with the alternating chapters, though she handles the structure very well. It's her stress on Wollstonecraft's arguably most important work, which resonated to great effect in her daughter's circle: a personal travel memoir of Scandinavia. Her lover Gilbert Imlay sent her there, ostensibly to track down a stolen cargo but really to be out of the way with her harangues about loyalty and attachment, and with her inconvenient infant.

Once the baby was farmed out locally, she could take time from her business forays to enjoy the lovely summer weather on scenic, unspoiled coasts. Her emotions healed and her imagination expanded. The resulting published work (Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796) was a profound influence on the Romantics, and through them fostered a new sense of the planet's natural beauty as precious in itself. Would we have as robust a conservation movement, and would we be as far along in our stewardship as we are, without Mary Wollstonecraft?

For me, then, the real glory of the feminist movement, in all its vagaries, is the evidence that God is relentless in finding good things to do with us, no matter how much we resist, and even if we never stop declaring that we have it all figured out on our own.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Face of the Water: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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