Women Writers in the Romantic Age

The example of Mary Wollstonecraft

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

28 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Norms, conventions and the problem of female authorship

3. Mary Wollstonecraft
3.1. Early Life and Works
3.2. “The First of a New Genus”
3.3. The Two Vindications
3.4. France and Gilbert Imlay
3.5. William Godwin

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The time of Romanticism is historically regarded as a masculine phenomenon. As Anne K. Mellor pointed out, Romanticism as a literary movement was constructed and defined by a masculine discourse and ideology, a “masculine Romanticism”.1 This masculine Romanticism is the traditional understanding of the literary movement – based on the writings and thoughts of the five canonical writers Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Mellor suggests that “feminine Romanticism” occurs to recover the erased and neglected voices of women writers within this movement.2 To understand these differences of masculine and feminine Romanticism, one has to realize that both terms serve as an ideological gender construction, not in terms of the author´s sex. To analyse female romantic literature also means to consider the division of ´private´ and ´public´ sphere occuring in the eighteenth century, a phenomenon that should be discussed in the following chapter.3

This paper aims to show how women writers could made a career in the male-dominated time of Romanticism. In order to show the problems they experienced within a patriarchal society, I will explore the subordination of women by a construction of femininity which did not grant them the status of rational thinking subjects. For this purpose I have chosen the example of Mary Wollstonecraft, the revolutionary founder of feminism. Wollstonecraft was not only a writer herself, but she was also the wife of the well-known political philosopher, William Godwin, and she gave birth to Mary Godwin Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein. As a member of the literary circle around Joseph Johnson, she was surrounded by famous contemporary writers and was involved in literary relationships within her own family circle.

My main intention is to show how Wollstonecraft as a woman writer could establish a space for herself in the public sphere of her contemporary culture while she somehow “used” or even undermined the boundaries of masculine Romanticsim. For this purpose, I will only discuss her most important works which constitute significant stages in her personal and literary development. I will therefore left out her novels, because prose fiction, as the proper genre for women writers, was not her medium. Hers was a philosophical, though not always logical, mind. For that, I will rather focus on her political and educational tracts, such as her two Vindications.

I think it is necessary to focus in detail on her biography in order to show the personal background which lead her to write her works. Important questions to ask are how Wollstonecraft negotiated the activity of writing within her social sphere and what kind of support she received. How did she experience her gender, her time, and the contemporary events, and how were these experiences reflected in her works?

I will further focus on gender politics controlled by patriarchy which excluded women because of their “lack of education” and I will discuss how the call for gender equality by Mary Wollstonecraft was complicated by the society she lived in. At last, I will also explore how Mary Wollstonecraft as a women writer of the eighteenth century represented herself through writing in order to achieve emancipation and a position as a “rational thinking being”.

2. Norms, conventions and the problem of female authorship

In this chapter, I will focus on the problems of female authorship during the Romantic era. Therefore I will explain women´s role at this particular time and describe the kind of obstacles female authors experienced as well as the possibilities they had in terms of creating a literary identity.

Women at that time were born into a realm of implicit subservience, and they were aware of the public world as difficult and mostly inimical to their aspirations. Through detailed household tasks, they preserved the fabric of ordinary life. They had to care for the young, watched over the sick and dying, supported other women in childbirth. Birth and death were held within the world of women.4 Their role was mainly restricted to domesticity where they had their place.

By] force of circumstances the women writers, primarily middle-class, struggled with the constraints of a society that demanded female passivity and that viewed their writings as violations of its codes of propriety. At the same time, they confronted self-imposed constraints generated by their participation in and conditioning by the patriarchal regime into which women were born.

As a result, the social pressures that affected women – literary or not – consisted mainly in the pressure to conform to certain patterns of ideal womanhood. In the eighteenth century, it was considered improper for a woman to write publicly, and if she did, she was rather judged as a woman, not as a writer.5 If she refused to be modest, self-deprecating, subservient, refused to present her artistic productions as mere trifles designed to divert and distract readers in moments of idleness, she could expect to be ignored or (sometimes scurrilously) attacked.6 As I will show in the case of Mary Wollstonecraft, her early works and life are characterized by two conflicting desires: On the one hand, she

Writing in order to publish was against feminine propriety, because it cultivated and called attention to the woman as subject, as a person who wanted to deserve notice for her own sake.7 If a woman writer did not publish her works pseudonymously or anonymously8, she could modestly confess her female “limitations” and concentrate on the “lesser” subjects reserved for ladies as becoming to their inferior powers.9 If the latter alternative failed, she could rebel, accepting the inevitable ostracism. As Virginia Woolf observed, the woman writer seemed locked into a double bind: she had to choose between admitting she was “only a woman” or protesting that she was “as good as a man”.10

To say it short, the literary woman faced equally degrading options when she had to define her public presence in the world. Of course, Mary Wollstonecraft was not the first woman to try to support herself through writing. Women who did publish under their own names almost always sought to justify their efforts as financially necessary – preferably, to the support of a family.

The period during which Wollstonecraft wrote constituted a critical phase in the history of bourgeois ideology. The French Revolution represented a dramatic symbol of economic and social changes that seemed to threaten England as well. As such, “it provoked both explicit challenges to the political inequality inherent in English patriarchal society and adamant defenses of the whole system”.11

It was the time when Wollstonecraft and others made the issue of sexual equality a part of this political and ethical debate, encouraged to a new self-consciousness about the social hierarchy that seemed for so long a part of nature itself. As Mary Poovey argues, “the real antagonists to this way of life were already invisibly at work in the form of eceonomic development and within the very ideology of capitalist individualism”.12

The social order based on patronage gradually gave way to the practices and pressures of individualism. As a consequence, women in particular found their situation unusual, when they were now being asked to prevent the remnants of the old society within the private sphere of home. Mary Wollstonecraft´s response to this period of social and ideological turmoil is perhaps most evident in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, where she identified many of the ideological contradictions responsible for women´s political, social, and psychological dependence.

In Mary Wollstonecraft´s lifetime the learned discourses and noble genres were conventionally reserved for men, both as practitioners and as readers. They included abstract writings such as philosophy or science, scholarly writing and the noble genres such as tragedy and epic. By contrast, most women writers kept to things of writing that could be seen as “extensions of women´s domestic range of education and experience”.13 These were useful and practical subjects, including eduational writing and books for children, conduct books for girls and young women, poems of domestic life and subjective experience, and prose fiction, the most popular women´s genre in the later eighteenth century.

Successful or not, women writers of this time found ways to take part in the literary field, although the literary market was still man´s domain. In Mary Wollstonecraft we probably find the best example of a women writer who refused to adopt herself fully to the traditional gender roles, who acted against eighteenth century conventions and challenged the entire male-dominated (literary) world.

3. Mary Wollstonecraft

“All the world is a stage, thought I; and few are there in it who do not play the part they have learnt by rote; and those who do not, seem marks set up to be pelted at by fortune; or rather as sign-posts, which point out the road to others, whilst forced to stand still themselves admidst the mud and dust.”14

In her time and later, Mary Wollstonecraft was certainly “amid the mud and dust” of calumny and abuse. After she died in childbirth she was branded as an “unsex´d female” and “whore”, whose vices and follies had brought about her providential end. By the end of the late 1790s she had largely been discredited, not only because of her revolutionary and radical views, but because of revelations about her irregular life published by her husband William Godwin.15 In the twentieth century, she has been portrayed as the mentally sick originator of the disease of feminism.16 Nevertheless Mary Wollstonecraft has an important place in feminist literary studies and often serves as a model author in the male-dominated world of letters.

Some critics see her “constructed as a self-divided being by the interlocked class and gender distinctions of her society”17, but it was also this division which enabled her to recognize that culture, language, and discourse were structured by power relations of several kinds. As a reaction to this, she constructed an identity and career as social critic in order to cope with her self-division and to attack the social and cultural causes of it – an identity as a woman of ´mind´.18

Wollstonecraft saw her life and works as “sign-posts” – and she was right. The story of her life tells of the difficulties and dangers for a woman to flout social convention, and shows the enormous strength, courage, and toughness such an unconventional woman had to be. Her works suggest why she was publicly vilified; at the same time they show her successful struggle to develop in intellect and emotion.19


1 Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (London: Routledge, 1993), p.33.

2 Ibid, p. 3.

3 The public sphere was generally a man´s domain and included politics, the workplace as well as social and economic institutions. On the opposite, the private sphere was woman´s domain.

4 Alexander Meena, Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (London: Macmillan, 1989) , p.3.

5 Margaret Thomas, Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton: Princton University Press, 1980), p.5.

6 Gilbert/Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic , p. 61.

7 Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, p. 36.

8 The rapid demise of literary patronage after 1740 led to women´s chance to publish anonymously without acknowledging her own sex.

9 Sandra M. Gilbert / Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 64.

10 Virgina Woolf, A Roof of One´s Own (1929) , quoted in Gilbert/Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, p.64.

11 Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Ideology as style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (Chicago: University Press, 1984), Preface, XV.

12 Ibid.

13 Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism. The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press, 1992), p.10.

14 Wollstonecraft, Mary, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976), pp. 180-181.

15 Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica. Women, Writing, and Fiction 1660-1800 (London: Virago Press, 1989), p.215.

16 See Richard Polwhele´s Unsex´d Females (1798), and Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947) by Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham.

17 Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism, p.21.

18 Ibid.

19 Janet Todd, A Wollstonecraft Anthology (London: Polity Press, 1989), p. 1.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Women Writers in the Romantic Age
The example of Mary Wollstonecraft
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Romanticism in the Light of Cultural Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
492 KB
Women, Writers, Romantic, Mary, Wollstonecraft
Quote paper
Liwanag Hüttenmüller (Author), 2008, Women Writers in the Romantic Age, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/136398


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