As I finish what I hope is the final draft of Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman, I’ve been listening to a lecture (Part of The Great Courses series) on Mary Wollstonecraft, charmed almost to the point of stupor—I’m very tired—by the lulling voice of the English professor.
But Mary’s writing, and her life, don’t cause snoozing. (I have been using first names for the men and women who appear in my biography; in most biographies, men are listed by their last names, women by their first, which needs to be changed—and so I will continue with the pattern here).
Mary’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” written not long before the French Revolution, which she did not live to see (and would have found profoundly disappointing in terms of women’s rights) states simply and eloquently that women are not by birth inferior to men but are shaped for secondary status by the way we are treated; she mentions, specifically, the indoors life of the little girls of her time as preventing them from developing the physical strength and resilience that is required for fully participating in the world, a situation changed by Title 9. But Title 9 can’t affect the attitudes that discourage competition and stress appearance.
Now that we have allowed our boys as well as our girls to live largely indoor lives, we will see the consequences that were once ignored for girls come into focus as they impact boys.
Mary’s argument is familiar, these days, and unheeded; we are still nursing, helping, filling in as we have been trained to do, sometimes paid, often not, and I reflect with discouragement that if we have not been formed genetically to perform these roles, centuries of training have stored these expectations in our bones.
It seems now that only the overt difference I saw in the medical technician I encountered yesterday with her burr haircut, gender-neutral outfit, and swaggering demeanor can show us that we have the ability, as Mary insisted, to exert force in our lives. And yet, this young woman’s outfit is a uniform that at least at night she will have to shed.
The English professor on my CD dealt with admirable evenhandedness with what he called Mary’s self-destructiveness—flying in the face of her culture’s rules by living with men to whom she was not married, bearing children out of wedlock, attempting suicide—as a completely understandable response to the strictures that confined her. She may have overestimated her strength—I know the feeling.
In the end, her life was cut short by the aftereffects of childbirth, which in the 18th century so often produced puerperal fever because of doctors’ failure to wash their hands; coming straight from attending to a desperately sick patient or performing an autopsy, they carried infection on their fingers into women’s birth canals, with fatal results.
Mary not only did not live to see the French revolution, she did not live to see her daughter Mary grow up; she married the poet, Percy Shelley, and wrote the novel, Frankenstein, which has lived through time and in itself vindicates her mother’s heartbreaking struggle. The fact that Mary Shelley seems never to have mentioned her mother does not mean that Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing did not open the way for her daughter’s novel.
Which brings me to my long consideration of the obliviousness that seems a hallmark of the adolescent girls in my life; I am appalled to find myself shocked by the way they dress, night and day—one of the freedoms we fought for has resulted in short-shorts, camisoles, breast and buttock bearing at all times and in all places. I hope I am shocked not by the breaking of old-fashioned rule of propriety, as my mother and grandmother would have been, but because it seems so dangerous to me for beautiful young girls to go about the world so nearly naked.
Our notion that we as a culture have passed beyond racism—somehow!—seems as crazy as our idea (if anyone over eighteen holds onto it) that we have passed beyond violence against women. If nothing else, the statistics on rape and the mishandling of rape cases on our most prestigious college campuses proves that girls and young women still must guard themselves—even if it means donning some sort of camouflage—which is one way of seeing the medical technician’s uniform. It seems unlikely that she need ever fear rape.
Are we commanded, still, by fear? Mary Wollstonecraft was not, and she paid the price. But surely we in this later age can take a step or two along her path, offering support to another woman and refusing to allow our passionate attachments to interfere with what we were put on this earth to do.