Not long afterwards, Mary Wollstonecraft began work on the book that has earned her a permanent place in history, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). This, one of the first and strongest statements of women’s rights, remains widely available (online and in print), widely taught.
It was a book unique in a time when women had very few legal rights. Books written for women were full of advice about deportment. In 1766, for example, the minister James Fordyce wrote that women should display “meekness and modesty” and should read only lighter, less challenging books. Difficult reading was for men. Who had logical minds. Who, unlike women, did not let emotions get in the way.
Mary Wollstonecraft strongly disagreed. She said that society should stop treating women like children. She argued that independence was “the grand blessing of life” and that it was time that women began enjoying it just as much as men did. “I do not wish … [women] to have power over men,” she wrote, “but over themselves.”
She said, too, that the most interesting women she had known were those who had “accidentally been allowed to run wild” as children—who learned to explore, to read, to think. So why not make this a regular feature of girlhood? Instead, a typical girl was taught to think about being beautiful. A girl, said Mary, should not grow up to be like a caged bird taught “to adore its prison.”
After this publishing success, Mary decided to go to France to write about the Revolution. She wanted to see these exciting events for herself. In December 1792, she crossed the Channel and headed for Paris. She was not impressed with the city, complaining: “I have seen very little of Paris the streets are so dirty.” And so they were. The streets were not yet paved, and they were, like city streets all over Europe, filled with the droppings of horses and farm animals. In London, horses dropped 100 tons of manure per day. And many people still threw their own waste into the street, as well, waiting for rainwater to wash it away.
She did not have to wait long to see amazing—and horrifying—things. On 26 December, armed guards took Louis XVI—no longer King of France—right by Mary’s window. Drums beat a steady rhythm in the silent streets. To her surprise, she wept. She hated the whole idea of royalty, but she felt sorry for the doomed man she saw that day.
On 21 January, the King was beheaded, and in February, France declared war on England. Suddenly, Mary found herself in great danger—an Englishwoman living in the country of an enemy. Although she decided to remain in France, some friends helped her move to the safety of a village just outside Paris. By springtime she was involved romantically with the first man who would—at least for a time—return her love.
Gilbert Imlay was an American businessman and writer. He had fled America to avoid some debts (this he did not tell Mary) and was considering joining the French military. None of his letters to Mary now exist, but he must have been a physically and intellectually attractive man, because Mary fell for him—and hard. In a matter of weeks they were living together in a small house, away from the eyes of the curious. Here, Mary continued to work on her history of the French Revolution, and, in their idle times, the lovers walked over the countryside.
By August 1793 Mary was pregnant. So she moved back into Paris where she would be closer to the services she and her baby would require. But Paris was not safe—not for anyone who criticized the government, not for English enemies. The Reign of Terror was in full swing. the French revolutionaries were rounding up and executing aristocrats and other people they perceived as threats to their new government. To protect Mary, Imlay lied to the French authorities and registered her as his wife. As the wife of an American citizen, she would be safe. And she began signing her name as “Mrs. Imlay.”
Imlay’s business was taking him away from Mary, however—for days, sometimes for weeks. Her letters to him are painful to read. She repeatedly asks him when she will see him again—pleads for him to rejoin her.
On 14 May 1794, with the help of a midwife, Mary delivered a daughter and named her Fanny, in honor of her lost friend, Fanny Blood. Her labor, she wrote, was “natural” and “easy,” and she surprised her attendants by spending only one day in bed after the delivery—a brief period unheard of in her day. A week later, she was out taking long walks.
In 1795 Mary decided, once again, to return to London. It had been a horribly difficult year for her. The French winter was bitter, freezing the Seine River and the water fountains of Paris. Imlay was clearly not going to return to her. And she was trying to rear a baby by herself. She felt terrible. Godwin later wrote, “No human creature ever suffered greater misery.”
Her sorrow continued to worsen, and in April, deeply depressed, she took a heavy dose of laudanum—a mixture of opium and alcohol used as common pain-killer in her day. Imlay rushed to her, and friends kept her moving and awake. She recovered quickly, and her spirits once more revived. But depression was never far away. She wrote to Imlay: “I have not only lost the hope, but the power of being happy.”