Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mary and motherhood: a start (with Melissa)

Melissa Benn is, inter alia, the author of Madonna and Child: towards a new politics of motherhood. She comments on Mary Wollstonecraft's take on maternity, a theme this blog will circle round and return to.

Wollstonecraft was not a mother when she wrote [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman], although it touches often on the theme of motherhood. Rearing a family, she argued, was a perfectly proper occupation for a woman, unlike taking an unhealthy interest in one's appearance, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of self-reliance. "To be a good mother, a woman must have sense and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands."

One of the saddest aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's life is how profoundly she was changed by her personal experience of love and motherhood. ... [The Scandinavian Letters] speak of a very different Wollstonecraft to her earlier work. Their tone is sober and tender, particularly about her daughter Fanny:

I feel more than the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread that she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment. I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit - Hapless woman! What fate is thine!

It is impossible not to feel touched by Wollstonecraft's personal tragedy two centuries on. She was a volatile woman who risked all for love. But she also lived in an age where economic independence for women was a rarity and unmarried motherhood a scandal. And, of course, childbirth itself was a far greater physical risk than it is today. Wollstonecraft died of blood poisoning barely two weeks after the birth of her second daughter. It is impossible not to feel deep gratitude to writers like her who have tried to argue for new ways of living for women, men and children, braving ridicule and hatred from the more conventional parts of society.

The Independent, "Historical Notes: From personal tragedy to new ways of living and old", 21 January 1999.


  1. Melissa Benn's take on Wollstonecraft's maternal dilemma reminded me irresistibly of the motherhood poems of one of Australia's greatest poets and activists, Judith Wright. It is tempting to draw parallels between the life experiences of Wollstonecraft and Wright: for example, Wright lived with her partner, philosopher and writer Jack McKinney, for nearly 20 years (from 1945) before they married. Wright's only child was born illegitimately. After McKinney's death in 1966, Wright had a 25 year relationship with Australian statesman "Nugget" Coombs that again ended with his death. The life and letters of this remarkable poet and activist are well documented -- see, for example, her Wikipedia entry, or these articles:

    Her poem, 'Request to a Year', has the same straight-shooting emotional force as the quote from Wollstonecraft, especially the last stanza:

    If the year is meditating a suitable gift,
    I should like it to be the attitude
    of my great- great- grandmother,
    legendary devotee of the arts,

    who having eight children
    and little opportunity for painting pictures,
    sat one day on a high rock
    beside a river in Switzerland

    and from a difficult distance viewed
    her second son, balanced on a small ice flow,drift down the current toward a waterfall
    that struck rock bottom eighty feet below,

    while her second daughter, impeded,
    no doubt, by the petticoats of the day,
    stretched out a last-hope alpenstock
    (which luckily later caught him on his way).

    Nothing, it was evident, could be done;
    And with the artist's isolating eye
    My great-great-grandmother hastily sketched the scene.
    The sketch survives to prove the story by.

    Year, if you have no Mother's day present planned,
    Reach back and bring me the firmness of her hand.


    (I read this often, and cry every time). If Wright is not a 'lost daughter', she should have been.

  2. Oh Vicki! What an amazing woman, and poem, you have shared! Imagine being on that rock, able to see all and yet powerless to intervene: like some versions of God.

    I had not heard of Judith Wright. I read the articles you linked, and found she published her first collection, including poems about pregnancy and childbirth, before she had her daughter. When I think of female poets breaking taboos by writing of their bodies and experiences, names that come up are Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Marge Piercy, Anne Cameron. No Australians, till now.

    Poetry was one of the few genres that Mary Wollstonecraft did not attempt. Letters (both private, and those clearly written for publication), novels, essays, reviews, translations, reporting, history-as-it-happens, children's stories, a conduct book -- but no poems.