Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and something I just learned today, a savvy and successful financial speculator. She is one of the most well-known figures in American history because of the voluminous and well-preserved correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Cady Stanton!

In honor of the great feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday, I’m re-sharing the stories of some of my explorations of her life and ideas in the places she lived and worked, often in conjunction with her fellow feminists Ernestine Rose and Frederick Douglass.

To New York City I Go, In Search of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Enjoy, and I hope you find her story as fascinating, informative, and inspiring as I do!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

In Memory of Lucrezia Marinella

Young Lady Writing in a Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

Lucrezia Marinella was an Italian Renaissance writer of poetry, devotional literature, and philosophy. She was born in Venice on an unknown date in 1571, and lived a richly intellectual, family-oriented, long life there until her death on October 9th, 1653.

She wrote on a wide range of subjects, including Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Mary and her parents’ life family as she imagined it: happy, virtuous, a model for all families to emulate. She identified Mary closely with her beloved native Venice, that lovely city of elegance and refinement, incubator of knowledge and beauty, and welcome refuge to the traveler and those fleeing hardship and strife, referring to both as ‘La Serenissima’ (the Serene) and ‘Star of the Sea.’ Her Life of the Virgin Mary, Empress of the Universe was written two years after her most famous and influential work The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published in 1600. Her book about the natural and superior virtues of women no doubt inspired her, in turn, to write another about the woman who most exemplified Christian and Renaissance ideals of femininity. Marinella’s conception of feminine virtue included those typical of her religion and culture, such as modesty and dedication to home and family, but went far beyond that, as it did later feminist thinkers and activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Ernestine Rose.

Marinella’s Nobility was a response to Giuseppe Passi’s anti-woman polemic The Defects of Women, published the year before. Anti-woman treatises such as Passi’s had become a literary tradition at that point, but his stood out for its harshness, to the point that he advocated treating women as little better than other animals since they were likewise naturally devoid of reason and self-control. Defenses of womankind against such attacks had, in turn, also become a literary tradition, but Marinella’s stands out for its clarity, systematicity, and intellectual rigor, so much so that it achieved its standing as a foundational work in feminist philosophy.

Title page of 1601 edition of Lucrezia Marinella’s La Nobilita, et L’eccellenza delle Donne

One element of Marinella’s fascinating and innovative defense of femininity that stood out for me was her case for how the female body itself demonstrated the moral and intellectual superiority of women. Many anti-woman polemicists referred to Aristotle for their arguments to demonstrate the natural inferiority of women, and Aristotle bases many of his arguments on women’s supposedly inferior physical makeup. No doubt, such biological arguments stood out for Marinella; she was the daughter, sister, and wife of physicians, and she was an accomplished and virtuous intellectual, a living counterfactual to the negative conceptions of women of Passi, Aristotle, and their anti-woman ilk. So, she was not going to put up with silly arguments based on such demonstrably untrue empirical claims, from Aristotle or from anyone else. She uses Aristotle’s own arguments, invoked by Passi, against both of them, demonstrating how misogynistic ideas about women as the weaker, less rational, and less virtuous component of the human species are both inconsistent with Aristotle’s other arguments and with observable reality.

For example, Aristotle claims that women’s lower average body temperature revealed their weakness and passivity. Yet Aristotle elsewhere associates heat with vices such as anger and rashness. Marinella grants that women’s average temperatures were lower than men’s (we now know that this isn’t necessarily true), but she argues that this doesn’t at all show that women are less virtuous. In fact, according to Aristotle’s own ethical system, that would imply that women are more virtuous: more temperate, moderate, reasonable, and able to control their passions. For another thing, Aristotle argues that financial well-being, physical attractiveness, and other circumstances that promote happiness are important for promoting virtue. Financial security promotes and enables generosity; exterior beauty inspires appreciation of that which is noble, orderly, balanced, good. Well, Marinella replies, women are generally more beautiful than men, as poets and artists attest, and the beauty of their bodies both reflect the natural superiority of their inner natures as expressed by their divine designer, and the love and passion they evoke echo the love and passion of the soul’s for the ultimate Good.

Learn more about the brilliant and fascinating Lucrezia Marinella’s case for the excellence of women, and about her life, ideas, and accomplishments at:

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Marguerite Deslauriers for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Maria Galli Stampino for Oxford Bibliographies

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Lindsay Smith for ProjectContinua.org

Who Is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary ~ by Vittoria Colonna, Chiara Matraini, and Lucrezia Marinella

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More sources and inspiration:

Bodnar, Istvan, ‘Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Normal oral, rectal, tympanic and axillary body temperature in adult men and women: a systematic literature review’, by Märtha Sund-Levander, Christina Forsberg, and Lis Karin Wahren. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, Vol. 16, Issue 2, pages 122–128, June 2002

Parry, Richard, ‘Ancient Ethical Theory‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Price, A W. ‘Moral Theories: Aristotle’s Ethics.’ Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985, Vol. 11, p. 150-152

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O.P. Recommends: Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner, by Ross Douthat

‘No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.

But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required….

Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.’

Read this article in full in the New York Times‘ Opinion Page for Sep 30th, 2017

~ One thing I’d like to make clear: I don’t at all endorse the ageism I discern in many of the articles I’ve read that are critical of Hefner, including this one. So many of these writers imply that Hefner’s sexuality was distasteful, at least in part, because of the physical attributes associated with aging. For example, Douthat mocks Hefner’s ‘papery skin’ and ‘decrepitude’ as if they were among those things the reader should be disgusted by. I don’t believe it’s any more justified to stereotype older people as it is to stereotype women based on narrow conceptions of what desirable or likable people should look like.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought, at the San Francisco Public Library

I just finished this book about Frederick Douglass by scholar Leigh Fought. I’m at the library right now, about to turn it back in, and have that feeling of afterglow which follows reading a fascinating story while gaining much deeper understanding of a subject that’s long inspired me.

Not only did I get to know the character and work of Douglass much better, his struggles, triumphs, mistakes, virtues, flaws, and motivations, I learned about the ways in which women shaped his life and ideas and made his work possible. I had uncovered pieces of this larger story when following his life and ideas last year, but Fought’s work tells this larger story fully and compellingly and then some. This not only a book about these personalities and how they met, fell in love, collaborated, clashed, helped, betrayed, and so on, but it’s about the real human side behind the various social movements Douglass and the women in his life were a part of. And for many, still a part of, through their memory and influence. It’s about the antislavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movements, the worker’s rights movement, the Civil War, the formation of the Republican Party as a free soil, pro-Union party and its after-war (what I consider) devolution into the economy-above-all party, and many other potent movements shaping and reshaping American society.

I very highly recommend this book, and think you’ll love it as I do.

Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

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Sources and inspiration: 

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Crown, Daniel. ‘The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc‘. The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

de Pisan, Christine. Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc), ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Joan of Arc‘, episode 51 of The History Chicks podcast

Harrison, Kathryn. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc, 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Murray, T. Douglas. Jeanne d’Arc. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

The Passion of Joan of Arc. 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Richey, Stephen Wesley. Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

Saint Joan, 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part I, 1591. Via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft!

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, April 27, 1759, I share two works about this great feminist thinker which I’ve published here at Ordinary Philosophy.

One is the Traveling Philosophy series in which I followed the life and ideas of Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson in Revolution-era Paris, France in 2015.

The second is the following essay:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

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Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974