The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin
By Maria Popova
At the end of the eighteenth century, no woman anywhere in the world could obtain higher education. Women’s right to vote was more than a century away in both England and America. Marriage was a tyrannical institution from which women could liberate themselves legally only with great difficult and at great cost — in the entire eighteenth century, only four women in Great Britain were able to obtain legal separation from their husbands. In divorce, which only men could initiate, children were considered the father’s property — the mother was automatically denied custody. Married women had no share of the household’s property and no legal protection — a husband could violate his wife with impunity. In Great Britain, chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals would obtain legal protection from abuse in 1824 — two decades before the first legislature addressing violence against women. Even these laws exempted husbands from prosecution — a wife was still considered personal property, to do with as the husband pleases. No term for marital rape existed and the crime wouldn’t be codified as such for another two centuries.
Against this backdrop, the self-educated political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman — the ignition spark of what we now call feminism. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men,” Wollstonecraft wrote, “but over themselves.” Her dedication of the book read:
Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.
Four years after she published her landmark Vindication, having survived a heartbreak so deep that it drove her to attempt suicide, Wollstonecraft met the political philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship was slow, even reluctant — not the mad and maddening magnetic pull of instant infatuation, but the gradual and careful advance by which two people come to know the depths of each other’s being and arrive at a love that springs from those depths.
They were married on March 29, 1797, with Mary four months pregnant, and entered a true marriage of equals — a notion not merely radical but utterly countercultural at the time. Godwin, a feminist long before feminism existed, considered marriage a necessary evil in society — necessary for its structural and legal value, evil for its inequitable treatment of women. Their marriage would be different — a beautiful bond not based on bondage, one in which neither lost themselves in the other, embodying instead Rilke’s insistence that the richest love is “the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” They each continued working on their respective literary projects, exchanging ideas while sharing household duties.
They were different, too — undergirding Mary’s intense intellect was an emotionally expansive imagination, while William placed reason at the center of his character and conveyed his emotions, however strong, with great reserve. But these differences, despite occasionally frustrating the couple, complemented each other and enlarged each of their natures. Two centuries later, the poet Mary Oliver would speak to such complementarity in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together: “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”
Wollstonecraft and Godwin came to be admired by their contemporaries as “the most extraordinary married pair in existence.” Charlotte Gordon writes in her superb mother-daughter biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley (public library):
Young poets and intellectuals gathered at the Polygon to pay court to these middle-aged radicals and to admire the partnership that they had forged. The Godwin/Wollstonecraft marriage seemed to unite all the principles they held most dear: freedom, justice, reason, sensibility, and the imagination — in essence, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the exciting new tenets of Romanticism.
But true equality in love cannot exist solely at the level of ideas — of shared interests and values. It springs, rather, from the deepest stratum of the heart — a parity of emotional investment in the relationship and a certain symmetry, certain balance of affection and attention. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s few surviving love letters emanate such a rare and beautiful marriage of equals at the level of the heart. Several months into her pregnancy, convinced that she is carrying a boy whom the couple nicknamed “Master William,” she writes to Godwin:
I am well and tranquil, excepting the disturbance produced by Master William’s joy, who took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie. Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever — and I will add what will gratify your benevolence, if not your heart, that on the whole I may be termed happy.
Godwin is not “spoilt” but stirred by her openhearted outpouring of love — instead of retreating into reserve, he responds with even greater sincerity of affection:
You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections, so perfectly as you do: &, after all one’s philosophy, it must be confessed that the knowledge, that there is some one that takes an interest in our happiness… is extremely gratifying. We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.
The baby turned out to be not a boy but a girl, who would go on to author Frankenstein. Ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever — one of the era’s most dangerous diseases — leaving behind the foundation upon which the next two hundred years of humanity’s model of gender equality would be built.
Complement this particular portion of Romantic Outlaws — which stands as one of the finest, most beautifully written and rigorously researched biographies I have ever read — with the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, another rare marriage of equals in an era of grave inequality, and Kahlil Gibran on the essential balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection and devour other beautiful love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Werner Heisenberg, and Hannah Arendt.
Published October 15, 2018