As I work on this week’s writing prompt: Write a Dialogue With a Notable Woman in History, I find myself finding more and more things to read, to get a firmer grasp on what a dialogue between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley would have looked like if they had known each other once Shelley was grown. It’s interesting how there is so much out there about these two women that isn’t as well known or regarded in history or philosophy books. 

Although I’ve taken philosophy classes on feminism and read works by female philosophers, including works by Ayn Rand, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis, and Martha Nussbaum, among others, their works are not widely read or revered nearly as often as their male counterparts. Especially at the collegiate level. And especially outside the realm of feminism. I read most of their works outside of the classroom and my studies. 

There just aren’t as many female philosophers out there. Or are there? Perhaps they have simply gone mostly unnoticed for decades, even centuries? I wonder: outside of feminism, do I know enough about women and philosophy? Women in philosophy? How about you? What do you know about women and philosophy? Even though I studied philosophy at the collegiate level for nearly a decade, sadly, I don’t think I know nearly enough about women in philosophy, and women and philosophy.    

I remember reading Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in grad school and not thinking much of it at the time, to be honest. It wasn’t radical or revolutionary enough for me. I knew that it was one of the first well-known works on feminist philosophy at the time too, and for whatever reason, that didn’t seem to resonate with me. Maybe I should blame that on my youth? 

I am glad to have the opportunity to revisit the story of Mary Wollstonecraft again, however, and her enduring legacy via her works and her daughter. I hope to pay more attention this time. Luckily the book I’m reading has offered a great place to start when encountering her work again. 

I am completely riveted by the book I’m currently reading: Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. I’ve only read about one-fourth of it so far, and it is extremely captivating. It’s already offering a more intimate look at these two women and the oddly parallel yet different lives they led. 

Apparently, when William Godwin (widower of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Godwin who would later become Mary Shelley) sent his fourteen-year-old daughter, Mary, away to Scotland to stay with an admirer of his that he didn’t even know that well, William Baxter, Godwin said to him in a letter about Mary:

“I believe she has nothing of what is commonly called vices, and that she has considerable talent. I am anxious that she should be brought up… like a philosopher… She has occasionally great perseverance, but occasionally, too she shows great need to be roused.”

Page 51; Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Godwin insisted that his daughter follow in her mother’s footsteps intellectually and never saw his daughter in any other way when she was younger, teaching her the works of Locke, among works by other radical revolutionary philosophers of the day. Mary also studied her mother’s works and knew them by heart. 

The opening quote for this book sums up their connection quite well:

“The memory of my mother has always been the pride and delight of my life.”

Mary Shelley ; Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Likewise, when Mary Wollstonecraft was in her teens during the era of the  American Revolution, she was drawn to a neighbor, Henry Clare, who shared philosophical works with her and taught her all about the works of John Locke and the social contract, and other revolutionary ideas at the time— ideas about equality, justice, and the nature of tyranny and the will and rights of people. Encountering these works and ideas when she did ended up changing the course of history. 

The most fascinating thing about the intellectual prowess of both of these women is that they didn’t just read Locke’s philosophy, they embodied it in their everyday lives since the day they were each born, and in their writing. They studied and forged their own ways in the world as authors with seminal works when the world was working against them in every way. And, what is even more extraordinary, they seemed to each do their work for the other even though they never lived their lives together. Wollstonecraft was concerned with future generations of children and Shelley had her mother and those who influenced her mother as her guide in the world.   

As of right now, I am seeing the mother and daughter engage in a dialogue that is similar in nature to the Socratic dialogues. But with language and idioms that were used more often in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, I see Mary Shelley participating more than Plato did in most of the dialogues, as I see Wollstonecraft insisting that her daughter speak up more… but in a loving and encouraging way. I see them engaging in a philosophical dialogue about women in politics and the world and their rights— a dialogue that is representative of a teacher-student relationship that is more of a mentor-mentee relationship and partnership, that doesn’t necessarily include a hierarchical dynamic. 

To get a better sense of how this dialogue would unfold between them, I’m going to revisit some of Locke’s work, Wollstonecraft’s work (especially A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and even Godwin’s work, as well as the infamous Socratic dialogues.  

What books or articles are you reading this week to help you complete this writing prompt? 

Are you going to write a dialogue with a woman philosopher too? 

What is your experience with writing dialogue? 

Leave a comment at the bottom of the page and join or start a dialogue about this week’s writing prompt.  

Stay tuned for my completed writing draft for this week’s writing prompt. I’ll share it on the blog on Friday.

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