Mary Wollstonecraft would have loved Pamela Paul’s piece in last Sunday’s New York Times (3/27). Women in leadership positions face criticism for their appearance, not their ideas, says Paul, citing her own experience of being attacked for her hairstyle after a public talk.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fought against the idea that women were meant to be beautiful objects, “playthings” of men. She hated the restraints of female fashion, and urged women (and men) to drop their preoccupation with feminine beauty. Women needed to develop their minds and strengthen their bodies, not waste their time in front of the mirror, she said, urging women to escape from the chains of fashion: “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
In her own life, she rejected tight stays that made it impossible to take deep breaths and skirts that impeded one’s ability to walk. She refused to powder her hair, and topped everything off with an ugly beaver cap that earned her the epithet, “philosophical sloven.” For Wollstonecraft, being frumpy was a badge of honor, evidence of her freedom from the shackles of society.
I’m a traitor to the cause. I’m delighted that Vogue’s picked Romantic Outlaws as one of its spring books even though Wollstonecraft hated everything about fashion. She was intentionally frumpy and wore an odd beaver cap and refused to powder her hair. However, she did understand the problems of selling books. So, I like to think that she would support all of our efforts to get her story out into the world.
Exciting news! Publishers Weekly gave Romantic Outlaws a starred review. Here’s the best quote:
“[Gordon’s] lucid prose and multifaceted appraisal of Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and their times make warm-blooded and fully fleshed-out people of writers who exist for readers today only as the literary works they left behind.”
I remember the hours I spent peering over the shoulders of the Marys, reading their letters, eavesdropping on their conversations. I wanted to understand their nightmares, enter their imaginations. I wanted them to live again.