Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mary Wollstonecraft Has an Abortion

On this day in 1797, social reformer Mary Wollstonecraft announced that she had undergone (and survived, a significant feat with eighteenth century medicine) an abortion of her pregnancy. The action would shock London and ignite a great public debate over the rights of women.

Mary had grown up in a household dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father, which served to inspire her toward her philosophy of early feminism. She left her father and supported herself as a governess and teacher. When Mary took in her half-sister, who had fled an abusive marriage, they began a school that initially did well but would later fail and leave Mary with substantial debt. She began to write, publishing the somewhat autobiographical Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and widely successful children's story Original Stories from Real Life (1788). From her platform of education, she began to write more political works such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Mary also traveled, coming to Paris, where she met and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay. Neither believed in marriage, and Imlay eventually left her and their daughter Fanny. Upon her return to England as part of a failed attempt to reconnect with Imlay, she met and fell in love with fellow reformer William Godwin. Again she became pregnant, and the two considered marriage, though neither believed as a natural institution. Ultimately, Mary decided upon a more drastic action.

Using methods of belted girdles and mild poisons, Mary aborted the fetus. Such an action was not unheard of in even eighteen century England, but she refused to hide the fact that she had done what she willed with her body. Calling back to her attempt at suicide after being spurned by Imlay, Mary held both actions as rational given their circumstances. Legally, abortion after quickening was treated as murder, but the deed had been done earlier. Mary took a scandalous step by saying that her body was her own and cited Locke's natural law as grounds for freedom of choice until the baby would have been viable. The resulting trial created so much political chaos in the midst of growing tensions with France that Mary was exiled to Australia, where she would be instrumental in leading the equality movement.

Exile of wild romantics would be seen increasingly over the era, such as Lord Byron's dismissal from England after his slaying of Percy Bysshe Shelley over the hand of Claire Clairmont, incidentally the step-daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft's estranged love, William Godwin.


In reality, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to Mary, who would later marry Percy Shelley and write the novel Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft, credited with being a loving mother to Mary's half-sister Fanny, would die shortly after childbirth.

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