Reinventing Mary Wollstonecraft for the Twenty-first Century by Brenda Ayres

In 2017, I wrote Betwixt and Between the Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, identifying the disparities between 18 major biographies that reinvented Mary Wollstonecraft with each retelling of her life. In that book, I alluded to 16 other biographies as well with their diverging views on Wollstonecraft. To date, there are over 50 book-length biographies on Wollstonecraft and 3 biofictions. Every single one of them paints a unique depiction of Wollstonecraft, many of them reflecting the gender, religious, and other cultural proclivities of the time of their own time and not Wollstonecraft’s. The Wollstonecraft prior to her husband’s publication of Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1798) was generally appreciated for her ideas of equality of both men and women. After William Godwin made public that Wollstonecraft conceived two children outside of wedlock and attempted suicide twice, despite a pre-Victorian time when sexual morality for heterosexuality was lax as long as indiscretions were discreet and despite a perception perpetuated in literature and drama that suicide was a noble rejection of normative restrictions, even so, Wollstonecraft’s works fell into ignominy. The name of Wollstonecraft and her works would not reappear until the suffragists in Britain and women rights’ advocates in America resurrected her.

She has morphed with nearly every decade ever since. Now in the 2020s when it has become popular, nay, even requisite to promote alternates to heterosexual identities in Western culture, there are those Wollstonecraft aficionados who would have her be a lesbian or else, at least, a bisexual. In The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past, Paul Russell ranked Mary Wollstonecraft as the 11th (out of 100 women) who had the most powerful influence on making it possible for lesbians to go public in the twentieth century (1995, 46). Although he admitted that no lesbian would have been openly lesbian during Wollstonecraft’s time, still, because she was a woman “whose primary emotional relationship was with another woman, and who critiqued with great insight and passion the unjust domination of heterosexual males over women,” Russell supposed that had she lived today, she would have been a lesbian (46).

Samantha Silva must have agreed with him, for she wrote a biofiction on Wollstonecraft that depicted her as a lesbian openly in love with and expressing sexual love to Fanny Blood (2021), once more illustrating that people reconstruct Wollstonecraft into a figure that satisfies their political agenda.

Recently, two additional biofictions have recently appeared: Vindication by Francis Sherwood (1993) and Her Lost Words: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Stephanie Marie Thornton (2023). Both imply that Wollstonecraft was bisexual. I hope to add my own biofiction in 2024, titled, simply, Wollstonecraft—but my Wollstonecraft is a flawed Christian, but still a Christian who would have been abashed if someone had suggested her of gross indecency.

To reinvent Wollstonecraft as a freely practicing lesbian, one would have to first prove that she was bisexual, given her driving desire for Fuseli, Imlay, and Godwin, to name just a few beaux in her life. One would also have to reconcile her emphatic pronouncement of the virtues of chastity, modesty, and sexual purity that pervades A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) as they are defined in the King James Bible. They are also apparent in all her other books. Wollstonecraft considered herself a loyal adherent of the tenets of Anglican faith. She also held a strong belief in the King James Bible, as evident by referring to the Bible over 1,100 times in Rights of Women, and therefore, would have been aware of the pervasive biblical condemnation of homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments.

Because of the growing trend to repatch Wollstonecraft as a champion of homosexuality that I published my second book with Anthem titled Wollstonecraft and Religion (2024), with the first chapter being an annotation of Rights of Woman that identifies rife scriptural references. The remaining chapters discuss the religious and religious personages that influenced her life. They also focus on Wollstonecraft’s affirmation of Anglican and biblical beliefs.