Voltairine De Cleyre, “Mary Wollstonecraft” (1894)

For the Boston Investigator.


Mr. Editor:—Yourself and readers will be interested to learn that the plan of establishing a “female saint’s day” among freethinkers, by commemorating the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, proposed by myself at the international congress of freethinkers, last October, has taken practical form in this city. The Ladies’ Liberal League, of Philadelphia, (which is not, by the way, an auxiliary of the Friendship Liberal League, as state by Mr. Charlesworth in a communication last fall, and I correct the error in the interest of both societies, the former being a much more radical group than the latter), has done itself the honor of being the first society to take up the work of doing justice to that great woman, who was the initiator of the women’s rights movement among the English-speaking people.

On the 24th of April, that being the day nearest to the anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, (the 27th) in our regular lecture course, your correspondent delivered an address upon her life and work. The hall was crowded with an audience of thoughtful people from all ranks of life, to every one of which some precious sentence has been left by the fiery genius who died just where woman hood “was touching noon, and while the shadows still were falling to the west.”

A fine crayon drawing of that face which Raphael might have worshiped, by Mr. Henry La Rosee, a rising young artist of this city, was displayed upon the platform; and a hundred curious eyes were fastened on that wistful, tender mouth, those great pathetic eyes, which seemed looking from beyond the caverns of death—pleading for a little kindness. This picture has been purchased by the society and will hereafter adorn the walls of its meeting place.

In the course of the address I reviewed the history of her life as teacher, translator and author; dwelt on those sentences in the “Rights of Men,” the “Rights of Woman” and the “French Revolution” which illustrated her love for sincerity, her detestation of tyranny, her fears for the future of man under commercialism, her burning indignation at injustice of whatsoever kind, her hatred of the fripperies of life which degrade the noble ideal of human duties, her contempt for priests and those solemnities of religion which darken humanity’s sunshine, her noble appeal for a stronger, and individualized, womanhood, her large ideas of the benefits of kindness adhered to in the treatment of the criminal classes, her defence of criminals in general as social victims rather than social demons, her magnificent conceptions of Nature as imagined in her Letters from Norway and Sweden. To all these the audience paid the greatest attention, frequently marking with applause those sentiments which found the nearest echoes in their hearts. The facts of her personal experience were also given as evidence that the sentiments she uttered could be lived by and died by; and that though the dust of a century lies upon her coffin and that of her great husband, William Godwin, (whose work “Political Justice” is, as was said by a member on the occasion, a work beside which Paine’s “Rights of Man” is a schoolboy’s production), still out of the grave their principles speak and grow forever in the growing mind of man. At the conclusion of the address numerous short speeches were made by Dr. R. B. Westbrook, Messrs. George Brown, Ralph Raleigh, J. C. Hannon, Mrs. Skinner, Miss Hansen, Miss McLeod and others.

I must also give credit where it is due, and say that much of the success of the evening was due to the untiring efforts of Mr. James B. Elliott, who is perhaps more than myself the originator of this movement. Mr. Elliott has also been for some time engaged in rooting out the history of liberalism in Philadelphia, and when his researches are completed will offer readers of the Investigator some interesting details of the lives and deaths of freethinkers and freethinking societies in this city. He has not found, however, that recognition was given by any of them to Mary Wollstonecraft. Our society is the first. Let me hope that others will follow the example of the Ladies’ League. Let individuals inform themselves concerning her works; buy the “Rights of Woman;” it is in paper, sold for sixty cents by the Humboldt Publishing Co., New York. Write to me for any information on the subject desired; I will be glad to furnish it. Let us have a freethinking woman’s commemoration day as well as a man’s; let us remember Paine’s friend, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Yours for liberty,

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine De Cleyre, “Mary Wollstonecraft,” The Boston Investigator 64 no. 6 (May 12, 1894): 2.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.