Voltairine De Cleyre, “Mary Wollstonecraft—The Apostle of Woman’s Freedom” (1893)

For the Boston Investigator.



Delivered at the International Congress of Freethinkers at Chicago.

By Voltairine de Cleyre.

“Quietly does the clear light, shining day after day, refute the ignorant surmise, or malicious tale, which has thrown dirt on a pure character.”—[Mary Wolstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” p. 143, Humboldt Library Edition.

To touch with the commanding fire of the resurrection the crumbling bones of one who rots these hundred years; to call from our her grave in Bournmouth churchyard the form stricken from the passion and fervor of being in the midst of its struggle and its aspiration; to put back the pink and white of life upon the wreck and ruin of death; to lift the lids of the long sleep, letting out again the tender, slumb’rous brown light from those eyes that had attained the divinity of sorrow, the pathos of pity; to make you see her, feel Her, know her, that supreme woman, speaking with her undying voice away over the ocean of the years, to you, to me, to all—that woman who threw her splendid genius against the barbed barriers to freedom, who took their frightful pints of steel into her generous breast, that felt so deeply, burned so indignantly, loved so much; to make her live before you in all the beauty of that wonderful face, that wistful, pathetic, childlike face, that face that might have moved God to tears, if there were a God to weep; to have you know how that great heart, dust, dust, impalpable dust, years before any of us were, yet beats and pulses onward forever in the outgoing, wide-enfolding circle of the children of liberty; to make the live words leap again from the long neglected pages till you feel Mary Wollstonecraft’s presence here, asking, nay, not asking but compelling, the recognition of love and reverence, the tribute of grateful memory so long denied!—this is my task, the task that I have set myself; I, her humble lover, who if many tears and heart throbs could call her from the dead—would have summoned her here in my stead to-night.

I am unworthy; I know it. I know “I am a late come scribe, measuring with little wit that lofty love” which shines, an unquenchable fire, through every line the great apostle wrote.

Yet wherever the heart of freedom beats faster at the sound of a beloved name, it is because many grateful, humble ones, many whose hearts loved better than their lips could speak, have paid their tributes there, knowing the gift was little, but—their best. What freethinker’s bosom does not glow to-day at the name of Thomas Paine? And has not that glow been kept alive in obscure corners of the world, in little out-of-the-way coffee-houses and humble halls, and modest parlor gatherings, where those who were too poor in purse and power of thought and speech to do justice to the occasion, yet urged on by reverence and devotion and gratitude and indignation, poured out their thankfulness to the neglected hero?

The time will come when she, too, now so neglected and forgotten, she—this historian, this reformer, this thinker of daring thoughts, this doer of brave deeds,—will have her name graven on every altar-stone whereon the tabernacle of liberty rests.

And since love of a principle, incarnate in a man, begets love for those kindred spirits whom that man chose in friendship, let those who do not know it, learn—let those who love and reverence Thomas Paine remember—that Mary Wollstonecraft was Paine’s friend. She knew him in England when they were fellow-strugglers for the rights of free press, then fighting its way against courts, fines, imprisonment and exile; she knew him in France in the bitter days of the revolution, when the terrible tocsin was ringing the judgment of the people upon kings; and later, when the leaders of the people, gone mad with hate and suspicion, had doomed Paine to the guillotine. She, an Englishwoman, stayed there in the teeth of the storm, running the risk of the same fate, after the expulsion of the English had been ordered. Like Paine, she cried out against the shedding of blood in the days when to declare mercy to others meant danger to self. And while they were burning Paine in effigy all over England as the author of the “Rights of Man,” the same persons were proposing to do Mary Wollstonecraft the same honor as the author of the “Rights of Women.” In the great painting of Paine by Jarvis, among the fourteen names that decorate “the wreath of freedom haloing the figure, as these two: Margaret Bonneville and Mary Wollstonecraft; all the rest are men. These were the women who faced the east in that world-convulsing morning. Margaret Bonneville because catholic and reactionist; Mary Wollstonecraft died true to the faith of liberty.

Paine answered Edmund Burke’s strictures on the French revolution with the “Rights of Man.” Before Paine’s book appeared Mary Wollstonecraft had also answered with the “Rights of Man.” It is a long neglected work, although forgotten now; but if you unbury the treasure you will find there thoughts as keen and clear, and words that blind and bit as clean and sharp as anything Paine wrote, and more than that, words as applicable to-day as in the day when they were written. Listen! and marvel that it is no modern socialist that speaks, but the voice of a woman calling out of a grave dug one hundred years ago.

“The demon of property has ever been at hand to encroach upon the sacred rights of men…. Security of property! Behold the definition of English liberty…. It is only the property of the rich that is secure. When was the castle of the poor sacred? … Property in England is much more secure than liberty.”

Oh, how we feel that in America to-day, when loaves of bread are so much more sacred than hungry mouths! so much more sacred than the rights of those mouths to speak and declare their needs that the police club and arrest those who proclaim the holiness of sentient, suffering flesh, as against the holiness of glass and stone and gold; and workingmen and workingwomen walk between double rows of uniforms and bludgeons to proclaim the definition of American liberty!

How truly might Mary Wollstonecraft write again: “The rich man may thank his God he is not as other men are! When shall retribution be made to the miserable who cry day and night for help?” One hundred years have rolled away; and still the procession of the miserable comes pouring down, hungrier, thinner, dirtier than ever, and the cry goes up louder and louder, day and nigh, day and night, the whole long century, and no help comes! And the “rights of men” repose on obscure shelves in magnificent libraries, unknown of men, because the right to read has been made void by the necessity for work. Free libraries! Generous gifts of the “custodians of wealth”—that open at eight and close at five, while the factories open at seven and close at six. And do not forget these libraries are pious—they remember to keep “holy the Sabbath day.” O, satire on the rights of men! Men who are now, as she writes they were then, “oppressed by the influence of their own money”—their money which buys them cathedrals and priests, government-halls and governors, libraries and librarians, and neither knowledge nor hope! Their money, which plunges them into the frightful pessimism of starvation, gazing at abundance with bars between!

How little the spirit of the classes has change since our heroine penned these words: “If the poor are in distress the rich will make some benevolent exertions to assist them; they will confer obligations but not do justice!” And then the bright fire of her indignation leaps out at those who would have the recipients of such assuming charity, meek, and mild, and patient, and oh, so very, very humble, dropping these words of comfort to the proud soul who spurns such ostentatious insolence: “The aversion which men feel to receive a right as a favor ought rather to be extolled as a vestige of native dignity than stigmatized as the odious offspring of ingratitude.” There flamed forth the human being, asserting the supremacy of the individual over this stupendous travesty on justice which arrogates privileges to a few, that they may exercise the virtue of degrading the manhood of the rest. There shone out a clear, white streak of light, a sudden illumination of the soul upon the immense obscurity of human life, darting to the uttermost depths of the cave of misery the splendid truth that the “rights of men” are equal; and that these rights are not mere metaphysics, declarations on paper, political catchwords, but based upon the daily needs of human existence. The rights of man to Mary Wollstonecraft mean the right to eat, the right to be clothed, the right to be sheltered; and none of these as a charitable dole, and not of the poorest and meanest, but of the best, as rightfully belonging to those who produced them. The rights of men means to expropriate the expropriators! The right to take back that which has been stolen, without thanks to the thief! This is one of her questions: “Why does the brown waste meet the traveller’s eye when men want work?… Why might not the industrious peasant be permitted to steal a farm from the heath?” A century has passed. And still the brown waste meets the traveller’s eye, still men want work. And I echo her question, and repeat: “Why shall they not steal back the source of wealth which has been stolen from them?”

Edmund Burke, the great master of rhetoric, the fallen idol of the liberals, the cloaked pensioner of the English government, had arraigned the French revolution with more of eloquence than logic, as he found to his cost when Paine’s reply was selling by the thousand. He had exhausted himself in tears concerning the atrocities committed in that furious revolt, as if they had been born without a raison d’être. But Mary Wollstonecraft, true child of the people, faithful to the ideals of the people even when they themselves were unfaithful, came with her rebuking hand and, pointing to the sixty thousand monastics, the sixty thousand nobles, the two hundred thousand priests, the leech grown of fifteen hundred years upon the patient peasants of France, and pointing to the misery and squalor of these, exclaimed: “Your tears are reserved for the downfall of queens!… What were the outrages of a day compared to such continual miseries?” “Man preys on man, and your mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a Gothic pile, and the dronish bell that summoned a fat priest to prayer…. You mourn for the empty pageant of a name while slavery flaps her wing!”

The world, the honest world, the christian world, the good religious, crucifying world; the world which takes hearsay for evidence and prejudice for judgment, the world which starves and freezes, and outcasts and hangs and damns people, for conscience sake, has amused itself these many years by repeating the false charge of atheism against Thomas Paine; when the very book they so ignorantly condemn was written, as its author says, “to stem the tide of atheism.” “The Age of Reason,” to quote Conway’s beautiful expression, “is the insurrection of the human heart against deified inhumanity;” it is humanity, or humaneness rather, raised to the divine pinnacle. The same charge by the same prejudice-hugging world has been made against this woman, also a fervent deist, because she, too, refused, as a slander upon God, the infamous doctrine of eternal torture, and that procrastinating christianity which bids man be Lazarus here in order to escape being Dives hereafter. In one of those darting sentences of hers, which strikes fire from the flint of the centuries, she asks: “Is the human heart satisfied with turning the poor over to another world to receive the blessings this could afford?” And again: “Why is our imagination to be appalled with terrific perspections of hell beyond the grave? Hell stalks abroad. The lash sounds on the slave’s naked sides, and the sick wretch who can no longer earn the sour bread of unremitting toil steals to the ditch to bid a long good-night; or, neglected in some ostentatious hospital, breathes his last amid the laugh of mercenary attendants. Such misery demands more than tears.”

So the brave spirit cried against the cursed inhumanity of the christian scheme of heaven and hell, though all the while her whole being was aglow with love for that ideal of God existing in her own fervent nature. To her, God was the supreme source and end of all life, a source which gave forth nothing but good, an end so pure and great as to receive back the foulest returning and remain unsullied, even as the ocean receives back the slime and mud of its children—the rivers—yet remains forever blue. This faith worked outward in her life, giving her the warmest and sincerest convictions of duty, and the strength to follow them. She was, in the highest and best sense of the word, a religious woman. So sure was she of the unfailing goodness of God that she spent no time in idle and impertinent prayers urging him to remember his duties. She attended to her part, believing that omnipotence knows its own business. Though at one time an attendant of an orthodox church, during the last decade of her life, from 1787 to 1797; that is, during the decade of her highest development, she never attended. And Godwin, her devoted lover and biographer, tells us that during her last illness “not one word of a religious cast fell from her lips.”

She had lived her faith, she didn’t need to talk about it. And her death, though one of intense suffering; so far as her mental attitude was concerned, was peaceful and beautiful. She went out into the darkness without a question as to the hereafter, conscious of rectitude, soul serene. If one believed as she, one might say those child eyes had looked straight through death at God, and were satisfied.

So much claim has she upon the love of humanity in general, and freethinkers in particular! But her fame as a reformer rests upon another work—the rights of women.

As Paine was the first English writer of note who contended for the rights, not only of white men, but of negro slaves, so Mary Wollstonecraft was the first English write of note who contended for the rights of the slaves of slaves—women. Against both the old and the new schools, against both Dr. Gregory and Jean Jacques Rousseau, she announced the repudiation of St. Paulism. She claimed for woman the destiny of an individual—self-supporting, self-governing, responsible. She demanded that an end be put to the abominable worship of sensuality as the be-all and end-all of woman’s existence. She went through the sham of female education with a ruthless dissecting knife. She asked for an equal standard of morals, of intellectual ideals, of physical culture. She denied that it was virtue for a woman to look pale and sickly and weak in order to flatter the vanity of some man’s “power of protection.” She denied that there was any reason why women should hide their abilities in order not to appear as a competitor with man mentally. She claimed for woman and man alike the full freedom to develop their powers to the utmost, without let or hindrance from each other. She showed how “cunning is ever the product of force;” how if the powers of mind and body be diverted from struggle towards free and noble ideals, they will twist and distort, and undercreep and mine the repressing forces, until society is cancered through, and ready to break into leprous sores. She showed that where classes of men (giving in example soldiers and courtiers) have been forced into an idle and frivolous existence, such as the majority of women led, and still do lead, they have become weak, cunning, intriguing, despicable. That, therefore, those faults charged, and charged justly, upon woman, are not hers because of her sex, but because of her social and industrial environment; that given men in the same conditions, the same results upon character will be produced. Hence wherever there is an idle class, a slave class, a class whose “grand business in life is coquetry,” a class perpetually appealing to the lowest and most sensual elements in its master’s character, nothing but evil to the whole race can be expected.

Thanks to the patient, patient years, some of the things for which she contended are not accomplished; and if in reading over her “Rights of Women” we are sometimes annoyed at her insistent repetitions of what seem to us obvious truths, right there let us check ourselves to thank her that she has done her work so well that we stand upon the steps her brave hands hewed in the rock, cutting above her head—that our feet are placed where he hands were, and our eyes see higher up. Remember that true gratitude to the great past does not consist in doing the specific acts of the past, but in preserving the progressive spirit of the past. She who truly loves Mary Wollstonecraft is she who tries to live as far in advance of her day as Mary Wollstonecraft was in advance of hers. Remember that, when you read by the reflex light of a hundred years the “Vindication of the Rights of Women.”

And now most reverently do I approach her last, her best, her greatest claim upon the gratitude of humanity. There be teachers that I have known teach, and preachers that I have known preach, and reformers that I have known, and the world has known, to be loud of mouth and pen! But the doers, the souls that become one with their thoughts that are their teachings, these are very few. And Mary Wollstonecraft was on of there rare few. Hers were no sterile songs flung out to die upon the air; they were the music of herself; she was an Idea, she was liberty!

Mary Wollstonecraft did not preach justice to the poor, and then live upon their toil; she toiled herself. She did not behold misery from afar off, and make fine phrases about it. She drank he cup, bitter with fennel, with the rest, and knew whereof she spoke. She did not preach the abrogation of classes and then practice servility to the powerful or arrogance to the humble. She maintained the dignity of the individual in her own person, compelling the haughty family of Lord Kingsborough to treat her, their governess, as an individual, not as a servant. She taught self-respect to the ignorant by setting them the example. She did not condemn the frivolities of so-called polite society and then acquire the last smirk and flutter; she did not proclaim a high standard of virtue and live a low one; she did not prate of independence for woman and then coquet to capture a husband; she did not declare for responsibility and then shrink from it when it came; she uttered no word that she did not stand by and live by unto the uttermost, no matter how great the price she paid society for it; and sometimes it was a very dear price!

She was poor, she suffered privations, she lived cheaply, in poor lodgings; she was sometimes in sore straits for work, and knew not where to turn. She did her own work, ladies; she washed her own dishes, and mended and turned her old dresses. Her clothes were not always pleasing to those who have nothing better to do than study fashion plates. When I read that, I remembered that Paine once said concerning a similar criticism: “Let those dress who need it.”

The money she earned by her pent went towards establishing her brothers and sisters in independent positions. She even adopted a friendless, young girl in London, a stranger to her, and out of her own poverty helped her to live. She resented as an insult an offer of marriage to a man whom she did not love—the usual cheap road of relief to struggling women—declaring marriage, which is only made holy by love, to be pure and simple prostitution without it, no matter how sanctioned by priest or magistrate. She never reckoned the cost to self, or the size of her opponent, when a wrong was being done. Once, on her passage from Spain to England, she alone, on woman, compelled a brutal captain of the vessel to take on board some castaways whom he had refused to rescue, and who, but for her, would have died the horrible death of starvation at sea! Her dear dream of life was independence, not the shell of it, but real independence, where she would not be only industrially self-supporting, but free to announce and live her beliefs, refusing to accept any position which demanded their suppression.

And when the great trial of life came, the trial which sends every soul through the fire—the trial of love—her acts proclaimed the sincerity of her conviction, that what is commonly called marriage—a service, a ceremony trumpeting abroad the sacred secrets of the heart—is of all the vulgarities the worst! Time proved her to have been mistaken, not in her own feelings, not in her principles of action, but in her estimate of Capt. Imlay. How many women that have had both the word of a husband and the certificate of a priest have also found themselves mistaken?

Millicent Garret Fawcett, in her introduction to the last edition of the “Rights of Woman,” apologetically alludes to this relationship as “an error” caused by the philosophical reaction of which Mary Wollstonecraft was part. I say Millicent Fawcett does poor and cowardly service to that great woman; she needs no apology, least of all for that. It was a brave living of beliefs which cannot be condemned because certain individuals holding them prove unworthy; of principles whose correctness have never been refuted.

Calumny was very busy with her after that. Tongues that lick vinegar spit gall. But she kept her grief for herself, and her dignity before all the world, ever refusing to be ashamed that she was an unmarried mother!

Long afterward, when she was dead, the letters, the letters to Imlay, the passionate, broken letters, were given to the world—and the world beheld the drops of blood falling from Mary Wollstonecraft’s heart. Sacred drops, drops that should purify whoever touches them. A Christian slanderer named Jeafferson, a man who has made it his business to vilify the great freethinkers, pressed his foul fingers on those sacred wounds. Had he been a man the touch would have killed him! He was not a man; and anyone who can read those letters and not feel that he is in the presence of something holy, pure, devoted, ineffably tender, is less than a human being.

There came a rift of sunshine after that, the sunshine of an honest love; and in that golden, summer afternoon she died. Too soon, too soon for us. Too soon for the motherless little babe, that afterward became the wife of the poet Shelley; too soon for the melancholy child, Imlay’s child, who, left alone, committed suicide; too soon for the unfinished work, left so broken and incomplete. But not too soon for us to say: “Behold the apostle of our freedom! Behold here who lived and died for woman’s progress!” Let justice be done! Let April 27, 1759, become a day of annual commemoration in every city, in every town, where the throbbing desire for liberty her heartbeats set in motion a century ago, pulses and thrills. Let us make a Mary Wollstonecraft day! Let it not be said that freethinkers keep warm the memory of a great man alone. Let April 27th be as celebrated as is January 29th. Let us retwine the names of Paine and Wollstonecraft wreathed by Jarvis a century ago. Let the women determine to keep this day, and I am sure the men will be with them.

How many will help to make this woman’s day memorable, this congress memorable, as the birthday of recognition for Mary Wollstonecraft? I appeal to you, women and men! How many will help to let in “the clear light” upon the pure and noble character of this woman, whose dust lies there beyond the water, but whose immortal life beats full and strong in every heart that cries for liberty; full and strong the mother pulses, the first incitations, the centurine out-ripplings? Who, each year, will pluck a white flower from the garden of his heart to lay upon her tomb?

Voltairine De Cleyre, “Mary Wollstonecraft—The Apostle of Woman’s Freedom,” The Boston Investigator 63 no. 32 (November 08, 1893): 1-2.

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