Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft


“Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.”


Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft

Six years after Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which became the foundation of what we today call feminism, she fell in love with the radical political philosopher William Godwin. The two forged the original marriage of equals and conceived a daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.

Mary Wollstonecraft shortly before her death. Portrait by John Opie.

In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”

Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:

Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s invigorating wisdom on the courage to be yourself, Wollstonecraft adds:

Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and W.E.B. Du Bois’s magnificent life-advice to the daughter he did have, then revisit Wollstonecraft on loneliness and the courage of unwavering affection, her stirring love letters to and from Godwin, and her moral primer for children, illustrated by William Blake.


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Ancestor Worship with Mother Nature: How Indigenous Death Rituals Illuminate the Web of Life


“For almost all oral cultures… the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.”


Ancestor Worship with Mother Nature: How Indigenous Death Rituals Illuminate the Web of Life

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” the poet Marie Howe asked in her sublime ode to our belonging with the universe.

My dear friend Emily Levine, who awakened my love of poetry long ago, entered the final stretch of her life with an uncommonly beautiful orientation toward death. Beneath the inescapable sorrow of impending non-being was a buoyancy of being springing from her Augustinian excitement to return her stardust to the universe that made it — to belong once again with all the matter that ever was, with every other creature who ever lived and died, with raven and river and rock. She wanted to go into the earth not in a casket and all its attendant human pomp but in a mushroom burial suit that would slowly reweave “her” atoms into the great web of life.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

It may be one of the great bittersweetnesses of human life that nothing brings that vitalizing sense of belonging into the centerstage of consciousness more clearly than death. This has been the case across epochs and cultures and civilizations, and this is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library) — his wonderful inquiry into the ancient wisdom of nature, witnessed and reverenced in the traditions of various human cultures across the span of millennia and meridians.

In a testament to Robert Macfarlane’s poetically phrased observation that “into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save,” Abram writes:

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” — whether human or otherwise — is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is situated. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world — the subtle presence that circulates both within us and between all things — retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body — a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may burn, or “cremate,” the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures may dismember the body, leaving certain parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by mountain lions or by wolves, thus hastening the re-incarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Elbruch

Nearly a century after Henry Beston contemplated difference, belonging, and the ample superiorities of non-human creatures, insisting that “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Abram adds:

“Ancestor worship,” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter — whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds — are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the obvious differences in shape, and ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Complement The Spell of the Sensuous with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interleaving of life across time, space, and species and pioneering naturalist John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Mary Oliver on mortality and the key to living with presence.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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