Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Unveiling the Modern Shadow

I am excited to say this essay was accepted by Kepler College to be displayed on their website. To read the article there please follow this link.


Born Mary Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of the revolutionary feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whose powerful treatise, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, opened up new avenues of possibility for the education of women at the commencement of the 19th century. Her daughter was one such beneficiary of Wollstonecraft’s desire to reform women’s education, going on to publish the wildly popular novel Frankenstein at the young age of 20. A look at the planetary aspects of Mary Shelley’s natal chart, using the perspective of archetypal astrology, can help illustrate how the archetypal energies correlated with the planets of our solar system were expressed in her personal life and in her writing, with a particular focus on her masterwork, Frankenstein. An analysis of the world transits, and the personal transits they form to Shelley’s natal chart, at the time of the publication of Frankenstein provide further insight into Shelley’s writing.

Mary ShelleyMary Godwin, who became Mary Shelley upon her marriage to the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, was born August 30, 1797 at 11:20 pm in London, England. Most prominent in her chart is a triple conjunction of the Sun, Mars, and Uranus in the sign of Virgo, in a tight 180° opposition to Pluto, with Mars closest to Pluto in the opposition. The Sun is archetypally correlated with the principle of the self, of one’s central identity and focus, and the areas in which one shines or expresses oneself most prominently. Uranus, the first of the outer planets to be discovered in the modern era, is correlated with the revolutionary impulse, with breakthrough, rebellion, genius, brilliance, technology, electricity, the young, and the new. Sun-Uranus aspects are often found in the natal charts of brilliant individuals whose work has provided some kind of breakthrough or revolutionary shift in consciousness or worldview, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, to Newton, Kant, and Freud.[1] The planet Uranus is archetypally correlated with the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire (a symbol for consciousness) from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, was also a Sun-Uranus figure. His expression of the archetypal complex can clearly be seen in his poem Prometheus Unbound.

Mary Shelley’s personal expression of the Sun-Uranus combination comes through in the brilliance of her individual expression in her breakthrough first novel, which even has the apt subtitle The Modern Prometheus. The character of Victor Frankenstein is that of a rebel seeking to create life by means of technological innovation, all of which are Uranian themes. He desires to create new life alone, not as father and mother, but to elevate himself to the role of God the Father, the individual solar hero on his quest of technological prowess. Frankenstein takes on the role of both father and mother, rebelling against the order of nature, doing so in an act of technological breakthrough and brilliance. While working, Frankenstein speaks of those he would create, saying “No Father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”[2] Yet, he must also suffer the consequences of achievement. Like Prometheus, whose gift to humanity leads to his eternal punishment—chained to a rock while an eagle consumes his liver each day only to have it grow back again each night—Frankenstein is haunted by the life he gave, the monster he created out of his own hubris and ambition.Mary Shelley Chart

Mary Shelley’s Sun-Mars-Uranus triple conjunction is, as mentioned above, in opposition to Pluto. The Uranus-Pluto opposition Shelley is born under is the primary transit that defined the tumultuous era of the French Revolutionary Period. The Uranus-Pluto impulse is toward revolutionary change on a mass scale, the liberation of the repressed and the oppressed, and the unleashing of the taboo. It is the same transit that defined the 1960s countercultural era and our current moment of world revolutions and protests, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, to the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States this current summer.

An interesting connection between Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is that Wollstonecraft was born with Uranus square Pluto in 1759 and published her masterwork, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, under the Uranus-opposite-Pluto in 1792. Her daughter was born just five years later in 1797 under the same Uranus-Pluto transit, and she went on to publish her own masterpiece, Frankenstein, under the subsequent Uranus square Pluto that was just beginning to come into the orb of influence in 1818. Both mother and daughter’s writing has a revolutionary quality: they were both breaking through the gender barrier in their era that oppressed female writers, and female expression as a whole.

The quality of Shelley’s Frankenstein also expresses Uranus-Pluto archetypal themes in the eruption of the shadow in her story which tells of the creation, through the Uranian technological spark of life, of a Plutonic monster. Shelley reveals and shines light upon (Sun-Uranus) the potential monstrosity (Pluto) of technology (Uranus), as well as the hubris of the modern age and the notion of progress, demonstrating how the sudden break (Uranus) with from the course of nature (Pluto) can unleash (Uranus) tremendous horrors (Pluto). In Frankenstein’s words he describes,

One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labors, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places.[3]

The relentless pursuit of nature, the reference to ‘her hiding places,’ and even the idea of a ‘secret. . . possessed’ evoke the underworld nature of the Plutonic, while the sense of the technological secret of life held by a single individual reflects the Sun-Uranus complex. Interestingly, this pursuit of nature is echoed by Dr. Frankenstein’s vengeful pursuit of the monster across the northern wilderness in the latter portion of the book.

The manner in which the horror of Shelley’s narrative unfolds clearly reflects not only her Sun-Uranus conjunction opposite Pluto, but also the Mars-Pluto opposition that is part of this larger complex in her natal chart. Mars correlates with the archetype of the warrior, with a potential range of manifestations from energy, action, and athleticism, to anger and even violence. The archetype of Pluto deepens any archetype with which it is in aspect, so the Mars-Pluto combination can potentially come through as a deep rage or potentially murderous violence, which is clearly expressed in the revenge of the monster of Shelley’s narrative. That Shelley has the Sun in aspect with her Mars-Pluto opposition can be seen in the individual embodiment of the violent shadow, both literally in the monster but also in the individual acts of Frankenstein that brought about the monster’s creation.

Briefly, I would like to touch on a few other aspects in Shelley’s chart that come through in the nature and style of her writing. Shelley has a tight Sun-Neptune sextile which is beautifully captured in a sentence she used to describe herself as a child: “As a child I scribbled. . . Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air.”[4] The archetype of Neptune correlates, in one form of its expression, with the imagination and transcendence, which come through in this whimsical, imaginal quote illustrating Shelley’s innate ability to create imaginative narrative. She is also born with a Mercury-Venus conjunction, which can be seen in the beautiful, lyrical quality of her writing. The archetype of Mercury correlates with all forms of communication and expression—from writing, to thinking, speaking, and sensing—while the archetype of Venus correlates to beauty and artistry. Shelley’s Mercury-Venus can also be seen in the romantic fairy-story qualities of some of her other works, such as The Dream or The Heir of Mandolfo. Furthermore, Mercury is in a tight sextile to the Moon in Shelley’s chart, an example of which is the narrative form in which Frankenstein is written: a series of letters. Letter-writing is often intimate and familiar, and in this case also familial, all of which are Lunar qualities, in this instance expressed in Mercurial written form.

Frankenstein Published TransitsWhile much more could be elaborated in Mary Shelley’s natal chart, I would like to turn to the world transits that were in the sky at the time Frankenstein was published, on January 1, 1818. On that day, and for a short time before and after the publication date, there was a stellium in Sagittarius of Venus, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, with the smaller orbit of Venus bringing it briefly into the longer conjunction of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, and the even longer conjunction of Uranus-Neptune that defined much of the Romantic era. While there are many complex ways in which this quadruple conjunction manifested in world events, the particular expression in relation to the publication of Frankenstein can be seen in the successful release of a beautiful piece of literary art produced by the creative imagination. The archetype of Jupiter grants success to whatever it touches, while Venus relates to the artistic expression, and Neptune to the imagination behind the project. Jupiter-Uranus alignments in world history regularly correlate to successful breakthroughs and the inauguration of new initiatives, and have been found to correlate with the first successful publications of numerous authors, including of course Mary Shelley.[5]

In her personal transits, the Venus-Jupiter-Uranus-Neptune stellium was conjoining Shelley’s natal Moon. While the archetype of the Moon is present in all individuals and certainly cannot be simply correlated with all women or “the feminine,” at the time Shelley lived women were often relegated or confined solely to the Lunar realms of home, family, and domestic matrimony by the then dominant patriarchal structures (which had largely appropriated the Solar archetypal role of the individual shining hero as a symbol of “the masculine”). The significance of the Venus-Jupiter-Uranus-Neptune stellium conjoining Shelley’s Moon can be seen in that she would have, in her time, been viewed, because she was a woman, as a Lunar figure who was successfully breaking out of the constrictive mold that did not encourage creative artistic or literary expression by women. The significance of the Moon in this particular case is not because she is a woman, but because of the primarily Lunar role women were usually required to take on. The archetypal energy of the successful Lunar figure is doubled by a transit that would have lasted for only a few hours on the particular day of publication: the Moon in the sky was transiting in opposition to Shelley’s natal Jupiter, which may have provided an increased sense of emotional joy and success for her.

Another significant world transit that was just beginning to come into orb at the time of publication, but which would have become more exact as the book was disseminated and read by the public, was the Saturn-Pluto conjunction of 1818. The energy of this transit would have been intensified for Shelley because, at the time of publication, Saturn was conjoining her natal Pluto as well. The archetype of Saturn is the reality principle that correlates to mortality, death, and gravity, but also to maturity and wisdom; Saturn is archetypally both hard consequences and the learning acquired from consequences. Saturn-Pluto correlates to the shadow side of the encapsulated egoic will to power that is so clearly expressed in Frankenstein. In his book on archetypal astrology, Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas describes Frankenstein as Shelley’s “prophetic Gothic masterpiece that depicted the monstrous shadow of the technological will to power.”[6] Shelley’s tale is one of death (Saturn) and destruction (Pluto), of moral (Saturn) depravity (Pluto), and of the Saturnian consequences of the soaring heights of Dr. Frankenstein’s, and modernity’s, Sun-Uranus visions of progress.

Interestingly, the day Frankenstein was published the Sun in the sky was transiting opposite Shelley’s natal Saturn, shining a light on the principle of death, as well as the profound consequences of individual actions. Frankenstein is also a shining (Sun) example of a piece of narrative art that has withstood the test of time (Saturn) and come down to us today as a revered piece of literature: another expression of the Sun-Saturn archetypal complex that brought this book into the world from the pen of Mary Shelley.

To read the complete works of Mary Shelley the kindle edition very inexpensive and available here.

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. The Original Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Edited by Charles

E Robinson. New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 2008.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tarnas, Richard. Prometheus the Awakener: An Essay on the Archetypal Meaning of the

Planet Uranus. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1995.

Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky. Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five

Important Writers. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994.

[1] Richard Tarnas, Prometheus the Awakener: An Essay on the Archetypal Meaning of the Planet Uranus, (Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1995).

[2]Mary Shelley, The Original Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, ed. Charles E Robinson (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 2008).

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein.

[4] Shelley, qtd. in Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994), 17.

[5] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006).

[6] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 268.

Jane Austen: A Stroll Through “Mansfield Park”

My father says that with Jane Austen, not a single word is out of place. Each sentence is composed with the utmost precision, an attention to detail and subtlety that distinguishes her writing, and sets it high on the pedestal of the greatest English writers. She wrote at a time when, in her own words, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.”[1] Her works tell the story women were not often given the opportunity to tell, unveiling the intimate details of home, marriage, and the inner folds of emotion tucked away in the country houses of rural England.

Jane AustenPart of my purpose with this Women of Words project is to read works by female authors that I have never read, and to write a short essay on each author from various perspectives, sometimes literary, sometimes personal, sometimes astrological, or often a combination of these different perspectives. If I have already read something written by the chosen author, I will choose another work of hers, perhaps a piece less well-known. This was the case with Jane Austen. I have had the great pleasure of reading several of her novels already over the years: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. I must say I enjoyed each of these immensely and could not rank one as a favorite over another. The characters and their individual development, the dialogue, the prose—all are exquisite. I look forward to the day I can re-enter these provincial worlds again, whether it is by falling passionately in love alongside Marianne Dashwood, or coming to greater self-understanding with Elizabeth Bennet, or undergoing deep emotional maturation alongside Emma Woodhouse.

Having already read the three most well-known of Austen’s novels I chose Mansfield Park as my next endeavor for this project. Mansfield Park tells the story of a young girl, Fanny Price, who is brought to the countryside by her wealthy Aunt Bertram and her uncle, Sir Thomas, to be provided with a better upbringing and social opportunity than she would have had if she had been raised by her own lower class parents along with the rest of her siblings. Janet Bukovinsky Teacher describes Mansfield Park as a morality play on entering the church.[2] The primary focus of the plot is Fanny’s dedicated love for her cousin Edmund, who has been her dearest companion since he soothed her tears when she was first displaced into her new home. Drama unfolds when two eligible siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford, move to the neighborhood and upset a romantic tangle amongst nearly all the members of the Bertram family. As the second son, Edmund is destined to become a pastor, a vocation that leaves opposite impressions upon the two young ladies desiring his attention.Mansfield Park

Fanny Price is a sweet, demure, shy girl whose heroism seems to lie solely in her propriety and goodness. At times, there can be something frustrating about her to the contemporary sensibility. Why is she so physically weak? Why does she not stand up for herself, or express her own feelings? While the perspective of the story certainly makes one want to be on Fanny’s side, the actual qualities of her rival characters, particularly that of Mary Crawford, leave one wanting something more from Fanny, some act of heroism or engagement besides her shy propriety. Fanny’s quiet devotion to Edmund is admirable and certainly understandable, but at times his happiness seems far better suited to being with Mary. Mary’s supposed faults, which I will let the reader discover for him- or herself, are not ones that would easily withstand the test of time or feminism.

I often found the most enjoyable moments of the book to be when Austen’s writing steps out of the small, ordinary world of Fanny’s domestic sphere and connects with a more philosophical way of thinking, or enters into observation of the natural world and the greater cosmos. In one passage, when Fanny is walking with Mary through a garden, Fanny begins to muse on the nature of time and memory:

“How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!”

And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul!—We are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollection and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.”[3]

This is one of those exquisite moments when the reader is permitted to see the deeper thoughts underlying Fanny’s shy demeanor. One can feel almost as though we are briefly permitted to see right through Fanny and into the thought of Austen herself, sharing one of her own contemplations upon the nature of human memory.

Austen was a contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and one can see the Romantic language of the era coming through in her own descriptions of the natural world. In a quiet scene in the family drawing room, Fanny is withdrawn by the window away from the conversations and flirtations of the Bertram sisters and the Crawfords. To her delight, Edmund joins her for a moment by the window.

Fanny. . . had the pleasure. . . of having [Edmund’s] eyes turned like hers towards the scene without, where all that was solemn and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings.

“Here’s harmony!” said she, “Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorry in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”[4]

A similar Romantic sensibility is evoked toward the novel’s ending, while Fanny is visiting her parents in town. Fanny is contemplating with melancholy the loss of the beauty of spring in the countryside:

It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring. She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose passing March and April in town. She had not known before, how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her.—What animation both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties, from the earliest flowers, in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods.—To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse.[5]

It is interesting to note the strong influence of both the weather and landscape on the unfolding of everyday events in Austen’s novels. They remind the contemporary reader of the differences between the world before and after the invention of the automobile and the construction of major road networks. Social relations, travel plans, family visits, and even physical exercise are far more susceptible to the fluctuations in climate than they would be today.

One of my favorite scenes in Mansfield Park is a conversation that takes place between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford as they are walking through the woods of a neighboring estate. It is early in their acquaintance, and a subtle flirtation has begun to develop between them, to Fanny’s chagrin. Mary, at this time, is much more taken with Edmund than he seems to be with her, which starts to come through in the following dialogue. The substance of the conversation itself is on the nature of time as seen from their differing perspectives, views which seem to have something of a gender bias. Mary begins the conversation:

“I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?”

“Not half a mile,” was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness.

“Oh! you do not consider how much we have wound about. We have taken such a very serpentine course; and the wood itself must be half a mile long in a straight line, for we have never seen the end of it yet, since we left the first great path.”

“But if you remember, before we left that first great path, we saw directly to the end of it. We looked down the whole vista, and saw it closed by iron gates, and it could not have been more than a furlong in length.”

“Oh! I know nothing of your furlongs, but I am sure it is a very long wood; and that we have been winding in and out ever since we came into it; and therefore when I say that we have walked a mile in it, I must speak within compass.”

“We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here,” said Edmund, taking out his watch. “Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?”

Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”[6] (Emphasis added.)

Austen reinforces many of the gender norms of her day, including views on manners and propriety of behavior. The primary concern of the women in Austen’s novels is their marriagability, a stark contrast to her revolutionary forebear, Mary Wollstonecraft. Yet Austen herself never wed. She once accepted a suitor’s offer, but by the next morning she had changed her mind and reversed her answer. She seems to express some of her views on a woman’s choice to marry, and whom she is to marry, through the voice of Fanny Price when she says,

“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”[7]

To touch briefly on Austen’s birth chart, because we know her exact birth time we are able to know that she has a tight Moon-Saturn conjunction in Libra. Austen is born on December 16, 1775 at 11:45 pm in Stevenston, England. The Moon archetypally relates to the home, domesticity, relationship, emotional expression, and feeling. Saturn, on the other hand, correlates with constraint and restraint, hard work, discipline, reserve, and a serious disposition. Austen’s Moon-Saturn conjunction is expressed archetypally as the quiet sphere of the home that is depicted in all of her novels, as well as the emotional struggles and maturation of her lead female characters. Her detailed descriptions of the quiet day-to-day experiences of living in the English countryside, and the work of securing a husband and home, all correlate to Moon-Saturn. She also did all of her written work (Saturn) in the parlor of her home (Moon), and even would hide the stories she was writing when visitors came calling.Jane Austen's Birth Chart

Another significant aspect in Austen’s natal chart is her Mercury in opposition to a broad Jupiter-Uranus conjunction. The archetype of Mercury comes through as all forms of communication, from writing and speaking, to  thinking, the intellect, and education. Jupiter correlates archetypally with expansion, success, and celebration, while Uranus relates to change, revolution, rebellion, innovation, and ingenious breakthroughs. The Jupiter-Uranus combination correlates with expansion of horizons, successful breakthroughs, and rapidly opening world views and perspectives. Although Austen lived in a constrained home environment, which correlates to her Moon-Saturn conjunction—never moving from her family home—she was able to expand her horizons and those of all her readers through her writing, which correlates to her Mercury in opposition to Jupiter and Uranus. The breakthrough quality of her exquisite novels—from the first, Sense and Sensibility, which she published anonymously, claiming only on the title page that it was “By A Lady”—have rippled through history and come down to us today as the beloved stories of the extraordinary, yet everyday, women of the English countryside.

To read Mansfield Park the kindle edition is free and available here.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky. Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994.

[1] Jane Austen, qtd. in Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994), 12.

[2] Teacher, Women of Words, 12.

[3] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988), 208-209.

[4] Austen, Mansfield Park, 113.

[5] Austen, Mansfield Park, 431-432.

[6] Austen, Mansfield Park, 94-95.

[7] Ibid, 353.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Voice of Women’s Liberation

“For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings, that stability of character which is the firmest ground to rest our future hopes upon, they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite.”[1]

– Mary Wollstonecraft

 The role of women in 18th century England was constrained almost solely to the realm of marriage and motherhood, and few women had the means to raise their voices in protection of their rights. Yet one woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, had a voice so powerful that she is considered by many to have been the first feminist to rise out of Europe. In her emphatic treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft speaks out with little restraint about her thoughts on women’s education, women’s duties as mothers and wives, and women’s roles and rights in society. She opens her book with a letter bearing her primary argument:

Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous?[2]

Mary WollstonecraftWollstonecraft’s writing carries tremendous force and is often punctuated by words and phrases penned entirely in capital letters, driving her point and opinion home. “The rights of woman may be respected, if it be fully proved that reason calls for this respect, and loudly demands justice for one half of the human race.”[3] She steps out of her era’s convention of using the term “Man” to refer to “Humanity,” instead emphasizing that there is a half of the human race who has been made invisible by the very language that describes their species. As Janet Bukovinsky Teacher writes, “No English-speaking woman had ever been so audacious as to question the validity of marriage as she did, or to suggest that men might be preventing women from pursuing their rightful place in society.”[4] Wollstonecraft held radical views not only on women’s rights, but also on divorce and even abortion. Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published during the period of the French Revolution, and in many ways Wollstonecraft is carrying much of the revolutionary energy of the times and channeling it into the transformative power of her words.

The primary focus of Wollstonecraft’s treatise on women’s rights is the manner in which women were educated in her time. Women’s education consisted almost exclusively of learning the arts to acquire a husband, and did little to develop women’s reason, understanding, sense of virtue, and physical strength. The prime target of her rebuttal is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued in his treatise Emile, or On Education that men and women ought to be educated in entirely different manners because of their fundamentally different natures. Rousseau writes of women and men, saying,

In what they have in common, they are equal. Where they differ, they are not comparable. A perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks, and perfection is not susceptible of more or less. In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes.[5]

While Rousseau does not go on the unfold what he means by “In what they have in common, they are equal,” he does argue that women should be “passive and weak,” and should “put up little resistance” because they are “made specially to please man.”[6] In Wollstonecraft’s paraphrase of Rousseau’s argument, he goes on to say

that a woman should never, for a moment feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself.[7]

Wollstonecraft brings forward the many ways this limited and constraining view on women’s education and capabilities is detrimental not only to women but to the society as a whole. If a woman is kept ignorant by her education of all subjects except how to adorn herself to attract a husband, how will she be able to educate her children? Her ignorance will then pass on to her children who will comprise the next generation of individuals structuring society.

The patriarchal logic behind keeping women ignorant was in part based upon the idea that if women were ignorant they might remain innocent of the world’s hardships, and therefore be virtuous. But Wollstonecraft argues that pure innocence is only to be valued in children, not adult women, and that “Women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.”[8]  It is the faculty of reason that allows human beings to move toward virtue. She goes on to say “In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.”[9] Later in the treatise Wollstonecraft returns to the relationship of reason to virtue when she writes,

But it is vain to attempt to keep the heart pure, unless the head is furnished with ideas, and set to work to compare them, in order, to acquire judgment, by generalizing simple ones; and modesty by making the understanding damp the sensibility.[10]

In Wollstonecraft’s time an unmarried woman’s honor was based not upon her ability to think, to engage in intelligent conversation, or on her personal accomplishments, but almost solely upon her chastity. Wollstonecraft addresses this notion with disgust, saying, “Nay the honour of a woman is not made even to depend on her will.”[11] Yet she argues that if a woman’s education is focused so exclusively on the arts that will win her a husband, then how can she help but be promiscuous once she is married? She will have been prepared for nothing but a fanciful notion of romance that will soon fade as her husband realizes she can do little else but be the coquettish slave of Rousseau’s fantasies. And to men like Rousseau she says,

The man who can be contented to live with a pretty useful companion without a mind, has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined enjoyments; he has never felt the calm satisfaction that refreshes the parched heart, like the silent dew of heaven—of being beloved by one who could understand him.[12]

It is not surprising that much of the backlash against Vindication of the Rights of Woman came not from men but from women who saw themselves targeted by Wollstonecraft’s harsh criticisms. Women adept at the arts to which their curtailed education disposed them would have found Wollstonecraft’s arguments disturbing, insulting, and even threatening. Yet Wollstonecraft insists that it is not the nature of woman that confines her to such narrow forms of expression but rather the conditioning impressed upon her from childhood.Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In a woman’s education “Strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.”[13] An interest in beauty and ways of dress are not inherent to women but rather the only interests that have been cultivated by their education. Wollstonecraft argues that it is no more natural for a woman to be exclusively interested in her own beauty than “false ambition” is natural to men. Rather, both are driven by a love for power. For women the only means to gain power is through marriage, therefore physical beauty becomes their only fully developed faculty. “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”[14] Wollstonecraft goes on to describe how a woman’s education saps her character until she is reduced to the physically and mentally weakened dependent creature men tell her she is.

Every thing that [women] see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind. False notions of beauty and delicacy stop the growth of their limbs and produce a sickly soreness, rather than a delicacy of organs; and thus weakened by being employed in unfolding instead of examining the first associations, forced on them by every surrounding object, how can they attain the vigour necessary to enable them to throw off their factitious character?—where find strength to recur to reason and rise superior to a system of oppression, that blasts the fair promises of spring?[15]

Wollstonecraft eventually makes clear that it is the collective oppression by men that has kept women so constrained for countless centuries. The general assumption of her era was that women’s overall inferiority to men was a fact, an issue which Wollstonecraft challenges vigorously. She writes that if women indeed are inferior to men, which she does not concede then, in her words,

I shall only insist, that men have increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.[16]

Only tyrants and sensualists, Wollstonecraft insists, would want women to be oppressed to the level of blindly obedient slaves.

Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a plaything.[17]

Wollstonecraft goes on to ask why men would want blind obedience when rationally developed principles would ensure a more just and virtuous society. She even likens the oppression of women to that of enslaved Africans, seeming to call for revolutionary reform on both fronts in society.

Why subject [woman] to propriety—blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality? Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard only to sweeten the cup of man?[18]

Finally, Wollstonecraft calls upon God, the creator of the universe, to answer for the condition of women:

Gracious creator of the whole human race! hast thou created such a being as woman, who can trace thy wisdom in thy works, and feel that thou alone art by thy nature, exalted above her—for no better purpose? Can she believe that she was only made to submit to man her equal; a being, who, like her, was sent into the world to acquire virtue? Can she consent to be occupied merely to please him; merely to adorn the earth, when her soul is capable of rising to thee? And can she rest supinely dependent on man for reason, when she ought to mount with him the arduous steps of knowledge?[19]

Wollstonecraft had fully extricated herself from the false webs of deceit that continuously told women that their inferior position in society was based upon man’s God-given right for domination.

Much of Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to looking at the affect of women’s rights and education upon marriage and family. Wollstonecraft held the opinion that a marriage should be based not on passionate love, which she saw as transitory and fickle, but rather upon mutual respect and friendship. She believes that “a master and mistress of a family ought not to continue to love each other with passion.”[20] Marriage, in Wollstonecraft’s opinion, is primarily in service of raising a family and educating children to enter the world, an idea that seems very much at odds with contemporary liberal views on marriage. For Wollstonecraft, “Love is. . . an arbitrary passion.”[21] Yet she also goes on to say that “Supposing, however, for a moment, that women were, in some future revolution of time, to become, what I sincerely wish them to be, even love would acquire more serious dignity, and be purified in its own fires.”[22] Love can only be pure and dignified if first both parties can approach each other as equals.

Mary Wollstonecraft Birth ChartI would like to briefly touch upon some aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft’s astrological chart that can further illuminate her character and writings. Wollstonecraft was born at the new moon and therefore has a Sun-Moon conjunction in her natal chart. Simply put, the archetypal energy of the Sun relates to one’s central identity and focus, the areas in which one shines in one’s lifetime. The archetype of the Moon, on the other hand, carries the aspects of one’s emotions and feelings, and one’s ability to nurture, care for, and nourish in relationship. The Moon is particularly connected to the mother-child relationship, as well as the physical body. In the patriarchal West, especially during Wollstonecraft’s lifetime, the solar principle was strongly appropriated by the cultural role held by men, while women were usually dominant in the lunar home realm with little room to step into a solar identity in the world. Wollstonecraft’s Sun-Moon conjunction seems to express itself through her impulse to shine a light on the rights of women who have been operating almost exclusively in the realm of the home in the primary role of motherhood. Wollstonecraft is bringing the solar focus of her inquiry into the lunar realm, and encouraging women to step out into their individual solar power.

Wollstonecraft is also born with Uranus square Pluto in her natal chart; the archetypal expression of Uranus relates to the revolutionary impulse for creative breakthrough, liberation, and change, while the archetype of Pluto is connected to power, evolution, and transformation, to what is oppressed and repressed, and to massive scale and tectonic movement. Interestingly, Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, at the same time the French Revolution was raging across the Channel, when Uranus was opposing Pluto in the world transits. She is expressing this powerful revolutionary energy in the tremendous force of her words which are explicitly calling for mass liberation of women from the oppression of patriarchy. She writes, “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.”[23] The Uranus-Pluto opposition of the late 18th century—the next axial alignment of those two planets after the square in the sky when Wollstonecraft was born—was in a transiting T-square to Wollstonecraft’s natal Moon. This transit perfectly correlates with her bringing mass revolutionary energy into the lunar realms of home and motherhood and calling for women to transform their relationships with their minds, bodies, children, and husbands. She writes that a woman’s first duty is to herself and her second is to her children, a reversal of what most women in her time were raised to believe: “Speaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother.”[24]

Finally, Wollstonecraft also calls on women to respect the female body into which they were born, acknowledging their ability to grow as individuals and move toward virtue, rationality, and goodness. “She who can discern the dawn of immortality, in the streaks that shoot athwart the misty night of ignorance, promising a clearer day, will respect, as a sacred temple, the body that enshrines such an improvable soul.” For women today, Wollstonecraft’s words have opened up many doorways that were long closed to those of female gender. Yet I cannot help but wonder, now that we are once again in a period when Uranus and Pluto are in axial alignment, what greater revolutions on behalf of women would a Mary Wollstonecraft of today call upon us to enact?


To read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman the kindle edition is free and available here.

For further reading on Mary Wollstonecraft an interesting blog entitled Vindications of the Rights of Mary is available here.


Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979.

Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky. Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Kindle Edition), 1792.

[1] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Kindle Edition), 1792, Ch 2.

[2] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Section: “To M. Talleyrand Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun.”

[3] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Section: “To M. Talleyrand Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun.”

[4] Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994), 7.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979), 358.

[6] Rousseau, Emile or On Education, 358.

[7] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[8] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, Ch. 7.

[11] Ibid, Ch. 4.

[12] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 5.

[13] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[14] Ibid, Ch. 3.

[15] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 6.

[16] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[17] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[18] Ibid, Ch. 9.

[19] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 4.

[20] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[21] Ibid, Ch. 6.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 3.

[24] Ibid, Ch. 9.

Women of Words

As a woman whose life is focused ever more on the art of writing, I have decided to embark on a new project. I would like to have a better understanding than I do of the lineage of female writers whose powerful and persuasive words parted the dominantly patriarchal waters to forge a drier path for young women writers such as myself today. Having been educated at an all women’s college, Mount Holyoke, I have had the fortune of glimpsing the accomplishments of many great women, both contemporary and historical. But also in my education, both at Mount Holyoke College and now at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I have found most of the dominant influences on my own studies and those around me to be from men, and I often find myself craving a female perspective on the subjects about which I care the most.

Women of WordsThis project was in part inspired while reading a chapter of Genevieve Lloyd’s book A Man of Reason, in which she addresses the role of gender in the history of philosophy. Lloyd draws on Mary Wollstonecraft’s powerful rebuttal of Rousseau in Vindication of the Rights of Women, bringing question to human rights and the gendering of the soul. After reading this I wanted to read Wollstonecraft for myself, but also wanted to see where the lineage went from there. I am undertaking this project to begin to see the development of women’s words and thoughts over the last few centuries alongside the gradual, and eventually rapid, rise of feminism. The women whose works I will be drawing on will be from many subjects—from philosophy, to poetry, to literature—to see the many different genres through which their self-expression came.

To help me in this project I will be drawing on a beautiful little book that was given to me over a decade ago, upon my 8th Grade graduation, by someone who is now one of my dear professors. The title  of my project is drawn from the title of this book: Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers, edited by Janet Bukovinsky Teacher.

The thirty-five women whose works I will be exploring, chronologically, are:
Mary Wollstonecraft                           Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Jane Austen                                           Mansfield Park
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley             The Dream The Heir of Mandolfo
Elizabeth Barrett Browning               Up next. . . Sonnets from the Portuguese
Elizabeth Gaskell
Emily Brontë
George Eliot
Emily Dickinson
Sarah Orne Jewett
Kate Chopin
Edith Wharton
Willa Cather
Gertrude Stein
Virginia Woolf
Isak Dinesen
Marianne Moore
Edith Sitwell
Katherine Mansfield
Agatha Christie
Jean Rhys
Vita Sackville-West
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Dorothy Parker
Stevie Smith
M.F.K. Fisher
Anaïs Nin
Simone de Beauvoir
Eudora Welty
Doris Lessing
Nadine Gordimer
Flannery O’Connor
Ursula K. Le Guin
Toni Morrison
Edna O’Brien

I will pick one work by each of these authors to read and discuss on this forum. Some, although certainly not the majority, of these authors I have already read, in which case I will choose a work of theirs I have not yet encountered. In the case of those authors whose works I have yet to read, I will likely choose their most famous work, or a piece that connects with the thread of what has been developed by the previous writers.

I would be thrilled to receive suggestions, comments, feedback, engagement in this project of any kind. If there is an author that must be in this line-up please tell me (I have thought of a few missing already, but as it is thirty-five writers will take me some time to go through while still continuing my graduate studies.)

Mary Wollstonecraft is the first. I am already nearly halfway through Vindication of the Rights of Women and am bursting with things to say, praises and opinions to share.

Stayed tuned…