Many, if not most, children exhibit an early talent for art or science, even intellection; but we can never accurately predict the one whose youthful giftedness will blossom not into a pastime but into a driving need: the kind of need that determines the course of one’s life. Radicalism, too, is a talent that proves formative rather than casual. In creative work, the driving need occurs when the talent is exercised, the possessor of it finds that she or he is struck to the heart (not a thing that happens simply because one has talent) and a sense of expressive existence flares into bright life. That experience is incomparable: to feel not simply alive, but expressive. It induces a conviction of inner clarity that quickly becomes the very thing one can no longer do without. If it can be done without, it usually is. Those destined for a life of professional radicalism experience themselves in exactly the same way as does the artist or scientist who reaches center through the practice of the gift. No reward of life–neither love nor fame nor wealth–can compete. It is to this clarity of inner being that the radical–like the artist, the scientist, the philosopher–becomes attached, even addicted.
Mary Wollstonecraft, who, as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is known to us as the first modern feminist, is better described as an Enlightenment thinker whose life embodied the spirit of her age, and was exactly the kind of talented radical I’ve been talking about.
She was born in London in 1759, into a large shabby-genteel family that soon began moving from one failed farming venture to another, circling as far out as Yorkshire and Wales, and as close in as the villages that surrounded the city. The father drank, raged and wasted their money; the mother grew cold and remote. Deprived of both stability and affection, Mary was nonetheless left free to roam the open countryside with her brothers, read whatever came her way and discover without interference some of the basic elements of her own personality. At 15, she wrote to a friend who’d disappointed her, “I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none. I own your behavior is more according to the opinion of the world…[but] I have a heart that scorns disguise, and a countenance which will not dissemble.”
It was all in place that early: the impassioned temperament, the remarkable articulateness, the strong intelligence, the defensive hauteur.
She was to pronounce grandly, later in life, that “genius will educate itself” and, indeed, bit by bit, she used whatever came her way to discover that she could think vividly for herself. When at 18–the family was now in desperate straits–she became companion to a rich old woman in upper-register Bath, she wrote home, “In the fine Lady how few traits do we observe of those affections which dignify human nature!” She also wrote, “A young mind looks round for love and friendship, but love and friendship fly from poverty…. The mind must then accommodate itself to its new state, or dare to be unhappy.” Dare to be unhappy. Then, as ever, active unhappiness was preferable to the humiliation of passive accommodation.
At 25–with her mother dead and the family dispersed–Mary founded a school with her two sisters in a village two miles north of London that was home to a community of Dissenters. Here, two important developments occurred. She learned to teach, an experience that would profoundly influence her political philosophy; and she met Richard Price, the Dissenting preacher who clarified in her the passion for equality that came, in time, to dominate the whole of her radical thought. Price was an outspoken champion of the American Revolution, but he criticized the colonists mercilessly for having drawn up a Constitution that condoned slavery and deprived women of suffrage. Out of these ardent objections, there grew in Wollstonecraft a lifelong hatred of ranked power.
When the school fell on hard times, a friend among the Dissenters suggested that she write a book. She came up with a proposal–Thoughts on the Education of Daughters–that was taken to a progressive printer, Joseph Johnson, publisher of Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Johnson accepted Mary’s proposal, and advanced her a munificent ten guineas. She set to work and found herself writing, “Whenever a child asks a question, it should always have a reasonable answer given it.” No sooner had she set pen to paper than she began to think about human beings who happen to be women primarily as creatures who will respond to reason.