Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, 1799 (public domain - Wikipedia)
“To be a woman is something so strange, so confusing, and so complicated that only a woman could put up with it.”
In 1816, stuck indoors during what was known as the “Year Without a Summer,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, penned one of the all-time horror classics: Frankenstein.
More than 200 years later, to read that book is to understand human nature. But it is all the more astounding when we consider that she was a youth of only 18 when she wrote it.
Here we have a young woman who is a deep thinker about intellect and hubris, good and evil; an author whose writing was exquisite and whose ideas so intense that they gave rise to a genre of monster books, films, and more.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is an impressive figure.
And yet, in 1931, more than 100 years after her remarkable novel was published and her name had achieved lasting fame, when director James Whale gave her story life on the silver screen, he credited her as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley.”
You’ve Come a Short Way, Baby
As advanced as we are in the 21st century, women are still not on equal footing as men.
It wasn’t until 2018 in Saudi Arabia that women were allowed to drive. But even still, men retain control over critical decisions in a woman’s life, such as if she is allowed to have a passport or if she may get married. A woman is treated as if she is a legal minor.
Here in the United States, the Declaration of Independence enumerated certain inalienable rights and the Constitution established voting rights. But it wasn’t until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1869 that ensured “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Unless you were a woman.
It wasn’t until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 — 50 years later — that women were seen as equals when it came to the ability to vote.
In the 1960s, women gained the right to open their own bank accounts, and in 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibited credit discrimination on the basis of gender.
These are just a few examples, but at every turn, we find women having to fight harder for what is naturally given to men.
Women have to fight for maternity leave, equal pay, executive positions, boardroom seats — and most commonly, women have to fight just to be heard in meetings.
So many women (and yes, it’s mostly women, although one of the consistent male voices on this topic is Tom Peters) have documented this, talked about it, and written about it, that my paltry scribblings here pale in comparison to their efforts.
In 22 years of work on women's issues I've repeatedly said my aim is not primarily social justice--it is better business performance. There is enough research to support that not to sink a ship, but a fleet of ships. E.g., more women on Boards, dramatically greater profitability.— Tom Peters (@tom_peters) April 27, 2018
“It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion, that they were created rather to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain, must be obtained by their charms and weaknesses.”
And yet, think of the sheer amount of work that women do — starting with mothers. Not only do they undergo the taxing physical process of gestation and childbirth, but they are tireless in their efforts to care for their children. Add an outside job (or jobs) to that, and the time and energy women expend is inordinate.
In a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021, when it came to time spent on household chores in 2020 versus 2019, men increased time spent by 16 minutes a day and women by 11. But overall, women did far more—2.4 hours daily, compared with 1.6 for men.
At the same time, the percentage of men doing housework and food prep each day decreased from 2019 to 2020, while the percentage of women doing those things increased.1
Nature vs. Nurture
We are a product of what we witness at home, but for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, that wasn’t a possibility. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died just 11 days after giving birth to little Mary.
But mother Mary was a firebrand and a considerable author in her own right, and it may have genetically predisposed young Mary in that direction. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 and dedicated it to Talleyrand, who had recently asserted that women should receive primarily a domestic education.
Incidentally, all of the Wollstonecraft quotes in today’s edition can be found in A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
The book served as something of a framework for 19th-century suffragists who rediscovered the book decades after Wollstonecraft’s death.
How fortunate Mary was to have such a strong and intelligent woman as her mother, whose work could serve as a moral compass. How fortunate we are to have other women like that in our midst today.
May we value them and elevate them as they deserve. We’ll all be the better for it.
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