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No. 382:
Frankenstein's Grandmother

Today, we meet the grandmother of Frankenstein. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in England in 1759. She was raised by an abusive father and a put-upon mother. Early in life she set out to support herself -- first as companion to a wealthy lady, then as a teacher, and later as a governess. Finally, in 1787, she settled in London to earn her living as a writer.

There she joined an astonishing intellectual circle that met in rooms over a bookstore. The poet William Blake was a member. So was Joseph Priestley. He was the dissident minister and scientist who first isolated oxygen. The American Thomas Paine was a member. His pamphlet, Common Sense, had fueled the American Revolution. These were primary theorists of 18th-century revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft began writing on the role of women, but in fairly guarded terms. She wrote a novel. She wrote a book on educating young women. Then, in 1792, she burst forth with a searing manifesto that became a primary feminist source, right down to this very day. She titled it Vindication of the Rights of Woman. That was probably a play on Thomas Paine's title, The Rights of Man.

All the elements of today's women's rights movement were there. Her call to "expand our faculties" was today's idea of "consciousness-raising." She hated the way middle-class women of her age sold themselves into an idle life. She always returned to the importance of education and self-sufficiency among women.

An angry public met the work with cries of horror -- both then, and for the next 200 years. She'd written it rapidly and not too carefully. Some of her arguments sidetrack. But the arguments are compelling, and their intent quite clear enough. In fact, every one has become familiar today.

A few years later, she and another member of the circle took up together. He was William Godwin, a noted writer on political revolution. When she became pregnant in 1797, they married, even though they'd both railed against marriage. In the end, she bore a daughter but died giving her birth.

William Godwin passed Mary's legacy on to his daughter. He even named her Mary. In his grief he wrote the biography of this lady he'd obiously loved so much. Years later, young Mary went to Switzerland with her lover, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. There she wrote her own powerful and lasting commentary on dangers she saw abroad in the land. She wrote Frankenstein.

Her mother had torn directly into male dominance, but in Frankenstein, young Mary attacked something just as basic. She tore into the willful, masculine animal that drove 19th-century technology and thinking then, and all too often still does today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Wollstonecraft, M. Vindication of the Rights of Woman (M. Brody, ed.). London: Penguin Books, 1975.