Women’s Roles Then and Now
ISABELLA BEETON: So, Mrs. Wollstonecraft, how did you come to be a writer? Such a rare case in the 18th century.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: Well, Mrs. Beeton, I was lucky to spend my youth in the right company. My early years of seeing my parents’ unhappy marriage made me think that women were often imprisoned by the bonds with no way of fulfilling their potential. I sought a different life for me than my mother’s one was. Intellectual activities were designed solely for men, but I was lucky to befriend Jane Arden and visit her philosopher father’s lectures. Later on, I met Fanny Blood, another dear friend of mine, who broadened my mind. I myself saw marriage as prison, so I preferred my female friends’ company to my husband’s, with whom I could create my own world of support and female solidarity.
ISABELLA BEETON: Is it true that you persuaded your sister to elope from her husband and a newborn baby?
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: Oh yes, poor Elisa, she was unhappy and depressed in her marriage, no one had the right to judge her. Why can men have more rights and freedom than women do?
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ISABELLA BEETON: What about your writing and your philosophy? When did it all start?
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: Oh, well, my dear Fanny’s death was a blow for me. I thought she shared my ideas of female community of free women, but she appeared to be the one who chose to be married. That’s the result, her health shook. Her death stirred some emotions in me, and my first novel was born.
ISABELLA BEETON: What about your philosophical works? I know women’s rights were a great concern of yours.
MARY WOLLSTONECRFT: Yes, I have always cared about changing the role of women. I was perceived by many as a bizarre free thinker because of my ideas and relationships, that’s true. I have never been a classical type of a domestic woman. I realized that many women want freedom but they are confined to marriage. My own marriages and relationships were unlucky though I tried several times. So, my own knowledge and experience were presented in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which I proudly believe to be among the first of the kind. In my book I protest against turning marriage into trade. I think that marriage should be based on partnership, where a wife is an equal companion for her husband. Now, many of my opponents consider that education is not for women, but I am strongly against this opinion. Women are those who raise children, this is why their role in education is crucial. Of course, I believe that the type of education should correspond to one’s social position and status, and after all, family and social tasks that a woman should perform. I also believe that men and women should be equal in the realm of morality because we know perfectly well that a woman is often condemned for what is believed to be excusable for a man.
ISABELLA BEETON: Your views are particularly interesting, and we in the 19th century have the same problem of inequality. Though I must confess that I am a more traditional and domestic type than you are.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: Tell me your life story, was your family life successful?
ISABELLA BEETON: Oh, my whole life is related to my family. The death of my mother was a tragedy, yet I cannot say my life was unlucky after my father married another woman. Can you imagine, I had 21 siblings, and I was the oldest of them! So, clearly, family values had a great impact on me, and my experience of household management and babysitting helped me in writing my popular book, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. I am proud that it is the fullest book of recipes and advice for housewives that Britain has ever had.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: So, are you a woman of traditional values?
ISABELLA BEETON: To a large extent, yes, though I have always been too active to stay at home because I have enough energy to help my husband at work. At first, he protested, but then he saw that I am a quick helper. My husband founded The Queen, the Ladies' Newspaper, and I helped him in his tasks. I agree with you that education is important for women, but the focus is still on family life since we live in the Victorian epoch. You know, the housewife’s role is often underestimated, but it is a great job that requires numerous skills! How to rule a household, how to cook, how to save money, how to keep the house clean, how to treat children and so on.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: So, you decided to educate women in that field?
ISABELLA BEETON: Exactly! I felt that there is a lack of information, so I gathered and tested recipes and advice from numerous sources. It is so convenient to have them in one book. Women were happy and my book is still very popular. It has over a thousand pages, and it is designed for middle class women.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: It is unbelievable that you were just 24 or so when the book was published!
ISABELLA BEETON: Yes, everyone thought of an older lady, but I had enough experience and I also used other people’s works. I never claimed that I invented every recipe. Housekeeping is an important skill for a woman in Victorian times.
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