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
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
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