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Historical Notes: From personal tragedy to new ways of living and old

MOTHERHOOD IS a theme that has, unsurprisingly, been tackled by some of the great feminists of the post- Enlightenment era. Several of these writers, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, have written about the topic without being mothers themselves. This has lent their arguments an appealing sweep and didacticism but it has also placed more emphasis on rationality and free will than many mothers feel themselves to possess in real life.

Other feminists have tackled the theme as a direct result of bearing and rearing children. Perhaps the greatest modern text on motherhood is Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1977). This work spoke directly to a generation of highly-educated post- war women, many of whom found themselves plunged, from their early twenties, into sole care of home and children. Rich addressed the painful and deep ambivalence that so many women feel in relation to their own offspring.

The conflict between experience and polemic can be traced back to the work of one of the first feminist agitators of the modern era, Mary Wollstonecraft, who published her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. With its spirited arguments for women's economic and professional freedom, this lengthy pamphlet has been almost continually discussed since its first appearance.

Wollstonecraft was not a mother when she wrote it, although it touches often on the theme of motherhood. Rearing a family, she argued, was a perfectly proper occupation for a woman, unlike taking an unhealthy interest in one's appearance, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of self-reliance. "To be a good mother, a woman must have sense and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands."

It has been suggested that Wollstonecraft's sharp observations may have dated from her experience as a governess in Ireland to the children of a large Anglo- Irish aristocratic clan, the Kingsboroughs. Wollstone-craft's jealousy of both her employer's fecundity and yet continuing sexual allure obviously informed some of the biting tone of a "Vindication".

One of the saddest aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's life is how profoundly she was changed by her personal experience of love and motherhood. Two years after the publication of a "Vindication" she gave birth to a baby girl, Fanny. Just a few months later, her lover and the baby's father, Gilbert Imlay, deserted her in brutal fashion. Distraught, Wollstonecraft tried to drown herself.

Later, she was required to pay off Imlay's debts and support herself and her baby daughter by undertaking a journalistic trip of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The articles, written in the form of letters, speak of a very different Wollstonecraft to her earlier work. Their tone is sober and tender, particularly about her daughter Fanny:

I feel more than the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread that she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment. I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit - Hapless woman! What fate is thine!

It is impossible not to feel touched by Wollstonecraft's personal tragedy two centuries on. She was a volatile woman who risked all for love. But she also lived in an age where economic independence for women was a rarity and unmarried motherhood a scandal. And, of course, childbirth itself was a far greater physical risk than it is today. Wollstonecraft died of blood poisoning barely two weeks after the birth of her second daughter. It is impossible not to feel deep gratitude to writers like her who have tried to argue for new ways of living for women, men and children, braving ridicule and hatred from the more conventional parts of society.

Melissa Benn is the author of "Madonna and Child: towards a new politics of motherhood" (Vintage pounds 7.99)