Was Mary Shelley A Feminist? A New Film About The Writer Says Yes

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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was mary shelley a feminist? a new film about the writer says yes

The new IFC film Mary Shelley brings to life the story of the famed author. Shelley’s biography was just as tragic and as fantastical as the story for which she’s famed: Frankenstein. And although Shelley’s life would be marked by loss and heartbreak, she stands as feminist icon who fiercely fought for recognition for her work.

Shelley (portrayed in the film by Elle Fanning) was raised with an impressively liberal pedigree. Her father, noted philosopher William Goodwin, is considered the architect of modern anarchism. Her mother was none other than Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of feminist thought at a time when women were considered, at best, property. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792, just shortly after the American Revolution. In the book, Wollstonecraft made the incredible insight that women are actually people, and are deserving of the same social rights of the time. She also argued that men and women should follow the same conventions regarding modesty and sex — a prototypical version of the double-standard idea. If women weren’t allowed to have premarital sex, why should men?

Sadly, Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley. But her father raised her with his radical political ideas, and she was influenced by her mother’s writing. She eventually married a Percy Shelley, a political poet who left his wife to be with her. It was in this rich atmosphere that she decided to pursue a career as a writer, and she consorted with famed thinkers of the day, including Lord Byron.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein after, she claims, the idea of the story came to her in a dream. She was challenged by Lord Byron to produce a ghost story, who believed that women couldn’t produce a work of horror. History would prove Shelley to be the victor of the competition; Frankenstein is one of the most beloved horror books of all time, and has been adapted into several films and inspired a clothing line.

Still, despite the book’s popularity, Shelley still had to fight for recognition of her work. She endured publishers who believed that her husband actually wrote the story. While he provided some editing work on the book, Frankenstein is, as Fanning’s Shelley declares in the trailer, “It is my story.” Shelley would be forced to publish the book anonymously. Her name was later added in a second edition printing.

Later in life, Shelley’s success allowed to her to perform quiet charitable acts for other women. Shelley lived by the principles of her mother until her death at age 53. She blazed trails for women in literature, and proved that imagination doesn’t have a gender. At the time, this idea was revolutionary. Writers of all stripes benefit today by her contributions to the field — through her fighting spirit, she was able to make some progress for women. “My choices made me who I am,” says Fanning in the trailer, “and I regret nothing.”

The film is directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and will be released in theaters on May 25.

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