The Friend Zone

Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on what makes a marriage tick were downright radical for their time

Mary Wollstonecraft, as captured by artist John Opie, c. 1797. She died shortly after this portrait was completed. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mary Wollstonecraft, as captured by artist John Opie, c. 1797. She died shortly after this portrait was completed. (Wikimedia Commons)

The three words most closely identified with the French revolutionary tradition must surely be liberté, égalité, and fraternité. And though the ideas of liberty and equality have inspired countless individuals to take up muskets or pens, not so with the idea of fraternity, which tends to inspire little more than indifference. Of the three elements in France’s national motto, fraternité is more like the poor relation that, as the political theorist John Rawls remarks in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, “has had a lesser place in democratic theory.” In most school textbooks, life, liberty, equality, and property feature prominently in chapters about human rights, but fraternity merits not even a footnote. Rawls nevertheless argues that although friendship is not a democratic right, a democracy worthy of the name is impossible without it. The ideal of fraternity, he writes, implies “certain attitudes of mind and forms of conduct” without which liberty and equality would shrivel.

For Rawls to have espoused this view in the 20th century is one thing. But Mary Wollstonecraft—who died 225 years ago, after the difficult birth of her second child, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley—had similar ideas about friendship, ideas that remain as revolutionary in our age as they were in her own. In an era when political divisions harden, gender divisions weaken, and new technologies chip away at our understanding of older values, we might lend an ear to Wollstonecraft’s vindication of friendship.

Wollstonecraft was scarcely 30 years old when the defining event of her life took place: the taking of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Fiercely independent and largely self-taught, Wollstonecraft, like so many other English intellectuals, thrilled to the news of revolution on the far side of the English Channel. As William Wordsworth later recalled, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.”

A bright dawn it certainly was for the community of Dissenters in London—those English Protestants who had earlier broken with the Church of England and, because of the civil and legal disadvantages that ensued, embraced an event that promised full equality for all citizens. It was with that community of Dissenters that the young Wollstonecraft, determined to make a living by her pen, settled. A few months after the Bastille’s fall, the Dissenters’ leading light, the Reverend Richard Price, gave a sermon before the London Revolution Society that spoke for them all: “I have lived to see the rights of men better understood than ever … [and] the ardour for liberty catching and spreading … the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.”

But Price did not speak for Edmund Burke. Outraged by what, to his mind, was fanatical praise of revolution and foolish reliance on reason, the conservative thinker penned his most famous work, the preposterous when not prescient Reflections on the Revolution in France. On its publication, a polemical and political brawl erupted in London, one that Wollstonecraft, an ardent admirer of the elderly Price, quickly joined. With her publisher, Joseph Johnson, standing at her side, waiting to typeset each new page, Wollstonecraft wrote not one but two vindications.

To vindicate indicates one of two aims: to make a defense or to stake a claim. With the Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790, Wollstonecraft upheld the natural rights of man, a notion enthroned by the revolutionaries in their “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” embraced by Thomas Paine in his fiery pamphlet Rights of Man, and excoriated by Burke in his Reflections. Two years later, though, and to the shock of her critics, Wollstonecraft pivoted from defense to offense—in both senses of the word—by making a jaw-dropping claim. Natural rights, she declared, also belong to the other half of humankind: women. “I love man as my fellow,” she proclaimed in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “but his sceptre, real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage.”

Wollstonecraft was not alone in making so extraordinary a claim. The following year in France, the playwright Olympe de Gouges published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Demanding full civil and political rights for both sexes, de Gouges insisted that a woman’s place in the public square was side by side, as a full equal, to man. “As a woman has the right to climb up the executioner’s gallows,” she affirmed, “she must also have the right to climb to the speaker’s trib-une.” (De Gouges was denied the second right, but not the first: she was guillotined during the Terror.)

But Wollstonecraft took a different and, at first glance, paradoxical tack. The revolution’s frontline was located at the home front. Political equality begins at the hearth, Wollstonecraft insisted, not on the streets; for a democracy to flourish, we must not only overthrow the monarchies in palaces, but so too the patriarchies at home. Only when a husband cedes his wife’s equal capacity to reason—a capacity formed in the same classroom—will he free them both from the unnatural social conventions that, for generations, have warped their characters and stunted their growth. She wrote:

In the government of the physical world, it is observable that the female, in general, is inferior to the male. The male pursues, the female yields—this is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. … But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.

For Wollstonecraft, marriage must be built on a fraternal, not a sexual, foundation. By its very nature, passions of the heart are short-lived and self-destructive. Wollstonecraft had seen the lives of too many women, like her close friend Fanny Blood and sister Eliza Wollstonecraft, destroyed because of unwanted pregnancies or unworthy husbands. Love, as she explained in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “cannot long feed on itself without expiring. And this extinction in its own flame, may be termed the violent death of love.”

As a fervent disciple of the Enlightenment, Wollstonecraft reasoned that marriage must be reasonable. And what could be more reasonable, after all, than a marriage based on the virtue of friendship? As she declared, “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.” She was hardly the first to insist on such friendship. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concluded that there was no friendship like virtue friendship—a friendship based on an admiration of the other’s virtuous traits and the aspiration to equal them. When we choose such a friend, he wrote, we choose “another self” who shares our convictions for what constitutes a life worth living.

Yet whereas Aristotle denied women the capacity for true friendship because in his view they lacked the capacity to fully reason, Wollstonecraft warned women against their capacity for love because they could lose their capacity to reason. In the end, a lasting and enriching marriage, she believed, could never be an affair of the heart, but only of the mind: “forming a plan to regulate a friendship which only ought to dissolve at death.”

A few years ago, when Netflix added the 1990s sitcom Friends to its lineup, it became one of the streaming service’s most-binged shows. More surprising, viewers included not only millennials but also Zoomers encountering the show for the first time. In search of an explanation, a television critic for Vulture, Jen Chaney, suggested that “Friends reinforced the idea that men and women could hang out in packs and maintain some platonic, cross-gender relationships within that group.”

This fall, I taught Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a class called “Frames of Modernity,” a weekly three-hour seminar devoted to books that, in various ways, reflect the modern age. It is often trying, not just because the students must grasp unfamiliar historical and philosophical contexts, but also because they must literally grasp a physical copy of a book—required for the class—and spend time solely in the company of its author. A few weeks into the semester, I asked my students whether they had ever watched Friends. Surprised by the question, seven or so raised their hands, another seven or so rolled their eyes, and some did both. A few students thought that Vulture’s explanation of the show’s popularity made some sense; Friends provided a model of sorts for their own friendships. A few others thought it nonsense. For them, the sitcom offered a kind of nostalgia for a past that never was. I also asked my own 17-year-old for her opinion of Friends. Louisa’s reply was curt: “It is the unfunniest show I ever saw.”

But even a show empty of laughs can be full of meaning. Although too much has been made of the rise of the so-called puriteens, studies do suggest that Zoomers are having less sex than other recent generations. Or, more precisely, they seem to be placing equal importance on friendship as on sex. Yet when I asked my students which of these relationships should define marriage, many thought they could have their wedding cake and eat it, too. They insisted that erotic love and platonic friendship were not mutually exclusive.

If you are, like me, a boomer, you are probably smiling. In both Vindication of the Rights of Woman and countless episodes of Friends, friends share certain values and goals that form a lasting foundation, one that allows them to seek different experiences—to experiment—in their own lives. As the script of Wollstonecraft’s own life reminds us, she fell madly, deeply in love outside her circle of intellectual Dissenters. Despite her allergy to passion, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American chancer she met in revolutionary France, who soon abandoned both her and Fanny, the child he fathered. On returning to England, the desperate Wollstonecraft twice tried to kill herself. The wound in her heart, she later confessed, never healed, even after she married the radical philosopher William Godwin—a marriage based not only on eros but also on amity.

In a 1929 essay republished in The Second Common Reader, Virginia Woolf found her 18th-century predecessor’s friendship-based marriage with Godwin to have been Wollstonecraft’s “most fruitful experiment,” brief though the experiment was. (Wollstonecraft died from septicemia barely six months into their marriage, not yet 40 years old.) At the same time, though, Woolf’s imagination was captured by Wollstonecraft’s passion for Imlay, one that nearly ended her life. It is telling that Woolf found Wollstonecraft’s embrace of life, rife with contradictions, more compelling than her embrace of reason. It was a life with a sequel, with Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelley in the starring role, one that was ultimately satisfying and true to life.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up