Time to Celebrate the Foremother of Feminism – Mary Wollstonecraft

“JUSTICE for one half of the human race!” went the battle cry of one of history’s unsung greats. Mary Wollstonecraft died on 10th September in 1797, and she remains a one-off. Her claim to be “the first of a new genus” was no exaggeration. She was the first woman to live by the pen. She was the first female war correspondent. And most importantly, her 1792 call to arms A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first in the English language to demand equality of the sexes. Why, then, isn’t she more famous?

More on that shortly. First, her upbringing. It was grim. She lived with the constant threat of domestic violence, and was forced to sit in silence while her brother went to school. She helped her sister escape marriage, left work to care for her dying mother, and saw her best friend die in childbirth. Small wonder, then, that once Wollstonecraft began writing about injustice, she couldn’t stop.

Her short life was epic by any standards: she travelled, wrote, and campaigned tirelessly. She attempted to reinvent education, and childhood, and how humans should coexist. The idea that Mary Wollstonecraft is ‘Frankenstein’s grandmother’ is quite possibly the least sensational thing about her (her second daughter was Mary Shelley). She lived at a hundred miles an hour, but today it’s her writing that lives on, most powerfully in the single line: “I do not wish [women] to have power over men but over themselves.”

Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth at the age of 38 was quickly followed by another fatality: that of her reputation. Still grieving, her husband William Godwin wrote her first biography. It included a few of what Virginia Woolf calls her “experiments in living” eg: having a baby out of wedlock, and this raised a hurricane of righteous fury. Vile names and poems were circulated; Wollstonecraft’s enemies couldn’t believe their luck. Overnight her legacy became toxic. Wollstonecraft was thrown on the historical scrapheap for the best part of a century.

This, then, is why Mary Wollstonecraft isn’t more famous. It took the rise of the suffragist movement to recognise her contributions to women’s equality. Indeed it was Millicent Fawcett herself who rehabilitated the foremother of feminism, praising her “double-edged knife of a sound heart and clear head.” In her introduction to a new edition of the Vindication, Fawcett wrote: “the battle in which Mary Wollstonecraft took a leading part is still being waged.”

How fitting then, that today the Fawcett Society is supporting the campaign to promote Wollstonecraft’s legacy, via a memorial statue and the foundation of an educational trust in her name. Why a statue? Over nine out of ten of London’s figurative statues are of men. Is that really good enough for our school-kids to look up to? Women have consistently been erased from history, and it’s time for this to change.

The Fawcett Society is championing other statue campaigns too, which together mark an important beginning in terms of addressing this visible imbalance on our city streets. The more women on pedestals, the merrier! And Mary Wollstonecraft, as an icon of social mobility and the transformative power of education, is the ideal candidate. Join us in celebrating the foremother of feminism at www.maryonthegreen.org.stewy

Photo: Stewy

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Bee Rowlatt
Bee Rowlatt is chair of Mary on the Green, a journalist, mother of four and author of In Search of Mary. Follow on @Maryonthegreen @BeeRowlatt.

Photo: Laurie Sparham