Meet the original suffragette: Mary Wollstonecraft. The founder of feminism, a philosopher, travel writer, human rights activist, she was a profound influence on the Romantics, and an educational pioneer. In Virginia Woolf’s words, “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” This may be true, but it’s not as true as I’d like. The writer of Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) sank into relative obscurity after her death, aged 38. Why?
Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 into a picturesquely bleak family. She had a violent alcoholic father, and a weak, unsympathetic mother. Despite her inauspicious beginnings, she dragged herself upwards, eventually becoming a self-supporting bestselling international human-rights celebrity. The self-supporting bit is key – for her, independence was “the grand blessing of life”.
She argued, apparently outrageously, that women were capable of reason – all they lacked was education. An early role model, she translated and reviewed essays on natural history, and she was speaking the language of human rights before the term existed. She didn’t exclude men, or indeed anyone. Perhaps her most quotable maxim is “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.”
Wollstonecraft saw marriage as slavery and had her first child out of wedlock. When she set off on a mysterious mission, chasing a Norwegian captain along the treacherous shores of the Skagerrak, she took her baby with her. And knocked off a bestseller along the way. Has there been another treasure-hunting single mum philosopher on the high seas?
But Wollstonecraft died not one, but two deaths. First in childbirth, bringing the author Mary Shelley into the world – the agonising post-partum infection took 10 days to finish her off. She left behind two daughters and a devastated husband, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin.
Godwin, still grieving, wrote her first biography. And in doing so, he unwittingly brought about Wollstonecraft’s second death: her reputation was killed in the scandal following the revelation of her unconventional life and loves. Overnight she became toxic. The shockwaves were massive, and lasting. Wollstonecraft’s enemies couldn’t contain their glee: here was proof irrefutable that she was a whore, a “hyena in petticoats” as Horace Walpole described her.
Scurrilous poems did the rounds, including an exceptionally unpleasant piece of work called The Un-sex’d Females. This was poetry functioning as an 18th-century Twitter: mocking Wollstonecraft as a “poor maniac” a “voluptuous” victim of “licentious love.” The author also crowed that “she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable.” In that oldest of misogynistic chestnuts: she was asking for it. She was a trouble-maker, and she died a woman’s death. Take note, ladies!
Even Wollstonecraft’s friends and allies stepped back; silenced, shaking their heads. Wollstonecraft’s legacy was trashed for well over a century and even today, despite a number of outstanding modern biographies, there’s still no significant memorial to her anywhere.
Mary on the Green is the campaign for a statue of Wollstonecraft in the north London area of Stoke Newington, where she lived, worked, and founded a school. The historian Mary Beard wrote in support that “every woman who wants to make a difference to how this country is run, from the House of Commons to the pub quiz, has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank”.