The 18th century thinker who framed two centuries of feminist discourse
By Aidan Kiernander
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue at Bristol was a watershed moment of 2020, catalysing an international debate on public monument culture and identity. As Colston’s century-old statue was being submerged in Bristol Harbour, a no less contentious memorial was being erected at North London’s Newington Green. The controversy surrounding this long overdue tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, Britain’s pioneering feminist and one of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, lay not in the worthiness of the subject, but rather in its form: a naked and diminutive woman standing atop a tall, churning coalescence of female forms in silvered bronze. As a memorial to someone who sought through her writing to liberate women from their ascribed identities and societal constrictions, it seemed, for many, to be inappropriate, and at odds with Wollstonecraft’s very ideals.
Wollstonecraft’s radical beliefs were forged by her own harsh upbringing. Although the family was once wealthy, a series of unsuccessful business ventures by Mary’s spendthrift and quixotic father meant that by the time of her birth at Spitalfields in 1759, they found themselves in straightened circumstances. As a child, Mary witnessed the routine humiliations of her mother, whose husband was blatantly unfaithful, and a violent drunk. Mary took on a maternal role within her household from an early age, and her penetrating insights into the injustices of patriarchy were born out of the bitter realisation that she and her sisters stood to inherit nothing of their father’s dwindling estate, their brother being the sole beneficiary. A “respectable union” was the only recourse for women of their class, but the disastrous marriage of one sister underlined to Mary the necessity of female self-reliance.
Wollstonecraft’s bold and unconventional choice of career as a writer began with the publication of her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters in 1787. The self-educated Wollstonecraft had been dismayed by her experiences of setting up a school for girls at Newington Green, and a brief, bleak appointment as a governess. Her “conduct book” appealed directly to the reason and duty of middle-class women. Wollstonecraft believed that girls were left ill-equipped for life’s inevitable hardships by the superficial educations afforded to them. She encouraged mothers to raise their daughters to think analytically, to be self-disciplined, honest, and content, and to develop marketable skills lest they should ever need to support themselves. Wollstonecraft’s concept of female duty was predicated upon reason. It was God-given reason, Wollstonecraft argued, that engenders the capacity to understand and shape experience, and universal education that would remedy society’s ills.
Through her employment as translator, reviewer, and editorial assistant for her publisher Joseph Johnson’s Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft met many leading radicals, reformers, and writers of the day. Her attendance at the Newington Green chapel of Rational Dissenter Richard Price, a prominent libertarian and republican, further exposed her to the extremes of Enlightenment thought. In November 1789, Price preached a sermon in praise of the French Revolution, arguing that British people, too, had the right to dethrone a bad king. Wollstonecraft was sympathetic to the democratic revolutions in America and France, placing them in the same tradition as England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 that had established the primacy of Parliament and abolished absolute monarchy. When Price was attacked by the influential Edmund Burke MP, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men. It proved sensational, not only in lambasting Burke, but in its attack on aristocracy and advocacy of republicanism.
Wollstonecraft believed that girls were left ill-equipped for life’s inevitable hardships by the superficial educations afforded to them. She encouraged mothers to raise their daughters to think analytically, to be self-disciplined, honest, and content, and to develop marketable skills lest they should ever need to support themselves.
In writing the pamphlet Wollstonecraft rose to fame and “discovered the subject that would preoccupy her for the rest of her career.” Two years later, in the well-received A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she developed her critique of the traditional social hierarchy. She argued that the distinctions of the public and private spheres should be dissolved, and that all educated citizens should be active civic participants. In a diagnosis of political miseducation, Wollstonecraft urged women to divest themselves of their ascribed identities. It was their duty, as wives and mothers, to lose the false sense of themselves as the weaker sex. The gilded status of women, she held, led to them being “exalted by their inferiority”, and impeded their agency. To Wollstonecraft, there were no inherently female attributes; the assigned female manners of sensibility, delicacy, and beauty all served to socialise women, and were essentially enslaving.
Implicitly advocated for in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman were the civil, property, marriage, and political rights that would be demanded by 19th and 20th century feminists. Wollstonecraft was more explicit in calling attention to the duties she saw as incumbent upon women, and the necessity for women to realise their own agency. As such, Wollstonecraft is regarded as a protofeminist, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is seen a foundational text of the feminist movement. She was an inspiration to radicals, chartists, socialists, and feminists. A renewed mainstream interest was taken in Wollstonecraft in the mid to late 19th century, when she became an icon of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In the 20th century she was admired greatly by Virginia Woolf, and her significance was reaffirmed by the Second-wave feminists of the 1960s.
Wollstonecraft’s reputation had been tarnished in the first instance by her continued support for the ongoing French Revolution but suffered further from events after her death. An intrepid Wollstonecraft departed for revolutionary Paris in 1792, when France was on the brink of regicide, war with Britain, and the Reign of Terror. She had already criticised the Paris revolutionaries publicly for their failure to extend to women the universal liberties granted by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, and she plunged into political activities with the moderate Girondins revolutionaries immediately. Secretly she chronicled the course of the revolution, sending smuggled chapters back to London for publication. Her 1794 An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution is one of her most neglected works. Although appalled by Robespierre’s Terror, and the imprisonment of close friends including Thomas Paine, Wollstonecraft never became entirely disenchanted with the revolution, like contemporary writers Hazlitt and Wordsworth. She defended the September Massacres as a necessary evil initially, and could not “give up the hope, that a fairer day is dawning on Europe.”
To Wollstonecraft, there were no inherently female attributes; the assigned female manners of sensibility, delicacy, and beauty all served to socialise women, and were essentially enslaving.
The publication in 1796 of her most acclaimed literary work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, saw Wollstonecraft’s reputation beyond radical circles rehabilitated temporarily. A deeply personal travel narrative that explored the relationships of self and society, reason and emotion, its aesthetic influenced the Romantic poets greatly, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge. The philosopher William Godwin fell in love with Wollstonecraft through the work, and their marriage brought her a short period of calm. In 1797, Wollstonecraft’s life was cut short at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her daughter, also named Mary, who would become the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. The posthumous publication by Godwin of his wife’s previously private, more radical works did irreparable damage to Wollstonecraft’s reputation. Society was scandalised by her open defence of sexual relations outside of marriage, and Wollstonecraft was demonised, her name discredited for a century.
A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, Maggi Hambling, 2020
Finally unveiled in November 2020, the culmination of a decade-long local fundraising campaign, Mary Wollstonecraft’s first public statue has been repeatedly vandalised since. Though said to represent womankind rather than Wollstonecraft herself, such a small naked figure seems to some an inadequate and disrespectful tribute to someone of such stature. A great issue of 2020, and perhaps something of a distraction from the greater goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, was the politics of memorialisation: how and through whom we should remember our shared history. Perhaps our greatest tribute to Wollstonecraft is not the erection of her statue, but the rehabilitation of her memory; the recognition that in her bold commitment to humane, universal values, Mary Wollstonecraft was far ahead of her time.
Aidan Kiernander is a historical biographer and independent researcher. More info at kiernander.com