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Bee Rowlatt: Wollstonecraft, the feminist hero on our doorstep

OPINION: Bee Rowlatt explains why author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman remains an enduring inspiration

19 November, 2021 — By Bee Rowlatt

Students from LSU perform in the New Unity chapel where Wollstonecraft herself used to worship 

JUST behind the British Library and away from the traffic and corporate towers around King’s Cross is a neighbourhood with a distinguished radical history: Somers Town.

This is where the Enlightenment hero and foremother of feminism Mary Wollstonecraft lived her best times.

Wollstonecraft was already internationally established and well-travelled, but it was in Somers Town that she enjoyed what Virginia Woolf called her “experiments in living,” in a partnership of equals with the anarchist philosopher William Godwin.

This was an exceptional period of calm in a short life marked by torrents of misery. And it wasn’t to last.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Bee Rowlatt

Wollstonecraft was a self-made genius who never lost the autodidact’s chippy shoulder. She came from a background of violence and alcoholism.

Although her family didn’t believe in educating girls, they didn’t seem to mind living off her earnings once she educated herself.

Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was the earliest call for gender equality in the English language.

Wollstonecraft’s writing centred around the still-emerging idea of universal human rights.

She was emphatic that “god-given Reason” was what made us human: we can all think and learn therefore we must all think and learn.

Hence her tireless volleys against unequal access to education, against injustice, against inequality wherever she found it.

Wollstonecraft lived in open defiance of the expectations of the world: she travelled solo, fell into the ‘wrong’ kinds of love, and had a child out of wedlock. And she was just as fearless in her political targets.

As an upstart woman from the back of nowhere, she attacked inherited privilege of every kind.

She certainly wasn’t looking to make friends, and following her early death (giving birth to Mary Shelley) this came home to roost.

The grief-stricken Godwin wrote an account of her life that unwittingly caused its erasure.

His revelation of her love lives and mental health battles sparked years of trolling.

Historian Eileen Hunt shows in her richly detailed work Portraits of Wollstonecraft that “Wollstonecraft’s reputation faced a turning point in 1798. Godwin’s Memoirs would strongly inform her international reception for the next century.”

But it’s not all gloom. Wollstonecraft was a tireless optimist, thanks to what she called her “ardent affection for the human race.” She loved humans; she just wanted them to do better.

This was not a self-motivated impulse and she never made it about herself.

Indeed she argued that there would be no need of heroism if society were “more reasonably organised”.

This chimes with her dismissal of charity as a way for rich people to show off: “it is Justice not charity that is wanting in the world.”

This sense of the collective rather than the individual is why Maggi Hambling’s memorial Sculpture for Wollstonecraft is appropriate.

It elevates an idea, rather than the traditional hero on a pedestal. It was unveiled last year, and, in an echo of Wollstonecraft’s own trolling, became the most attacked artwork in living memory.

The sculpture suggests a rising wave of female forms, culminating in the figure of a defiant woman standing free.

But sadly the image was cropped, and on social media all people saw was tits and pubes.

Naturally they went berserk, which generated hostile headlines all around the world. (After which my mum said – well you did want everyone to know who Mary Wollstonecraft was. And they certainly did!)

Since then the Wollstonecraft Society has been busy helping more young people to discover Wollstonecraft, her astonishing life and her huge legacy.

It has funded an arts prize for school children inspired by her writing; distributed the first comic book based on her life, and taken a talented drama group from La Sainte Union school to perform in the New Unity chapel where Wollstonecraft herself used to worship.

Maggi Hambling’s sculpture

After their performance the group paid tribute by visiting Hambling’s sculpture.

Year 12 student Kezia Adewale said the trip was part of her A-level coursework, adding: “It’s so important to remember great women and their achievements because they paved the way! It matters for all of us, for everyday people and even for people like Malala.”

When you see world leaders insulting young activists like Greta Thunberg it’s clear that women still have to fight to be heard.

The story of Mary Wollstonecraft is a rollercoaster ride, but the most exciting part is her ongoing influence.

In Kezia’s words: “Mary Wollstonecraft is someone you can learn about and when you think about her life it makes you feel better.

“I get inspiration and think – I want to be like that in the future. They are proof of what you can do.”

• Bee Rowlatt works at the British Library. Her book In Search of Mary is inspired by Wollstonecraft travels. She led the memorial campaign Mary on the Green and is chair of the Wollstonecraft Society

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