Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 and died a mere 38 years later. In this short time and against unpleasant odds, she changed the world and the way we live in it. But how well is she known? Here’s what you may have heard: she was a ‘hyena in petticoats’, a ‘voluptuary’ and, yes, ‘Frankenstein’s grandmother’.
What’s less known is that she was a ground-breaking Enlightenment philosopher, educational pioneer and early champion of what we now call human rights. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was the first call in the English language for equality of the sexes, and is still considered a transformative manifesto. She was also an influential travel writer and the world’s first female war correspondent.
Why, then, is she not more famous? I’ve been asking this question for years, most recently via Mary on the Green, the campaign for a participatory memorial artwork and an educational trust, both promoting her legacy.
There are two reasons. One is the bronze ceiling: over nine out of ten of London’s figurative statues are of men, and most cities around the world fare no better. The public art around our everyday pavements tells a story. As of now, that story is that all the greatness was achieved by men, while womankind never looked up from her knitting. That story must be challenged.
Just as Alison Bechdel proposes a test that most fictional art fails (does it include two women having a conversation that isn’t about a man?) I ask one question of every city I visit: is there a statue here of a woman who’s wearing some clothes and isn’t a queen? This is about more than urban decoration. The subject of monuments and who gets to look down on us from a pedestal has, just this year, become a lightning rod all around the world: Charlottesville. Australia. Russia.
The second reason that there’s no significant memorial to Wollstonecraft anywhere is the annihilation of her reputation following her death in childbirth. Her well-meaning husband William Godwin wrote her first biography, and unfortunately it included some of what Virginia Woolf calls her ‘experiments in living’, that is, having a boyfriend. Foreshadowing today’s trolling of outspoken women, Wollstonecraft was subjected to a posthumous media assault so prolonged, so savage and complete, that it became seen as a warning.
The American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton later wrote of this obsession with women’s private lives that ‘we are crucifying our Wollstonecrafts’. Her legacy, even the mention of her name, was rendered toxic, and it took over a century to begin to recognise the originality and significance of her work. Among the first to do so was the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who acknowledged her as the leader in the battle for women’s votes.
Even so the whiff of scandal persisted. The word ‘passionate’ is regularly attached to her – not a word generally associated with male philosophers, however hot-headed. And a recent BBC documentary harumphed that her personal life ‘undermined’ her legacy.
This is why she’s not the well-known and celebrated role model that she deserves to be. But it’s time to address this and restore her to the canon of great thinkers. In attempting to do so I’ve argued that Wollstonecraft was the original suffragette, indeed the historian Mary Beard says that ‘every woman who wants to make an impact on the way this country is run – from the House of Commons to the pub quiz – has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank’.
But our debt to Wollstonecraft extends well beyond votes for women. While her focus is often women’s plight, it’s their capacity for reason that fuels her arguments. The shock revelation of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was that women, if educated alongside men, were every bit as capable of reason. Reason is the big equaliser. What’s under attack here is not only sexism but social exclusion. This theme runs throughout her work. Let’s not forget that her friends and mentors such as Richard Price, Thomas Paine and William Blake were neither landowners nor graduates; they too were disenfranchised.
Before Wollstonecraft and the Enlightenment, everybody knew his or her place in the ancient scheme of things. Afterwards, it was all up for grabs. This is explicit in her dazzling earlier work A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Here’s where Wollstonecraft’s ideas around justice germinate, and principal among them is reason. Reason is both the key to our humanity, and the basis of all her attacks on the establishment – from royalty to slavery. Our ‘god-given Reason’ is what sets humanity above the ‘brute creation’ and gives us the means to challenge the existing order; tackle it, recreate it.
It’s this insistence on reason that makes Wollstonecraft an urgent voice in contemporary politics. Now that we’re apparently in a post-truth age, frothed by emotive campaigns and increasingly alienating politics, we should be reading and listening to her more than ever. We owe ourselves a breath of fresh reason, we owe thanks to Wollstonecraft. But thanks to the nineteenth-century equivalent of a twitter mob most of us can’t even spell her, let alone thank her.
‘We have only to cultivate our Reason’, Wollstonecraft wrote. In doing so, we can tackle the very nature of what history is, and who gets to choose its heroes. Dr Amanda Foreman has called history that excludes women ‘an untruth that must be challenged’. Now is the time to undertake this challenge; to discover, explore and celebrate our unsung heroes. We must demand an end to the bronze ceiling. The absence of our mighty women is not a history of failure – it’s a failure of history.