Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, important philosopher and powerful advocate of women's rights. Indeed she has had a critical influence on our lives today: any woman who has the vote, and can read and write, has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank. Born on 27th April 1759 in Spittalfields, London, she dedicated herself to a life of writing and the educational and social equality for women. As a result of her campaigns for social justice, she was attacked and her reputation was slandered and scandalised during her time.
"I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves."
Mary was born into a family sliding down the social scale. She received very little schooling at a time when formal education was only available to the wealthy. Her abusive and violent father traumatised Wollstonecraft and made her acutely aware of injustices faced by women and children, in many ways fuelling her early fires.
She left home early and started off working as a governess, experiences that inspired her views in 'The Thoughts on Education of Daughters' (1787). She then began to work as a translator for Joseph Johnson in 1788,a publisher of radical texts, and during her time there published her most famous work, 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' in 1792 - which is considered to be a classic feminist text worldwide. Her work called for women and men to be educated equally, advocating that girls and boys be educated together at state expense, as well as fighting for women to have a voice in parliament. This was 100 years before the Suffragettes.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote extensively on the significance of education and learning. At 25, she established a girls’ boarding school in Newington Green London and within sight of the City of London. This allowed her to rent a house in a community where she mixed with the intellectual radicals of the day. She debated with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and John and Abigail Adams (the second President and First Lady of the US). They were all drawn to Newington Green by Dr Richard Price, Minister at the local Unitarian Church.
Newington Green is where Mary Wollstonecraft began her writing career, starting with reviews, translations and books for children, before writing her internationally-acclaimed work on what we now call human rights. Her travel writing was also a direct influence on the early Romantic writers.
She had two significant relationships. The first was with American adventurer and spy Captain Gilbert Imlay, whose infidelity drove her twice to attempt suicide. She bore her daughter,Fanny, in the Spring of 1794 while living in France under the Terror. The second was with anarchist and atheist William Godwin. The couple married at St Pancras Old Church a few months before she gave birth to her second daughter; Wollstonecraft died unexpectedly of complications a ten days later. The baby grew up to become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
"No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks."
The unveiling of a statue of Mary Wollsteoncrady by one of Britain's most important, and sometimes controversial artists, Maggi Hambling CBE, follows a summer of debate about public sculpture and which historical figures deserve commemoration. Given more than 90% of public sculptures in London commemorate men, the case for more women is obvious.
Writer, Bee Rowlatt, said Wollstonecraft felt particularly timely. “To have finally a public work of art that celebrates human rights … it is a very public statement at a time of increasing societal division.” Rowlatt said there was a time-honoured tradition of art by women attracting more criticism than men. “I think Maggi stands the test of time. People do catch up in the end.”
This follows 10 years of trying to raise the £143,000 required to achieve it. “We’re volunteers doing it in our spare time … It has been a community effort” said writer Bee Rowlatt. The campaign was launched in 2010 by volunteers keen to have Wollstonecraft’s legacy remembered close to where she lived and worked and set up a girl’s boarding school in Newington Green.
Rowlatt recalled a decade ago becoming “fixated” on why Wollstonecraft wasn’t better known and what could be done to make her place in the canon more secure.
“People haven’t heard of Mary Wollstonecraft and when you discover more about her, that is actually quite astonishing.”
Wollstonecraft's reputation was “annihilated” by misogony says Bree. "Her enemies took aspects of her life and turned them against her … so the fact that she had a child out of wedlock, that she tried to take her own life. They used this to completely smear her reputation to the point where she basically vanished for the best part of a century."
“It was a sustained misogynist attack that went on not just for months, but years … poems were circulated about her, she was lampooned in the press. It got to the point where no-one wanted to defend her legacy.” The suffragist Millicent Fawcett helped restore Wollstonecraft’s reputation, a century after her death in 1797 aged just 38, shortly after giving birth to her daughter Mary.
The statue is a project ten years in the making – but centuries overdue. Wollstonecraft was one of the most defiant and intelligent voices in the period of our nation’s history which is often termed the Enlightenment (1715 – 1789). The arguments she advanced for women’s equality feel familiar today, but they were radical in her age. Wollstonecraft paid a high personal cost for making her voice heard. Vilified in society as an adulteress and for conceiving a child out of wedlock, her unorthodoxy was condemned by the very society she worked to improve. But her political writings are extraordinary documents, including letters in close dialogue with the leading thinkers and events of the day.
"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."