Mary Wollstonecraft: Speaking Up For Her Sex

4th Jun 2013

Mary Wollstonecraft
When Claire Tomalin finishes talking, a lecturer on women's studies in the audience stands up and thanks her for being the one to bring Mary Wollstonecraft out of the dark, and thus influence so much of the feminism which has followed since.

I want to stand up with her and applaud, brushing away an enlightened tear.

Tomalin published The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1974. It was her first book, and won her the Whitbread prize.

“I called it Life and Death,” she says, “because it seemed to me there was a story to be told about what happened after her death as well as during her life.”

In this lecture, as part of the London Literature Festival, she paints a rich portrait of Wollstonecraft’s life: born into a respectable but increasingly poor family to an abused mother and a father who was doing the abusing, young Mary read voraciously and, defying the social expectations of the time, worked.

She eventually set up her own school, before traveling to France to experience the revolution and falling in love with Gilbert Imlay, a terrible cad who played fast and loose with her feelings before he left her with an illegitimate child, heartbroken and suicidal.

Upon her return to England, she was taken under the wing of Joseph Johnson, a Liverpudlian publisher who introduced her to William Blake, William Cooper, Tom Payne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and her future husband, William Godwin.

Johnson, “the hero of her life, and my hero too” according to Tomalin, encouraged her to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and it made her name, causing a storm across Britan and Europe. The concepts in it predated feminism by over a century: the right to equal education, entry to the professions, representation in parliament.

But despite this, after her death of puerperal fever in 1797, just days after giving birth to  Mary Shelley, she became persona non grata. The knowledge of her premarital love affairs with Harry Fuseli and Imlay, and Imlay’s illegitimate child Fanny gave her critics fuel to label her as dangerous.

She became a “bogeyman”, says Tomalin, blamed for corrupting young women. Clergymen welcomed her death as her just desserts and Tories (surprise surprise) labelled her a prostitute.

By the 1970s, she was so forgotten that Tomalin, at the women’s college Newnham, Cambridge, had never heard of her until finding a small booklet of her “wonderful, refreshing” letters and writing a piece on them for the New Statesmen.

The piece was received with so much interest that she was inspired to set about writing Wollstonecraft’s biography. She had to seek high and low for her complete publications, and spent years in dusty archives piecing together the life of a woman she, as a young mother of four, obviously strongly identified with. She was someone as “comfortable talking about child care as politics”, she says.

She did a sterling job, even managing to uncover Fanny Imlay’s birth certificate, long assumed lost. “That was the most moving moment of all,” she says, her voice almost breaking. “This package arrived. No-one had asked for [the certificate] for 180 years but here she was, this little baby of Mary’s”.

She crossly draws a parallel between Wollstonecraft and her contemporary Wordsworth, who behaved similarly in France but whose reputation was preserved thanks to his family’s (and his) success in hiding his child and abandoned lover.

“[Mary] was a victim of her own openness, but her openness was an essential part of her greatness,” Tomalin says passionately. “She was always open about herself, she always did the brave thing, the courageous thing.”

She ends with a passionate plea to keep on remembering Wollstonecraft, to not let her be forgotten again. “I’d like to see her face on banknotes, on stamps, everywhere,” she says, to lots of nods and yeses of agreement from the crowd.

So would I. And brilliantly we can try and achieve that in the way Mary would: by publicly declaring it. There’s currently a campaign going to get the Bank of England to keep a woman on our bank notes, before they chuck Elizabeth Fry off the fiver in favour of a eugenicist. Wollstonecraft is one of the candidates. You can sign the petition here.

Rebecca Winson


  • Jenny Tipping says:

    Incidentally, she’s buried in the graveyard of St Peters Church in Bournemouth, along with her daughter Mary Shelley. I frequently walk past the grave if I go shopping in town and always say a little thank you to her!