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Mary Wollstonecraft 

 

August 2020 

The Dalai Lama says that the future belongs to women. But there are women from our past who continually shape our thinking, and deserve to be remembered today. One such woman is the author and activist Mary Wollstonecraft.

An Iconic Feminist

Mary WollstonecraftMany people know Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, who wrote the story at the tender age of 19 on the shores of Lake Geneva. It was a challenge issued amongst her travelling companions Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Byron’s physician Dr Polidore to create the most frightening story. Mary’s tale emerged victorious and her book became a precursor of the modern horror novel

Less well-known is the story of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley just over 200 years ago. Today, Wollstonecraft is a touchstone for activists who recognise her as an iconic proto-feminist who advocated votes for women one hundred years before the suffragettes, along with state funded education for girls and boys, diversity and human rights.

In Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) followed by A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) she calls for justice for one half of the human race. She questions the validity of marriage, since it benefited women neither the vote or financial independence. In 1792, she embarked on her own unconventional relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American merchant living in Paris. It is from here that she wrote her influential critiques on the French Revolution.

After Imlay’s desertion of Wollstonecraft and their daughter Fanny, she tried to end her life by throwing herself off a boat at Putney Bridge in October 1795. Luckily, her voluminous petticoats buoy her up as she floated two hundred yards downriver. She was fished from the murky waters by a waiter who saw her fall and carried to the Duke’s Head pub where she was resuscitated. 

In July 1796, she rented a house in Somers Town where she met the author and publisher William Godwin. Quickly becoming pregnant in 1797 with her second daughter Mary, the couple are married at St Pancras Old Church, a short step from their home in The Polygon, also briefly home to Charles Dickens and mentioned in his Pickwick Papers. 

Strange electrical storms plague the skies for eleven days and nights before the birth of Mary Shelley on 30th August 1797. Wollstonecraft would die of postpartum complications just days after delivering Mary. As a child Mary Shelley was told repeatedly about the storms, that they meant she was born under special auspicious. And, she utilises the power of storms in her novel to foreshadow the terrifying events unfolding in the life of Victor Frankenstein after he creates his monster.

Defying Her Critics

During her lifetime Mary Wollstonecraft was a teacher, a poet, a single mother, travelling widely to promote civil, political and human rights, and causing the Prime Minister of the day to dismiss her in a derogatory way. He was not alone and the following anonymous, inaccurate and unfair criticism does her no justice at all:

“Mary Wollstonecraft, a disgrace to modesty, an eminent instance of a perverted strong mind, the defender of the “Rights of Women” but an ill example to them soon terminated her life of error and her remains were laid in the cemetery of St Pancras amidst the believers of the papal creed. There is a monument placed over her remains, being a square pillar inscribed: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Born April 1759 died 10 September 1797. A willow tree was planted on each side of the pillar, but, like the character of Mary they do not flourish. Her unfortunate daughters were reared by their infamous father for prostitution - one was sold to the wicked poet Shelley, and the other to attend upon her and the former became Mrs Shelley.”  

Despite her critics, Mary Wollstonecraft is esteemed by groups such as The Wollstonecraft Fellowship (https://wollstonecraftfellowship.home.blog) and The Wollstonecraft Society (https://www.wollstonecraftsociety.org) based in Newington Green Meeting House, a Unitarian chapel where Wollstonecraft worshipped as a girl. The Meeting House has a reputation for being the home of radical thinking since 1708, and recently received substantial Heritage Lottery funding for its’ transformation into a community centre and exhibition space with the mission of uncovering the “Dissenters legacy at the birthplace of feminism.” In 2020, a successful campaign https://www.maryonthegreen.org raised around £143,000 to place a statue of Mary on Newington Green.  

Mary Wollstonecraft no longer rests in St Pancras Old Church Gardens, although a tombstone dedictaed to her is in the grounds. On the wishes of Mary Shelley, she is buried in a family tomb in St Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth with her husband, daughter, grandson and the heart of her son-in-law Percy Shelley.