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The original suffragette: the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft

Her argument – outrageous at the time – was that women were capable of reason, and deserved to have that recognised. Now it’s our turn to recognise her contribution to women’s rights.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)

Meet the original suffragette: Mary Wollstonecraft. The founder of feminism, a philosopher, travel writer, human rights activist, she was a profound influence on the Romantics, and an educational pioneer. In Virginia Woolf’s words, “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” This may be true, but it’s not as true as I’d like. The writer of Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) sank into relative obscurity after her death, aged 38. Why?

Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 into a picturesquely bleak family. She had a violent alcoholic father, and a weak, unsympathetic mother. Despite her inauspicious beginnings, she dragged herself upwards, eventually becoming a self-supporting bestselling international human-rights celebrity. The self-supporting bit is key – for her, independence was “the grand blessing of life”.

She argued, apparently outrageously, that women were capable of reason – all they lacked was education. An early role model, she translated and reviewed essays on natural history, and she was speaking the language of human rights before the term existed. She didn’t exclude men, or indeed anyone. Perhaps her most quotable maxim is “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.”

Wollstonecraft saw marriage as slavery and had her first child out of wedlock. When she set off on a mysterious mission, chasing a Norwegian captain along the treacherous shores of the Skagerrak, she took her baby with her. And knocked off a bestseller along the way. Has there been another treasure-hunting single mum philosopher on the high seas?

But Wollstonecraft died not one, but two deaths. First in childbirth, bringing the author Mary Shelley into the world – the agonising post-partum infection took 10 days to finish her off. She left behind two daughters and a devastated husband, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin.

Godwin, still grieving, wrote her first biography. And in doing so, he unwittingly brought about Wollstonecraft’s second death: her reputation was killed in the scandal following the revelation of her unconventional life and loves. Overnight she became toxic. The shockwaves were massive, and lasting. Wollstonecraft’s enemies couldn’t contain their glee: here was proof irrefutable that she was a whore, a “hyena in petticoats” as Horace Walpole described her.

Scurrilous poems did the rounds, including an exceptionally unpleasant piece of work called The Un-sex’d Females. This was poetry functioning as an 18th-century Twitter: mocking Wollstonecraft as a “poor maniac” a “voluptuous” victim of “licentious love.” The author also crowed that “she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable.” In that oldest of misogynistic chestnuts: she was asking for it. She was a trouble-maker, and she died a woman’s death. Take note, ladies!

Even Wollstonecraft’s friends and allies stepped back; silenced, shaking their heads. Wollstonecraft’s legacy was trashed for well over a century and even today, despite a number of outstanding modern biographies, there’s still no significant memorial to her anywhere.

Mary on the Green is the campaign for a statue of Wollstonecraft in the north London area of Stoke Newington, where she lived, worked, and founded a school. The historian Mary Beard wrote in support that “every woman who wants to make a difference to how this country is run, from the House of Commons to the pub quiz, has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank”.

This article was previously published in The Guardian

Bee Rowlatt is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and has reported for the World Service, Newsnight and BBC2. The co-author of the best-selling Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad as well as one of the writers featured in Virago’s 2013 anthology Fifty Shades of Feminism, she won the K. Blundell Trust award for In Search of Mary.

Bee’s talk at Chalke Valley History Festival 2018, entitled. ‘Equality For Women: From Mary Wollstonecraft To The Suffragettes And Beyond is on Wednesday 27th June. Tickets are available here.

The Battle to Include Women

From Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Myrlie Evers to Title IX, the long struggle to ensure that half of humanity is not kept down and out.

ElizabethCadyStanton PHOTO:UNIVERSALHISTORYARCHIVE/UIG/GETTYIMAGES)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton PHOTO:UNIVERSALHISTORYARCHIVE/ UIG/GETTYIMAGES)

Since its staid beginnings in 1971 as an annual management symposium at a Swiss ski resort, the World Economic Forum in Davos has grown into the premier talking shop for the global financial elite. Unsurprisingly, given the opportunities it offers for smug pronouncements and ostentatious parties, Davos (as it is known) has attracted—and earned—some trenchant criticism. The late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington coined the term “Davos Man” to pin and puncture a kind of obnoxious alpha male who flits from one international meeting to the next in self-serving pursuit of wealth and power.

But Huntington’s Davos Man highlights another issue about the forum: It was (and is) overwhelmingly male. This year, some 19% of the 2,500 delegates were women, according to the forum—a number that has barely changed since a (widely ignored) quota system meant to involve more women was imposed by the event’s corporate sponsors in 2011. (Saadia Zahidi, who heads the forum’s gender-parity initiative, said that the gender ratio in Davos reflects “global leadership as a whole” and that the forum is working to increase women’s participation.)

Behind some of the most famous public gatherings in history lie arguments and controversies about whether to include women. One particularly egregious example was the first World Anti-Slavery Convention, which met in London in 1840. Women on both sides of the Atlantic had been campaigning to abolish slavery since the 18th century. Nevertheless, the 350 male delegates were divided over whether to allow seven American women to participate. One faction, led by William Lloyd Garrison ’s supporters, favored their inclusion; friends and colleagues of the New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan vehemently opposed it. The latter won, and the women were forced to watch from the gallery.

Half a century later, women faced similar discrimination when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in April 1896. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, refused to include women. It would be
“impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect,” he claimed. Four years later, when the summer games were held in Paris, the Olympic committee ignored his objections, and 22 women were allowed to compete alongside the 997 male athletes (although only in five sports: sailing, equestrian, tennis, croquet and golf). At the 2012 London games, some 44% of the athletes were women.

One notable irony relates to the U.S. civil rights movement. The only woman listed as an official speaker on the program for the famous 1963 March on Washington was Myrlie Evers, widow of the murdered Medgar Evers ; she got stuck in traffic. Leading female activists—including Rosa Parks —were not allowed to accompany the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. down Constitution Avenue but were sidelined to walk alongside the wives of male activists. After the women protested, organizers added a short tribute to their work. No women were among the delegation that met with President John F. Kennedy.

But in the long run, these slights only deepened women’s determination. Furious over their exclusion from the 1840 conference against slavery, the activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott went on to hold the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, marking the start of a 72-year fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S. Similarly, frustration among women’s rights activists in the early 1960s led to the rise of second-wave feminism, from the founding of the National Organization of Women in 1966 to the passage of Title IX and Title X in the 1970s to guarantee educational and employment equality.

Davos Man still rules today, but history is against him. One day, he will be joined by Davos Woman—and she will, we hope, be as unlike him as possible.

“The Battle to Include Women” by Amanda Foreman, originally published as a “Historically Speaking” column in the January 24, 2015 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Copyright © 2015 Amanda Foreman, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.


Foreman, AmandaAmanda Foreman is the award-winning historian and internationally best-selling author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire. She won the 1998 Whitbread Award for Biography. In addition to her writing and lecturing, she has served as a judge on almost every major literary prize on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. She is currently a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her latest book is The World Made by Women with a BBC documentary this spring.

Amanda will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Sunday, 28 June with a talk entitled ‘The World Made by Women: A History of Womankind’