Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Wolf, Germaine Greer… the names of these British feminist icons will ring a bell for most, and hopefully will hold a more significant resonance for many. But when you fire the name Mary Wollstonecraft at unsuspecting folk, it is often met with blank faces and murmurs of, ‘Sorry, who?’. An astonishing response to a woman who was such a significant pioneer of human rights, an educational champion and the ‘fore-mother’ of feminism.
Born in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was the kind of woman you’d want on your team. She was a revolutionary thinker during the Enlightenment era, giving up her governess job to become a writer; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest texts of feminist philosophy. She was shouting about equality from the very beginnings of feminism as we know it, pushing against the status quo of 18th-century society, reminding women that we deserve to be treated as equals and nothing less – one of her most well-known quotes is, ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’
To top it all off she was also a self-proclaimed proud Yorkshirewoman. In the same year that Laurence Sterne, the famous writer who lived and worked in Yorkshire, wrote A Sentimental Journey, and the great Yorkshire explorer James Cook set off on his first voyage to Australia and New Zealand, Wollstonecraft moved to Beverley in East Yorkshire, aged nine. She spent a significant part of her childhood and teenage years in God’s Own Country and, despite being under the care of her violent, alcoholic father during this time, Wollstonecraft remained proud of her connection to the county.
A fellow Yorkshirewoman particularly inspired by Wollstonecraft’s life story is journalist, writer and campaigner Bee Rowlatt. Having grown up in York, Bee dreamed of being a dancer, training at the notorious Isobel Dunn School of Dance in the city. But donning a white diamanté bra and thong for her first gig as a showgirl in the Canary Islands, 19-year-old Bee reflected that her career hadn’t taken off in quite the way she’d planned. It was when she later returned to study at university that Bee first discovered the inspirational Wollstonecraft.
‘Like many students, I read a bit about her – not A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but her travel writing, particularly Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This unusual travelogue received rave reviews – Coleridge actually quotes her writing in his own work,’ says Bee. ‘She writes this amazing travel epic whilst embarking on a bit of a treasure hunt – searching for her dodgy boyfriend’s missing cargo of silver, which he asks her to retrieve from Scandinavia. But that’s not even the best bit, the part that really sunk its hooks into my mind was the fact that she travelled with a little baby. I came back to Wollstonecraft’s writing as a working mum with small children, hanging onto my career by my fingernails and thought, “How did she do it in 1795?”, and it was at that point that I got pretty obsessed with her, and ended up retracing the journey she took along the coast of Norway with my youngest child, who was 10 months old at the time – the same age as Wollstonecraft’s baby. My book In Search of Mary follows this journey. It was an attempt to explore her legacy, but it was also an opportunity to measure myself against her experiences to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed in the intervening centuries.’
So have we made much progress over the last 219 years? ‘Wollstonecraft was a woman who took on every vested interest in her the time and made her mark in a way that still matters today,’ says Bee. ‘In some ways things have got better since she was campaigning, but in other ways they’ve got worse. If you look around at the way women in public life are treated when they speak up about something, you’ll see that what happened to Mary Wollstonecraft is still going on.’ After Wollstonecraft died, whilst giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) at the age of 38, her name was in the papers for all the wrong reasons. ‘The press decided to drag up her past and print her private life across the front pages, including details about having her first child out of wedlock and an attempted suicide,’ says Bee. ‘It’s one of the great tragedies; that something she fought for, giving women a voice in a time when they didn’t have one, was overshadowed by so much misogynistic abuse. This went on, not for months, but years, ruining her reputation. She was actively annihilated from history, and that’s why she’s not famous today. It was an early form of trolling, which still persists today.’
Bee’s decision to set off with her toddler, leave the rest of her family behind and follow an 18th-century travel guide to Norway was quite a drastic step, but she felt it was something she had to do. ‘We’re a generation that have grown up to believe we can do everything and have full agency in our lives. But suddenly when you have kids, you can feel that the world has shrunk a little bit and I wanted to challenge that idea. This woman who had done so much before me, so long ago, began to mean a lot to me during that period of my life,’ explains Bee. ‘The other trigger that made me pack my bags and set off was the fact that she was so little known. Most people have never heard of her, and those that have can’t even spell her name correctly. The more I found out how incredible she was, the more annoyed I got that she wasn’t more famous. So I wrote In Search of Mary partly out of outrage, and partly to draw more people towards Wollstonecraft’s story.’
Bee took on a mission to build Wollstonecraft’s legacy and memorialise her name. This took her all over the world, speaking about Wollstonecraft in Bangladesh, India and Moscow. But now she is looking to make a lasting impact back on home turf. ‘I’ve joined the campaign group Mary on the Green, which is aiming to produce a piece of memorial artwork for Wollstonecraft, as there is currently no significant memorial for her anywhere. This is really shocking, given that Wollstonecraft is part of the founding generation of our political and literary heritage,’ says Bee. ‘We’ve been campaigning for over a year and the fundraising has been slow and steady. But more recently we’ve received a lot of local support, as well as donations from people around the world who just love Mary Wollstonecraft. We’ve commissioned the incredible artist Maggi Hambling CBE to produce the memorial artwork in Newington Green in London and we are very close to reaching our final fundraising target.’
In Beverley, Wollstonecraft is also being remembered. Just last year, Professor Barbara English MBE of Beverley Civic Society pieced together two sections of a torn parish book to reveal the exact house where Wollstonecraft lived during her time in Yorkshire – 2 Highgate is the only building that is still standing which she would have called home. Almost all of its 18th century features have survived, and now a plaque has been unveiled on the front of the house to celebrate her life.
But the work doesn’t stop there. Bee has joined forces with friend, lawyer and advocate of all things Wollstonecraft, David Robinson, to establish a new outreach educational charity called The Wollstonecraft Society. ‘It’s all about promoting Wollstonecraft’s human rights legacy in schools. We hope to engage young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, with her life story by creating teaching materials and putting on school events,’ explains Bee. ‘This was what Wollstonecraft was all about – she believed in the power of education as a transformational force. We’re taking her human rights message about inclusivity and equality and hoping to inspire young people today.’
On Monday 30th September, Bee and David will also be putting on a play called An Amazon Stepped Out at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, as a fundraising event for The Wollstonecraft Society. ‘It’s in the proper West End of London,’ Bee enthuses. ‘I’ve co-written a lively dramatised account of Wollstonecraft’s life and legacy, and we’re going to have some amazing actors, live music, plenty of stardust and a special welcome from our patron Jude Kelly CBE, who was director of the West Yorkshire Play House – I’m so excited.’
When asked what she has learnt from uncovering Wollstonecraft’s life, Bee pauses; ‘Above all, Mary Wollstonecraft was courageous. She was a ground-breaking genius, but if she hadn’t had the guts to stand up for herself and other people, we wouldn’t know about her pioneering work. I have to remind myself of that – to be brave. She also had an unquenchable optimism, described by herself as her “ardent affection for the human race”. I always find that quite moving because the human race never really loved her back. She had to fight to survive all her life, and yet her writing shows she was constantly optimistic and never gave up on her faith in humanity.’
Bee leaves us with some parting words of advice for young women stepping out into the world today; ‘It is other women who will pull you through. Don’t put your entire heart and soul into a (most likely temporary) boyfriend, because it’s your network of female friends that you will need when you encounter any shifts or difficulties in life.’