I initially questioned my nomination of Madame Wollstonecraft for the lofty honours of Hussy’s Page 3. The ex-History student in me wanted to acknowledge the work of our feminist forebears from times gone by, those who toiled away at the coalface of equal rights so that the rest of us had a little more breathing space in our trudging march towards equality.
But part of me wondered, is ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ just the stock name that springs to mind in response to a challenge to ‘think-of-a-historical-feminist’? I wracked my brains a little more deeply, flicked through a couple of old ‘Introduction to Political Theory’ folders, consulted my trusty friend Google.
And I realised that part of the reason why Mary Wollstonecraft stood out like a beacon was simply the dearth of feminist thinkers and philosophers prior to 1900, at least those that were known outside the radical intellectual circles of the day and the offices of university gender studies departments today. This impressed upon me just how much of a trailblazer Wollstonecraft was.
We often take for granted today that we are academically equal to men in every way, and that our thoughts and writings will be taken seriously; even that we will possess the level of education that will enable us to set out arguments for female equality clearly and logically and respond forcefully to opposing philosophies.
In stark contrast, Wollstonecraft was not offered the educational opportunities we take for granted today, but she did not let awareness of the gaps in her instruction relative to her male counterparts cow her. Instead, she railed powerfully against such injustice in her early work, ‘Thoughts on the education of daughters’ (1787). In her short life (a mere 38 years) Wollstonecraft published a formidable canon of works, covering not only women’s rights but historical analysis and travel accounts.
Her publications included the seminal ‘A vindication of the rights of women’ (1792), a work that took inspiration from the heady egalitarianism of ideas swirling around the foment of the French Revolution and applied them to the situation and prospects of women. While writing before the term ‘feminism’ had even been coined and by no means immediately recognisable as a straightforward feminist tract by the standards of today, ‘A vindication’ was unarguably revolutionary for its time, in its argument that women were the moral equals of men deserving of a thorough and rational education. Indeed, aspects of her thought remain relevant today. She describes the enervating effects of the emphasis on women’s outward appearance, with women ‘taught from their 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’. As if anything rings more true today in our world of airbrushing and size zero, glamour models and cosmetic surgery.
Wollstonecraft’s work on equality did not finish there but continued to develop throughout her (admittedly short) lifetime; her perhaps most strikingly feminist work is a later novel, ‘Maria’ (1798), a follow-up to ‘A vindication’ engaging the formidable tool of fiction.
Yet Wollstonecraft is not only inspirational for her philosophising; she lived her vision of women’s place in the world and in return was reviled and scorned by her contemporaries. For a woman of her time to support herself by writing pieces questioning established gender relations, to travel independently to France in the time of the revolution and later across Europe to Scandinavia, to engage in sexual and romantic affairs while unmarried (even giving birth to an illegitimate daughter) took a level of personal bravery and courage of convictions that I admire wholeheartedly even as I baulk at some of the more foolhardy decisions.
How many of us, even in today’s supposedly liberated age, can say that we have followed our own courses with scant regard to the pressures and mores placed on us as women: the educational and career paths we should follow, the relationships we should be seeking, the unquestionable future children we should remain ever-mindful of? I know I can’t. And that is why, apart from her wonderful writing - and it really is a joy to read - Mary Wollstonecraft remains an inspiration for every woman regardless of time or place to feel her worth as an equal to men and to strike her own course.