Arts, Culture & Media

Why Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th century feminist rock star

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

Her best-known work was published in 1792. Her daughter created Frankenstein. And today, there's a new move to honor philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

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“Virtue,'' she once wrote, "can only flourish amongst equals.”

In her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she argued that women should have access to the same educational opportunities as men. 

“Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of feminism in the English language,” explains author and journalist Bee Rowlett, who is campaigning for a statue to honor Wollstonecraft. “She was the first person to write about women’s rights and equality.”

But Wollstonecraft’s personal story had all the drama of a Jane Austen novel. She had love affairs with married men, had a child out of wedlock, attempted suicide twice.

“The problem is that she had what people would call a colorful personal life, which now, really nothing even remotely close to Lindsay Lohan,” says Rowlatt. “But in the day, it effectively rendered her toxic. She was described as a hyena in petticoats.”

Wollstonecraft eventually married William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism. In 1797, she gave birth to their daughter Mary (who would write Frankenstein and marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.) Ten days later, due to complications of childbirth, Wollstonecraft died.

“It wasn’t until the suffragette movement over a century later that people began to recalibrate the huge influence that she’d and how far ahead of her time she was,” Rowlatt says.

The Mary on the Green campaign is calling for a memorial sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft. “She’s a remarkable woman. She’s an 18th century rock star. The more you find out about her, the more exciting she is. I just think she’s amazing.”

The memorial would be in Stoke Newington in North London — near the site of a school for girls Wollstonecraft opened in 1784.

"I do not wish them to have power over men,'' she once said of women, "but over themselves."