Monday, April 4, 2011

A lady of leisure muses

After hearing from a French philosopher and a Japanese historian on how their personal and professional lives have been touched by Mary Wollstonecraft, I thought it was only fair, dear reader, that you get to hear a little about the person who set up this blog, namely me.

My name is Roberta Wedge and I was born in London. There the similarities end, thank goodness: I didn't have to sleep across a doorway to prevent my drunken father from beating my doormat mother, pregnant with a litter-full of babies. We did move around a lot, though, economic migrants as most migrants are, reaching for a better life. Eventually we settled in Montreal. Not only were there were shelves of books in the household, but we lived a child-sized walk from one of the best libraries in the country. Looking back, I can see plenty of gently feminist literary role models, of the "girls can do anything" variety. (As opposed to the "girls used to be legally and socially prevented from doing pretty much anything interesting or significant" variety.)  I read voraciously throughout my adolescence: high brow and low brow, Enid Blyton trash and adult encyclopedias. Garage sales yielded an endless supply of 1970s paperbacks for a nickel each, the paper already acidifying: The Female Eunuch, Fear of Flying (aka The Zipless Fuck), Jaws, The Population Bomb, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...

I wish I had come across Mary Wollstonecraft in high school. I attended a single-sex school -- common in the United Kingdom but exceedingly rare in North America. It meant we girls got unimpeded access to the bunsen burners and the teachers' attention, which is great, but as far as I can recall there was no effort whatsoever to bring remarkable women into our studies. We got the Great Men of history and literature, and precious few women at all. I view it as a lost opportunity, if not miseducation. Indeed, after that I took my education even more into my own hands, and spent a couple of years travelling and working and reading. When I started university I was ready for a typically broad liberal arts curriculum, taking courses in not only history and literature, but philosophy and linguistics and social sciences. Eventually this coalesced around women's studies. I didn't restrict my reading to the curriculum.

Certainly I was aware of our heroine by the time I was 21, as my bachelor uncle will attest. I was working my way around England, reconnnecting to my roots, and when I arrived on his doorstep he had the bright idea of taking me to see her grave, the second one. I checked this out with him recently, and he said absolutely I knew back then who she was, and I had the wrong shoes on. Make of that what you will.

Some years later, life and work brought me to London, city of my birth, and I ended up frequently passing by her gravestone (the first one). I read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman all the way through, having previously dabbled in extracts. I looked for her other work. I read a couple of the full-length biographies, instead of satisfying myself with those in the introductions to various editions of her works.

Just over two years ago, on a sort of New Year's self-dare, I walked into a church. I had been telling myself that religion was a socially sanctioned cover for bigotry, but I knew that that was a stereotype I needed to challenge. And here was this place literally on my way to the farmers' market, and with a rainbow flag on its notice board I went through the doors of New Unity. Imagine my surprise to find, not only a service unlike what I'd expected (no smitings or hellfire or Jesus or Christianity even), but, in the notices afterwards, evidence of Mary-worship. I checked it out later, with Google's help, and it turned out that this was the only group of people in the entire world putting on a programme of events to celebrate Mary Wollstonecraft's 250th anniversary in April 2009. (There were two academic colloquia, one in the West Country and one in Scandinavia, but those are dry and inward-looking affairs, and a couple of groups offering a single activity, such as a psychogeographic walk to her London grave.) New Unity was putting on an art exhibition, a concert, a lecture by biographer Barbara Taylor, a debate between three female MPs and MEPs, services in the church and at her grave, a birthday cake, and (a lovely touch) a man-made lunch for the congregation of all genders, with man-done washing up.

The banner outside the church said "Birthplace of feminism": I was hooked. I started doing publicity on social media for these events, starting with Twitter: I'm @1759MaryWol1797 . I also started educating myself about the Unitarians in general, and Newington Green Unitarian Church in particular. It was that community, in what is now north London, that radicalised her, and now forms half of New Unity. Her pew, by legend number 19, can still be sat in, and often I do!

Through those events, it came to me very clearly that her story needs to be told -- and her insights need to be studied -- by a far wider group than now knows of her or them. I began to concoct ideas, and to read everything I could get my hands on....

Through the church, I was asked to serve on the group campaigning to create a statue to Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green. We needed a snappier name: Mary on the Green. I've done a fair amount of work on that project.

I've also been approached from other angles too, and took Mary to an IGNITE event last autumn -- her life in five minutes, in front of a crowd of hipsters with alcohol in their hands (and bloodstreams).

I started this blog to bring Mary enthusiasts, and Wollstonecraft scholars, together. I have so many ideas, and wanted a place to share them.

Tomorrow: Modern philosophers engage
Next in the series of Mary and me: An American novelist and poet muses


  1. Very nice to read your story. It always fascinates me how MW came into our lives. Your uncle seems very cool, too!
    About Unitarians, there are many Unitarian Universalist churches in my area (I attended a folk concert in one a few weeks ago). I have never attended service, but I have respected and admired by their level of acceptance and tolerance.

  2. Thanks, Vertigo. Yes, one of the future posts will no doubt be about that subject (although her friends had not yet embraced the name "Unitarian": they were known as Rational Dissenters). I have a series of essays in mind -- Mary and the Dissenters, Mary and breast-feeding, Mary and travel...