I wish I had come across Mary Wollstonecraft in secondary 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 Bournemouth 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.
In January 2009, on a sort of New Year's resolution 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 of in-yer-face tolerance on its notice board outside...so I pushed open 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 that year. (There were a couple of academic colloquia, one in York and one in Scandinavia, I believe, 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, but, I repeat, this little bunch of Unitarians was the only group in the world to have found the anniversary worth commemorating with a generous public programme.) 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: I'm @1759MaryWol1797 on Twitter . 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 Mary Wollstonecraft; a couple of centuries later it became 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....
I hope you enjoy what I've discovered. And please -- leave comments, or email me.
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