An overlooked hero – Wollstonecraft in Swindon Festival of Literature

18 May

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As with many notable historic women, Mary Wollstonecraft is an overlooked hero.

Sandrine Berges, a French professor flown from her home in Turkey for the Swindon Festival of Literature, has a mission to raise Wollstonecraft’s profile.

Wollstonecraft was a British writer and philosopher who wrote what is probably the first feminist tract.

“Wollstonecraft would have been shocked at how slowly things have moved for women today,” said Sandrine, arguing that Wollstonecraft’s values have still not been fully realised.

The eighteenth century writer and philosopher lived a pretty racy life for a women in that age. She did not deliberately set out to provoke society – she came from a respectable family abeit with issues – she simply wanted the freedom to live the life she wanted to lead. She had two lovers, fell pregnant, fell in love with another man and fell pregnant again. She married the father of her second child but lived apart from him so they could both maintain their independence. They shared childcare of the first child. Sadly for her and for early feminism, she died days after the birth of her second child.

During her childhood she lost her maturity inheritance to her drunken father and so was compelled to find work. After realising that a career as a governess wasn’t for her she made the bold decision to earn a living from writing, with less financial insecurity than it has today. Fortunately for women everywhere, she had supportive friends, some of whom were also successful publishers.

In her book,  A Vindication on the Rights of Women (1792), her most influential work, she laid out why it was crucial for women to be educated alongside and equal to men. At that time, women’s education was all about domesticity, how to faint at a mouse, to cry at a beautiful flower and fall in love when required. Wollstonecraft said that, instead, women needed to both emotionally and physically strong, and for that they needed to be trained how to reason (as men were) and to be fit and active.

But she was not a corset-burning philosopher. She criticised the practice of the time of wet-nursing and sending children away to school, and said that babies and children should be fed and raised by their mothers and fathers. But conversely she said that women should also have the option not to have children, and to follow a career if that’s what they wanted.

It would have been interesting to see what she made of bottle feeding, nurseries, maternity leave and current education – where, in the UK, girls perform better than boys (for the last 20 years) but are still lagging behind in politics and board rooms.

We should be shouting her from the rooftops as a Brit to be proud of worldwide. And every women should be exercising their right to vote on 22 May, as a fitting memorial to her work.

Join the campaign to erect a memorial statue in her honour and as a reminder that women’s rights still have some way to go:

This event was in association with the Swindon Philosophy Society. Sandrine Berges, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Bilkent University, is the author of ‘Mothers and Independent Citizens’ and ‘Guidebook to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ and was the guest judge on the event which followed, Think Slam!.
Words by Louisa Davison.

2 Responses to “An overlooked hero – Wollstonecraft in Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. To be or not to be? Do it. Do it! Think Slam at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 20th May 2014

    […] Sandrine Berges’s interesting talk on unsung hero Mary Wollstonecraft, it was time for the Think Slam to […]

  2. Jenny Uglow on Victorian pioneer Sarah Losh, Marlborough Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 27th Sep 2014

    […] If you are interested in more pioneering women, read here about Mary Wollstonecraft. […]

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