My history hero: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Comedian, writer and actress Jo Brand chooses Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) as her history hero

A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft.

This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Mary Wollstonecraft was a London-born philosopher and early advocate of women’s rights. She is best known for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men. Wollstonecraft had an unconventional private life before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died 12 days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who found fame as the author of the novel Frankenstein (1818).

This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Mary Wollstonecraft was a London-born philosopher and early advocate of women’s rights. She is best known for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men. Wollstonecraft had an unconventional private life before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died 12 days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who found fame as the author of the novel Frankenstein (1818).

When did you first hear about Mary Wollstonecraft?

As a teenager I was very interested in the romantic poets. That led me to Mary Shelley – who wrote Frankenstein and was of course married to Percy Shelley – and in due course to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who is now rightly regarded as a much more significant historical figure.

What kind of person was Wollstonecraft?

She was very bright and therefore,I think, incredibly frustrated by her lot in life. In those days, unless you came from a wealthy family you didn’t really have many opportunities as a woman. Pretty much all that was on offer was being a servant if you were a bit thick, or being a ladies’ maid or a children’s teacher if you were clever.

She had a violent father, and that helped shape her thinking too: she saw how powerless women were, and how all-too often they moved from having a horrible father to a horrible husband. Her personal life was a bit outrageous for the time – but I think that too was a reaction to her upbringing.

What made her a hero?

Any woman who stands against the tide is a hero to me. Certain types of women are generally frowned upon by society. They tend to be a bit gobby (I’m not talking about myself here) rather than quiet and ladylike. They are held up to ridicule because they don’t abide by the unspoken rules of femininity – and Mary Wollstonecraft very much falls into that category. She desperately wanted women to have the chance of an education and not set their sights too low, and 200-plus years on, much of what she wanted has come to pass.

That said, things haven’t changed as much as we think they have: consider the amount of ridicule heaped upon someone like Mary Beard today, just because she won’t get her hair cut or wear nice make-up and clothes on telly.

What was her finest hour?

I suppose it has to be her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – perhaps the earliest declaration of feminist philosophy – in which she argued so passionately that women were men’s equals. It annoys me a bit that a lot of people don’t think feminism really started until the 20th century, with the suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, and the explosion of feminism in the 1960s. The truth is that Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of feminism and there were few, if any, people before her who laid out the feminist philosophy so articulately, and in a way that would have such a profound effect on society.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

Some of her actions were questionable. For example, she persuaded her sister to leave her husband because she was in a bad marriage – even though that meant abandoning her baby daughter who subsequently died. That was a terrible tragedy, though I’m sure she did it for the best of reasons.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own? 

I wish! I’m not that intelligent. However, I’d like to think that people who watch my stand-up show will occasionally hear something that makes them think – though that’s not quite the same as writing an academic treatise.

If you could meet Wollstonecraft, what would you ask her? 

I’d ask her how much support she thought she had among other women. I’d also want to know what her ambition in life was, because I very much have a sense of her as a woman with professional ambitions unfulfilled.  

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Jo Brand was talking to York Membery. She is a BAFTA-winning comedian, writer and actress