Walking with Wollstonecraft's Ghost

Recently as part of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday week Simon Cole wrote this piece to share his thoughts on Mary’s legacy today.

When I arrived in Hackney in 2009 – for a week-long stay that shows no sign of ending – I had no idea who Mary Wollstonecraft was. But as I began to wander the Hackney streets, looking at information panels in places like Newington Green, I realised that the history here was exciting – thrilling even. Radicals, reformers and revolutionaries had battled for things like rights and against things like slavery, here in what used to be a rural escape from London. The themes were timeless, their stories as relevant as ever. In 2021, the Dissenters’ prized value of tolerance continues to be squeezed by a backlash against ‘woke’, against – say some – the Enlightenment itself. Mary Wollstonecraft successfully fought the reactionary undertow, even if it eventually washed away her reputation for two centuries.

She lived quite the life. She was an educator, a philosopher, a journalist, an editor, a good friend, a lover, a reluctant wife, a mother, a single-mother, a businesswoman, an adventurer and yet more permutations of what it means to be fully alive. She had the French Revolution, we have Brexit and Trump. 2020 recalled the political division but also the engagement of the 1790s on both sides of the channel. Progressives here hoped for a reduction in the power of the monarchy and a bigger role for the new middle class. Conservatives feared the mob and the very end of civilisation itself. Or at least that was the spectre they raised to dissuade dissent. If Mary did not live long enough to see the Peterloo Massacre here, she did see the French Revolution turn nasty. She knew her share of the political strife in the long 18th Century that preceded Peterloo; times that would eventually lead to the Age of Reform, with its votes for the working class and ultimately women. But of course, she was ahead of all this, in so many ways.

She is rightly celebrated for her groundbreaking work on gender equality, way before the suffragettes, though of course not as early as Mary Astell. Perhaps she’s the next contender for a monument. You heard it here first. But without playing down her call for equality for, as she said, half the planet, let’s not forget her role as part of the Enlightenment. Without its place in allowing us to finally break free from that catch-all excuse for the preservation of the status quo that is tradition, I certainly wouldn’t be here today in this capacity. The use of reason to deconstruct power structures and to think through policies, education for civic participation and the idea that we can all work on ourselves to become better people – these are Enlightenment ideas that spring to my mind when I think of Mary.

Indeed, I sometimes feel I carry her ghost with me, as I walk Hackney. Perhaps many of us here tonight carry our own versions of Mary around. My own particular Mary is – present tense – a woman who fundamentally just wants a fair go. She has, perhaps, something of Greta Thunberg about her. She knows what the easy way is. She is smart enough to see what people want her to say, what will tick the boxes and get her through the day easily. But she has seen behind the curtain and now she cannot un-know. She cannot pretend. She cannot fake. Pandora’s paradigm box of ill-justified inequality has been opened. There are too many questions. There are too many inconsistencies. There are weak points in the socially constructed walls that have been built around her.

She can do nothing else but poke at these obvious fault lines. How could she not? And so, like Thunberg, she knows what it means to be perceived as ‘awkward’. Why can’t she just…

Another writer and thinker who has walked the streets of Paris like myself and Mary before me is the arch-Flaneuse Dr Lauren Elkin. She writes of the intellectual enfant terrible Susan Sontag: “She was an enemy of the pieties that people seemed to want from writers, then as now. There would always be plenty of other people happy to provide them. Why should she voluntarily blend into the din?”

Mary couldn’t just. Greta can’t just. Post-WW2, Hannah Arendt, couldn’t just. They are Edmund Burke’s grasshoppers in a field of silent cattle. Today Sisters Uncut agitate against the police bill. But are these examples of difficult women, or women raising difficult questions? As we remember Mary, as we contemplate our own role in the world today, are we willing to walk in her footsteps? This month, Covid is biting in the Global South. It’s not long since we refused to release the vaccine patents that could have saved so many from death. Who will protest this? Where are today’s moral philosophers, questioning the values behind this decision?

Echoing the words of another Hackney changemaker, Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, are we willing to rock the boat today, for a better world tomorrow? For some, the choice to speak your truth is actually no choice at all. They can only push in one direction. They cannot stand still. To quote contemporary questioner Kae Tempest:“All life is forwards.”

And so, as she walks alongside us today, where would Mary want us to go next?

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