The First Feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

The First Feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
The First Feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Described as the original suffragette, author and free thinker Mary Wollstonecraft was a pioneer of women’s rights, arguing that women should be educated, should be able to vote and to be in government: extraordinary claims for the 18th century.

This September Beverley is celebrating her story and her connection to the town as part of the national Heritage Open Days programme, with talks, walks and an illumination by the street artist Stewy.

Mary Wollstonecraft, whose most famous book is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, has a growing reputation; this year the History magazine placed her 8th in a list of the women who changed the world.

Her unconventional life style and feminist views made her unpopular with male authors of her time, although she influenced later women including Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barratt Browning, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.   In 1892 Millicent Fawcett called her the foremother of the struggle for women’s votes, so it is particularly appropriate that she be recognised in this centenary year.

Mary Wollstonecraft in Beverley

In 1768 Edward Wollstonecraft moved his family from Barking (London) to East Yorkshire, where he hoped to find his fortune in farming.  The family remained there until 1775 when they returned to London, the farming venture having failed.

During the time in Beverley though, Mary acquired her education.  She probably went to one of the many Dame schools that came and went, but her chief influence seems to have been Dr John Arden, father of her great friend Jane. He was a scientist and philosopher, famous in his time, who constructed scientific instruments and gave lectures.

Beverley historians always knew Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Beverley, but it was only in January 2018 that we discovered which was her childhood home.  Research and luck found two sections of a parish rate book, showing the Wollstonecraft tenancy of 2 Highgate – the two sections were in different record offices, and some pages were missing, torn out – fortunately not the vital pages.  It was an exhilarating discovery, and when we saw inside the house, we realised that almost all the original 18th century features survived.  

Celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft

For many people it is Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, who is the remembered one, because she wrote Frankenstein.  We hope to make her mother equally famous in this town. The Beverley Civic Society has arranged that over the Heritage Open Days of 2018:

  • A plaque on 2 Highgate will be unveiled by the Lord Lieutenant of the East Riding, the only woman in history to have held that office. 
  • A huge image of Wollstonecraft by the street artist STEWY will be projected on to the façade of the Beverley Arms Hotel; a building that has absorbed Dr Arden’s house, who taught Mary.
  • A day-long session on Beverley’s Twelve Extraordinary Women will feature talks beginning with St Hilda of Whitby, include Mary Wollstonecraft and end with the designer Pat Albeck.

Barbara English Beverley 2018 for Beverley Civic Society

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