MY HIS­TORY HERO

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Jeremy Cor­byn, leader of the Labour party, chooses

Leader of the Labour party Jeremy Cor­byn picks Mary Woll­stonecraft

Mary Woll­stonecraft was a Lon­don-born philoso­pher and an 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 11 days after the birth of her sec­ond daugh­ter, Mary, who would find fame as the au­thor of the novel Frankenstein.

When did you first hear about Woll­stonecraft?

Years ago, prob­a­bly in the 1970s or 1980s, when I learned about her through the women’s rights move­ment. I was im­me­di­ately in­trigued by her, in part be­cause she helped found a school in the pro­gres­sive Dis­sent­ing [sep­a­rated from the Church of Eng­land] com­mu­nity of New­ing­ton Green, which is in my con­stituency. I just find that en­tire pe­riod in English his­tory fas­ci­nat­ing.

What kind of per­son was she?

I think she was a com­plex per­son – partly as a re­sult of the stress and hard­ship that she ex­pe­ri­enced – who gave deep thought to women’s place in the world. I be­lieve that she wrote her fa­mous book, A Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of Woman, not in an at­tempt to dis­em­power men but to em­power women – the two things are dif­fer­ent. She was also re­li­gious and wor­shipped at the New­ing­ton Green Uni­tar­ian Church, Lon­don’s old­est Non­con­formist place of wor­ship still in use.

What made her a hero?

Firstly, her open­ing of a school that aimed to give girls an ed­u­ca­tion ev­ery bit as good as that en­joyed by boys, a novel idea at the time. Then there’s the fact that (un­like a lot of peo­ple this side of the Chan­nel) she was ex­cited by the rad­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties the French Revo­lu­tion could bring. Yet un­for­tu­nately she died be­fore the end of the revo­lu­tion. Thirdly, her in­flu­ence down the decades in Bri­tain and the rest of the world is im­mea­sur­able – she has sub­se­quently be­come an in­spi­ra­tion to women ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing my Mex­i­can-born wife!

What was Woll­stonecraft’s finest hour?

One of her finest hours has to be the writ­ing and pub­li­ca­tion of A Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of Woman, in which she put for­ward the ar­gu­ment for a so­ci­ety where men and women en­joyed equal­ity – again, a novel con­cept in her day and age. It was Mary who had the vi­sion of women lead­ing lives ev­ery bit as full as any man.

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

I’ve never read any­thing neg­a­tive about her – although I get the im­pres­sion that she could be quite a dif­fi­cult and dis­tant per­son. You can’t es­cape the feel­ing that she could have achieved so much more but for the tragedy of dy­ing so young.

Can you see any par­al­lels be­tween Woll­stonecraft’s life and your own?

I think we share a be­lief in treat­ing peo­ple with re­spect, re­gard­less of their gen­der, race or reli­gion.

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

What was it that led you to take such risks and take such abuse in or­der to write such an amaz­ing book? Jeremy Cor­byn was talk­ing to York Mem­bery DIS­COVER MORE LIS­TEN AGAIN

Melvyn Bragg and guests dis­cuss Mary Woll­stonecraft in this episode of BBC Ra­dio 4’s In Our Time: bbc.co.uk/pro­grammes/b00pg5dr

“Woll­stonecraft’s in­flu­ence down the decades in Bri­tain and the rest of the world is im­mea­sur­able. She has be­come an in­spi­ra­tion to women ev­ery­where”

“She had the vi­sion of women lead­ing lives ev­ery bit as full as any man,” says Jeremy Cor­byn of Mary Woll­stonecraft, shown here in a c1787 por­trait

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