A Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft

Many thanks to WSG member Emma Clery who organised this fascinating day and invited our group; the following report is by Charmian Kenner, one of a number of WSG members who attended.

A celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) held on 27 April 2019, the 260th anniversary of her birth, invited us to consider her ‘in the round’ by discussing her life, work and legacy through research in history, literary criticism, politics and philosophy; and by experiencing representations of Wollstonecraft through art, film and drama. We met in the atmospheric Old St Pancras Church in London, with participants sitting on either side of the aisle that Wollstonecraft walked down to marry William Godwin, and with a lunchtime visit to the original site of her grave in the churchyard. Participants came from around the UK and as far afield as Japan and the US.

A theme throughout the event was how Wollstonecraft’s thinking prefigured and fed into ideas and struggles of today. Hannah Dawson focused on Wollstonecraft’s central concern with freedom, or rather women’s lack of it, since economic dependence on men meant vulnerability and loss of self, leaving women obsessed with beauty as their only asset to hold the male gaze – a condition from which we have yet to entirely escape. Wollstonecraft’s argument that women were playing a part assigned to them by society, rather than this being their authentic nature, links directly with today’s views on gender as a construct we can change. Catherine Packham pointed to connections between Wollstonecraft’s critique of modernity, in particular the late eighteenth-century social and economic order, and analyses by current theorists such as Thomas Piketty. Laura Kirkley highlighted Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitan outlook, seeing humans as globally interdependent with shared moral obligations, exemplified in her support for Native Americans and her criticisms of empire.

A rousing discussion of ‘What would Mary do?’ with Shrabani Basu, Charlotte Gordon and Bee Rowlatt, imagined multiple possibilities for a contemporary Wollstonecraft, from having a strong social media presence to speaking out on modern slavery and refugee issues, to being a campaigning member of the academy. The latter position was impossible to achieve in her lifetime, and Andrew McInnes reminded us of the tensions in being a ‘philosophesse’ in the late eighteenth century, when women thinkers were both celebrated and stigmatised, though Wollstonecraft tried to take a gender neutral position and establish herself as a philosopher first and foremost. Isabelle Bour pointed out that Wollstonecraft’s reception was different in France at the time, where her life was not seen as scandalous, and she was appreciated as an intellectual in the mode of Germaine de Staël. Translations of Wollstonecraft’s work were popular with moderate Girondin revolutionaries and her ideas became part of progressive French thought.

Janet Todd and Lyndall Gordon, whose studies led the way in research on Wollstonecraft, both contributed to the day. Lyndall Gordon, looking for missing pieces in the jigsaw of Wollstonecraft’s life, shared her latest investigations into Mary’s stay in Hamburg, where she seems to have discovered a fraud that shook her faith in lover Gilbert Imlay. Janet Todd relished the burgeoning interest in Wollstonecraft studies, compared to the 1960s when her proposed PhD on Wollstonecraft was deemed ‘too obscure’. She also warned us against making Wollstonecraft, who characteristically was ‘always prickly’ and swam against the mainstream, into a ‘national treasure’. Speakers and audience at the conference agreed that Wollstonecraft sustains us today with her resilience in the face of life’s challenges, both personal and political.

A number of organisations carry on Wollstonecraft’s legacy. The Mary Wollstonecraft Fellowship celebrates her writing with talks and events; the Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society disseminates her work and that of other women philosophers of the period, including through university curricula; the Wollstonecraft Society promotes education in schools; Mary on the Green fundraises to place a statue of Wollstonecraft by Maggie Hambling on Newington Green; and New Unity has a Heritage Lottery funded project at Newington Green Meeting House, ‘Uncovering the Dissenters’ Legacy at the Birthplace of Feminism’.

WSG at BSECS 2019

WSG member Miriam al Jamil reports from the recent BSECS conference.

WSG members make an increasingly strong showing at BSECS conferences, both as participants in our own panel and as speakers on others. This year’s conference took place in Oxford 4-6 Jan 2019 and the theme was ‘Islands and Isolation’, which inspired a broad and eclectic range of papers across a range of disciplines. Our panel was titled ‘Fallen Women, Missionary Wives and Castaways: Exploring Women’s Isolation in the Long Eighteenth Century’. It was organised by Carolyn Williams and chaired by Yvonne Noble.

Tabitha Kenlon’s paper was ‘Scold, Punish, Pity or Seduce? The Confused Rhetoric of Advice to Unmarried Women (1791)’. Readers of our book Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837 will be aware of Tabitha’s work on conduct manuals and her paper explored contradictions in an anonymous advice manual of 1791. Description of the process of seduction is combined with moralistic counselling of the young women at risk, characterised as victims who succumb to temptation. The language borders on the salacious as the reader is addressed directly as a fallen woman, her shame a ‘chronicle of male triumph’. The writer exhorts reform but is not convinced that a woman will ever be exonerated for her failure to anticipate the actions of her seducer. Tabitha interpreted ‘isolation’ as the social and moral wilderness into which the fallen woman was propelled.

Trudie Messent presenting at BSECS 2019

Trudie Messent presented on a WSG panel for the first time. Her paper was titled ‘Yesterday I left my native land and have now gazed upon it for the last time’: Isolation viewed through the life writing of Missionary wives in the Sandwich Islands and New Zealand, 1819-1832’. Trudie examined both the harsh physical journey and the emotional one which young newly-married wives experienced as they adjusted to life on the other side of the globe. She suggested that the letters and descriptions written by her subjects had a cathartic effect in the absence of social contact that their new lives entailed. Trudie’s paper was accompanied by some beautiful slides, showing routes taken, portraits and scenes which enriched the descriptions and quotations in her paper.

Carolyn Williams’ paper ‘Ladies unus’d to such hardships: Women on Desert Islands in two Eighteenth-century Novels’ began with a witty admonition for the incompetence shown by such desert island dwellers as Ben Gunn and Robinson Crusoe who were unable to recognise the potential resources available to them on their islands, such as the fermenting grapes or sea salt which could be put to good use to supply yeast or enable cheese-making. The delicate languishing ladies in Penelope Aubin’s The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family (1721) were given short shrift in Carolyn’s discussion which highlighted the shortcomings of an upper-class life as preparation for survival on an island. Their practical working-class counterpoint was identified in Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit; or, The Female Crusoe (1792) whose scientific and mechanical facility rendered her desert island sojourn a period of comfort and creative energy.

Other WSG members who gave papers at the conference included Gillian Williamson, Miriam Al Jamil, Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, our bursary winner Madeleine Pelling, and Judith Hawley who contributed her insights at a round table discussion on ‘#MeToo’. I am sure there were other members and friends at the conference. There were many familiar faces. Speakers Olivette Otele and Cynthia Wall mined their academic experience for thoughtful keynote talks, and a delightful concert of eighteenth-century songs by soprano Valeria Mignaco and guitarist Jelma van Amersfoort put us in a convivial mood for the conference dinner. Plans are already underway for next year’s conference which will be ‘Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural’ and we are sure WSG will have a strong presence again in 2020.

Women artists at the AAH conference 2018

WSG member Helen Draper, with Dr Carol Jacobi of Tate, will be co-convening the session ‘In/visibility and influence: the impact of women artists and their work’ at the Association for Art History Annual Conference 2018.

The session’s themes are biography and reputation, legacy and longevity, and the artists include Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani, Angelica
Kauffmann, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, Elizabeth Butler, Ethel Walker, Louise
Joplin, Isabel Rawsthorne, Frances Hodgkins (below), Vanessa Bell, Eva
Hesse, Lee Lozano, Anne Truitt, Anne Schille, Pauline Boty, Kristin Jones,
Paula Rego and Adriana Varejão, and Judy Chicago (filmed in conversation).

AAH 2018 takes places 5-7 April 2018 at the Courtauld Institute and King’s College London.  For further information, including registration, please see the AAH website.

 

Cfp: Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 pt 2

Last year the first Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 conference was held at King’s College London. Co-organised by WSG member Emma Newport and Amy Murat, the conference was a great success (not least because it featured a WSG panel, ‘Material Girls’).

This year the second is co-organized by Joyce Goggin and Emma Newport and will take place at the University of Amsterdam, 7-8 June 2018.   The call for papers ends on 15 March, so get your abstracts in quick.

The conference organisers welcome submissions in the form of individual papers, panels and roundtable discussions on the following themes:

  • The varying practices of women associated with currency, global and/or domestic markets and marketability
  • Material practices associated with value, exchange and/or female creativity
  • Women as producers and/or consumers in the literary or other marketplaces (including, but not limited to, food, clothing, agriculture and raw materials)
  • Representations of women at work or women’s involvement in: Trade and industry / Professional services (e.g. law, finance, hospitality and the media) / Domestic service / The rural economy / The stock market and speculation
  • The place of women in the literary marketplace (past and present)

They particularly welcome cross-cultural considerations of the above issues.

Guide for submissions:
Please send 300 word abstracts to the conference email address (womenmoneymarkets@gmail.com) plus a covering email outlining briefly your proposed format (individual paper, panel, roundtable, etc.).  If you are submitting a proposal for a panel, please include an abstract for each paper (up to 300 words each). Please indicate if you would like your paper to be considered for a monograph to be published in conjunction with the conference.

Artist and Artisan talk for the Johnson Society

WSG member Miriam al Jamil is giving a talk at 2.30pm on 10 February for the Johnson Society, on ‘Artist and Artisan in the European Magazine (1782-1826)’.  Miriam is a doctoral researcher at Birkbeck College, studying eighteenth-century women and the Classical Canon of sculpture.  In her research she looks at how women engaged with sculpture during this period when art academy training was not available to them, and turns an alternative lens on the Grand Tour.

Further information about the talk, and the Johnson Society, can be found here.  But please note: all Johnson Society meetings are held at Wesley’s Chapel and Leysian Mission, which is right next door to John Wesley’s House museum. The equally interesting Dr Johnson’s House museum is a 25 minute walk away.