Who is Mary? The Wollstonecraft poetry challenge

Mary on the Green is a campaign to erect a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. But who is Mary Wollstonecraft? Writer Bee Rowlatt from Mary on the Green is here to help us find out more – and to challenge you to write poems about this Enlightenment philosopher who helped create the idea of human rights.

Congratulations to the winners of this challenge, whose poems you can read in the sidebar!
Congratulations, too, to the poets who made it to the judges’ longlist: Helena Aeberli, Suzanne Antelme, Megan Ballantyne, Margôt Charalambous, Maiya Dambawinna, Ginny Darke, Hebe Fryer, Elisha Heslop, Liberty Hinze, Matilda Houston-Brown, Jayant Kashyap, Roseanna Kettle, Nadia Lines, Amy McGinn, Gugu Matsoni, Lydia Montgomery, Sarah Nachimson, Natalie Perman, Vienna Powell, Abhilipsa Sahoo, Maggie Wang, Lydia Wei and Amy Wolstenholme.

Content warning: brief mention of suicide towards the end of the challenge.

Illustration by Louisa Albani: collage of female figure on a ship at sea

The challenge: Write a poem or poems inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and works.

You’ve all heard of Frankenstein’s monster. But have you met his grandmother? She was Mary Wollstonecraft, the Enlightenment philosopher who helped change the world. Her daughter was Mary Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein. But not many people know who Mary Wollstonecraft was, what she stood up for, and why it’s taken so long for her work to be recognised.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759. It wasn’t a promising start. Grandpa Wollstonecraft was a well-to-do handkerchief maker, but his wealth was squandered by his violent and alcoholic son, Mary’s father.

Mary’s sense of fair play was developed early on: she was denied the education that her brothers received, and was forced to sit in silence for hours at a time. Yet she overcame this to become an educational pioneer and one of the greatest political thinkers of the eighteenth century.

“I am the first of a new genus!” – Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, 1787

It was an unusual journey. She began by working as a lady’s companion and a governess, then moved to Newington Green in London and set up a school. It was a neighbourhood of radicals who were involved in American independence, the French Revolution, and the anti-slavery movement. Wollstonecraft learnt from this community and began her writing career.

She saw education as a powerful force for transforming people’s lives. From her first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), all of Wollstonecraft’s work had education at its heart.

“Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world.” – Thoughts on the Education of Daughters

Wollstonecraft lived in a time of great change, which historians call the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a flowering of European thought in the 18th century. It was the shift away from ancient and medieval superstitions to a time of science and reason.

Some key players in this period were philosophers and writers like David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, who tried to look at the world from a logical, rational perspective.

Wollstonecraft was one of these ground-breaking Enlightenment philosophers, promoting a society based on reason. She wrote the first call in the English language for equality of the sexes, and was an early architect of what we now call human rights. Before this time, most people didn’t believe that everyone had certain rights, like the right to education or to freedom of expression.

Illustration by Louisa Albani. A female figure in a grand hallway with a huge chandelier. Quote: "How silent is now Versailles!.. The very air is chill, seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into teh vast pile, on every side." - Mary Wollstonecraft, French Revolution

“There are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improvable faculties.” – Vindication of the Rights of Men

During the Enlightenment, people rose up against traditional power structures: the French violently disposed of their monarchs; the anti-slavery movement gathered force; and the idea of human rights became more widespread.

In 1790 Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, responding to the ideals of the French Revolution and calling for justice and human rights for all. This was later expanded into her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she demanded “Justice for one half of the human race!”

“I enter a boat with the same indifference as I change horses; and as for danger, come when it may, I dread it not sufficiently to have any anticipating fears.” Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters from Norway (1796)

Mary Wollstonecraft actually went to France to write about the post-Revolution ‘Reign of Terror’, becoming the world’s first female war correspondent.

She was also an influential travel writer: in 1795 Wollstonecraft travelled around the rocky shores of the Skaggerak Sea on an adventure that became a best-selling work of travel writing. Yet it kept secret her true purpose: she was on a treasure hunt!

Her disreputable American boyfriend had been smuggling silverware out of Paris during the French Revolution. One of his ships went missing off the coast of Norway. So Wollstonecraft went to try and find it, taking her baby daughter along for the ride. Has there been another treasure-hunting single mum philosopher on the high seas, before or since?

Illustration by Louisa Albani. A female figure in a row-boat on the sea. Quote: "It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy & sorrow, should only be organised dust... sometimes, when the sea was calm, I was amused by disturbing [the] young star fish which floated just below the surface." - Mary Wollstonecraft

“I do not wish women to have power over [men] but over themselves.” – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Throughout her life, Wollstonecraft had the courage to go into battle with the most powerful people of the day. She insisted on being heard, and it cost her. She was excluded because of her background and her sex, and even today most people have never heard of her. Her enemies attacked her, saying that her personal life was scandalous and disgusting, criticising the fact that she had attempted suicide and that she had her first child before being married. Nowadays we have internet trolls – back then, offensive poems were written about her naked body, and she was consistently verbally abused. All this meant her entire legacy was largely forgotten. She died aged just 38, giving birth to the future author of Frankenstein.

It took a hundred years to begin to overcome the annihilation of her reputation. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett claimed her as a “leader in the battle” for votes for women, and began the still-unfinished process of reclaiming Wollstonecraft for history.

The challenge

We challenge you to respond to the life and works of Mary Wollstonecraft through poetry. You can do this however you like! We suggest the following:

  1. Write in response to one of the following quotations from Mary Wollstonecraft:

“I do not wish women to have power over [men], but over themselves.”

“Virtue can only flourish amongst equals.”

“I demand Justice for one half of the human race.” 

“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.” 

“Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable, and life is more than a dream.” 

“There are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improvable faculties.” 

“I am the first of a new genus!” 

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“People thinking for themselves have more energy in their voice, than any government, which it is possible for human wisdom to invent; and every government not aware of this sacred truth will, at some period, be suddenly overturned.”

“Love from its very nature must be transitory. To seek for a secret that would render it constant would be as wild a search as for the philosopher’s stone or the grand panacea: and the discovery would be equally useless, or rather pernicious to mankind. The most holy band of society is friendship.”

Or use the quotations in the illustrations, or find more quotations online (we suggest reading The Vindication of the Rights of Woman). You may like to write a Golden Shovel from a Wollstonecraft quotation.

  1. Write a poem from the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft’s statue. Mary on the Green are campaigning to have the first memorial to Wollstonecraft erected. What would her statue have to say about society today?
  1. Write a poem about female empowerment and/or education. Professor Mary Beard says “Every woman who wants to make an impact on the way this country is run — from the House of Commons to the pub quiz — has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank.” Check out our protest poetry challenge for more tips and ideas.
  1. Write a poem about the battle to be heard. This could be a dramatic monologue from the perspective of Wollstonecraft, one of her friends, or even one of her critics. Or you could write the poem about someone similar today – someone, perhaps, like Malala Yousafzai – or a struggle you’ve had to deal with yourself.

Illustration by Louisa Albani. Female figure on some rocks, overlooking boats in the sea and a seagull in the air. Quote: "On an adjacent mountain [to Tonsberg] the vestiges of a fort remain .... Here I Have frequently strayed, sovereign of the waste; I seldom meet any human creature [and] balmy were the slumbers, and soft the gales, that refreshed me .... [Down below] the fishermen were calmly casting their nets, whilst the sea-gulls hovered over the unruffled deep." - Mary Wollstonecraft

If you’d like to do some more research, we’ve put together a list of useful places where you can find more information about her to inspire your writing:

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 16 June 2019. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. You can send as many poems as you like. We welcome submissions in English and in British Sign Language (BSL).

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poems to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Wollstonecraft challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on 16 June 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class. 

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

foyle young poets of the year award 2019 logoYou might also want to enter this poem for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, with a chance to win some amazing prizes and further development opportunities. We can do that for you. If you are aged 11-17 on 31st July 2019 and would like us to automatically enter your poem into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, please write in your email heading ‘Enter me into Foyle’ and provide us with your date of birth, full address and ethnicity (if you are happy to share this for statistical purposes). Please note: published work is not eligible for entry into the Foyle Award, so winners and commended YPN challenge poems will not be entered into the Foyle Award.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].

Illustrations courtesy of Louisa Amelia Albani, published in pamphlets. Find out more.

Bee RowlattBee Rowlatt is a writer and broadcast journalist. Her award-winning book In Search of Mary was described by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as “terrific – quite unlike anything I’ve read before.” She co-wrote the best-selling Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, and is one of the writers in Virago’s Fifty Shades of Feminism. Bee has chaired events at literature and history festivals ranging from Jaipur and Hay, to Chalke Valley and Glastonbury. She began her broadcast career in BBC World Service, and has written for national and international media. Bee has worked with writers and words in Iraq, India, Colombia, Russia and Palestine. She has four kids, and is chair of Mary on the Green, the campaign to memorialise Mary Wollstonecraft. 


2 thoughts on “Who is Mary? The Wollstonecraft poetry challenge

    1. Hello,

      Thanks for your comment! We don’t have a definite date, but we’ll aim to let all entrants know the results by the end of July.

      Best of luck!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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