by Henry William Pickersgill, oil on canvas, 1821

We need more More

Britain should remember a great neglected voice

Artillery Row

Broach the topic of feminist history in conversation and most people will draw a blank. The British education system’s approach to our past is haphazard at best, and most of us have enough to be getting on with without trying to fill all the various gaps left by our schooling.

For those who touched on the movement’s genealogy in our education, literary heavyweights like Austen, Eliot and the Brontës will likely spring to mind. For our transatlantic friends, the early suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony will likely ring a bell. Mary Wollstonecraft (d.1797), now just as famous for mothering another female literary giant, Mary Shelley, would be the first to roll off the tongue of anyone who has studied early feminism, literature or the Age of Enlightenment.

Born in the East End’s lively Spitalfields district on April 27th 1759, Wollstonecraft is sometimes considered the first woman to have entered the Western philosophical canon. Her fierce defence of the unravelling French Revolution in public correspondence with Tory MP Edmund Burke made her an overnight sensation in intellectual circles by her early thirties.

However, she is most famous for her 1792 “Vindication on the Rights of Women”. The work, intended to be the first of two volumes, boldly declared that power and influence should be available to both men and women, as they were born with the same ability to reason.

The Vindication was received well by the radical circles she inhabited, if not by society at large. Her reputation was tarnished as the following century bore on, largely down to her husband William Godwin’s posthumous biography that unflatteringly laid bare her unconventional lifestyle, including the details of several premarital flings, one of which produced a child.

Wollstonecraft’s popularity had long ago been salvaged when in 1932 Virginia Woolf declared that her predecessor’s “originality had become our commonplace”. Yet during Wollstonecraft’s active years and for several subsequent decades, another woman concerned with the rights of women was forging a great path through the sensibilities of her contemporaries.

…her impact was on a scale that dwarfed her contemporary

Religious writer and philanthropist Hannah More (d.1833) was, like Wollstonecraft born to an unexceptional middle-class family at a time of unprecedented change. While More is infrequently mentioned in feminist histories today, her impact was on a scale that dwarfed her contemporary. More was not only “better known” than Wollstonecraft, but her books outsold Jane Austen’s “many times over” and it was said her American contemporaries were “even more familiar with More’s writings”, than William Shakespeare’s.

As someone who has taken courses in both school and university covering eighteenth and nineteenth-century history and literature, including more than a handful of classes focusing on political and intellectual history, I can say with certainty that Hannah More was not once mentioned by my teachers, nor was her work recommended as a topic for extracurricular exploration.

In her pamphlet “Freedom Feminism”, American philosopher Christina Hoff Somers posits that More’s shadow has been deliberately obscured by partisan scholars seeking to raise the profile of their fellow leftist ideologues, including Wollstonecraft.

More was a patriot, a devout Christian, and found “little to disagree with” in Adam Smith’s Welfare of Nations. Yet, shouldn’t those of us interested in the truth of the past be concerned with More and her popularity, rather than discarding her because we find her slightly more inconvenient to our yearning for an imagined past than we do Wollstonecraft? Her achievements are downplayed as petty and bourgeoise, and her charity work dismissed as a classist plot to brainwash the proletariat.

More was a reformer, not a utopian revolutionary, but she was daring and unconventional. Her works fiercely rebuked the English upper classes, not only for the moral hedonism of their “merely nominal” Christianity, but their ghastly indifference to the horrors of slavery she thought sprung from it. In a 1795 poem ‘The Sorrows of Yamba’ co-written with Eaglesfield Smith, More boldly parodied the evils of the transatlantic slave trade, writing:

Ye that boast ‘Ye rule the waves’,

Bid no slave ship soil the sea,

Ye that ‘never will be slaves’,

bid poor Afric’s land be free’.

In 1807 the British Empire would outlaw slave trading, in part due to the tireless campaigning of More’s circle, which included leading abolitionist William Wilberforce, with full emancipation arriving in 1838, half a decade after their deaths.

Along with her sister, More established a vast network of Sunday schools, where she encouraged all her students that hard work and faith ought to be prioritised. Like Wollstonecraft, for More, education was at the heart of the matter for increasing opportunities for all regardless of class or gender.

In her 1799 “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education”, she rebuked popular claims of female intellectual weakness by highlighting, just as Wollstonecraft did, that as women were not generally receiving the same form and quality of education as men, there is “no just ground” to suggest the former point. She encouraged women to involve themselves in charity. Why should women only be “captivating for the day” she rallied, when they could contribute to “effects [which] may be commensurate with eternity”?

I would call on [women] . . . to raise the depressed tone of public morals . . . On the use . . . which [women] shall . . . make of this influence, will depend . . . the well-being of those states, and the virtue and happiness, nay, perhaps the very existence, of that society.

Whereas Wollstonecraft emphasised the equality of men and women, More stressed how men and women are fundamentally different. Men’s “rough angles and asperities” might make them often better suited to certain professional roles, while women’s greater affinity for perception and altruism were still vital for improving both the public and private sphere.

Today, fierce disagreements continue to rage over issues as historic as sexual characteristics, marriage, prostitution, to more modern novelties such as mass pornography, widespread abortion, and pornography. In such a climate, the polarity of More and Wollstonecraft is an important one for understanding the nuanced approach to women’s historical condition.

Wollstonecraft’s tragically premature death in 1797, shortly after giving birth to her youngest daughter means we can only guess at what she may have expressed in maturity. Yet as her lifelong support for extinguishing Europe’s traditional political structures would suggest, to Wollstonecraft “virtue is built on [the] mutable prejudices” of either gender. What was “right” to Wollstonecraft was what was politically or personally expedient. Conversely, More’s thirst for education and charity sprung directly from her firm sense of biblical justice. It hardly needs to be said which might be suitable for informing timeless principles.

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