Mary Wollstonecraft

A Sunday Gathering message by Laura Mark

Sojourner Truth:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?….

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Mary Wollstonecraft:

Man preys on man; and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pillar, and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer.  You mourn for the empty pageant of a name, when slavery flaps her wing, ... Why is our fancy to be appalled by terrific perspectives of a hell beyond the grave? -- Hell stalks abroad; -- the lash resounds on the slave's naked sides; and the sick wretch, who can no longer earn the sour bread of unremitting labour, steals to a ditch to bid the world a long good night.  

(from A Vindication of the Rights of Men)


Let me start by saying that I really don’t think there are many un-reconstructed male chauvinist pigs, homophobes or racists in the audience today.  I think most of you here are pretty right-on.  I’m not here to inform you – shock horror – that inequality exists in our world.  You know that.  But occasionally I have the opportunity to stand up here and talk about what I think is important, so today you’re going to get my sort-of annual “Guys, Inequality Still Exists and I’m Quite Annoyed about It” speech.

today you’re going to get my sort-of annual “Guys, Inequality Still Exists and I’m Quite Annoyed about It” speech

We talk a lot about Mary Wollstonecraft here, and for good reason.  She was a bold, insistent voice against the unfairness she saw around her.  We mostly hear about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, again for good reason, but the piece we heard this morning was from an earlier work called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, that Mary wrote defending human rights and liberty for all people.  Specifically, she wrote it in defence of Richard Price, minister here for many years, when he was attacked for his vocal support of the French Revolution.  They are just two of the many, many people who have fought for justice and equality over the history of this church.  We have a strong heritage here.   

People of conscience have been fighting injustice – have been saying, “That’s not fair!” – since time began.  But it is still with us.  Change happens.  Slavery was abolished.  Women and other previously disenfranchised groups have the vote.  Marriage equality is the law of the land. 

But while slavery is illegal in the developed world, it is estimated that 30 million people around the globe are still enslaved, and in this country, the state and structure of our economy means that the number of “wage slaves” - people whose dire economic situation limits their personal freedom – continues to grow. 

Mary Wollstonecraft street art stencil by STEWY. Located on the outside wall of New Unity @ Newington Green.

Mary Wollstonecraft street art stencil by STEWY. Located on the outside wall of New Unity @ Newington Green.

Women can vote and there are now 191 women in Parliament, the most ever – but that’s still only 29% of MPs, despite women comprising over 50% of the UK population.

Marriage equality is the law, but LGBT people still face discrimination in many areas of life, and it seems that every week I read about another gay, lesbian, bi or trans teen committing suicide because of vicious bullying and abuse.

In a reading, we heard Mary Wollstonecraft ask rhetorically why we should worry about eternal damnation after we die, when hell is here on earth, now.   And so, we see that many of the issues that Mary Wollstonecraft, and Richard Price and others, wrote about are still with us.  So, we see that the struggle continues.

People have always sought to shut down calls for equality by saying that liberation goes against the innate nature of the oppressed. 

Slaveholders in the US used to say that being slaves was in the nature of black people, that they were childlike and couldn’t take care of themselves and, perversely, they needed slave masters to look after them. 

Likewise, equal access to education, work, and political life has been called unfeminine and contrary to women’s intrinsic nature.  We saw it in Sojourner Truth’s day, when women were claimed to be too delicate for such things, and today, when feminists are still routinely called ugly, man-hating lesbians (as if that’s an insult or something). 

But Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech blows apart the narrow definitions of “black” and “woman” that people tried to impose on her.  She tells us that womanhood can be defined in many different ways.  In fact, in as many different ways as there are women.  The message is that every group with which we may identify, which is defined by a certain set of shared characteristics, is made up of individuals.  

Because, beyond class, gender, race, nationality, we are people.   If we drew a Venn diagram, there are many ways that the people in this room would overlap.  People who were born in this country, and people who were born in other countries.  People who have children, people who do not.  People who read the Guardian, and people who read... other newspapers. 

But when you get down far enough, there is no one who is exactly the same as anyone else.   We are each unique, every one as improbable and amazing a confluence of cosmic factors as a snowflake, imbued with all the grace and beauty and transient wonder of that tiny speck of frozen geometric perfection.  You are unique and you deserve to be loved and treasured for it.

Being unique doesn’t mean we are alone.  Being the only one of you doesn’t mean you can’t be one of us.  And being a tiny, perfect fragment of the universe doesn’t mean you are powerless, or that your own, small actions cannot have an impact on the world. 

And that is why, in the face of horrid news and dismal statistics, we should not be discouraged.  Yes, the world’s problems are big.  But individual actions are important.  The way we treat those around us can have huge impact on them.  Small acts of kindness can give people the encouragement they may need to carry on another day.  

And individual actions are important because little things add up to big things.  A single snowflake can land in the palm of your hand and melt before you know it’s there.  But millions of snowflakes together can bring cities to a standstill, stop trains and pull down buildings.  And a sea of protestors is made up of individual drops, each one a person who got up that morning and made a decision to take a stand, make a noise, change the world.         

We’ve seen recently how individual votes can add up to form a majority (or not, depending on how you look at it).  Let’s bear that in mind as we try to create the change we want to see in our country, our society and our world.  Voices joined together can be heard.  But a chorus for change relies on each of us lending our unique voice, each particular, individual note lending depth and harmony to the whole.       

Gloria Steinem once said, “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day,” because “a movement is only people moving."  So people, what direction you choose, let’s get moving.