With International Women’s Month well underway it is important to remember the woman who wrote the first book advocating the rights of women and is rightly recognised as the first feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in Spitalfields in 1759 her social and political views emerged during the age of the Enlightenment when reasoning and logic began to challenge superstition, religion and tradition. Titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women, her book became a bestseller and thrust her into the limelight with its demands for a just society based on reason, with women central to this political philosophy.
Her reputation as an outspoken social campaigner multiplied when she married William Godwin, the founder of the anarchist movement, and moved to an address in Somers Town, St Pancras which would become the established family home. She died 11 days after after giving birth to a daughter who would grow up to be even more famous and etch her own legacy, firstly in literature and later, through the same fictional characters, in horror cinema. That woman was Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein and wife of poet Percy Shelley. Two members of one family but with very different contributions as regards the achievement of women during the Enlightenment and beyond.
No doubt wary of the lack of recognition and the way a gothic horror novel had eclipsed Wollstonecraft’s equality campaigning, in 2015 Camden Council announced that they were naming a Kings Cross street after her. Let’s just say the council nudged her forward as a nominee in a street-naming competition which attracted 10,000 entries with the public vote leaving no room for doubt.
There were initial concerns that her three-syllabled name might be a bit of an effort for taxi drivers and pizza delivery men and the like but with great prescience the global consciousness had decided otherwise and predicted it wouldn’t be such a tongue twister. And I really do mean global consciousness. Nominations came in all over the world from India to Russia.
Anyway, prissy, pernickety administrators will be sleeping peacefully at the reassurance about those syllables. It seems an extraordinarily minor reason to deny someone of that stature such an honour. For as Councillor Sarah Hayward Leader of Camden Council, said after the decision was made:“She paved the way for me to be Leader of Camden Council, and for all our political parties in Camden to be led by women. It’s a wonderful decision and I celebrate it”
For me the family home in Somers Town, Kings Cross, where Oakshott Court now stands, is much more of an intriguing address because of its history. (Shame they couldn’t just rename that street.) Set on a residential square somewhere between Euston and St Pancras it’s hard to picture such pivotal figures striding these streets.
But a brown heritage plaque has pride of place above the street sign so it must be so. Notably, it points out Wollstonecraft lived here but for once there is no mention of her more famous daughter or her creation Frankenstein.
A brief walk reveals lots of red-bricked functionality. Even though Hungarian architect Peter Tabori’s design has a post-modern, anodyne quality that bridges the divide between middle and working class it certainly no longer has any essence of the Polygon where Wollstonencraft recalled walking across fields to get home to. In the 18th century it was a magnet for the middle classes seeking respite from the French Revolution.
And today? Polygon Rd is round the corner, just off Oakshott Court so at least that’s some kind of a nod. Some local lads with the demeanour of a street gang huddle together chatting furtively but with none of the menace of poorer and more dangerous parts of London. No graffiti anywhere and not a crisp bag or cigarette butt in sight. Perhaps this type of social housing should be copied all over London and crime rates would surely fall. Not the social equality Wollstonecroft imagined but still a fascinating look at how that particular address may have changed from period to period and how her legacy lives on.