Letters To Mary

Series in which three writers send an informal letter to the influential British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, 250 years after her birth, updating her on the progress of her often radical ideas.

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Episodes

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01*2009051320090517

Professor Janet Todd, President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, addresses a letter to Mary about her her first book, a self-help manual called Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.

Some readers argue that this work is no different from any other 18th century Conduct Book, with its rather modest ideas about how girls should live their lives, but Janet Todd believes that it shows real sparks that would flare up fully in her incendiary work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, four years later.

She goes on to wonder how Mary might feel about the education and aspirations of girls today.

Read by Sian Thomas

022009052420090520

Richard Reeves, director of the independent think tank Demos, updates Mary on how her ideas about republicanism have - or have not - advanced in Britain in the 250 years since her birth.

Although generally thought of as a feminist, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men is a political pamphlet attacking aristocracy and advocating republicanism.

It proved to be the first salvo in a pamphlet war, responding to Burke's defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy and the Church of England.

In the pamphlet she attacked not only hereditary privilege but also the language used by Burke to defend it.

Perhaps most significantly and originally, she criticised Burke's justification of an unequal society founded on the passivity of women.

Richard Reeves updates Mary Wollstonecraft on her ideas about republicanism.

03 LAST2009052720090531

Writer and feminist Natasha Walter looks at Wollstonecraft's central work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

This was a book written in a hurry, during the turbulent years at the end of the 18th century when it seemed to some that the Revolution in France might truly be ushering in a new age of freedom and equality.

Mary completed it in just six weeks, taking pages to the printers before the book was finished.

Loosely argued and sometimes showing signs of the speed with which it was composed, her central argument is nevertheless as simple and powerful as ever - that the existence of inequality between the sexes did not prove that women were intrinsically inferior.

Natasha happily updates Mary on the immense advances that have been made in equality of the sexes since her day, considering how delighted she would be with the many opportunities which women now rightly take for granted in terms of education, careers and political engagement.

But she also looks at Mary's own experience of family life and considers how, in this key area, there is still some way to go before Mary's dreams are truly achieved.