John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hangs in Room 18 of the National Portrait Gallery; a woman in high-waisted white dress and soft hat, her gaze falling somewhere off to the right. The sitter’s pose reveals little of her revolutionary life and the progressiveness of her views. She was a radical thinker, a feminist, journalist and author, famed particularly for her 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she discussed the novel idea that the sexes should be considered equal. “I do not wish them to have power over men,” she wrote of women, “but over themselves.”
When she sat for Opie, Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter, the writer Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft died days after her daughter’s birth, and in the years that followed her role in the feminist movement became largely forgotten.
In 1974, Claire Tomalin wrote her first book, a biography of Wollstonecraft, kindling huge interest in Wollstonecraft’s life and works. Laura Barton visits Tomalin at her home near the river in Richmond to discuss Wollstonecraft’s remarkable legacy.
Image: Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie. Oil on canvas, circa 1797. © National Portrait Gallery, London.