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The University of Southampton
Public Engagement with Research

A Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft Celebration event - April 2019
Wollstonecraft Celebration event - April 2019

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is the focus of academic research in a wide range of disciplines and an inspiration for many outside the academy, from feminist campaigners to literary enthusiasts. This project, supported by PER Development Funding, brought people together for a celebration event on the 260th anniversary of Mary’s birth, 27 April 2019.

Project Lead

Emma Clery, Professor of 18th Century Literature, Department of English @austeneconomics


Aligning with the University of Southampton’s long-standing championing of early women’s writing, the aim was to encourage dialogue and collaboration among different groups interested in the legacy of Wollstonecraft, with a view to establishing:

·         the first broadly-based and inclusive Wollstonecraft Society;

·         a regular bulletin as a step towards a journal publishing new research in the field;

·         further annual commemorative gatherings in different parts of the country.


The event audience was a mix of academics, activists and enthusiasts, drawn from all over the world; three made trips from Japan, one from the United States, others from France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Portugal.  The event ran at full capacity (100), tickets having sold out two months beforehand.

Background and motivation for the project

Clery’s teaching and research (including a Leverhulme Trust Major Fellowship project 2013-16) and several publishing projects have all featured Mary Wollstonecraft.  Noting the value of author appreciation societies (specifically the international Jane Austen Society) as a forum for academics and literary enthusiasts to interact and collaborate, and the absence of any such forum relating to Wollstonecraft, Clery gauged initial interest via social media.  She received strong encouragement and offers of help, enabling an informal executive committee to be established for the event. 


Links were developed with a wide range of organisations and individuals.  Through the project, firm and ongoing partnerships have been established with: ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign group; the Wollstonecraft Society; US-based ‘The Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society’; Old St Pancras Church (burial place of Wollstonecraft); Newington Green Meeting House.

Chawton House had a strong presence at the event, resulting in productive connections with artist Louisa Albani and Bee Rowlatt of the Wollstonecraft Society.

Approach taken

Using the connections and interest built over the preceding six months and an event planning meeting in January 2019, speakers were secured and arrangements moved on.  Additional ‘artistic’ involvement was contributed by: artist Louisa Albani who presented an exhibition of prints inspired by Wollstonecraft’s works; an Arts Council funded theatre group who developed an original performance piece about Wollstonecraft; and a collaborative arts project who constructed a video piece for the event based on a previous performance.  Social media was used strongly for communicating pre-, during, and post-event.

The Institute of English Studies at University of London’s Senate House managed the administrative organisation.  Despite a change of venue (see below under challenges) the event ran extremely smoothly and strongly appealed to the mixed audience of academics, activists and enthusiasts.  There was well-judged input from speakers and performers and strong involvement from members of the audience. The programme included long periods for free discussion with a roving mic. 


‘The Wollstonecraft celebration was an absolute triumph - it's right at the top of my 'perfect days I have known' list!’ (non-academic partner email extract)

‘How brilliant the Wollstonecraft day was, everyone seemed to be fired up with all the engaging discussions!’ (delegate, email extract)

The rationale for the project was fulfilled with an audience as broad and enthusiastic as hoped for.  Feedback underlined the benefits of mixing academic and broader-based speakers with audience participants, evidencing the value of the event. The engagement was innovative and experimental, based on trust and equal investment from academic and non-academic partners. It was most certainly a learning experience for the Southampton team, including the doctoral researchers there on the day.

Subsequently Clery has launched and founded a new literary society, The Mary Wollstonecraft Fellowship, registered as a member of the Alliance of Literary Societies. There is now a website, monthly reading group, regular newsletter, and plans for a second annual Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft in 2020 in partnership with the Newington Green Meeting House.

The artist Louisa Albani had an exhibition at Chawton House, launched at a garden party in September 2019; and Bee Rowlatt of The Wollstonecraft Society gave a public talk at Chawton House in October 2019. Clery was also able to put Chawton in touch with Katherine Edgar of the Shelley Trust in Bournemouth, who attended the Celebration and will now be coordinating a Rebel Women’s Writing Workshop in Autumn 2019.

Four doctoral researchers and a postdoc from the English Department at Southampton who attended the event, plus a group of MA students, were invited to attend Bee Rowlatt’s talk and a special session on public engagement at Chawton House in October 2019.

appreciation via Twitter
appreciation via Twitter


A research assistant provided evaluation support for the project – more detail is provided in the Project Report linked below; the methodology included:

Feedback from the audience was appreciative of the mixed-media nature of the event, and there was overwhelming enthusiasm from all involved.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

A short-notice venue change away from Senate House (due to Union boycott) was a challenge. The new location (facilitated by a non-academic partner) - St Pancras Old Church - had not previously held a full-day event of this size, requiring extra consultation and planning, but the change actually added greatly to the success of the day.

Beyond the January planning meeting, delegation was a challenge due to partners’ workloads.  A larger and more diverse (time/skills) planning team have been recruited for the 2020 event, with more frequent planning meetings scheduled.

Formal questionnaires garnered limited evaluation feedback, but social media provided a plentiful and valuable supply – as detailed in the Project Report.  Exploring how better to use questionnaires – with PERu and other project leaders – would be very useful.


Sustainability has been ensured by creation of the mailing list, a regular newsletter and a monthly reading group. The establishment of a permanent literary society will provide context for ongoing discussion of and research on the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, including partnerships to lead on a second Celebration event in April 2020.

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