Sometimes I daydream about spending time with historical figures. It is not because my real friends are crap; they are good enough. They simply lack the mystique required for daydreaming.
This particular fantasy begins, as most do, with a historical figure showing up on my doorstep. The set-up is largely irrelevant: it is a contrived scenario which allows everything to happen, much like a porn film but without any fucking.
“Hello,” says my visitor, “I am Mary Wollstonecraft. I hear you like to harbour time travellers in your imagination so you can show them around 21st century life. Do you mind if I stay with you?”
“Of course,” I beam, delighted by my new houseguest. “Come in, I’ll show you everything.”
Mary Wollstonecraft follows me into my kitchen. “This is a kettle for boiling water,” I say, brandishing the cheap white Tefal. “It runs on electricity. I’ll explain electricity properly later, but basically it’s how we fuel most things round here these days. It comes out of here.” I point to the plug, then run my hands along the wire.
We drink tea, and Mary Wollstonecraft looks politely baffled by my slightly confused attempt to explain the physics behind electricity. I worry slightly about taking her outside and having to talk her through how cars work. It doesn’t help that I have no idea how the internal combustion engine functions myself.
Next, I show Wollstonecraft my room. I have braced myself to explain television (“like a play, but everyone in the country can watch it in their houses! It runs on electricity, too. Remind me to explain electricity to you later.”) and the internet (“sort of like telegrams, except MUCH faster and you can said it yourself. Wait, you do have telegrams in your time, don’t you? Oh fuck it. It’s like letters except instant. And it runs on electricity, which I promise I’ll explain to you at some point.”). Wollstonecraft surveys the room, her eyes glancing over all of the features: the TV, the computer, the pile of dirty laundry in the corners.
Finally she pauses. She stares intently at the bookshelf.
“You still have books here?”
“We do,” I say. I shove my Kindle under yesterday’s newspaper. I don’t think I’m ready to tell her about ebooks.
With wonder, she runs her hands along my disorganised collection of books. “They are bound in paper,” she says quietly.
Her fingers alight on one particular book. Slowly she pulls it from the shelf.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
“I wrote this book,” she whispers.
Bollocks, I think to myself. What if she hasn’t already written it? What if I have just created a temporal paradox in my daydream, and I’m going to have to spend the rest of this tube ride imagining some sort of situation where Mary Wollstonecraft develops memory loss before she goes back to her time and writes that book? I knew I should have put it in my handbag before I invited her into my fantasy.
“What year is it?” Wollstonecraft asks.
“2011,” I reply.
“That means I wrote this book more than 220 years ago,” she says. “Are you free now?”
“Let me show you,” I say. I am relieved. She is less concerned with understanding electricity and more interested in the state of modern gender roles. This will be much easier for me to talk about.
I take Mary Wollstonecraft to a high street. Her brow furrows in disgust at billboard after billboard advertising products to make women beautiful. Baubles and trinkets.
I sit her down and we read The Blank Slate together.
“So science has proved that women are naturally inferior after all?” Wollstonecraft sighs. She is tearful in her disappointment.
“Quite the opposite,” I say, handing her a copy of Delusions of Gender. “It’s just that there’s still a lot of people who think that women are weak and inferior and will speculate as to why with a Darwinian fairy tale–remind me to tell you about Darwin later. You were probably right with your assessment that it’s all down to how we treat women.”
“How does that affect women?” she asks.
I do not speak for quite some time. Silently, I roll us both cigarettes. Wollstonecraft does not smoke, and finds my perpetual smoking rather unpalatable, but I know she will need it for what I am about to show her.
“I am going to show you something horrible.” I pass her a copy of More magazine.
She reads it; I hear her periodically scoff and harrumph. As her hands start to shake with rage, I pass her the cigarette, lit. She takes a long drag.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?” exclaims Mary Wollstonecraft. The cigarette drops from between her lips and burns the paper.
“Seriously, what the fuck is this shit? It’s all just beauty regimes to attract a man, and shopping and fucking and it’s all about pleasing a shitting cockfuck arseholing cunthammer man!” Wollstonecraft, as conjured by my imagination, is somewhat less eloquent and rather more profane. She is completely right in her assessment of the magazine.
Wollstonecraft exhales in long puffs until her face is no longer puce. “I had vainly hoped that some things might have changed.”
“In a way, they have,” I say, by way of reassurance.
“They have not. You may claim to have nominal equality of the sexes, yet it is all the same. We still teach women inferiority and weakness. Women are still kept in a state of utter abjection!”
“Mary Wollstonecraft, will you help me amend this?” I ask.
“I shall,” Wollstonecraft replies with smouldering determination.
A training montage ensues wherein I guide her through some of the more problematic aspects of her thinking, such as her attitude to the working class and her religiosity. I also teach her about things which were never discussed in her time, like sex toys and queer politics. She is a swift learner. As she is loudly decrying certain radical feminists for their transphobia, there is a crash at my front door.
Where once there stood a front door, there is now a woman clad entirely in red and black, wearing a belt of milk bottles with protruding rags. Framed in smoke, she is brandishing a weapon: a brass ray gun.
“Hello,” she says, “I’m Emma Goldman. I’m here to help you smash the patriarchy.”
Of course, the problems identified by Wollstonecraft two centuries ago cannot feasibly be solved with an imaginary time travelling steampunk anarcha feminist collective, so I will leave the narrative there.
There is still work to do. A lot of it. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is largely as relevant today as it was when written. As Mary Wollstonecraft would say, fuck that shit.