Mary Hays is the last of the women in this first group and often the least celebrated by Unitarians today. This is to our detriment as in this figure we can see a fine intellect, someone who was determined to find ways to become educated and to pass that knowledge on to other women in as accessible form as was possible.
She was born into a Baptist family, losing her father when she was only young. A double loss came when she fell in love with another Baptist, John Eccles, overcoming parental opposition only to lose him when she was twenty-one. She was stricken with grief. After recovering a little from this she vowed to turn her mind to educating herself but this was no easy matter. On hearing the visiting Robert Robertson preach she initiated an introduction and for the next eight years, until his death, he became her mentor. Exchanges were all done by correspondence and this was a pattern that she would turn to throughout her life. Robert Robertson was a Baptist having much in common with the rational dissenters and being welcome in Unitarian pulpits. We should remember the fluidity of rational dissent at this time with Unitarianism becoming more clearly defined as a denomination at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. Robertson died whilst on a preaching trip in Birmingham and Joseph Priestley presided at his funeral held at New Meeting Chapel. In his sermon Priestley praised him for educating his daughters equally with his sons saying that: "the minds of women are capable of the same improvement and the same furniture as that of men". What we see demonstrated throughout Mary Hays's life is the part that Unitarian men played in her education but also the part they played in bringing the subject of gender and education into their reformist agenda. Robert Robertson had introduced Mary Hays to theology, philosophy and history. She became what was possibly the first feminist theologian in interpreting the Bible from a feminist perspective, wanting to learn how gender and religion informed each other and how it then informed her own life.
Losing her mentor was a great blow to Hays but on hearing that Joseph Priestley had moved to the pioneering Dissenting New College, Hackney, in 1791, she found a way of becoming introduced to him. An old student of Robert Robertson acted as a go-between so that Hays could read Priestley's lectures, listen to the sermons at the college and meet and talk with the tutors and their wives. It is at this time Hays decides that she is in fact a Unitarian. For the next three years Priestley was the biggest influence in her life as she extended her academic learning, which now addressed science, theology, history and geography. Before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published, Hays was already writing her Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of Women but didn't publish this until six years later in1798. The first publication that drew attention to her was written in response to Gilbert Wakefield's attack on the religious rituals of "the Dissenters of our time." Hays as "Eusabia" enters the debate pointing out that it is through the pulpit that congregations and especially women can hear religious addresses that are biblically, socially and politically informed. She is complimented by men such as Theophilus Lindsey and the tutors of New College, Hackney, which at this time was considered a centre of radicalism by the establishment. By this time Hays was part of the Unitarian network, writing sermons that were preached at Essex Chapel by Dr John Disney, Assistant Minister at Essex Street Chapel.
In 1793 Hays, along with her sister, publishes Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous. Instead of the more usual conduct books of the time Hays outlines a system of learning for young women along the lines advocated and instituted by Joseph Priestley and others at New College. Whilst male Rational Dissenters addressed the lack of education for girls and young women agreeing that it was right that they should be educated, nevertheless the end goal was to help them become educated mothers and wives who could converse on the same level as their husbands. Education for young women at that time was carried out by ministers and teachers to visiting relatives and good women through the network of family relationships. Few recognised the radicalism which Hays was beginning to advocate. She knew from bitter experience how difficult it was for many middle-class women, not part of the network of rational dissent, to access higher education.
Tutor, William Frend had been but one who had responded to Hays' defence of dissenting worship and as Priestley left New College, appropriately fitted into the vacated space in her life as mentor. However, she sadly misread the messages he sent out and became romantically attracted to him and her letters to him made open avowals of that love only to be rejected. Following the publication of Letter and Essays, Hays moved out of the maternal home and took rooms closer to William Frend and also William Godwin, the leading radical political philosopher, to whom she had written requesting a copy of his new book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. It is in William Godwin she confides and who suggests she uses her letters to Frend as a basis for a novel. In 1796 Memoirs of Emma Courtney is published and is immediately attacked by conservative critics. This wasn't a time to be writing radical literature of any sort but yet in 1798 Hays publishes An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain, anonymously this time. It can be no coincidence that it had been during the previous few years that Hays and Wollstonecraft had become close friends until the latter died in 1797, confiding in each other about their failed relationships. It is Hays who re-introduces Wollstonecraft to William Godwin following an unsuccessful encounter some years before. When Godwin had wanted to talk to Tom Paine over dinner at publisher Joseph Johnson, Wollstonecraft had imposed herself on the conversation. It is Hays who later helps to nurse her friend through childbirth, who some days later lost her fight for life.
The next decade witnessed Hays' solid contribution to historical writing grounded in research. In 1803 Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, is published in six volumes. This was written "for the benefit of my own sex. For their improvement, and to their entertainment…they require pleasure to be mingled with instruction…I have at heart the happiness of my sex, and their advancement in the grand scale of rational and social existence." (Preface) Priestley, amongst other Unitarians, was known to welcome this work. It ran to several editions and was read through the nineteenth century. The women included were meant as role models for what women could achieve.
Once more she turned to Unitarian men who could forward her historical research and began corresponding with William Tooke the Younger and Elder, the latter being a recognised historian with an extensive library. She began writing for the growing, lucrative children's market publishing Historical Dialogues for Young Persons 1806-8.
Moving around at this time to be nearer to her family, she became a subscriber and attendant at the Unitarian Chapel in Bristol where Dr Estlin was minister and with whom "she was well pleased". To the end of her life she was part of the Unitarian network encouraging the next generation of influential women such as Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell.
Hays continued to write short stories for publication until 1821 when she caught the nation's mood in Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrated, galvanizing women's reaction to George IVth's behaviour in "the Queen Caroline Affair".
To the end of her life she never forgot her debt to Robert Robertson, writing in what could be her last letter: "This Great and good man was the awakener of my mind…" (Dr Williams' Library) She died in February 1843 and in The Christian Reformer of September 1844 a 'Memoir of Mary Hays' was published.
I hope to have given readers some idea of the fluidity and turmoil of the time in which the three women, (Mary Hays – Anna Barbauld – Mary Wollstonecraft) covered in the last three pieces, lived and how, in each of their own way, made valuable contributions in the areas of education, social commentary, history of the novel, historical biography of women, history for children, and the two Marys developing a critique of how religion informs the study of gender. In their own different ways they laid a foundation for those who followed – they blazed a trail.
Information and quotations have been taken from Mary Hays' letters and writing plus other excerpts from writing at that time in:
The Idea of Being Free – A Mary Hays Reader: edited by Gina Luria Walker, Broadview, 2006.