The commentary that makes up Virginia Woolf s A Room of One's Own is delivered by a female narrator on the move. She is first depicted wandering out-of-doors on the grounds of a university campus. Immediately afterwards, she makes her way indoors into various rooms and halls belonging to two of the many colleges that readers can assume make up this university. Next, she is depicted visiting the British Museum in the heart of London. She ends the book located in her London home. The mobility of this narrator points to the importance of setting in the novel. Setting, the context within which actions and persons are placed in literary works, is an integral means through which authors communicate their ideas. Elements of setting include historical time, location and place, and general environment or social milieu.
The first major setting of the novel is the grounds of a fictitious university the author calls "Oxbridge." As the name of this locale makes clear, the reader is supposed to call to mind Cambridge and Oxford Universities, two of the oldest universities in England. Both were established in the early thirteenth century and both were centers of learning even before they were officially established as universities. Each is made up of numerous, differently named colleges.
During the course of waiting for and keeping her two appointments at Oxbridge, the narrator (who henceforth will be referred to as Mary Beton) does various things and various things happen to her. She sits by the river that runs through the campus thinking about a future lecture she must give on the topic of women and fiction, she walks around (continuing to think) and is told to stay on the paths and keep off the "turf," she tries to go into a library but is not allowed to do so, and she has lunch at one college and then dinner at a second (‘‘Fernham,’’ an all-women's college).
The locale of Oxbridge invokes the entire cultural heritage and history of England. The two universities to which this name refers are the country's two most prestigious centers of learning. Oxford and Cambridge Universities are the places where England as a nation defined itself and where the nation's beliefs and traditions were handed down from generation to generation. These institutions groomed generations of privileged young men for the highest positions of power and leadership in the country. Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Woolf s time symbolized the greatness, promise, and identity of the nation.
In depicting the narrator suffering a series of exclusions on the grounds of Oxbridge, Woolf s polemic for women's access to education is well illustrated. Mary's exclusion from various parts of the university dramatizes the recalcitrance of the status quo, or the difficulty that women face in trying to change society's rules and boundaries for behavior and opportunity. In first placing the narrator on the grounds of Oxbridge, Woolf indicates how women tend to be associated with nature as opposed to intellect. As outsiders in relation to the inner domains of the nation's major universities, it is as if the women of England have been erased from the story of the nation's past, as if they, in their own historical ways and capacities, did not contribute in any way to the nation's greatness.
Some of the language Woolf uses in the description of how Mary is denied entry into the Oxbridge library is telling. Mary has been thinking about past fiction writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and past essay writers such as Charles Lamb. When her thoughts light on Charles Lamb, she thinks about one...
(This entire section contains 1840 words.)
of his essays in particular, on John Milton'sLycidas (Milton is an English poet of the seventeenth century and Lycidas is one of his poems):
Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege. This led me to remember what I could of Lycidas and to amuse myself with guessing which word it could have been that Milton had altered, and why. It then occurred to me that the very manuscript itself which Lamb had looked at was only a few hundred yards away, so that one could follow Lamb's footstep across the quadrangle to that famous library where the treasure is kept. Moreover, I recollected, as I put this plan into execution, it is in this famous library that the manuscript of Thackeray's Esmond is also preserved.
The actual library where the manuscript of Esmond resides is that of Trinity College, Cambridge. Yet, more important here than this fictional setting's foundation in fact is how these words create the sense of Oxford and Cambridge Universities as repositories of all the cultural "treasure'' of the nation. Everything and anything great and British can be traced back to these two campuses, it seems (original manuscripts, precious artifacts, and authors themselves). Significantly, Mary describes her plan to go view the manuscript as one that will involve her being able to ‘‘follow Lamb's footsteps.’’ Literally, Mary imagines herself walking where Lamb himself walked. Metaphorically, Mary suggests how she plans to become a great essayist herself, or how she plans to follow Lamb's writerly example. But, alas, having arrived at the door of the library, Mary is barred from entering:
I must have opened it [the door to the library], for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wing, a deprecating, slivery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.
In being literally prevented from entering the library, Mary becomes, metaphorically, a representative of all women who have been denied an education and entry into the precincts of male power and culture.
In chapter two, a new and similarly evocative setting is introduced into A Room of One's Own, the British Museum. The British Museum, located in England's capital city, London, was founded in 1753 and completed, finally, in 1847. Besides antiquities and art from around the world, it houses the largest public library in England. Attached to this public library is a renowned reading room where anybody who walks its floor follows in the footsteps of numerous illustrious scholars and researchers past and present. The Museum, like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is an institution redolent of British history, heritage, and national pride. It is a symbol of the country's greatness whose vast shelves of volumes include those that record the long history of the territory and nation.
Hence, it is particularly significant that in the extensive holdings of this huge library, Mary finds nothing truly useful about the history of women, which is what she wishes to research. What she finds instead is confusing, unsystematic prejudice and opinion: "Wherever one looked men thought about women and thought differently. It was impossible to make head or tail of it all.'' Mary is sitting in one of the largest and best libraries in the world and can find practically nothing worthwhile that has been said or recorded about women. This void and blank in the extensive holdings of the British Museum underscores Woolf s point about how women are marginalized. By not writing about women, male historians send the message that women lived and continue to live only trivial, unnecessary lives. The dearth of worthwhile books on women also emphasizes Woolf s argument about how women need to be educated. Clearly, women scholars are needed to write the history of their female forebears.
The settings of Oxbridge and the British Museum in A Room of One's Own evoke the past and women's exclusion and marginality. In contrast, in choosing to name the fictitious women's college of chapter one "Fernham," Woolf evokes a bright future. Since the name refers to a plant it is suggestive of flourishing growth and new beginnings. Clearly, Woolf predicts that there will be more colleges established for women and that feminists will eventually achieve their goal of having entire universities open to them. This invocation of fresh growth also connotes how good things will come to society when gender equality is embraced.
Like Oxbridge, Fernham also has a factual counterpart. It refers to Newnham College, Cambridge, which was established specifically for women students in 1871. Woolf originally gave the talks that would become A Room of One's Own at Newnham and Girton Colleges (the latter also of Cambridge). Girton, originally an all-male college, opened its doors to women in 1869.
Another setting evocative of the future in the novel is the streets of London. In the opening to the final chapter of the book, Mary looks out of her window and watches the city start up:
Next day, the light of the October morning was falling in dusty shafts through the uncurtained windows, and the hum of traffic rose from the street. London then was winding itself up again; the factory was astir; the machines were beginning. It was tempting, after all this reading, to look out of the window and see what London was doing on the morning of the twenty-sixth of October 1928. . . . Here came an errandboy; here a woman with a dog on a lead.
After some paragraphs describing this varied and bustling scene, Mary relates something in particular that captures her attention. She is imagining that there is an invisible force in the world that acts like a river, moving people and things along:
Now it [the imaginary river] was bringing from one side of the street to the other diagonally a girl in patent leather boots, and then a young man in a maroon overcoat; it was also bringing a taxicab; and it brought all three together at a point directly beneath my window; where the taxi stopped; and the girl and the young man stopped; and they got into the taxi; and then the cab glided off as if it were swept on by the current elsewhere.
The reader, in the opening to the book's final chapter, leaves for a moment the precincts of old and ancient institutions and the pages of books. He or she is invited to contemplate, for a moment, the contemporaneous, everyday, and real world. It is a dynamic and modern world filled with automobile and foot traffic, factories, and businesses. And what this dynamic fast-changing world promises is that for which the author wishes, which is progress. A bright, certain future is expected just as rivers inevitably reach the sea. In this fortuitous and synchronous meeting of young woman, young man, and taxi, Woolf points to a future in which women and men are on an equal footing, meet each other half way, and travel together in a direction of mutual harmony.
Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on A Room of One's Own, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Like many feminist literary critics, I discovered early modern women writers rather late, sometime in the 1970s, and I immediately understood why they had remained obscure. At that time they did not seem either strange enough to create the frisson of the exotic nor generative enough to have initiated a lineage of women writers reaching down to the present. Their obsolete concerns, eccentric assumptions, and bizarre claims, not to mention their generally impenetrable prose, failed to inspire aesthetic, New Historicist, or feminist interest in me. Here is an example of the sort of statement that left me cold: ‘‘My persuasion hath bene thus, that it is all one for a woman to pen a storie, as for a man to addresse his storie to a woman.'' That sentence sums up Margaret Tyler's 1578 justification for translating and publishing Diego Ortuñez de Calahorra's The Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knyghthood, which was the very first printed secular work in which an English woman explicitly claimed the privilege of authorial publication for her sex. Tyler's translation was, in that important sense, unprecedented, and yet the sentence stresses the ordinariness of her achievement: women writing stories and the common practice of men addressing stories to women are, she says,"all one.'' Nothing strange or untoward in her behavior, Tyler explains; she is merely joining a legitimate and accepted enterprise.
This very rhetoric of normalization was foremost among the things that disappointed me. Certain as I was that early modern women were afraid to write, that they felt the lack of antecedents and encouragements, that their writing must therefore be interpreted as resistant or rebellious behavior, Tyler's statement that she was doing nothing new, that existing authorial practice surrounded and enabled her, merely irritated me. It seemed a transparent defensive ruse, a rather pathetic attempt to identify allies where there were none, to see a clear-cut path where there was, in fact, only a trackless and hostile wilderness. My own reaction was, I believe, typical; feminists in the 1970s tended to take signs of self-assurance on the part of early women writers as marks of plucky but ultimately pitiable reality denial. Tyler, in other words, not only failed to be a heroine but also failed for boring and obvious reasons.
Now, however, chastened by a few decades of scholarship on the history of women's authorship in England, one is inclined to treat Tyler's explanation more respectfully, to be interested in its ordinariness as well as its probable sincerity. One is now willing to acknowledge that she may have believed herself entitled to publish by the phenomenon she names—by the contemporary practice of male authors addressing dedications to women—just as one now wishes to uncover such encouragements, rather than concentrating exclusively on the impediments to female authorship. Tyler's claim, that is, now prompts what Paul Ricoeur called a hermeneutics of recollected meaning rather than one of suspicion. Her "Epistle to the Reader'' will be my first bit of evidence in describing the changing meanings and status of precedents in women writers' rhetorics of legitimation. I will be arguing, in relation to Tyler, that when a prevailing notion of the author implies participation in an ongoing, customary activity, women as well as men will present themselves as traditionally entitled. Or, to state the same point somewhat differently, when the discourse of authorship requires precedents, precedents will be adduced, no matter how implausible they may sound to modern ears.
My second and contrasting instance in this capsule history of the precedent will be the preface to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Reading that preface now, after all the scholarship that has been published on seventeenth-and eighteenth-century women writers, one cannot but be struck by the oddness of the author's ‘‘orphan" rhetoric, her trepidation at breaking into an entirely masculine discourse, and her justification in the name of transcendent reason. When less was known about the history of women's writing, many of us took Wollstonecraft's fear and trembling at face value; now we are in a position to submit it to a hermeneutics of suspicion. A skeptical reading of Wollstonecraft's preface demonstrates that when the prevailing notion of authorship, requires writers to declare their allegiance to some entity—such as reason, nature, or virtue—considered more compelling than custom, they will tend to stress their hard-won freedom from the shackles of tradition imprisoning the minds of other authors. Or, to rephrase, when the discourse of authorship calls for unprecedented thinking, precedents will be ignored, no matter how copious and obvious they are to the modern literary historian. For authorship is not a stable concept, let alone a stable experience, across the centuries dividing these writers, and although both Tyler and Wollstonecraft engage in self-licensing, neither challenges the common forms of legitimation embracing authorship in her period. Any reader familiar with Max Weber's types of legitimate authority will no doubt recognize similarities between his first two types and my characterizations of Tyler and Wollstonecraft: Tyler justifies herself on grounds commensurate with traditional authority, and Wollstonecraft on grounds commensurate with rational authority. Since Weber's scheme is the skeleton of this essay, let me briefly describe its status. First, I do not mean to imply, any more than Weber himself did, that the types he identified have any separate or freestanding ontological existence; they are merely aids to analysis, heuristic categories to encourage the systematic study of authority. Second, adjusting for the obvious fact that Weberian authority is merely metaphorical for most authors, who, unlike rulers, do not really command obedience, a study of the conformity of authorial rhetoric to prevailing styles of legitimation in a polity can nevertheless help us to reach a deeper understanding of the impress of political systems on writers. Although the terms traditional and rational-legal tell us little or nothing about the content of a writer's argument, they help place the formal procedures she is apt to follow in pursuing it. Third, these two types of legitimation are not always mutually exclusive; one might, for example, detect the emergence of rational-legal authorization in some sixteenth-century English writers, but the established traditional mode was still adequate to many purposes, including Tyler's. Finally, readers familiar with Weber are probably now waiting for the third shoe to drop: who will represent his third type—the charismatic, who authorizes herself as the specific and exceptional, sacred, heroic, or visionary individual? You'll have to wait until the last section of this essay to find out who that might be.
In the meantime, let us return to 1578 and the specific sanction Tyler sought in the practice of male writers addressing their stories to women. ‘‘My defense,’’ she writes, ‘‘is by example of the best [authors], amongst which, many have dedicated their labours, some stories, some of warre, some Phisicke, some Lawe, some as concerning government, some divine matters, unto diverse Ladyes and Gentlewoman.’’ Why would she have thought that this practice established a precedent for the publication of her translation of Ortuñez's romance? Tyler's reasoning seems to assume, in the first place, a relatively easy modulation between the role of reader and that of writer. She continues: ‘‘And if men may and do bestow such of their travailes upon Gentlewomen, then may we women read such of their workes as they dedicate unto us, and if wee may read them, why not farther wade in them to the search of a truth. And then much more why not deale by translation in such arguments.’’ By degrees the woman reader immerses herself in the book dedicated to one of her kind, ‘‘farther wade[s],’’ not just passively receiving but actively searching for something Tyler calls ‘‘a truth.’’ Her watery metaphor implies that the woman looks into the book first for its dedicatory reference to herself, as one might be attracted to the glassy top of a pond because it reflects one's own image, but then, becoming curious about something glimpsed beneath the surface, the argument, she wades in to grasp it. Once in the book, as in the pond, she is no longer just a shadowy image on its surface, a mere decorative embellishment of the dedication, but an active prober of its submerged contents. She has become, like the author, a seeker of the book's truth. Moreover, once she grasps the truth it becomes hers, and she is, therefore, entitled to "deale" in it by translation and publication.
This smooth, gradual movement from looking into a book to actively seeking its truths to dealing in its arguments—that is, passing them on to others— is propelled by a common understanding that truths are nobody's private property. Errors may be exclusively attributed, but truths cannot. If the arguments of a book are true, they belong as much to the reader who retrieves them as to the writer who put them there to be discovered; anyone who gets them, has them. Every reader therefore has a precedent for dealing in the arguments of a book: the precedent of the writer.
If the reader and writer are thus alike in relation to the arguments of the book because both grasp what they cannot exclusively claim, author and translator are even less distinct. For translating further emphasizes that the truths of the book are not of the author's sole making. Translating is that special instance of the mediation between reading and writing that underscores a general idea about authorship: since truth cannot be the invention of any particular human intelligence, the verbal conveyances used by authors are in some sense themselves translations. In Tyler's epistle, moreover, translation indicates not only the common ground of readers and writers but also the common ground of gentlemen and gentlewomen. And here, too, she was right to think herself precedented, for translation had been figured as feminine (as in the preface to John Florio's translation of Montaigne), and it commonly did cross not only the roles of reader and writer but also the barriers of gendered literacy. Many translations of the late sixteenth century, especially those from Latin, present the translator as a gentleman courteously opening a cultural door for the gentlewomen. To be sure, the image implies that gentlewomen will never be learned, but it also demonstrates an effort to create a lettered culture independent of gendered schooling, a realm of belles lettres that gentlemen and gentlewomen could share. Since dealing by translation had already made the opening that allowed the sexes to share a textual experience, Tyler indicates, there is nothing to prevent women from participating in what men had already made a common endeavor.
So far I've been explaining why Tyler thought that the male practice of writing or translating for women implied that women could themselves "pen a storie.’’ Her epistle, though, refers to something more specific than writing books for a mixed audience or intending that they be read by women. The precedent that matters most to her is the practice of inscribing the name of a patroness-dedicatee in the text in order to authorize it. Her argument continues:
And they [male writers] must needes leave this as confessed, that in their dedications, they minde not onely to borrowe names of worthie personages, but the testimonies also for their further credite, which neither the one may demaund without ambition, nor the other graunt with out overlightnesse: if women be excluded from the viewe of such workes, as appeare in their name, or if glorie onely be sought in our common inscriptions, it mattereth not whether the partyes be men or women, whether alive or dead.
This passage argues, first, that to dedicate a book to a woman is to imply her testimony about its worth. In such dedications, the patroness's worthiness and that of the book are thereby paired. Not only do patronesses' names appear in books, but books also ‘‘appeare in their name.’’ The conventional locution stresses that the dedicatee, in vouching for the book, participates in the authorial function as the authorizer.
The sense in which a patroness or dedicatee blends with authorship, moreover, goes beyond her role as aristocratic warranter insofar as her influence is assumed to predate the book's publication. Inscribing the name of a patroness is mere empty name-dropping if, to quote Tyler's richly ambiguous phrase, the ‘‘women be excluded from the viewe of such workes.’’ The phrase implies both that women must have read the books which they guarantee and that the women had to be in view at the time of the writing. The patroness is imagined as a final cause of the book (just as she may have been one of its efficient causes as the author's benefactor), and hence she enters into its production as a part of its view, its outlook. Tyler certainly realizes that none of this may be true, that men may dedicate books to women simply to bask in the glory of an aristocratic personage, but she insists that such cynical appropriation would be excessively discourteous. Either their dedications yield authorial responsibilities and rights to women, she concludes, or they diminish the dedicatees to the senseless state of corpses, whose names alone exist.
Returning to our original enigma—why does Tyler claim that it is ‘‘all one for a woman to pen a storie, as for a man to addresse his storie to a woman’’?—the answer is that she considers both instances of female authorship. The ‘‘all oneness’’ of female patronage and female writing floats on the fluid relationship she establishes between reader and writer, the special fluidity of that relation in the activity of translation, the precedent that men had set by participating in a cross-gendered cultural endeavor, and the confluence of all of these factors in the exchange between writer and patroness, which publicly proclaimed the woman as the author's authority. Thus the patroness is, in several different ways, the book's coauthor, so Tyler can point to her as an example of female authorship, already frequently cited by "the best'' male authors, who have declared themselves preceded by their patronesses. In Tyler's argument, the male authors unwittingly become the precedent conveyors, transferring cultural authority from their aristocratic patronesses to an aspiring woman author.
To be sure, Tyler's traditional rationale is not designed to appear uncontroversial. The conditional structure of her sentences—the repetition of if(‘‘if men may and do," "if wee may read them," "if glorie only be sought’’)—and the frequent references to hostile imaginary interlocutors (‘‘they must needes leave this as confessed’’) remind us that her arguments have counterarguments. For example, in the sixteenth century humanists were busy differentiating the roles of reader and writer, partly motivated by a desire to restrict women's participation in learned endeavors. Tyler's model of a smooth transition from reading to writing would certainly not have gone unchallenged at the time. Moreover, Tyler placed herself against the background of another controversy, one that was so well-worn by the 1570s that conjuring it simply yielded further precedents. Her ‘‘Epistle to the Reader’’ fits neatly inside the querelle des femme which, as Linda Woodbridge has shown, was then becoming part of the. literature intended for a mixed audience. Even its misogynist side was designed to titillate and incite female reply. The querelle itself consisted largely of listing positive and negative female exempla, relying almost entirely on legitimacy derived from earlier authors. Tyler's epistle conforms to this ongoing mode of entertainment, taking advantage of a ready-made dispute. Her argument— that authors who insincerely dedicate works to ladies might as well be dedicating them to corpses, for example—is echoed by the character Gondarino in The Woman Hater, who raves against the false compliments of authors: ‘‘How many that would faine seeme serious, haue dedicated graue works to ladies tooth-lesse hollow ei'd, their haire shedding, purplefac'd, their nayles apparantly comming off; and the bridges of their noses broken downe; and haue called them the choyse handy workes of nature, the patterns of perfection, and the wonderment of women.’’ Tyler had used the same logic when she argued that the obverse side of an insincere dedication is an insult and that therefore writers must either own the literal truth of their dedications or confess their incivility, as well as hypocrisy. By viewing the dedications to patronesses either as precedents or as disingenuous flattery Tyler draws on both sides of the querelle des femmes. The misogynists in the quarrel targeted such dedications as signs of the "effeminacy'' of the age, and Tyler shares their skepticism, their suspicion of authorial corruption, while at the same time insisting that authorship is, indeed, effeminate and therefore an appropriate female pastime. She does not, however, stress that her precedents are recent, whereas Gondarino and other spokesmen for the misogynist side of the debate clinch their arguments by calling patronesses innovations.
Tyler's publication may seem startlingly innovative to us, but its underlying rationale denies its originality and reiterates a traditional model of authority. The author is no doubt testing a de facto male monopoly on print, and she is frequently ironic toward the precedents she cites, but she does not challenge the deeper rule that her behavior conform to established patterns. Under traditional modes of legitimation, as Weber remarks, that which ‘‘is actually new is ... claimed to have always been in force but only recently to have become known through the wisdom of the promulgator.’’ Tyler does not begin female publication but rather points out that it has already begun; she claims merely to draw out what was already implicit in settled practice. Her authorial persona abides comfortably within others' prescriptions and controversies.
What a contrast with this we seem to find in turning to Mary Wollstonecraft' s prefatory letter to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Challenging her addressee Talleyrand to provide an argument based on reason for the exclusion of women from the rights of citizenship under the new French constitution, she accuses him of departing from ‘‘abstract principles’’ and relying on mere ‘‘prescription.’’ Wollstonecraft consistently contrasts prescription, or the citing of previous texts as sufficient justification for a practice, with reason, by which she means the deduction of practices from universal principles by clear, logical steps. Wollstonecraft had hoped that the new French constitution would ground itself in the latter, what Weber would call rational-legal, mode of legitimation and therefore chides its author for retreating into traditional, precedential justifications when disposing of the woman question. Wollstonecraft thus implies that the triumph of rational-legal modes of thinking over traditional legitimation will eventually entitle women to full citizenship.
The dependence of the rights of women on the delegitimation of traditional authority in Wollstonecraft's rhetoric is well understood; indeed, feminists have tended to take her arguments as self-evident. Several aspects of them, however, remain unremarked. The first of these is Wollstonecraft's inability to acknowledge her own precedents. In a rhetorical move that reverses that of Tyler, Wollstonecraft sweeps the two centuries of female authors that preceded her into oblivion:
In tracing the causes that, in my opinion, have degraded woman, I have confined my observations to such as universally act upon the morals and manners of the whole sex, and to me it appears clear that they all spring from want of understanding. Whether this arise from a physical or accidental weakness of faculties, time alone can determine; for I shall not lay any great stress on the example of a few women who, from having received a masculine education, have acquired courage and resolution.
The erasure here is double. First, the reader is to understand that the observations and discoveries to follow are Wollstonecraft's formulations of impersonal reason and will stand or fall on their own strength. The fact that dozens of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century women writers had identical observations and opinions is placed beside the point.
Second, counterexamples of women with strong understandings will not be considered because they are not representative. A footnote to this passage continues, ‘‘Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, Madame d'Eon.’’ The list surprises mainly by its very shortness (especially considering the fact that the Chevalier d'Eon turned out not to be, biologically, a woman) and by the fact that Catherine Macaulay alone represents the tradition of British women writers that produced Wollstonecraft. Although the author acknowledges that ‘‘many others’’ might also be ‘‘reckoned exceptions," the argument never depends on the work of earlier women writers. A previous woman writer is quoted and footnoted in support of the book's argument only once, and the acknowledged writer is again Macaulay, as if Wollstonecraft were containing and minimizing her antecedents through this synechdochal repetition. While Macaulay keeps getting cited, other contemporary women are simply used without acknowledgment; she quotes without citing Anna Letitia Barbauld and attributes the sentiments of one of Frances Burney's characters to ‘‘a lively writer, I cannot recollect his name.’’ Wollstonecraft could certainly not have plead ignorance of the extent of pertinent writing by female authors, since she reviewed Frances and Sarah Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Madame Genlis, Sarah Trimmer, the Comtesse du Barry, and Hester Piozzi. Out of this list, Wollstonecraft uses only the work of Piozzi, and she uses it negatively to illustrate the ignorance of improperly educated women. The remaining English writers on this list, whose works are often directly relevant to the topic of women's education, go unmentioned.
One could continue to pile up such evidence, but you are probably now willing to concede the point that whereas Tyler dragged precedents out of unlikely places, Wollstonecraft closeted her obvious antecedents. We should not, however, judge Wollstonecraft's strategy on moral or political grounds; she didn't suppress awareness of her precedents just because she was egotistical, ungenerous, or insufficiently sisterly. Nor can we say simply that her argument led her to magnify the difficulties of educating women under current conditions, so that constant quotation of dozens of truly incisive women writers would have blunted her point. Nor can we point to the fetish of original genius that begins to dominate authorship in the Romantic period, for Wollstonecraft does not often call attention to herself as an especially gifted intellect.
The tendency to ignore precedents is deeper than the surface logic of her argument or even the demands of ingenuity; it is, rather, basic to the rational discursive mode that legitimizes her. That mode stresses the fungibility of reasonable persons. Justifying her lack of interest in exceptional women, Wollstonecraft writes ‘‘are not all ... heroines, exceptions to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures.’’ This attention to the normal rather than the exceptional person is, according to Weber, typical of the "leveling" that occurs under rational-legal authority. To make normal women reasonable creatures, moreover, Wollstonecraft encourages a skeptical attitude toward all antecedent texts. As she stresses repeatedly, arguments must stand on their own, authorized only by their adherence to rational principles that have universal force. Hence it doesn't really matter who said what because one should not establish an argument by marshaling authorities. Legitimacy instead requires inducing sound generalizations from accurate observations or deducing conclusions from manifestly true principles and can in theory be attained by anyone willing to follow the discursive rules. Weber calls this ‘‘the dominance of a spirit of formalistic impersonality,’’ explaining that it encourages a norm of ‘‘straightforward duty without regard to personal considerations. Everyone is subject to formal equality of treatment; that is, everyone in the same empirical situation.’’ Wollstonecraft aims to bring the mass of women into the ‘‘same empirical situation’’ as the mass of men, and hence exceptional members of either sex are largely irrelevant: "I speak of bodies [that is, groups] of men, and . . . men of genius and talents have started out of a class, in which women have never yet been placed.''
The desire to find a new place for women contrasts starkly with Tyler's ambitions, and I would like briefly now to sum up the main differences between the traditional and rational-legal modes of authorizing women. Whereas Tyler (as well as her implied adversaries in the querelle des femmes) cited historical examples of exceptionally great women to illustrate the truth about Woman in general, Wollstonecraft attends to anonymous "middling’’ women. Whereas Tyler authorizes herself through worthy predecessors, Wollstonecraft practices indifference toward her predecessors and relies on reason alone. Whereas Tyler (and other parties to the querelle) accuse each other of innovation and compete for unanimity with past thinkers, Wollstonecraft accuses her adversaries of being merely conventional and strives to make breakthroughs. In short, Wollstonecraft's very mode of authorization—with its democratic, formalist indifference to distinctions of person—prompts a disregard for her own precedents.
This is not to say that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is unconcerned with earlier writers, for the book's rational procedures of legitimation encourage a mode of controversy in which the author spends a great deal of time pointing out previous errors of reason. Appropriately, he most frequent targets share her basic assumptions, not about what on thinks, but about how one justifies what one thinks. Although she addresses her argument to Talleyrand, his exclusion of women from the rights of citizenship simply on the basis of conventional practice leave her with very little to say in response. She simply points out that he has slipped back into a surpassed mode of justification. To engage her sustained attention, a writer must at least partly inhabit her procedural universe. One writer who proves especially vexing to Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, shares her procedures but uses them to justify a reliance on traditional practice and thus conflates the distinction between reason and prescription with which she opens A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Unlike Talleyrand, Burke does not lapse uncritically or unreflectively into prescription; reflection is, after all, his favorite genre. Indeed, while defending tradition, custom, precedent, even prejudice, he seldom uses any of these in his arguments. Instead, he defends tradition on rational-legal grounds. Like Wollstonecraft, he eschews citing authorities or warranting his opinions by appealing to precedent. Instead of taking tradition for granted as the established means of self-authorization, in the mode of Tyler, Burke takes rational-legal discourse for granted as the necessary framework for his critique of rationality and defense of tradition. Tradition, in other words, is the object, not the grounds, of his argument.
To use Karl Mannheim's terms, Burke is a conservative rather than a traditional thinker because he reflects on tradition and gives reasons for its underlying wisdom—even, he claims at times, its rationality. I would suggest, though, that Burke is more than just a conservative thinker, reflecting in an ad hoc way on this or that customary practice; he is the conservative thinker who reasons about tradition in general and thereby explicates how it will figure into post-traditional discourse. Even when praising unreflective traditionalism, therefore, Burke reflects on it:
instead of casting away all our old prejudices [we English] cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
There are many things to notice in this passage; for example, traditionalism is likened to joint-stock investment, making it seem quite up-to-date. The corporate "we" who respect tradition, moreover, does so out of skepticism rather than credulity or piety. Finally, although the passage begins by praising English prejudice, it turns out that those prejudices are just the repositories of the "reason'' of nations and ages. Burke's paean to the particular and the prejudiced thus comes to rest on the universal and the reasoned. In short, his skepticism about individual reason was the main reason he gave for recommending self-consciously traditionalist political procedures.
No wonder Wollstonecraft found him irritating. His paradoxes confounded the distinctions on which she relied; to refute him she had to reerect the barrier between the traditional and rational modes. Hence, in A Vindication she writes,
I know that a kind of fashion now prevails of respecting prejudices; and when any one dares to face them, though actuated by humanity and armed by reason, he is superciliously asked whether his ancestors were fools. No, I should reply; opinions, at first, . . . were all, probably, . . . founded on some reason: yet not unfrequently ... it was rather a local expedient than a fundamental principle, that would be reasonable at all times. But, moss-covered opinions assume the disproportioned form of prejudices, when they are indolently adopted only because age has given them a venerable aspect, though the reason on which they were built ceases to be a reason.
The rhetoric of this riposte links current fashion to prescription: la mode and the outmoded together represent local, time-bound, partial reason as opposed to that which ‘‘would be reasonable at all times.'' This is a neat reversal of Burke's claim that prejudice contains the more universal reason, what he sometimes calls "wisdom'' to mark its independence of formal logical operations. We should also notice that Wollstonecraft rhetorically imitates traditionalists here, who habitually attacked Enlightenment ambitions as mere modern fashions. The nub of her refutation, though, is the identification of the paradoxical nature of Burke's logic: ‘‘A prejudice is a fond obstinate persuasion for which we can give no reason; for the moment a reason can be given for an opinion, it ceases to be a prejudice.’’ Burke, that is, contradicts himself by giving reasons in defense of not giving reasons: ‘‘Are we then advised to cherish opinions only to set reason at defiance?’’ Wollstonecraft will not allow Burke to enjoy the play of his performative contradiction. Either one argues rationally and thereby subscribes to the dominance of reason, of one sets "reason at defiance.’’
Wollstonecraft's first line of attack against Burke, therefore, discredits his new, nontraditionalist defense of the precedent. But the phrase "fond obstinate persuasions’’ introduces a second line of assault, one that links her objections to Burke with her complaints against another nontraditionalist antagonist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Burke and Rousseau might be at opposite poles of an Enlightenment spectrum of opinion about custom and tradition, but for Wollstonecraft they also share a dangerous rhetorical tendency. She suspects that in both "fondness,’’ merely pleasurable emotional attachment, plays too large a role first in forming and then in promulgating their opinions. Burke's defense of prejudice resolves itself, she implies, into emotional self-indulgence: ‘‘This mode of arguing,’’ she writes, "reminds me of what is vulgarly termed a woman's reason. For women sometimes declare that they love, or believe, certain things, because they love, or believe them''. She finds it especially distressing that Burke argues like a woman, that is, from the authority of his own unexamined feelings. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, she associates this emotional self-authorization with Burke's rhetoric, his belletristic style, which covers over the defects in his logic. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she seems to fear that the very effeminacy of Burke's argumentative style, chiming as it does with women's own rational deficiencies, will bind them to him and to the very customs that oppress them.
This fear, which is only hinted in her remarks on Burke, becomes explicit in her sustained treatment of Rousseau. Rousseau is her chief antagonist in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman because his was the most influential nontraditionalist argument about the education of women then in circulation. Deeply inspired herself by many of Rousseau's works, Wollstonecraft acknowledges his genius and visionary power in the very act of warning against them:
So warmly has he painted, what he forcibly felt, that, interesting the heart and inflaming the imagination of his readers; in proportion to the strength of their fancy, they imagine that their understanding is convinced when they only sympathize with a poetic writer, who skilfully exhibits the objects of sense, most voluptuously shadowed or gracefully veiled— And thus making us feel whilst dreaming that we reason, erroneous conclusions are left in the mind.
The dream of which Wollstonecraft disapproves is Rousseau's exaggerated impression of women's erotic power, which he imagines is based on a strict separation of spheres and the encouragement in girls of sensibility at the expense of reason. What is particularly pernicious about his idea Wollstonecraft asserts, is that they are based on fondness and call out a reciprocal fondness in the female reader. Once again, it is the writer's effeminacy, his display of the very attributes he prizes in women, that creates the erotic bond:
All Rousseau's errors in reasoning arose from sensibility, and sensibility to their charms women are very ready to forgive! . . . Born with a warm constitution and lively fancy, nature carried him toward the other sex with such eager fondness, that he soon became lascivious. Had he given way to these desires, the fire would have extinguished itself in a natural manner; but virtue, and a romantic kind of delicacy, made him practice self-denial; yet, when fear, delicacy, or virtue, restrained him, he debauched his imagination, and reflecting on the sensations to which fancy gave force, he traced them in the most glowing colours, and sunk them deep into his soul.
The feminization of Rousseau in this passage is thorough. Like a woman, he is driven by sentiment; like a woman, he is fond of the opposite sex; like a woman, he is too shy or virtuous to be sexually active; like a woman, he instead indulges his erotic imagination. What Wollstonecraft herself imagines in this description is a sororal erotic bond at the center of which is the pulsating—because unsatisfied—desire of an effeminate and therefore powerful man.
Rousseau's authorization, in short, is neither traditional nor rational-legal; it is, rather, based on the "quality of [his] individual personality'' which ‘‘is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with . . . specifically exceptional powers or qualities.’’ His readers fall under his personal domination, freely submitting to his ideas not because they are warranted by precedent or reason but because they are parts of a singular, overpowering sensibility. They thus unite in "an emotional form of communal relationship.’’ Rousseau, as presented by Wollstonecraft, thus enacts a mode of authorization that is neither traditional nor rational; she notices and condemns in him a form of legitimation that, to complete our Weberian scheme, we might designate as charismatic.
Indeed, most of the last paragraph was taken from Weber's description of the characteristics of charismatic authority. One could easily object here that Weber intended this category to comprise more robust forms of leadership, such as military and revolutionary heroes or religious prophets, who are perceived as divinely appointed. I can only plead, once again, that I'm using these categories loosely; nevertheless, I will cite a precedent in Weber. He specifically lists under the heading "charismatic" ‘‘the type of intellectual . .. who is carried away with his own demagogic success,’’ which echoes Wollstonecraft's depiction of the effectiveness of Rousseau's impassioned rhetoric. What specifically interests me here, however, is not so much the perfection of the fit between Weber's category and Rousseau's self-authorization, but Wollstonecraft's feminization of the dynamic of charisma. Forged in sexual repression and molded to the desires of compensatory narcissism, the bonds of love that link Rousseau and his readers are not only erotic but also effeminately autoerotic. If Rousseau invokes a precedent, it is that of the self-love of his female admirers; their subjection to him results from a sympathetic identification with his love of their prior subjection. Wollstonecraft, in turn, exhibits the self-delusion of Rousseau's female disciples and exhorts her readers to break from their own precedent. Rousseau may be famous for inventing the modern version of the separation of spheres, but Wollstonecraft depicts him as the man who has crossed the gender barrier to permeate female error with the glamor of eros.
Indeed, I was tempted, on the strength of Wollstonecraft's depictions, to take Rousseau as my example of a charismatic woman writer; but I found myself with too many competitors. Among nineteenth-century women, Georges Sand, Elizabeth Barrett, Florence Nightingale, and Flora Tristan all made what we might call charismatic demands on their readers or auditors. I could explore Sand's adaptations of Rousseau's persona, for example, or Barrett's self-hagiography, or the christological and messianic self-presentations of Nightingale and Tristan. But in none of these could I find a use of the precedent that seemed to conform to charismatic authorization. To be sure, charismatic leaders often dismiss the need for precedents with great flair; one thinks, for example, of Napoleon solving the problem of his ancestry by declaring, "I am an ancestor.'' But I had a different style of charisma in mind and finally decided to move all the way into the early twentieth century to illustrate it. During the era when charismatic authority was beginning to enjoy its most worrisome political successes, Virginia Woolf wrote what is probably still the most widely read short history of British women writers: A Room of One's Own. In that work, which is so familiar to us that we sometimes have difficulty grasping the specifics of its authorization, a woman writer uses precedents not with the traditionalist aim of normalizing her discourse, of authorizing it from the top of a genealogical or social hierarchy, and certainly not in the rationalist mode of pointing out earlier mistakes, but in a different spirit, of which we are the immediate inheritors.
Why do I call Woolf s discourse and use of precedents charismatic? Granted, it is unlike Tyler's or Wollstonecraft's, but why charismatic? At first glance, the authorial persona of A Room of One's Own might seem too hesitant, too self-effacing to qualify for charisma. Harried from the outset, chased off lawns and distracted by cats, unable to remember her assigned topic, visited by visions, often experiencing incongruities between her inner and outer realities, and repeatedly noting the difficulty of articulating her thoughts, she even presents her argument as a kind of failure:
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. I have shirked the duty of coming to a conclusion upon these two questions—women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.
But, as we all know, social ineptitude, awkwardness, inwardness, visionary visitations, even inarticulateness are often signs that an individual is, in Weber's words, ‘‘endowed with .. . specifically exceptional powers or qualities’’ that are the very basis of her highly particular authority. True to this pattern, Woolf s very diffidence and the rhetoric of her inability to stay within her assigned topic, the eccentricity of her performance, imply that the legitimacy of her discourse rests on its being authentically hers:
Perhaps if I lay bare the ideas, the prejudices, that lie behind this statement you will find that they have some bearing upon women and some upon fiction. At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
One could say that, like Burke's, this is a reasonable account of the limitations of reason; opinion and prejudice (the word is repeated twice) are revalued; objectivity and universal truth politely put aside as, if not chimerical, then irrelevant to the present undertaking. Nothing could be further from Wollstonecraft's faith in reason. But that word idiosyncrasy marks the distinction between Woolf and Burke as well; indeed, it measures the distance between the rational-legal mode, which structured the controversy between Wollstonecraft and Burke, and the habits of legitimation that dominated early twentieth-century authorship. Burke, we should recall, defended prejudice as the opposite of idiosyncrasy, and Wollstonecraft constantly struggled against accusations of eccentricity. But Woolf preempts and embraces the charge, for like most modernist authors she derives rhetorical power from the idea of her singularity, her inability to proceed comfortably along the normal routes of either reason or custom. To be sure, hers was not the authoritarian charisma that required blind faith, and I would not be misunderstood to mean that modernist authors, by being charismatic, somehow participated in the totalitarian projects of the early part of the century. On the contrary, we might read Woolf's rhetoric as an attempt to create an emancipatory alternative inside a charismatic trend: she explains that the reader who accepts the authority of Woolf s idiosyncrasy is likely to become self-authorizing by attention to her own specialness. In Weber's formulation, she is one of those authors whose aim is "the transformation of charisma in an anti-authoritarian direction.'' Woolf, we could say, puts herself at the center of a community of the singular, and recalling that A Room of One's Own is addressed to the women of Girton, the first women's college at Cambridge, helps us to identify the almost monastic sense of a female community that pervades her rhetoric.
Woolf's use of precedents accords with this charismatic mode by extending the community of idiosyncracy back into the past. Singularity seems to mean two things in a A Room of One's Own. It means the special"incandescent'' quality of genius that burns up all traces of "grudges and spites and antipathies,’’ but it also means the oddities and aesthetic blemishes left by struggling for a creative life against the antipathy of one's culture. Woolf takes as her own antecedents generations of women striving to free their minds from the pinch of circumstances. Some of these are mute, like Shakespeare' s imaginary sister or the ancestors she gives her Girton College auditors: ‘‘Among your grandmothers and great-grandmothers there were many that wept their eyes out.’’ Some were noisy— ‘‘Florence Nightingale shrieked aloud in her agony’’—but almost all were vulnerable, wounded, damaged. The idiosyncracy of both their ambition and their damage is internalized and borne by Woolf. From the women writers of the past, Woolf inherits a troubled legacy. Indeed, her legacy is so encumbered, so tentatively a legacy at all, that it cannot actually be said to survive outside of her—and her community's—efforts to keep it alive. Female creativity, as she explains, is precious because it is fragile, always passing out of print, requiring the archival efforts of Girton undergraduates, needing to be rediscovered.
What makes Woolf s use of the precedent charismatic, to put it briefly, is that it reverses the traditional mode: the charismatic woman writer is not so much legitimated by her precedents as she is struggling to legitimate them. Indeed, she emphatically makes her own precedents by a redemptive act of her will, as in her creation of a fictional female counterpart to Shakespeare, whose ambition and genius can only lead to ruin and suicide. Woolf selfconsciously invokes these precedents—both fictional and real—not as powerful ancestors but as prefigurations. She then goes on to gain rhetorical power by recruiting her community to redeem their ancestors:
I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister .... She died young—alas, she never wrote a word.... Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight .... But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.
This charismatic mode of fulfilling the promise of the prefigurations, of rescuing precedents so that they can fill us with their power, is, of course, our most immediate precedent, the precedent of the work that many academic feminists do.
The rhetoric of legitimation most intimately connected to the dramatic late nineteenth- and twentieth-century gains in women's political rights was a charismatic rhetoric. To be sure, a rational-legal universalist concept of individual rights underlay it, but we should not therefore be misled into thinking that before postmodernism feminism was purely— or even primarily—a rational-legal protect, drawing its inspiration from a model of individual, critical, reflective reason. The effective person constructed in feminist rhetoric was often not an abstract, formal entity, but instead a member of a saving remnant, one specially touched by grace and brought into a community with a mission. Twentieth-century feminism has been—to repeat Weber's language—"the transformation of charisma in an anti-authoritarian direction.’’ I have illustrated this transformation with Virginia Woolf's rhetoric, but I could have used the rhetoric of Emmeline Pankhurst or Susan B. Anthony. For what brought women into the streets, what encouraged them to brave hunger strikes, force-feeding, and stone-throwing mobs was not the unprecedented concept of Enlightenment reason but a sense of solidarity with a community of present and past fellow sufferers.
But feminism's charisma has been a victim of its own success. Its long march through the institutions, especially those of the American academy, have resulted in what Weber called "the routinization of charisma.’’ This very essay might serve as an example. Feminism becomes an object of academic discipline, rather than a method or point of view from which to operate. The genealogy of feminism is submitted to the same analytical procedures applied to all textual phenomena. Once relatively unproblematic categories, such as "woman," are discovered to have histories, complex discursive constructions, uncertain ontological status. In short, critical reflection inside the academy repeats and reinforces fragmenting trends that have intensified the differences between women in the society at large. Moreover, as our efforts bend toward normalization, certification, and legitimation through the ordinary channels of academic reward, our antecedents as well lose the powerful aura they had in the rhetoric of Woolf. The routinization of feminism, for example, replaces Woolf s explicitly mythical collective ancestor, Shakespeare's imaginary sister (who dies without writing a word), with her altogether empirical and prosaic sixteenth-century contemporary, Margaret Tyler (who comfortably inhabited her times and was not martyred for her ambition).
Even through the droning of the academic routinization of feminism, though, one continues to hear the charismatic timbre of former generations. Postmodernist rhetoric itself, ever unconscious of its institutional provenance, conjures former struggles when it routinely presents itself as transgressive, and even the more staid, historicist academic feminists frequently borrow the cachet of their subjects' marginality. Am I arguing that these identifications are made in bad faith? No. For this essay has consistently held that even the most "transgressive" of our precedents conformed to— because they were formed by—their prevailing discourses of legitimation, and we ourselves do not depart from that pattern. Our discourse is necessarily permeated by the paradoxes of the routinization of charisma, and postmodernism is as good a name as any for the lamentations we keep up as we bury the charismatic corpse ever deeper.
Source: Catherine Gallagher, "A History of the Precedent: Rhetorics of Legitimation in Women's Writing," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter 2000, pp. 309-27.