A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by Mary Wollstonecraft

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James L. Cooper and Sheila McIsaac Cooper (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Cooper, James L. and Sheila McIsaac Cooper. “Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment Rebel.” In The Roots of American Feminist Thought, pp. 15-24. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973.

[In the following essay, Cooper and Cooper offer a general introduction to Wollstonecraft's background and her interest in sexual equality before discussing the significance of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a foundational text for American feminist thought.]

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) shocked genteel Englishmen and Americans “with the most indecent rhapsody … ever penned by man or woman.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was nonetheless “so run after” that on occasion there was “no keeping it long enough to read it leisurely.”1 It attracted immediate public notice that ensured its author's fame and notoriety as a champion of women's equality through a “revolution in female education and manners.”2

Shaken by the republican thought and revolutionary action of the emerging middle classes, British and American conservatives of the late eighteenth century had “had enough of new systems” proposed by “philosophizing serpents,” such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Conservatives felt that attacks on tradition had promoted disruption of the British Empire in the American Revolution and demolition of established European institutions in the French Revolution. Reckless assaults on the political order threatened society by altering the particular tasks which nature and tradition seemingly had assigned to each group. Thus careless or premeditated levelling of functional differences pierced the veneer of civilization and led immediately to either an absolute equality or anarchy. Attacks upon social institutions were numerous, intense, and serious before Mary Wollstonecraft, a “hyena in petticoats,” proposed an equality between the sexes. Few things seemed more obvious to conservatives than that differences between the sexes were deeply rooted in physical nature and broadly reinforced by tradition. All evidence—from physiology to the Bible—supported the subordination of woman to man as a rightful and necessary condition for pursuit of the general welfare.3

Republicans and rationalists were about as interested in feminine equality as conservatives. Few carried their espousal of reason, questioning of tradition, and support of reform or revolution to feminist conclusions. Concerned primarily, if not explicitly, with the problems of white, bourgeois men, they rarely extended their social analyses to consider and challenge the traditional subordination of blacks or women. To the degree that they explored existing racial and sexual distinctions, they tended to find subordination essentially reasonable and consistent with the natural order. Republicans and rationalists did not always approve inequality with assurance and without qualification. But despite possible guilt, equivocation, or reservation, they generally found the principle of feminine equality uncongenial.4

Mary Wollstonecraft was not the first to raise the woman question in eighteenth-century England or America. Indeed, as the century passed, the number of newspaper articles, pamphlets, books, and sermons about woman's role gradually increased. The longer the discussion continued, the more the arguments for improving woman's condition gained cautious acceptance. Some writers advocated basic changes in woman's position, but the greater number and the better known recommended limited improvements. Wollstonecraft took issue with the most widely read commentators among the latter group. She paid special attention to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosophe, and Dr. John Gregory, a medical professor closely associated with the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment.5

Whether conservative or rationalist, these authors considered women physically inferior, domestic beings necessarily subordinate to their male protectors. Only in their hopes for heaven did women stand an even chance. Almost no one argued for civil or economic equality between the sexes. All sought improved education...

(This entire section contains 3876 words.)

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for women, but none believed in intellectual equality. The range of ideas on feminine education extended from training in advanced domestic arts to extensive reading (excluding such disciplines as classical language, philosophy, and science). Whatever the differences in program, however, most reformers sought to make women better companions for men and better teachers of children.

Mary Wollstonecraft constructed her argument for feminine equality upon commonplace principles of contemporary rationalist and republican thought. Associated after 1786 with such radical Enlightenment thinkers as William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Dr. Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley, she absorbed their protests against an authority based on revelation, precedent, or power. Extending from the physical to the social realm Isaac Newton's idea of a universe governed by natural law, she believed that human beings could discern through reason the absolute and unchanging law of nature and bring their conduct into harmony with it. Through science and education they could perfect society by assuring that each individual and group filled its appointed role in the natural order. But artificial authorities and hierarchies in church and state only obstructed human potential. Received doctrine and traditional institutions required testing, therefore, and deserved acceptance only if found in accord with the great rational design of the universe.

In the crowning events of the eighteenth century—the American and French Revolutions—lay both rationalist hopes for social institutions founded on natural law and conservative fears of the abyss of anarchy. Revolutionary statesmen and soldiers spoke eloquently of natural rights and republican liberties as opposed to the traditional prerogatives of monarchs, oligarchs, and aristocrats. In the flush of republican triumph, one of Mary Wollstonecraft's friends, Dr. Richard Price, enthusiastically endorsed the expected fruits of revolution. But his comments triggered the most devastating conservative attack on rationalist assumptions and revolutionary activity ever penned—Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke challenged the quick scrapping of a political system and the abstractions of the philosophes. Preferring historic privilege, he rejected the doctrine of natural rights as advanced by the revolutionary thinkers and admired the average Briton's continuing fear of God, awe of kings, affection for parliaments, duty to magistrates, reverence for priests, and respect for nobility.

Angered by Burke's assault on a good friend and an enlightened cause, Mary Wollstonecraft responded with the hastily written Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which established her reputation as a successful rationalist polemicist. This frequently emotional and vituperative reply attacked Burke's preference for tradition over theoretical or right reason. She thought that Burkean reverence for historic antecedents inevitably led to worship of the “savages, thieves, curates, or practitioners in the law” who founded states. Surely the admired British constitution had been “settled in the dark days of ignorance, when minds of men were shackled by the grossest prejudices and most immoral superstitions.” “Somewhere,” Wollstonecraft insisted, “implicit submission to authority … must stop, or we return to barbarism; and the capacity of improvement, which gives us a natural sceptre on earth, is a cheat.” Only when human beings learn “to respect the sovereignty of reason” will they “discern good from evil” and “break the ignoble chain” of the past.6

Neither in her response to Burke nor in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman did Wollstonecraft endorse all the major positions of her radical rationalist friends. She allowed that Dr. Price's zeal carried him beyond “sound reason” to “utopian reveries.” Unlike many of the radicals, she did not press beyond republicanism into open support of democracy or anarchy. Nor did she give up Christianity for deism, agnosticism, or atheism, although she was opposed to clerical establishments. Some of the radicals who considered human reason powerful enough to shape as well as discern nature looked forward to a state of social perfection in which absolute equality would be engineered. But Mary Wollstonecraft never expected “a heaven on earth.” “I know that the human understanding is deluded with vain shadows, and that when we eagerly pursue any study, we only reach the boundary set to human enquiries.”7

Thus she never asserted that the establishment of the natural order through reason would create an absolute equality between man and man or between man and woman. She accepted the existence of a “common law of gravity” which assigned to each individual or group an appropriate position in society. She admitted that women have less physical strength than men, a condition that no environmental effort could eradicate. And she acknowledged that greater physical strength made men better able to practice certain virtues. She also argued that women have a certain sphere of activity, particular duties, and a “maternal character” naturally different from men's. Furthermore, she conceded that historically women had always been subordinate to men.

Insisting that “it is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world,” Wollstonecraft demanded an equality of rights or opportunities for all human beings, even if such functional equality resulted in some groups or individuals being subordinate to others. Full access to the Creator through reason would free woman from the artificial stations arbitrarily assigned by man and allow her to find her God-ordained place in the natural order. Society could never achieve perfection until all groups or individuals functioned in harmony with the law of nature. But man assured woman's physical dependence and lowered her level of mental activity by denying her adequate physical exercise, providing inappropriate education, and permitting only a cramped sphere of activity. Denial of civil existence and work outside the home only extended woman's deficiencies, finally leaving her destitute of virtue. Man thereby created unnatural physical, intellectual, and moral inequalities between the sexes and sealed woman in an artificial inferiority.

Mary Wollstonecraft's belief in the essential rationality of mankind led her to place special emphasis upon the ability of correct education to overcome man-made degradation. She had initially ventured into print with Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the more important Duties of Life (1787). Although Thoughts did not contain the greater feminist thrust of her later work, it indicated an early concern not only about women's education but also about their interest in “frippery” and their maternal negligence, points she later expanded in Rights of Woman. She also considered and bemoaned their limited career opportunities as well as the confining nature of the marriage relationship.

Wollstonecraft's thoughts about education of women were greatly influenced by Catherine Macaulay, author of a notable history of England, whose Letters on Education (1790) attributed much of woman's inferiority directly to faulty education.8 Wollstonecraft thus supported an educational system with reduced sexual distinctions. She proposed the establishment of a national system of public and coeducational schools encouraging maximum student participation and self-regulation. By dedicating the Rights of Woman to Charles Talleyrand-Perigord, Mary Wollstonecraft publicly asked this French revolutionary leader to build more feminine equality into his country's most important social institution—its schools. Not until the demands of reason were more fully satisfied through education, Wollstonecraft argued, could women know what their natural function in society was.

Rationalist thought and republicanism effectively served the male bourgeois struggle to win freedom from aristocratic and feudal authorities. Mary Wollstonecraft hoped to extend similar freedom to bourgeois women as well. Few of the rationalists and republicans who preached “the rights of man” recognized the extent to which they were talking primarily about the privileges of the middle class. But Wollstonecraft openly acknowledged her “particular attention to those in the middle class.” Indeed, her assertion that “the majority of mothers … leave their children entirely to the care of servants” offers one illustration of this class bias.

Equality of right or of opportunity would lift certain conventional restraints from all women. Yet functional equality was not of equal use to every woman, for all the disadvantages of poverty would prevent the lower classes from capitalizing effectively on the new freedoms. Since Wollstonecraft laid most stress upon education to eradicate the worst sexual distinctions, the class implications of her educational reform have special importance. Critical of Talleyrand for advocating an identical education for boys and girls to age eight and ending formal feminine education then, she proposed to extend this absolute educational equality another year and allow women additional schooling. But her program for education beyond age nine allowed for rapidly increasing class and sexual differences. Although the benefits of the general attack on patriarchy and the proposed egalitarianism in early schooling spilled over to all classes, the Rights of Woman remained a feminine Declaration of Independence particularly for middle-class women.

Born into a middle-class home, Mary witnessed the desire for upward mobility and experienced the bitter taste of poverty which made rationalism and republicanism congenial. And having learned the meaning of social and economic displacement at the hands of man, she was likely to read a middle-class feminism into a middle-class rationalism. Surely her early experiences with men were too devastating and the roles thrust upon her as a youth too unconventional for her to equate the traditional position of women with the natural order.9 Her father, a master weaver who squandered a sizeable inheritance attempting to become a gentleman farmer, failed miserably as protector and provider. His alcoholic bouts and abusive disposition rendered his timid wife cowering and ineffectual. Mary, the eldest daughter, provided financial and psychological support for her parents and most of her siblings for years.

An eighteenth-century adolescent girl with great drive but only a few years of day-school education had very limited resources for maintaining her own independence, let alone for supporting other people. At nineteen, Mary temporarily escaped from the oppressive family atmosphere to become a companion to an elderly woman. She returned home to nurse her ailing mother. Upon Elizabeth Wollstonecraft's death, Mary went to live with the family of her good friend Fanny Blood and sewed with the Blood women well into the night to supplement the meager income of another inadequate man. Mary, her sister Eliza, and Fanny opened a school which survived for three years. Then Mary served briefly as governess to the children of an Irish peer whose profligate wife neglected maternal duties, thereby accounting for much of Wollstonecraft's scorn for “ladies of fashion.”

Mary Wollstonecraft determined in 1788 to make her living by the pen. But in spite of her extensive programs of self-education, she never overcame all the deficiencies which she attributed to inadequate schooling. Among the many causes which helped “to enslave women by cramping their understanding and shaping their senses,” Mary thought “the disregard of order” did “more mischief than all the rest.” An inadequate or misdirected education left women unable to generalize from observation and incapable of giving sufficient “vigor to the faculties and clearness to the judgment.” She squeezed a modest living from translating and from writing essays, fiction, and review articles. But her treatises continued to lack that disciplined argument and logical organization characteristic of authors with an extended formal education or of radicals with an instinct for and commitment to theoretical consistency. She could not resist the temptation to dart off on tangents, to substitute polemic for argument, or to intrude parenthetical comments. Indeed after she became famous as a writer, Godwin appointed himself her grammar instructor.

While Mary tried in turn the occupations available to intelligent girls of her background and breeding, she did not consider that most popular alternative to autonomy—marriage. Too many of the marriages of relatives and close friends were disastrous. Her parents' example encouraged her to foreswear marriage at fifteen, and little that she saw thereafter shook her resolve. The ineffectual Mr. Blood depended first on his wife and later on Mary to support his family. And her dear friend Fanny died in childbirth in Lisbon, summoned there by the suitor who had originally rejected her. Mary had also spirited her distraught sister, Eliza, away from her husband and what Mary viewed as an emotionally disastrous union. Thus she despaired both for the single woman without support and the married woman who paid dearly for what support she received.

For all the apparent nonconformity of her life-style, Mary Wollstonecraft sought the substance of conventional relationships with men. A year after the publication of the Rights of Woman, she formed a liaison with Gilbert Imlay, an American painter then resident in France, where Mary was observing the Revolution. Becoming his mistress, she gave birth to a daughter. But Imlay tired of the relationship and took a new mistress in England. Distraught by this seeming betrayal, Mary attempted suicide. Within a year, however, she drifted into an affair with the noted radical, William Godwin.10 He had argued in Political Justice for an end to matrimony as an institution, but he forsook this position in taking Mary as his legal wife. Neither in her life nor in her writing did she seek complete independence of woman from man. Unlike Godwin, she never renounced the institution of marriage, although she wanted to strip it of forms which had entrapped so many of her female friends and relatives. Recognizing certain essential functional differences between man and woman, she accepted the legitimacy of woman's domestic and maternal roles as long as they were not made enslaving. She and Godwin experimented with the appropriate degree of independence within the marriage bond by continuing to live and work in separate lodgings. But it was to the maternal that she finally succumbed: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died in 1797 from the complications of childbirth. She left an autobiographical novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, a sequel to the Rights of Woman, unfinished.

More sensitive to form than substance, the public noted those conventions which Mary Wollstonecraft flouted, not those she affirmed. She did not espouse many of the fundamental political, religious, or absolute egalitarian tenets of her radical rationalist friends. Yet she did not escape judgment by association, especially after her anarchist husband, Godwin, eulogized her in a widely read memoir which publicized her honest but unconventional arrangements with Imlay. Association with radicalism was not altogether unfashionable at the height of the revolutionary era, but Burke's stunning assault on revolutionary republicanism and rationalism and the continuing radicalization of the French Revolution turned the tide of opinion in Britain and America. Public openness to feminist and other proposals for social reconstruction decreased noticeably as the fortunes of republicanism, rationalism, and revolution waned.

Wollstonecraft's feminist attack on convention was nevertheless too telling to be completely ignored in the United States. Although the shift from seventeenth-century religious argument to eighteenth-century rationalism had not drastically affected many Americans' conception of woman's place, the popularity of Gregory, Rousseau, and others reflected a gradual improvement in social convention. However, not until Wollstonecraft's treatise appeared did Americans in any significant number face arguments for sexual equality directly. Even though the implications of her call for such equality immediately repelled most people, the issue had been effectively raised and a debate started that could not be dismissed easily.11

Charles Brockden Brown, the American novelist, discussed woman's rights in Alcuin: A Dialogue, published in 1798. Brown borrowed his ideas of sexual differences, education, and, to a lesser extent, marriage from Wollstonecraft. Rights of Woman also received serious attention from “Constantia” or Judith Sargent Murray, daughter of a prosperous and prominent Gloucester, Massachusetts, merchant. She published a three-volume collection of essays in 1798 dealing with several of Mary Wollstonecraft's themes. Brown and Mrs. Murray were not typical of their age, yet a few others shared their sentiments, including Aaron Burr, who considered the Rights of Woman a work of genius.12

A number of other Americans cited some of Mary Wollstonecraft's premises in the early nineteenth century. In Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818), Hannah Mather Crocker found the “Rights of Woman … replete with fine sentiments, though we do not coincide with her opinion respecting the total independence of the female sex.” While not a radical, Cotton Mather's granddaughter desired freedom for her daughters to study “every branch of science, even jurisprudence.” Mary's ideas also circulated among the more important British and American communitarian reformers of this period. Frances Wright, radical feminist and leader of the interracial Nashoba experiment, and Robert Owen and his son, Robert Dale Owen, of the New Lanark, Scotland, and New Harmony, Indiana, model communities, endorsed the Rights of Woman. Calling for a strike of mill girls in 1834, a still more militant young woman from Lowell, Massachusetts, delivered “a flaming Mary Wollstonecraft speech on the rights of women and the inequities of the ‘monied aristocracy’” from atop the town pump.13

New editions of the Rights of Woman became available after 1833, and it was probably one of these that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton read. Shut out, along with other female delegates, from the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, Mrs. Mott wandered the London streets with Mrs. Stanton discussing “Mary Wollstonecraft, her social theories, and her demands of equality for women.” At this time they agreed to hold a woman's rights convention in America. If “the movement for woman's suffrage, both in England and America, may be dated from this World's Anti-Slavery Convention,” then surely the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft was present at its birth.14


  1. The most accessible, complete edition of Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, is edited by Charles W. Hagelman, Jr. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1967).

  2. Contemporary English commentary on the Rights of Woman is quoted and summarized in Ralph M. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), 157-162. Emma Rauschenbusch-Clough, A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898), 39-45, provides an extended formal analysis of Wollstonecraft's feminist ideas. See also Margaret George, One Woman's “Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970) and Eleanor Flexner, Mary Wollstonecraft (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1972) for fine contemporary examinations of Wollstonecraft's life and work.

  3. Rauschenbusch-Clough, Study of Wollstonecraft, 43-45.

  4. Excellent analyses of rationalist ambivalence toward blacks are developed in David Brion Davis, Problems of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 391-421, and Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 349-356, 429-481. For rationalism and women, see Mary S. Benson, Women in Eighteenth Century America: A Study of Opinion and Social Usage (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1966 reissue of 1935 edition), 65-78, 127-171.

  5. The best survey of eighteenth-century English and American thought about the position of women can be found in Benson, Women in America, 34-78.

  6. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (Gainesville, Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1960 reissue of 1790 edition), 19, 22-23, 61, 97. For analysis of this treatise, see Rauschenbusch-Clough, Study of Wollstonecraft, 71-86; Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 111-123; George, Situation, 87-89.

  7. Wollstonecraft, Rights of Men, 33-35, 76-77.

  8. For Wollstonecraft's debt to Macaulay, see Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 110, 144-145, 150-151.

  9. For the details of Wollstonecraft's early life, see especially Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 3-110.

  10. On Godwin and Wollstonecraft, see Rauschenbusch-Clough, Study of Wollstonecraft, 13-16, 176-185; Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 258-316; George, Situation, 149-168.

  11. Benson, Women in America, 100-171.

  12. Benson, Women in America, 172-187; Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 158, 357. Charles Brockden Brown's Alcuin: A Dialogue has been carefully edited by Lee R. Edwards and conveniently reprinted by Grossman Publishers (New York, 1970).

  13. Aileen S. Kraditor, (ed.), Up from the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, Inc., 1968), 43; Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 334, 340; Rauschenbusch-Clough, Study of Wollstonecraft, 188; Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Atheneum, 1968 reissue of 1959 edition), 55.

  14. Wardle, Wollstonecraft, 340; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda J. Gage, and Ida H. Harper (eds.), History of Woman Suffrage (6 volumes, Rochester, New York, and New York, 1881-1922), I, 62.


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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft

The following entry provides criticism of Wollstonecraft's political treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). See also, Mary Wollstonecraft Criticism.

Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a declaration of the rights of women to equality of education and to civil opportunities. The book-length essay, written in simple and direct language, was the first great feminist treatise. In it Wollstonecraft argues that true freedom necessitates equality of the sexes; claims that intellect, or reason, is superior to emotion, or passion; seeks to persuade women to acquire strength of mind and body; and aims to convince women that what had traditionally been regarded as soft, “womanly” virtues are synonymous with weakness. Wollstonecraft advocates education as the key for women to achieve a sense of self-respect and a new self-image that can enable them to live to their full capabilities. The work attacks Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau who, even while espousing the revolutionary notion that men should not have power over each other, denied women the basic rights claimed for men. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman created an uproar upon its publication but was then largely ignored until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today it is regarded as one of the foundational texts of liberal feminism.

Biographical Information

Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759, the second of six children. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a tyrannical man, and as she was growing up Wollstonecraft watched her mother bullied and mistreated by him. At the age of nineteen Wollstonecraft left home to make her own way in the world. In 1783 she aided her sister, Eliza, escape an abusive marriage by hiding her from her husband until a legal separation was arranged. Wollstonecraft and her sister later established a school at Newington Green before she moved to Ireland to work as a governess to the family of Lord Kingsborough. In 1787 she returned to London and embarked on a literary career. The following year Wollstonecraft was hired as translator and literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, a publisher of radical texts. She soon became acquainted with prominent intellectuals in radical political circles. When Johnson launched the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft became a regular contributor of articles.

In 1790, in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she disputed Burke's conservative position and advocated for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. In 1791 two events took place that prompted Wollstonecraft to write her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The first was the writing of the new French Constitution, which excluded women from all areas of public life and granted citizenship rights only to men over the age of twenty-five. The second was the report on education given by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to the French National Assembly recommending that girls' education should be directed to more subservient activities. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to Talleyrand, and Wollstonecraft appeals to him to rethink his views. While she was working on the treatise, Wollstonecraft fell in love with the married painter and philosopher Henry Fuseli. When she was rejected by him, and after her newly published treatise caused a stir in England, she moved to France. There she witnessed Robespierre's Reign of Terror; she would later criticize the violence of the French Revolution in her history, An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). In Paris Wollstonecraft met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant, with whom she later had a daughter, Fanny. When Imlay deserted her, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Soon after she lived with the philosopher William Godwin, whom she eventually married. In August 1797 she gave birth to their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), and less than a month later she died.

Plot and Major Characters

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman begins with a dedication to Talleyrand-Périgord, the Late Bishop of Autun, asking him to reconsider some of his ideas about the education of girls and women. In her dedication Wollstonecraft states that the main idea in her book is based on the simple principle that if woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue. Her argument in the thirteen chapters that follow is that rights are based on human reason and common human virtues, which are empowered by God. Because people have tended to use reason to justify injustice rather than promote equality, a vindication of the rights of women is needed. Her work begins with a discussion of sexual character, then offers observations on the state of degradation to which woman is reduced by various causes; presents critiques of writers who have rendered women objects of pity or contempt; shows the effect that an early association of ideas has upon the character; discusses the notion of modesty as it is applied to women; shows how morality is undermined by sexual notions of the importance of a good reputation; outlines the pernicious effects that arise from the unnatural distinctions established in society; discusses parental affection and one's duty to parents; comments on national education; presents examples of the folly that the ignorance of women generates; and concludes with reflections on the moral improvement that a revolution in female manners would produce.

In the course of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft criticizes the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, she judges, has an inadequate understanding of rights and is wrong when he claims that humans are essentially solitary. Indeed, one of the principal projects and strategies of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is to turn Rousseau's egalitarian principles against his negative characterization of women in Emile (1762). She challenges Burke also, who she views as having a mistaken conception of the nature of power. A great deal of her treatise attacks the educational restrictions and “mistaken notions of female excellence” that keep women in a state of “ignorance and slavish dependence.” She argues that girls are forced into passivity, vanity, and credulity by lack of physical and mental stimulus and by a constant insistence on the need to please, and ridicules notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. She sees women as too often sentimental and foolish, gentle domestic “brutes” whose fondness for pleasure has been allowed to take the place of ambition. Wollstonecraft suggests that it is only by encouraging the moral development of every individual to success and independence that a true civilization will work.

Major Themes

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argues for equality for women and girls not only in the political sphere but in the social realm as well. It asks readers to reconsider prevailing notions about women's abilities. Some of the main issues that Wollstonecraft emphasizes are education, virtues, passion versus reason, and power. She argues that the current roles and education of women do women more harm than good and urges reform that would provide women with broader and deeper learning. She also discusses the virtues that will develop a “true” civilization. However, she rejects traditional notions of feminine “virtue” and sees virtues not as sexual traits but as human qualities. She also insists that intellect, or reason, and not emotion, or passion, be the guiding force in human conduct. Society's association of women with emotionality and thus vulnerability must to be countered, she argues, by the use of reason and engagement in strenuous mental activity. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft talks a great deal about power—in terms of the status quo, in regards to women's position in society, and so on—but ultimately what she urges is for women to have power not over men but over themselves.

Critical Reception

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was much acclaimed in radical political circles when it was published, but it also attracted considerable hostility. The statesman Horace Walpole, for example, called Wollstonecraft “a hyena in petticoats,” and for most of the nineteenth century the book was ignored because of its scandalous reputation. Beginning in the late twentieth century, literary critics and philosophers began to take great interest in Wollstonecraft's treatise as one of the founding works of feminism. Some issues discussed by commentators of Wollstonecraft's treatise are the author's attitude toward sexuality, ideas about education, the role of reason versus passion, attitudes toward slavery, the relevance of the work to contemporary struggles for rights, the unflattering portrayal of women, and the status of the work as a foundational feminist text.

Elissa S. Guralnick (essay date autumn 1977)

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SOURCE: Guralnick, Elissa S. “Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Studies in Burke and His Time 18, no. 3 (autumn 1977): 155-66.

[In the following essay, Guralnick argues that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is much more than a feminist tract, and is a statement of extreme political radicalism that extends to criticizing, for example, the monarchy and the British educational system.]

Since its publication in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been treated almost exclusively as a feminist manifesto, a simple defense of women's rights. Although critics have generally allowed that the Rights of Woman enlarges upon the political tenets expounded in the Rights of Men, little attention has been paid to the relationship between the two documents. It has been as if the warning implied in the March 1792 issue of the Analytical Review has been carefully and universally heeded: “It might be supposed that Miss W. had taken advantage of the popular topic of the ‘Rights of Man’ in calling her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ had she not already published a work, one of the first answers that appeared to Mr. Burke, under the title of, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men.’ But in reality the present work is an elaborate treatise of female education.1 As the Analytical reviewer seems to have wished, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has never been thoroughly examined as a political tract, a radical critique of society from broad egalitarian premises.

Yet the Rights of Woman is a radical political tract, even before it is a radical feminist tract. In fact, the feminism that animates the Rights of Woman is merely a special instance of the political radicalism that animates the Rights of Men. To ignore this fact is to misconstrue much of the basic character of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is to fail, as Wollstonecraft's critics have usually done, to understand the propriety of the work's apparent digressions into such tenuously related material as the tyrannical abuse of power by kings and the effeteness of their courts, or the detrimental effects upon society of the existence of a standing army and navy, or the mistakes of educators who would lead boys too early into an understanding of the vices of the world. And it is to underestimate as well the full extent of the social reform that Wollstonecraft envisions as necessary to ameliorate the condition of women in her society. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman cannot be properly interpreted except as a statement of political radicalism—more bold, more uncompromising, and more intelligently argued than the earlier Vindication of the Rights of Men.

Indeed, for all its spirit, the Rights of Men is not an impressive political document. It was conceived far too exclusively as a vituperative attack on the person and politics of Edmund Burke.2 As the great British spokesman for conservative public polity, and as an apparent deserter from the cause of freedom he had espoused in approving the American Revolution, Burke was a natural butt for Wollstonecraft, committed as she was to egalitarian principles. But in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke had offended Wollstonecraft on more than philosophical grounds. With an injustice that she could not allow to go unnoticed, Burke had maligned the Reverend Richard Price—dissenting minister, political radical, and friend to Wollstonecraft from her days as school-mistress in Newington Green. Price's sermon, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, had served as the immediate provocation for the Reflections, and Burke had not concealed his scorn for the style or opinions of the eminent dissenter.3 Wollstonecraft, only weeks after the publication of the Reflections, responded in kind, heaping on her opponent a wrath and a contempt she made no effort to disguise. Unabashedly, she characterized Burke as an unprincipled charlatan, given to wit above judgment, eloquence above honest simplicity, and opportunism above integrity.

In place of Burke's argument in defense of his political conservatism—an argument that Wollstonecraft thought to proceed from a spurious reliance upon supposed common sense4—Wollstonecraft offered an argument from reason. Reason tempered by passion, she contended, not only rejects Burke's appeal to tradition and the wisdom of antiquity, but also urges a spirit of revisionism founded on several clear truths: namely, that freedom is the birthright of all men; that the progress of virtue in civilization depends upon the equality of all men; that prescription and property are destructive of that equality and consequently injurious to the progress of virtue; that blind submission to authority is debasing to the men who kneel and ruinous to the men before whom the knee is bent. Elaboration of these truths vies with castigation of Burke as the principal focus of the Rights of Men; and the disorganization that follows from Wollstonecraft's divided purpose is compounded by the technique of free association that permits topic to succeed topic haphazardly throughout the text. In its incoherent organization, as in its rational and egalitarian premises, the Rights of Men looks ahead to its far more famous successor, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

The Rights of Men looks ahead, too, in the character of the figurative language that emerges from close reading of the text. Although Wollstonecraft was not a dedicated or inventive user of metaphor or simile in her prose, she does appear to be struggling in the Rights of Men to discover a particular figure—one fit to describe the condition of men (and women) who have been made deficient in their humanity by reason either of undue wealth and power or of staggering poverty and abjectness. From the first pages of her answer to Burke, Wollstonecraft shows herself to be at once interested in this problem of dehumanization and incapable of describing it fully. She is not content to say of the rich, who “pamper their appetites, and supinely exist without exercising mind or body,” merely that “they have ceased to be men.”5 Groping after an expression harsh enough to describe their debasement, she calls them “artificial monster[s],” the deformed products of “hereditary property—hereditary honours.”6 A vivid metaphor, but not, it seems, a satisfactory one; for it is never used again. Sixteen pages later, the rich are spoken of together with the uneducated lower classes, both emerging in description as vulgar “creatures of habit and impulse.”7 The metaphor is ugly, particularly in its application to the poor, whom Wollstonecraft pitied; thus it, too, is abandoned. As the text proceeds, Wollstonecraft argues that sophistication, libertinism, servility, and depraved sensuality are unmanly;8 but she finds no comprehensive figure by which to represent that unmanliness.

Not, at least, quite yet. But a figure is in the making—one that is at once startling and obvious, simple and extraordinary. That which is unmanly is, of course, womanly; and the realization that woman can be used as a general figure for the social and even political debasement of all mankind emerges sporadically but surely as the Rights of Men proceeds. As early as the third paragraph of the text, the possibility shyly obtrudes itself with Wollstonecraft's likening of a wit to a “celebrated beauty, [anxious] to raise admiration on every occasion, and excite emotion, instead of the calm reciprocation of mutual esteem and unimpassioned respect.”9 Later, “luxury and effeminacy” are identified as the curses of the aristocracy,10 and “profligates of rank” are said to be “emasculated by hereditary effiminacy.”11 As Wollstonecraft's attention turns to and from the special problem of woman's place in society12—as woman becomes characterized as a flattered doll, vain, inconsiderate, intentionally weak and delicate, and designedly lacking in the “manly morals” of “truth, fortitude, and humanity”13—the metaphor urges itself more strongly upon Wollstonecraft and reader alike. Although not so insistent or complex in this text as in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the figure does reach a kind of climax in the Rights of Men when Wollstonecraft attacks the quality of Burke's patriotism and piety: “You love the church, your country, and its laws, you repeatedly tell us, because they deserve to be loved; but from you this is not a panegyric: weakness and indulgence are the only incitements to love and confidence that you can discern, and it cannot be denied that the tender mother you venerate deserves, on this score, all your affection.”14 Here in her description of the church as a weak, imprudent mother is the germ, already beginning to grow, of the figure which will animate and complicate the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, helping to make this later text altogether as radical in its politics as in its sociology.

For if the Rights of Woman is a political treatise, it is so primarily by virtue of the fact that Wollstonecraft consciously describes political as well as social realities in England through and by means of the social condition of the country's women. In his biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, Ralph Wardle notes that the central thesis of the Rights of Woman is “that women as well as men are entitled by birthright to liberty and equality, and that if their rights are withheld, they will deter the progress of civilization. Truly Mary enjoyed at least one flash of genius, and that came when she recognized the similarity between the plight of oppressed womankind and that of oppressed mankind, and concluded that the solutions were identical.”15 The flash of genius Wardle identifies is genius indeed, but not accurately described; for the similarity he notes is more complex than he allows. Oppressed womankind serves in the Rights of Woman not merely as a figure for oppressed and impoverished mankind, but as a figure for all men, high as well as low, who are implicated in social and political contracts which condone inequality of rank, wealth, and privilege.

Indeed, it is significant that in the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft more often likens women to the rich and powerful than to the poor and weak, as would seem most natural. Women are oppressed, it is true; but their oppression is, ironically, the consequence of their privileged status as pampered creatures of whom no mental competence or moral intelligence is expected. As Wollstonecraft argues in the course of her exposition, “birth, riches, and every extrinsic advantage that exalt a man above his fellows, without any mental exertion, sink him in reality below them. In proportion to his weakness, he is played upon by designing men, till the bloated monster has lost all traces of humanity.”16 Speaking primarily of middle-class women, but warning that “the whole female sex are, till their character is formed, in the same condition as the rich,”17 Wollstonecraft argues that women are born to indulgence, and powerful in the very weakness that is the beauty and cunning by which they lord it over the men who imprison them. Thus, women can be seen to “act as men are observed to act when they have been exalted by the same means.”18 They are, in short, “either abject slaves or capricious tyrants”19—different sides of the same devalued coin.

So it is that Wollstonecraft can argue that women enjoy “illegitimate power” and receive “regal homage.”20 They are like Turkish bashaws,21 like despots,22 like kings,23 like Roman emperors,24 like “vicegerents allowed to reign over a small domain”25—and, conversely, all such tyrants are like women. When Wollstonecraft opines that

it is impossible for any man, when the most favourable circumstances concur, to acquire sufficient knowledge and strength of mind to discharge the duties of a king, entrusted with uncontrouled power; how then must they be violated when his very elevation is an insuperable bar to the attainment of either wisdom or virtue; when all the feelings of a man are stifled by flattery, and reflection shut out by pleasure! Surely it is madness to make the fate of thousands depend on the caprice of a weak fellow creature, whose very station sinks him necessarily below the meanest of his subjects!26

we can only understand that the regal character has been feminized in its degradation. Such is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the metaphoric pattern of the text.

That Wollstonecraft herself has drawn this very conclusion is evident from her discussion of the military. Soldiers, kings, and women, she contends somewhat disjointedly, are linked by similar, vicious characteristics. Soldiers, after all, by reason of their participation in a rigid military hierarchy, are types of the enslaved monarch: “Every corps is a chain of despots, who, submitting and tyrannizing without exercising their reason, become dead weights of vice and folly on the community.”27 And every individual within every corps is characterized by womanly indolence, polished manners, and love of ornamental dress. Officers, especially, are “particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry.—They were taught to please, and they only live to please.”28 Lest we miss the point, Wollstonecraft concludes a long quotation from Rousseau—actually an extended comparison of the respective intellectual provinces of men and women—with the single comment, “I hope my readers still remember the comparison, which I have brought forward, between women and officers.”29 Officers, we are made to realize, have been emasculated, womanized, by their exalted position within the body politic; and war has become “rather the school of finesse and effeminacy, than of fortitude.”30

Emasculated, too, are the rich; for “wealth and female softness equally tend to debase mankind.”31 Thus, the society of the great, like the society of women, is insipid.32 “Women, in general, as well as the rich of both sexes, have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit”;33 for both “neglect the duties of humanity”34—women, by failing to cultivate their bodies and intellects for the benefit of their families; the rich, by failing to develop their physical and mental powers, in accordance with the laws of nature, for their own benefit and that of the state. Once again, Wollstonecraft drives home her point with a slyly framed quotation:

When do we hear of women who, starting out of obscurity, boldly claim respect on account of their great abilities or daring virtues? Where are they to be found?—‘To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which they seek.’—True! my male readers will probably exclaim; but let them, before they draw any conclusion, recollect that this was not written originally as descriptive of women, but of the rich. In Dr. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, I have found a general character of people of rank and fortune, that, in my opinion, might with the greatest propriety be applied to the female sex. I refer the sagacious reader to the whole comparison.35

The effeminate rich, like the effeminate military, enjoy social and political status at the expense of their own masculinity.

So natural is it for Wollstonecraft to argue that women enjoy the degradation of the exalted, that she rarely likens them to the truly abject. Occasionally, they are compared to the “mass of mankind”—“obsequious slaves, who patiently allow themselves to be penned up”;36 occasionally, their condition is likened to that of the poor.37 And in one outstanding instance, the wife who patiently drudges for her husband is said to be “like a blind horse in a mill.”38 But characteristically, woman is described as a privileged slave, an underling comfortable in a debasement of which she herself approves. Thus, she is very much like a courtier who grovels before the king and, as a reward for his congeniality, enjoys himself a certain amount of groveling from others:

From whence arises the easy fallacious behavior of a courtier? From his situation, undoubtedly: for standing in need of dependents, he is obliged to learn the art of denying without giving offence, and, of evasively feeding hope with the chameleon's food: thus does politeness sport with truth, and eating away the sincerity and humanity natural to man, produce the fine gentleman.

Women in the same way acquire, from a supposed necessity, an equally artificial mode of behaviour.39

Woman is that saddest of spectacles—a human being of possible merit, defrauded of her potential and trivialized. And in so far as men are like her in their positions within the body politic, they too are defrauded and trivialized.

It is for this reason, no doubt, that Wollstonecraft so closely associates the betterment of woman's plight with the rise of the classless society.40 Effeminacy—with all its implications of weakness, vanity, and amorality—must be banished from the state, and from all social and political institutions within the state, even as it is banished from individuals. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman cannot be a feminist document without also being a radical political tract, if only because Wollstonecraft perceives the private and public problems of her country to be inextricably related. “A man has been termed a microcosm; and every family might also be called a state,”41 she asserts. “Public virtue is only an aggregate of private.”42 So long, then, as private virtue permits the indulgence and the debasement of woman, the state and all the individuals in it will suffer from a similar degradation.

It can thus be argued that Wollstonecraft does not digress from her subject when she turns her attention to what appear to be tangential matters. Although her text could be organized more coherently and the connections among her points stated more clearly, she does not willfully wander from her just domain. The conduct of parents toward children, of teachers toward pupils, of bishops toward country vicars, of military officers toward underlings, of monarchs toward subjects—these are all, after their fashion, types of the conduct of husbands toward wives; and as such, all bear examination and criticism. Even such “episodical observations” as those in which Wollstonecraft mourns the demise of the British hero or decries the vicious self-interest of the British statesman43 have their relevance. Such disgraces are intimately related to the paucity of virtue in British society, and virtue is condemned to moulder so long as woman is abused and happy in her abuse. As Wollstonecraft notes in her introduction to the Rights of Woman, “weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society!”44 Women—especially those who are or who aspire to be ladies—are preeminently such beings; and the evidence of the corruption to which they contribute is as much Wollstonecraft's subject as the defense of their misappropriated rights.

Ultimately, it is the premise of Wollstonecraft's feminism that the establishment of women's rights must be allied to a complete transformation of society and the body politic. If the Rights of Woman seems less radical than such a premise would suggest, that is only because Wollstonecraft has had the tact merely to hint at the character society will assume when its transformation is complete. Reason, of course, will prevail; and a total leveling of distinctions among men (and women) will have been accomplished. More than any other end, Wollstonecraft desires the establishment of unexceptioned equality among all rational beings. She will allow a superior place in the order of things only to God, who merits homage by virtue of his wisdom and justice, not by virtue of his power. Even God himself cannot be a tyrant in Wollstonecraft's perfect society: he must be rational and virtuous, so that his character may serve as a foundation for human morality. Men, meanwhile, must regulate their behavior “according to … common laws,” recognizing a lesson in the fact that “the eccentric orbit of the comet never influences astronomical calculations respecting the invariable order established in the motion of the principal bodies of the solar system.”45 Eccentricity—even the eccentricity of the hero or the genius—is, for Wollstonecraft, unnecessary and perhaps detrimental to the common good.

It is not for the benefit of society that a few brilliant men should be brought forward at the expence of the multitude. It is true, that great men seem to start up, as great revolutions occur, at proper intervals, to restore order, and to blow aside the clouds that thicken over the face of truth; but let more reason and virtue prevail in society, and these strong winds would not be necessary.46

The welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.47

Three years later, in writing her history of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft would return to this point, blaming the failure of the century's great social movement on those luminaries whose “patriotism expir[ed] with their popularity”:

It will be only necessary to keep in mind the conduct of all the leading men, who have been active in the revolution, to perceive, that the disasters of the nation have arisen from the same miserable source of vanity, and the wretched struggles of selfishness; when the crisis required, that all enlightened patriots should have united and formed a band, to have consolidated the great work; the commencement of which they had accelerated. In proportion as these desertions have taken place, the best abilities which the country contained have disappeared. And thus it has happened, that ignorance and audacity have triumphed, merely because there were not found those brilliant talents, which, pursuing the straight forward line of political economy, arrest, as it were, the suffrage of every well disposed citizen.—Such talents existed in France: and had they combined, and directed their views by a pure love of their country, to one point; all the disasters, which in overwhelming the empire have destroyed the repose of Europe, would not have occurred to disgrace the cause of freedom.48

If talent is to be an object of Wollstonecraft's respect, it must be employed for society's benefit by individuals indifferent to their own personal stake in the success they might achieve through largely individual endeavor. Talent, in other words—like wisdom, reason, and virtue—must be respected as an abstraction; and its possessors must be content to work for the common good without distinguishing themselves from the common man.49

How the perfect society of patriotic equals is to be established Wollstonecraft does not say, although there is evidence in the Rights of Woman that she believed its eventual establishment to be simply in the nature of things. “Every thing around us,” she argues at one point, “is in a progressive state”:50 everything that survives the difficulties of existence develops from a weak and vulnerable infancy to a strong and dignified maturity. Society is no exception. In its infancy, it suffers the domination of an aristocracy that soon gives way, under the pressures of “clashing interests,” to a monarchy and hierarchy; later, as civilization enlightens the multitude, the monarchy finds itself forced to maintain its unjustified power by means of a deception and a corruption which at once poison the populace and point out their own antidote—“the perfection of man in the establishment of true civilization.”51 Such, Wollstonecraft would later argue, was the experience of the French, whose

revolution was neither produced by the abilities or intrigues of a few individuals; nor was the effect of sudden and short-lived enthusiasm; but the natural consequence of intellectual improvement, gradually proceeding to perfection in the advancement of communities, from a state of barbarism to that of polished society, till now arrived at the point when sincerity of principles seems to be hastening the overthrow of the tremendous empire of superstition and hypocrisy, erected upon the ruins of gothic brutality and ignorance.52

Nature, Wollstonecraft seems to assert, will provide for our own best interests in her own good time; we need only assist her by recognizing the character of those interests and working patiently on their behalf.

It is perhaps for this reason that Wollstonecraft poses so few practical solutions to the problems she identifies in the Rights of Woman. No measures she might suggest could possibly rival the wisdom of those measures that will naturally arise in the course of civilization's gradual development. Wollstonecraft need not attempt to incite revolution or even reform. She need only assist the slow, unalterable movement of progress by clarifying the character of those social problems which will demand solution in future years and by adumbrating the probable shape those solutions will take.53 If, then, the Rights of Woman appears somewhat timid in the few proposals for reform that it offers, that appearance is largely misleading. As Wollstonecraft explains in the first chapter of her text, “Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally: a crowd of authors that all is now right: and I, that all will be right.”54 For Wollstonecraft, “all will be right” only when the whole of society has undergone a radical reordering. In the promise of that reordering lies the extreme political radicalism that is at once the premise and the sine qua non of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


  1. Analytical Review 12 (1792): 248-249.

  2. A perceptive analysis of style and rhetoric in the Rights of Men appears in James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 167-176. Boulton shows that Wollstonecraft's criticism of Burke—whose style she finds too much marked by passion and imagination and too little controlled by reason—is equally applicable to her own prose style in this emotional pamphlet. Boulton concludes that Wollstonecraft conveys the impression of being “a writer whose views were strongly felt and vigorously communicated; many of the strictures she directs at the Reflections are valid and telling; but the chief weakness is Wollstonecraft's inability to embody at all times in her prose those qualities of intellectual honesty and emotional discipline which she claimed were of prime importance to a political philosopher. She condemns Burke and, by the same token, is herself condemned” (pp. 175-176).

  3. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in Works, 6 vols. (London: Bohn, 1854), 2: 285 ff.

  4. For Wollstonecraft's discussion of Burke's premises, see A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), ed Eleanor Louise Nicholes (Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1960), p. 68.

  5. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

  6. Ibid., p. 12.

  7. Ibid., p. 28.

  8. Ibid., pp. 42, 47, 50, 116, respectively.

  9. Ibid., p. 4.

  10. Ibid., p. 51.

  11. Ibid., p. 97.

  12. Ibid., pp. 47-48, 52, 111-115.

  13. Ibid., p. 112.

  14. Ibid., p. 124.

  15. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), p. 157.

  16. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (London, 1792), p. 91. A more readily available text—a reprint of the slightly revised second edition of the Rights of Woman—is the Norton Critical Edition, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, 1975); in Poston's edition, the quotation is found on p. 45. All subsequent quotations from the Rights of Woman will be cited by two page numbers—the first a reference to the 1792 edition, the second a reference to Poston's.

  17. Wollstonecraft, Rights of Woman, p. 122/57.

  18. Ibid., p. 92/45.

  19. Ibid., p. 92/45.

  20. Ibid., p. 38/21.

  21. Ibid., p. 80/40.

  22. Ibid., pp. 80/40, 115/54.

  23. Ibid., pp. 85/42, 119/56.

  24. Ibid., p. 89/44.

  25. Ibid., p. 98/48.

  26. Ibid., pp. 24-25/16.

  27. Ibid., p. 27/17.

  28. Ibid., p. 43/24.

  29. Ibid., p. 79/39.

  30. Ibid., p. 332/145.

  31. Ibid., p. 108/51.

  32. Ibid., p. 107/51.

  33. Ibid., p. 129/60.

  34. Ibid., p. 138/64.

  35. Ibid., pp. 122-123/57-58.

  36. Ibid., p. 109/52.

  37. Ibid., p. 134/62.

  38. Ibid., p. 144/67.

  39. Ibid., pp. 298-299/131.

  40. See, for instance, ibid., pp. 38/22 and 74/38.

  41. Ibid., p. 411/177.

  42. Ibid., p. 445/192.

  43. Ibid., pp. 327-329/143-144.

  44. Ibid., p. 5/9.

  45. Ibid., p. 307/134.

  46. Ibid., pp. 372-373/162.

  47. Ibid., p. 136/64.

  48. An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (London, 1794), pp. 301-302.

  49. Early in the French Revolution (p. 7), Wollstonecraft announces the strength of her commitment to total equality among men by charging government with the responsibility of leveling natural inequalities: “Nature having made men unequal, by giving stronger bodily and mental powers to one than to another, the end of government ought to be, to destroy this inequality by protecting the weak.” Essentially, she wishes to maintain the advantages which accrue to society from men of superior intelligence and training, while diminishing the disadvantages which arise from the social and political privilege usually accorded them.

  50. Rights of Woman, p. 242/108.

  51. Ibid., pp. 29-31/18-19.

  52. French Revolution, pp. vii-viii.

  53. Indeed, the example of the French Revolution would later evoke in Wollstonecraft a firm commitment to gradualism. In her history of the Revolution, Wollstonecraft would argue that only an excessive degeneracy and tyranny of the aristocracy can justify a people's “having recourse to coercion, to repel coercion.” For if the progress of reason is likely to bring about a melioration of conditions in government, “it then seems injudicious for statesmen to force the adoption of any opinion, by aiming at the speedy destruction of obstinate prejudices; because these premature reforms, instead of promoting, destroy the comfort of those unfortunate beings, who are under their dominion, affording at the same time to despotism the strongest arguments to urge opposition to the theory of reason” (French Revolution, pp. 69-70).

  54. Rights of Woman, p. 22/15.

Principal Works

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Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (essay) 1787

Mary: A Fiction (novel) 1788

Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (children's stories) 1788

A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (essay) 1790

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (essay) 1792

An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (essay) 1794

Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (letters) 1796

The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (unfinished novel) 1798; published in Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman; also published as Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, 1975

A Wollstonecraft Anthology [edited by by Janet M. Todd] (essays, novels, children's stories, and letters) 1977

Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft [edited by Ralph M. Wardle] (letters) 1979

R. M. James (essay date April-June 1978)

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SOURCE: James, R. M. “On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 2 (April-June 1978): 293-302.

[In the following essay, James discusses the early reviews of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which were largely favorable, and compares them to the later reviews after Wollstonecraft's reputation had collapsed.]

It is popularly assumed that Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was greeted with shock, horror, and derision when it appeared early in 1792, that the forces of reaction massed against this bold attempt to assert the equality of woman and spattered the Amazon with their pens. Her biographers have repeatedly asserted that the first reviews and recorded reactions to the work were generally favorable, but they have had little impact on the popular misconception. The reasons for that scholarly ineffectuality are obvious enough. Later in the decade, Wollstonecraft was vilified by the press, and for much of the nineteenth century hers was a name to brandish at feminists as evidence of the horrific consequences of female emancipation. The furious clamorings of 1798 quite overwhelmed the calm approbation of 1792 in both intensity and duration. Since most writers on Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman are concerned primarily with the tardy progress of female emancipation, they expect a negative response to her and her work and have less than an active interest in the peculiarities of late eighteenth-century social thought. But the reception of Wollstonecraft's work and that of her followers, Mary Robinson and Mary Hays, illuminates an interesting moment in the historical transformation of women's status. Those works, part educational, part psychological, part political, appeared when the contest for improvement of women's education and their status in the family had been largely won, and the contest for enlarged political, civil, social liberties was about to be joined. The progressive intellectual circles represented by the leading reviews reacted positively to demands for intellectual equality, improved education, and reformed manners. Demands for political participation by women or for changes in women's social behavior were regarded as unessential and absurd. Those elements of the works in question that corresponded to changes that had been in train for half a century were approved; those that marked out the direction of more drastic social transformations were rightly though disapprovingly remarked as revolutionary and visionary, if they were seen at all.

With one important exception, every notice the Rights of Woman received when it first appeared was favorable. The reviews were split along party lines. Periodicals of radical inclination, sharing Wollstonecraft's philosophical assumptions, sympathetic towards the rights of man and events in France, distressed by Edmund Burke's lack of consistency, approved the work. Enthusiasts of the rights of man, they did not greet the rights of woman with horror. Wollstonecraft had written for the Analytical Review since 1788. Joseph Johnson who had published both the Analytical and the book, reviewed it positively, of course, as did the Literary Magazine, the General Magazine, the New York Magazine, the Monthly Review, and the New Annual Register. These periodicals had also favorably noticed her Vindication of the Rights of Men, one of the first answers to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. The single journal that had favorably reviewed her Rights of Men and ignored the Rights of Woman was the English Review.1 Although periodicals less politically or more conservatively committed did not in the main choose to review the work, the Critical Review attacked it in two passionate installments.

The contents of the reviews favorable to the work indicate why it was ignored rather than virulently attacked by most of those opposed to the political assumptions Wollstonecraft held. Most reviewers took it to be a sensible treatise on female education and ignored those recommendations in the work that might unsettle the relations between the sexes. The Analytical's response was typical. The work was catalogued for the year not under politics, but under “political economy,” and the reviewer observed that “in reality the present work is an elaborate treatise of female education. … If the bulk of the great truths which this publication contains were reduced to practice, the nation would be better, wiser, and happier than it is upon the wretched, trifling, useless and absurd system of education which is now prevalent.”2 This ability to ignore the work's political implications crossed party lines. In an exchange between Horace Walpole and Hannah More, neither of whom had read the book and both of whom had “been much pestered to read” it, Walpole told More that he had been “assured it contains neither metaphysics nor politics. …” When Walpole flung his memorable phrase “that hyena in petticoats” at Wollstonecraft, the occasion was a political provocation to which the Rights of Woman was irrelevant. He objected to her attack on Marie Antoinette in the Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), and his phrase reciprocates Wollstonecraft's hostility and contempt towards the French queen.3 As in later attacks on Wollstonecraft, Walpole's hostility was directed against the female republican writer, and not against the vindicator of the rights of woman. In 1792 in Walpole and in More's circle, there were those who managed to find the work innocuous as a political tract and valuable as an educational and critical one.

In approving the work, the reviewers endorsed the view that the character of women at the present time needed to become more independent, more rational, more equal to men in mind and spirit; and they indicated how widespread the assumptions of earlier educational reformers had become. As is so often the case with British reformers, the benevolent, improving impulse sought to ameliorate the condition of the sex, not to alter relative positions between the sexes. Her demands for change in woman's spiritual condition approved, Wollstonecraft's hopes for social change earned from most of her reviewers the general reservation that “several of her opinions are fanciful, and some of her projects romantic.”4 The differences were specified by the most feminist of the reviewers, William Enfield.

Enfield was a dissenting minister with impeccable credentials; he had been associated with the Warrington Academy, was the memorialist of John Aikin, Mrs. Barbauld's father, and was memorialized in his turn by Aikin's son, Dr. John Aikin. Reviewing the Rights of Woman in Ralph Griffiths' Monthly Review, he refrained from chiding Wollstonecraft for her “challenge to the ancient wisdom that considered women to be inferior men,” and rejoiced that “how jealous soever WE may be of our right to the proud preeminence which we have assumed, the women of the present age are daily giving us indubitable proofs that mind is of no sex, and that, with the fostering aid of education, the world, as well as the nursery, may be benefited by their instructions.” He included her in the class of “philosophers” and would not offend her by styling her “authoress” (as the Literary Magazine had done). He copiously endorsed “the important business here undertaken … to correct errors, hitherto universally embraced, concerning the female character; and to raise woman, from a state of degradation and vassalage, to her proper place in the scale of existence; where, in the dignity of independence, she may discharge the duties and enjoy the happiness of a rational Being.” The opinions that Enfield explicitly rejected are those that Wollstonecraft had anticipated would provoke laughter: the suggestions that women assume “an active part in civil government,” that they abandon “the useful and elegant labours of the needle,” and that the distinction of sexes be obliterated in social intercourse save where “love animates the behavior.” The first and second Enfield considered of little importance in improving the condition and character of women, the third impracticable outside of heaven. In spite of his retreat at those points where feminist opinions might make a practical social difference, Enfield did fortify the lonely outpost of a rational asexual ideal: “Both men and women should certainly in the first place, regard themselves, and should be treated by each other, as human beings,” and he concluded his remarks with a wish that English possessed “some general term to denote the species, like Ανθρωπος and Homo in the Greek and Roman languages. The want of such a general term is a material defect in our language.”5

Enfield's position both typifies the limitations of the response to the Rights of Woman and corresponds to the order in which reforms were to be achieved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women were to be better educated, more respectable, and more useful as doctors, nurses, teachers before they were to be admitted to civic participation. They would have colleges before they had the vote, and the vote before the question of obliterating behavioral differences between the sexes was raised again. The principal difference between the pro- and anti-feminist positions at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth was less their attitude towards future change than their attitude towards past formulations. The Critical Review, which produced the only attack on the Rights of Woman, was also the only review to maintain the essential inferiority and the necessary subordination of women.

That the Critical should have picked up the volume at all is surprising, although Derek Roper has pointed out that the review went through a moderately liberal phase between 1774 and 1805. Robinson, the publisher of the New Annual Register, who was to be fined in 1793 for selling Paine's Rights of Man, had become a partner in 1774 and exerted a moderating influence on editorial policies.6 In spite of Robinson's association, the Critical reviewed Burke's Reflections favorably and scarified both Wollstonecraft and Paine on the rights of man. In the Rights of Woman the Critical saw the revolutionary implications of the social recommendations more clearly than the liberal reviews. As a consequence, it rejected explicitly the feminist premise that there is no characteristic difference in sex, but at the same time it endorsed educational premises that would have seemed actively and aggressively “feminist” fifty years earlier. Most disturbing to the reviewer was Wollstonecraft's attack on the idea of a sexual character.

The reviewer favored educating women for the same objects Wollstonecraft had suggested: women should possess knowledge so as to be more suitable companions to their husbands, better tutors to their children, more useful members of society. They should be able to examine a subject coolly, compare arguments, estimate degrees of evidence, and trace the evolutions of the human mind. And Wollstonecraft is praised for the force and conviction that her arguments on this score carry. The point of difference was not the cultivation of women's minds, but the relative roles of the sexes and the psychological characteristics that are and ought to be peculiar to each. The author stood firm on the intellectual inferiority of women: no women exist or have existed who are the intellectual equals of men, and demonstrate the same strength of reasoning or reach of intuitive perception. Even if women should possess the abilities that men do, it is not desirable that they should exercise them: “and when all are strong, to whom must the weaker operations belong? The female Plato will find it unsuitable to ‘the dignity of her virtue’ to dress the child, and descend to the disgusting offices of a nurse … and the young lady, instead of studying the softer and more amiable arts of pleasing, must contend with her lover for superiority of mind, for greater dignity of virtue; and before she condescends to become his wife, must prove herself his equal or superior.” The utilitarian base of the argument is comical enough: the tasks allotted women are so disagreeable that if women possessed alternatives, no one would do them; the child would stop undressed, the weak unnursed. Contempt for feminine duties, fear of equality in relations between the sexes, conviction of the superiority of men and the masculine sphere of activity are all evident. At times the eighteenth-century fascination with polygamy seems to be lurking just under the surface of the prose, revelling in the grammar: we are told that “women [plural] are the companions of man [singular], and the companions of a rational creature should possess reason not totally uncultivated.” Elsewhere the tendency to consider women as an undifferentiated herd and masculine achievement as singular turns up in the numbers used to refute Wollstonecraft's contention that women should have representatives in parliament: if they did, “the state would lose 10,000 useful domestic wives, in pursuit of one very indifferent philosopher or statesman.” Although he faulted Wollstonecraft for discussing modesty and carnal appetites too freely, the reviewer was not afraid that the work would promote sexual license. Quite the contrary: “The precepts are calculated to form such women as we hope never to see; such as we are certain would waste their days in joyless celibacy, their sweets upon the desert air.”7

When the Rights of Woman first appeared in 1792, reviewers and readers alike agreed with its recommendations for reform in women's education. If we take “feminism” to mean anxiety for the education of women and the improvement of their minds, there did not exist an anti-feminist in England in 1790. If we take feminism to mean restlessness with the subordinate position of women and a vague desire that women should be possessed of more “liberty” and more consequence, then public opinion was divided between those who thought that women had quite enough liberty as it was and those who thought the rhetoric of submission inappropriate to relations between men and women. If we take feminism to mean demands for specific changes in women's civil disabilities, including the right to vote, Wollstonecraft herself barely qualifies, and her followers, Hays and Robinson, do not even make the attempt. But although Wollstonecraft stayed securely enough within the established boundaries of educational writing not to terrify her first readers, she ventured out of bounds often enough to exhilarate them.

As should now be commonly known, Wollstonecraft's reputation collapsed as a consequence of two separate events: the course of the revolution in France and consequent repudiation of the vocabulary of revolution in England; and Godwin's publication of her posthumous works, including Maria Or The Wrongs of Woman and his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. When she died in 1797, generous obituaries appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, the Monthly Magazine, the European Magazine, and New York Magazine.8 When Godwin's Memoirs appeared the following year, they were picked up for review by far more periodicals than had taken up the Rights of Woman itself.

The Memoirs revealed that Wollstonecraft had borne a child out of wedlock and then been deserted by her lover (Gilbert Imlay), that she had pursued him and had attempted suicide on two occasions, that she had found consolation with Godwin and had engaged in sexual relations with him before marriage. This series of actions found no approval at the time from any political persuasion. The periodicals that had been favorably disposed towards the Rights of Woman united in wishing the Memoirs unwritten, unpublished, and unread. If the Memoirs were “a singular tribute of respect to the memory of a well beloved wife,”9 the vindication of adultery in Maria was scarcely more palatable. The most sympathetic readings of the Memoirs attempted to palliate her acts by attributing them to virtuous though mistaken motives. Having shared Wollstonecraft's political principles, this set of reviewers did not insist upon a necessary connection between her politics and her sexual divagations.

For those opposed to her politics, the Memoirs and Maria served up a delicious evidence of the consequences of Jacobin principles in action. The anti-Jacobin attacks on Wollstonecraft took two forms: the merely scurrilous attack and the politically motivated scurrilous attack. The anti-Jacobin but professedly apolitical periodicals, displayed the scandals in detail but paid little attention to her works. The life alone testified to the consequences of adhering to the “new order” and provided an example which, “if followed, would be attended with the most pernicious consequences to society; a female who could brave the opinion of the world in the most delicate point; a philosophical wanton, breaking down the bars intended to restrain licentiousness; and a mother, deserting a helpless offspring, disgracefully brought into the world by herself, by an intended act of suicide.”10

The reviews founded for polemical purposes, the British Critic and the Anti-Jacobin Review, gave her publications more attention and distinguished themselves by a particularly nasty use of the argument ad feminam. To the clergyman conducting the British Critic (Archdeacon Robert Nares and William Beloe), she appeared “in the strongest sense, a voluptuary and sensualist but without refinement.” As had the Gentleman's Magazine, they remarked the contrast between the Rights of Woman and Godwin's version of Wollstonecraft's last hours: “The reader of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, will perhaps be surprised when he is informed, that, during her last illness, no religious expression escaped the author's lips. In that work, the grand principle is, that woman is not the inferior of man, but his equal in moral rank, walking along with him the road of duty, in which “they are both trained for a state of endless improvement.”11 With his version of the general proposition enforced by the Rights of Woman the reviewer has no quarrel, but it is clear that Wollstonecraft was led from the road of duty by the glimmerings of false philosophy. The Anti-Jacobin compared her to Messalina, denigrated the originality of her work, and isolated its political elements:

Next succeeded her Rights of Woman, which the superficial fancied to be profound, and the profound knew to be superficial: it indeed had very little title to the character of ingenuity. Her doctrines are almost all obvious corollaries from the theorems of Paine. If we admit his principle, that all men have an equal right to be governors and statesmen, without any regard to their talents and virtues, there can be no reason for excluding women or even children.12

As had the Critical in 1792, the Anti-Jacobian located the vulnerability of the Rights of Woman in precisely those elements that account for the continuing interest in the work. The political features exaggerated for satiric purposes by eighteenth-century opponents are those isolated for praise by twentieth-century readers. Figure and ground have changed places.

To a considerable extent, it was the Memoirs rather than the Rights of Woman that shaped and colored Wollstonecraft's subsequent reputation. At the extremes of approval and disapproval were those like Godwin and the Anti-Jacobin who considered her acts an illustration of Jacobin morality in action. Between the ideologues were those like Matilda Betham who represented Wollstonecraft as an amiable eccentric who had refused to marry Imlay as a matter of principle, those who approved her principles and were embarrassed by her actions, and those who found both her life and principles reprehensible.13 The range of attitudes has remained much the same from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the last quarter of the twentieth. The most obvious shift has been the replacement of moral disapproval by psychological disapproval: the lady was not evil, but certainly very odd, and not to be imitated.14

When the Rights of Woman first appeared, the attitude taken towards it varied directly with the political position of her reviewers, and the work was not generally regarded as politically significant. With the appearance of the Memoirs, the Rights of Woman came to seem more revolutionary than it had at first. Providing a vulnerable combination of sexual and political error, Wollstonecraft became the symbolic center for attacks on radical female writers. In certain circles, her name detached itself from her work and came to serve as a red flag for writers forgetful of what she had said. The influence of her name appears most strikingly in the reception accorded the works of her near followers Mary Robinson and Mary Hays.

Robinson's Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, with Anecdotes appeared in 1799 with the author disguised as “Anne Frances Randall,” a self-proclaimed follower of Wollstonecraft.15 The New Annual Register, British Critic, and Critical Review received the work without much hostility and without much respect. The Critical was admirably laconic in its complete notice: “Tolerable declamation in a cause which many will be inclined to support.”16 These reviews endorsed her educational recommendations and reserved judgment on the central question, the justice of mental (not social) subordination. The Anti-Jacobin took her off at more length, adverted as had all save the Critical to her being of “the school of Wollstonecraft, ironically emphasized Robinson's anecdote of the lady who shot her lover, and closed by reaffirming its purpose to root out the corruption the Wollstonecrafts spread in society. In effect, Robinson's work disappeared into the larger category dominated by Wollstonecraft's Amazonian figure.

In 1803 an anonymous work often attributed to Mary Hays, A Defence of the Character and Conduct of the Late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin maintained with justice that Wollstonecraft's vilification was provoked by the passions raised by the revolution in France and by the asperity of tone adopted in the Rights of Woman. The author suggested that Wollstonecraft's tone had alienated many readers who would have been sympathetic to her views. If the work was by Hays, she knew whereof she spoke. She had abandoned work on her own feminist Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in behalf of the Women when the Rights of Woman appeared in 1792. In 1798, Johnson published her work anonymously. According to Claire Tomalin, the work found approval only at the Analytical, and like Wollstonecraft, Hays became “another butt for Tory sarcasm.”17 But Johnson's habit of anonymous publication to protect his authors and Hays' moderation of tone produced a paradoxical juxtaposition. In the Anti-Jacobin for September 1800, Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers was reviewed enthusiastically for showing “that all the female writers of the day are not corrupted by the voluptuous dogmas of Mary Godwin, or her more profligate admirers.” The novel's heroine, Bridgetina Botherim, is a parody of Mary Hays, and in the November installment, the reviewer tells us that the novel contains “an excellent imitation of that vicious and detestable stuff which has issued from the pen of M—y H—s.” Couched cozily in between, there appeared in October a long and generally favorable review of an anonymous work entitled Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in behalf of the Women. While the reviewer has learned to “look with a suspicious eye upon demands” for rights by “advocates of the new philosophy … whether proceeding from the pen of a Paine or a Wollstonecraft,” this fair writer has no similar “sinister design” but advances a bold and fair specific appeal. Although the work contains some disputable propositions, “there will nothing occur offensive to the feelings of delicacy, nor injurious to the interests of religion and morality.”18 Similarly favorable though briefer readings were reported out by the New Annual Register and Critical Review, while the scorching attack was reserved for the British Critic, which assigned her to the party professing that “whatever is, is wrong” and charged her with illiteracy. As in 1792, the attitude towards a feminist work was shaped by the reviewer's perception of the writer's political stance, and in works after 1792 the presence of the name Wollstonecraft was a frequent though not necessary clue to the writer's position. Hays's work, sufficiently moderate in tone to earn the epithet “impotent” from William Thompson,19 was protected by its mildness from the Anti-Jacobin, but fell an arbitrary sacrifice to the British Critic, which attacked a set of political views and contemptuously dismissed the work's author as not worth correction, an indignity not visited upon Wollstonecraft, who was afforded much correction.

While Wollstonecraft did indeed suffer “stoning by the mob,” the cause was not “the reasonable and noble idea of woman's place in the family” presented in the Rights of Woman. Nor was the cause her assertion that “the sexes were equal, [her demand for] educational opportunities and even the franchise for women.”20 The stoning came well after the book and was not caused by a reaction to its specific content. Her educational proposals, when they were remembered, were widely approved. Her political and economic recommendations excited little negative or positive comment at the time of publication. The political hopes were too far from the possibility of realization to be seriously threatening, and the problem of work for women was a common theme when it concerned women of the lower classes or women educated beyond their means of support.21 The emphasis on motherhood that was so striking to the nineteenth-century reader received almost no direct attention from contemporaries. Motherhood was one of the duties to be performed by women in their endeavor to be respectable and useful; it was not yet an object of adoration. The element that came disturbingly close to men's bosoms was the attack on the sexual character of women, the denial that a peculiarly feminine cast of mind was desirable. Men who were glad to agree that mind is of no sex were not pleased to acknowledge that manners ought to be of no sex. The shift in the treatment of feminist works between 1792 and 1798 indicates the continuing approbation of improved education for women and the solidifying opposition to works that seemed to threaten the established relations between the sexes.

Compared to her followers, Wollstonecraft's particular contribution was to state and to enact the major topics of feminist discourse. In the positions she articulated and the life she led, she touched upon almost every topic that has since been raised. Everything is there. Consequently, the reading of her work has varied directly with the concerns of that movement for which she was the first in England to speak. Modern readers light upon her specific proposals for social change and her insubordinate and combative tone. Those elements, dimly discomfortingly visible and politely ignored at the end of the eighteenth century, have been spotlighted by changes in the condition of women. Wollstonecraft's emphases on education and character (the latter might, however, be construed as an early demand for “assertiveness” training) have faded into the background as those demands have been met by actual social change. Although the needs and interests of her audience have determined the reading of her book, there is no discrepancy between the purposes of the work in its original context and the uses to which it has been put. While the work's shape has been distorted, its intent has not been violated. One effect of the revival of the work, however, has been to distort the image present to its first viewers. Had Wollstonecraft argued specifically for the franchise, equal access to professions, equal treatment under the law, abolition of discrimination on the basis of sex, positions consistent with the book's argument but not developed, not central, or not present, her first readers might justly have thought her mad. Such recommendations would have borne no useful relation to the actual condition of women and the opportunities available to them. Instead, Wollstonecraft's abstract and general rhetoric provided for a variety of specific recommendations, and her specific recommendations were firmly in the forefront of eighteenth-century educational discussion, with some brief sorties to more dangerous terrain. Those elements of the work that modern readers tend to ignore ensured the work a respectful reception when it first appeared, and those elements that disturbed the work's first readers account for the continuing hospitality of its modern audience.


  1. The English Review clarified its position in supporting Mirabeau's Treatise of Public Education, which restated Talleyrand's view that women should be confined to a domestic education “in opposition to some modern philosophers, or rather what the Italians call filosofas iri, who would wish to put into soft female hands the rod of government, and the sword of justice,” XIX (1792), 56. The Gentleman's Magazine had a good laugh over the Rights of Men: “We should be sorry to raise a horse-laugh against a fair lady; but we were always taught to suppose that the rights of woman were the proper theme of the female sex; and that, while the Romans governed the world, the women governed the Romans” When the fair lady descended to her proper subject, the reviewer was not there to meet her. Both Wollstonecraft and the Analytical had anticipated the jocularity of the wits. Gentleman's Magazine, 61; pt. 1 (1791), 151; Analytical Review, 12(1792), 241-49, 13(1792), 481-89; Literary Magazine, 1(1792), 133-39; General Magazine, 6(1792), 187-91; New York Magazine, 4(1793), 77-81; Monthly Review, 8(1792), 198-209; New Annual Register (1792), p. [298]; Critical Review, N.S. 4(1792), 389-98, N.S. 5(1792), 132-41.

  2. Analytical Review, 12(1792), 249; 13(1792), 530.

  3. Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Hannah More, et alii, eds. W. S. Lewis, Robert A. Smith, Charles H. Bennett, XXXI (New Haven, 1961), 370, 373, 397.

  4. Monthly Review, 8(1792), 209.

  5. Ibid., 198, 209.

  6. “The Politics of the Critical Review 1756-1817,” Durham University Journal, 53, N.S. 22(1961), 117-22.

  7. N.S. 4(1792) 390, 396, 393; 5, 139. The Critical insisted on a characteristic difference in sex even against Catherine Macaulay Graham N.S. 2(1790), 618.

  8. Gentleman's Magazine, 68, pt. 2 (1797), 894; Monthly Magazine, 4(1797), 232-33; European Magazine, 32(1797), 215; New York Magazine, N.S. 2(1797), 616.

  9. New Annual Register (1798), p. [271]. The Monthly Review wisely considered the opinions on marriage and religion to be those of Godwin, not of his wife, 27(1798), 321-24.

  10. European Magazine, 33(1798), 246-51. The original editor of the magazine was James Perry, a Foxite, who left after the first year, 1782. By 1798, the chief publisher of the magazine was J. Sewell, who, though he belonged to the Association at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand which busied itself in the distribution of anti-republican propaganda, had dismissed the business of compilation and had prohibited political talk on his premises in 1792 (notice dated Dec. 31, 1792, 22, last page).

  11. British Critic, 12(1798), 228-33.

  12. Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 1(1798), 94-102.

  13. Mary Matilda Betham, Dictionary of Celebrated Women (London, 1804), 374-77. Betham's principal source was the Analytical Review which, with the Monthly Mirror, had waxed rhapsodic about the letters to Imlay and had acclaimed their author another Werther. Analytical Review, 27(1798), 235-45; Monthly Mirror, 5(1798), 153-57. The Monthly Mirror is most familiar from its attempt to do a “cover story” on Wollstonecraft in its second issue for which a portrait was engraved, 1(1796), 131-33, but it was also conducted by Thomas Bellamy, hosier turned bookseller, who had conducted the General Magazine, one of the periodicals to review the Rights of Woman favorably on its first appearance. The Critical Review and Gentleman's Magazine disapproved of what they read, but were surprisingly restrained in their animadversions. The Critical even praised her genius and “undaunted and masculine spirit.” Critical, N. S. 22(1798), 414-19; Gentleman's Magazine 68, pt. 1 (1798), 186-87. More injurious was Alexander Chalmers, General Biographical Dictionary, rev. and enl., XVI (London, 1814), 54-55. That article followed the language of the British Critic in finding Wollstonecraft “a voluptuary and sensualist without refinement.” Perhaps the pleasantest indication of the mix in attitudes towards Wollstonecraft appeared a few years later. Discussing the associations of Castletown Roche where Edmund Burke spent several of his earliest years, James Prior enumerated such luminaries as Essex, Raleigh, Spenser, and “the famed Mrs. Wolstoncroft,” now in very respectable company; Memoir of the Life and Character of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2nd ed. (London, 1826), I, 10.

  14. The attacks on Wollstonecraft from the psychoanalytic point of view are familiar and have often been answered. Richard Cobb's comical hatchet job on Wollstonecraft as “impossible crazy lady” (TLS, Sept. 6, 1974, 941) has been severely rebuked by Janet M. Todd, “The Polwhelan Tradition and Richard Cobb,” Studies in Burke and his Time, 16 (Spring, 1975); 271-78.

  15. The CBEL lists the running title of Robinson's Letter to the Women of England as a separate work, Thoughts on the Condition of Women, n.d.

  16. New Annual Register, 1799, p. [275]; British Critic, 14(1799), 682; Critical Review N.S. 27(1799), 360; Anti-Jacobin Review 3(1799), 144-46.

  17. Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (New York, 1974), 241.

  18. Anti-Jacobin, 7 (1800), 39-46, 369-76 (Hamilton); 150-58 (Hays).

  19. Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery (London, 1825), vii.

  20. “Modern Ideal of Womanhood” (excerpts from Rights of Woman), in A Library of the World's Best Literatures Ancient and Modern, ed. Charles Dudley Warner, XXXIX (New York, 1897), 16131; Katherine B. Clinton, “Femme et Philosophie: Enlightenment Origins of Feminism,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8 (1975), 283.

  21. Mary Anne Radcliffe's Female Advocate (London, 1799) suggested restricting certain employments, such as toy and perfume sales, to women and establishing a magdalen to receive women; it was universally well received, though the Critical thought the style bad and the issues commonplace; N. S. 27 (1799), 479.

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date autumn 1980)

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SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mark of Reason in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Dalhousie Review 60, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 462-71.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos claims that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written for “men of reason,” whom Wollstonecraft recognized as being the owners of power and able to implement the ideals she espoused.]

Underneath the tough talk of the speaking voice in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman hides a number of concessions to male readers and covert strategies for the defense of Wollstonecraft's sex and person. In a century in which philosophers and artists dissociated Reason and Sensibility and in which the upholders of Reason began to win important political victories, Wollstonecraft's awareness of audience shows astuteness. Moreover, her emphasis on Reason to the virtual exclusion of passions from human faculties serves to strengthen her credentials as thinker, to separate her from the general run of women, and to mask her own vulnerability to passionate impulses.

To an extent surprising for those of us primed to look upon A Vindication as a feminist manifesto, the book proves to be written for men. Its revolutionary import remains unquestionable (note Wollstonecraft's rapid overthrow of monarchy, army, navy, and clergy as institutions necessary for society1), yet A Vindication also occasionally upholds the sanctity of marriage, rigidly defined sex roles, class privileges in education, as well as a host of agelong prejudices about women's inferiority. The unevenness of the book, its unclear organization, and its repetition of arguments have less to do with Wollstonecraft's lack of formal education—she can be formidable in argument when she allows herself to be—than with her attempt to bring about a bloodless revolution.2 She appeals to the men she hopes will be shaping the new world, but who, despite their ardent fight for men's rights, adhere to the same attitudes about women as those propagated by the outgoing order. Wollstonecraft seems to have decided to avoid alienating these men. Clearly, she cannot at all times hold back, and her mask drops, forcing her to retreat, recover, and start anew. To keep the mask she had to make certain concessions, but the mask allowed her to persuade by flattering and cajoling no less than by covertly threatening the men of Reason to whom the book is for the most part addressed.

In order to show herself worthy to be heard, Wollstonecraft adopts a tactic many women have been forced to use, namely, dissociating herself from other women. She legitimately saw herself as different from the common run, but she viewed her isolation with an ambivalent mixture of bravado and fear: “I am then going to be the first of a new genus—I tremble at the attempt,”3 she wrote her sister after her arrival in London to begin earning her livelihood by her pen. In A Vindication, however, she consistently used the third-person plural to discuss women. Although there is one instance when she specifies, “reader, male or female” (p. 146), women are usually “they”, not “we”. When the author in the last chapter decides to “expostulate seriously with the ladies,” though she does so with superstitious women, her tone is condescending, even insulting, and one can hardly suppose that she expected the ladies to read and approve of a work in which they are addressed as “ignorant women … in the most emphatical sense” (p. 180). Despite the rhetorical distance she creates, Wollstonecraft announces early in A Vindication that she abandons all pretenses to rhetoric; the simplicity of her style as well as the dignity of her purpose distinguish her writing from genres perceived as women's domain:

Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style;—I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected. … I shall be employed about things, not words!—and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation.

(p. 10)

The most important way in which Wollstonecraft attempts to dissociate herself from other women in order to be taken seriously as a thinker is through the argument she advances for the innate equality of the sexes. She seems to accept fully the premise that women exist in a state of mental retardation. To save her work from charges generally leveled at women and their enterprises, such as frivolity, sentimentality, sensuality, and cunning, Wollstonecraft exalts Reason as the supreme faculty, and, except in rare slips, derides the passions and emotions in the life of men and women and even in the relationship between parents and children. Reason, she writes, distinguishes humans from “brute creation” (p. 12). It is innate to all beings, and the stage of its development in the individual gives a just measure of his/her freedom (p. 121). All of woman's shortcomings stem from the system of education and of social intercourse which deprives women of developing and using Reason and hence deprives them of human rights (pp. 22, 64, 87, 92).

But, given her own context, can Wollstonecraft use her reason to advance such an argument and remain a woman? The question is not frivolous, for an examination of Wollstonecraft's tactics to establish her credibility reveals the extent to which she had to compromise her ideas about humanity. The bug-a-boo that haunts women's intellectual ventures—the charge of emotionalism—forced her to adopt the mask of tough reasoning from behind which she resorted to positions and theories which do not bear scrutiny in light of human experience, her own very much included. Love, particularly when involving sexual passion, falls victim to Wollstonecraft's insistence on Reason. She writes:

… master and mistress of a family ought not to continue to love each other with passion … they ought not to indulge those emotions which disturb the order of society, and engross the thoughts that should be otherwise employed.

(Pp. 30-31)

More outrageously, she proposes that “an unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and that the neglected wife, is, in general, the best mother” (p. 31).4 She also argues that a woman whose reason is sufficiently developed will achieve the equanimity necessary to bear whatever character her husband might possess, even if “a trial … to virtue” (p. 32), a position she will later challenge in her unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman. At times the mask of Reason becomes so rigid as to reject the desire for “present happiness” (p. 32) as an acceptable motive for human actions.

Despite her attempts to present herself as a new genus—a woman of Reason persuading men of Reason—Wollstonecraft resorts to a variety of covert tactics for convincing her readers of the justice of her argument. Often she reasons plainly, particularly when in exasperation she sets aside the mask, but she is not above using the proverbial feminine weapons of flattery and dark hints involving issues about which men feel least secure. Wollstonecraft tries to establish her equality with men from the dedication to Talleyrand to the concluding apostrophe to “ye men of understanding.” She makes men feel in control of the proposed “REVOLUTION in female manners” (p. 192). They are the “sagacious reader” (pp. 58, 191), “reasonable men” (p. 149), “men of understanding” (p. 194) who can be moved by appeals to reason.5 Apart from flattering men's intellects,6 Wollstonecraft makes it clear that her revolution will not challenge men in physical combat. She acknowledges the notion—cherished by many—of women's physical inferiority to men (p. 8) and goes so far as to assert that, “in some degree,” such weakness makes women dependent on men (p. 11). She then turns to the men to whose intellectual and physical superiority she has bowed and asks them to become the liberators of women: “would men but generously snap our chains”; “I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion, to make her a help meet for them” (p. 150); “women must be allowed” (p. 173); “make them free” (p. 175); and finally “be just then … and allow her the privileges of ignorance, to whom ye deny the rights of reason” (p. 194).

At the same time that Wollstonecraft adopts a pleading tone to soften the resistance of her male readers and a stern tone in condemning the foolishness of her sex, she subtly awakens men's fears about women's dominance over them in a state of inequality and alleviates those fears in her visions of a freed humanity. One of the leitmotifs of A Vindication is the sheer ineptitude of unliberated women for the roles of wife and mother, and the improvement of domestic welfare, infant survival, and effective education of children attendant upon women's freedom to strengthen their minds and bodies. These arguments strike a note of modernity which makes A Vindication speak to readers almost two centuries later. But Wollstonecraft's appraisal of her male readership led her to think that a bit of terror mixed with optimism about perfectibility would give firmer ground to her argument than direct statement alone. She explains to men of Reason that as long as women are educated to be mentally deficient, they will fall for the “rakes” instead of men of solid character. She both consoles such men for their lack of amorous success and threatens them with the fact that a pretty girl may never look at them (p. 118) until women develop intellectual discernment. She proposes that women raised to please and attract men will continue to exercise their charms after marriage as well, especially after husbands' sexual passion has cooled. The desire for sexual attentions—the only measure of their worth—renders women unfaithful (p. 73). More frighteningly, their lapse from virtue produces a “half alive heir to an immense estate [who] came from heaven knows where” (p. 132). Wollstonecraft cautions men that “weak enervated women … are unfit to be mothers, though they may conceive,” so that when the man of their choice—a libertine naturally—“wishes to perpetuate his name, [he] receives from his wife only a half-formed being that inherits both its father's and its mother's weakness” (p. 139). Even if submissive women are faithful, they prove either foolish mothers, who turn their children against the father, or spendthrifts or both (pp. 68, 73, 132, 152, 167).

Not content with awakening men's fears about the problematic nature of paternity, Wollstonecraft warns them against women who, taught that their sexuality is their only asset, use this weapon to obtain power over them:

… the state of war which subsists between the sexes, makes them employ those wiles, that often frustrate the more open designs of force.

When, therefore, I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for, indirectly they obtain too much power, and are debased by their exertions to obtain illicit sway.

(P. 167; see also p. 117)

By contrast, free women do not aim at vanquishing men: “I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves” (p. 62), declares Wollstonecraft.

One of the chief strengths of A Vindication resides in its vivid portrayals of women in straitened circumstances. These thrust upon our consciousness the absence of alternatives available to women without husbands. But for whom are these examples created? There's the widowed woman, the former feminine ideal of the docile wife, who left alone “falls an easy prey to some mean fortune-hunter, who defrauds the children of their paternal inheritance” so that the sons cannot be educated, or worse, “the mother will be lost in the coquette, and, instead of making friends of her daughters, view them with eyes askance, for they are rivals” (p. 49). Wollstonecraft again emphasizes the fate of the progeny rather than the psychological anguish of the widow. Men married to women who fulfill the feminine ideal may be supplanted after death by rakes, who will leave the children—the continuance of name and reputation—penniless and unprotected. Similarly, the example of the maiden sister forced to live with her brother and sister-in-law presents a vivid image of intolerable domestic tension between the two women, with the man helplessly caught between and swayed at last by his wife's connivances to throw his sister “on the world,” “into joyless solitude” (p. 65). Both women, like the widow, appear in a less than favorable light. Our sympathy is with the poor man in the grave or the one caught between his affection for his sister and loyalty to his wife. The solutions Wollstonecraft proposes have less appeal for women than for the worried husbands. The widow educated in the principles of Reason “in the bloom of life forgets her sex—forgets the pleasure of an awakening passion, which might again have been inspired or returned” and devotes herself to managing the inheritance for the benefit of the children, working only for the reward beyond the grave (pp. 50-51). In the second illustration, “reason might have taught her [the wife] not to expect, and not even to be flattered by, the affection of her husband, if it led him to violate prior duties,” while the sister might have been able to support herself and thus not disturb either the brother's domestic tranquility or his conscience (p. 66). Free women, Wollstonecraft tells her readers, make life easier for men.

But where behind the mask of Reason is Mary Wollstonecraft the “hyena in petticoats,” the fiery revolutionary whose book eminent contemporary women refused to read? In A Vindication the mask of Reason slips off now and again and the author has to retreat, restate, and recover the ground she may have lost with her readers. The thread of the argument gets tangled, and we hear from biographers and critics the kind of criticism she tried to stave off: the charge of lack of intellect, of too much passion, of inability to organize and present an argument coherently.7 Is Wollstonecraft wearing a mask at all? Her statements in letters, events of her life during the time she was composing A Vindication, and internal evidence show that she placed a much higher value on human relationships, on their passionate nature, than she allows for in her advocacy of Reason. Her indignation about the lot of women, her sympathy with them, and her disdain for men who wield power over other men and women are also greater than the mask allows her to express. Wollstonecraft's last works, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and The Wrongs of Woman, measure the growth of her confidence in herself as an author able to command a reader's interest regardless of sex; these works use few subterfuges, few poses in presenting conditions which cry out for reform.

In her writings as well as her life Mary reveals herself as a passionate, bright, impatient being who tries to use first the tenets of religion and then of Reason (without, however, discarding religion) as brakes upon her heedless impulses. With her customary imaginative acumen Virginia Woolf describes Mary as a dolphin rushing through the waters,8 and we sense from her writings and glean from her life an indomitable life force which made her triumph over vicissitudes (among them two suicide attempts) that broke other women, and which kept her struggling for ten days, to the amazement of her physicians, against the puerperal fever to which she finally succumbed. From the earliest records of her thoughts—her letters to Jane Arden—we see a girl who craves affection (Coll., p. 60). She reproaches her sister for turning pretty phrases in her letters instead of writing “one affectionate word … to the heart” (Coll., p. 76). She devotes herself to the welfare of the Blood family to the detriment of her own interests for the love she bears her soulmate, Fanny Blood. She despises Fanny's half-hearted suitor for his lack of passion, and she acknowledges her own need of love (Coll., pp. 93, 108), analyzing astutely her repression; in a letter in which she describes her literary endeavors, she writes:

Many motives impel me besides sheer love of knowledge … it is the only way to destroy the worm that will gnaw the core—and make that being an isolé, whom nature made too susceptible of affections, which stray beyond the bounds, reason prescribes.

(Coll., p. 173)

But the worm whose existence she denied in A Vindication was, at the very time she was gathering her strength to reply to Burke and to compose the companion Rights of Woman, gnawing its way with a vengeance. Mary fell in love with the newly married Fuseli, continued to hope for reciprocal feelings from Fuseli for two years,9 and finally went so far as to propose to Sophia Fuseli that she move in with the couple. In a letter which Wardle dates as immediately following Sophia's rejection, Mary agonizingly writes, “I am a mere animal, and instinctive emotions too often silence the suggestions of reason … There is certainly a great defect in my mind—my wayward heart creates its own misery” (Coll., pp. 220-221). The mask of Reason in A Vindication clearly serves as a shield for her own vulnerability.

The internal evidence of A Vindication supports the split Mary perceives in her life between the dictates of Reason and the compelling motions of the heart. Despite her attempts to placate, entrap, and disarm the reader, she occasionally gives voice to her burning indignation. Following a particularly offensive excerpt from Sermons to Young Women, Wollstonecraft bursts out: “such a woman ought to be an angel—or she is an ass—for I discern not a trace of the human character, neither reason nor passion in this domestic drudge, whose being is absorbed in that of a tyrant's” (p. 96). Although throughout her argument she ascribes women's enslaved condition to their atrophied reason, Wollstonecraft cannot refrain from voicing at least once the envy women have felt for men's scope of action, for their freedom to go beyond the bounds “reason prescribes”:

… they [men] give a freer scope to the grand passions, and by more frequently going astray enlarge their minds. If then by the exercise of their own reason they fix on some stable principle, they have probably to thank the force of their passions, nourished by false views of life, and permitted to overleap the boundary that secures content.

(P. 110)

Mary herself moved on to overleap practically every boundary prescribed by Reason and the society of her day. The stories of her affair with Imlay, her two pregnancies out of wedlock, and her liberated marriage to Godwin gave her a notoriety which made her work sink into near-oblivion for almost a century. But her experience, which encompassed more than many a man's scope, gave her the assurance to drop the mask and address the reader intimately and calmly in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and to turn finally to the large readership of women in her purposely didactic novel The Wrongs of Woman. She learned to turn a biting aside into a significant social comment about class and sex oppression by enhancing editorial statements with minute and eloquent details:

… a man may strike a man with impunity because he pays him wages … Still the men stand up for the dignity of man, by oppressing women … In the winter, I am told, they [the women] take the linen down to the river, to wash it in the cold water; and though their hands, cut by the ice, are cracked and bleeding, the men, their fellow servants, will not disgrace their manhood by carrying a tub to lighten their burden.10

In the public Letters as well as her private correspondence in the years following the publication of her manifesto, Mary increasingly recognizes the role of emotions, of grand passions in shaping a human being's mind and experience.11The Wrongs of Woman portrays a heroine unthinkable in A Vindication, a woman who discovers her mistake in her choice of a mate after marriage, who rebels against the tyranny of wedlock, and who is not seduced but willingly plunges into a love affair with a man who proves to be less worthy than she had hoped. To a friend who ventures the opinion that Maria's situation is not “sufficiently important,” Mary replies in the firm and confident manner of an author who knows that her choice of subject may limit her audience but who remains entirely committed to her cause, even if it alienates male readers:

These appear to me (matromonial despotism of heart and conduct) to be the particular wrongs of woman; because they degrade the mind. What are termed great misfortunes may more forcibly impress the mind of common readers, they have more of what might justly be termed stage effect but it is the delineation of finer sensations which, in my opinion, constitutes the merit of out best novels, this is what I have in view; and to shew the wrongs of different classes of women equally oppressive …

(Coll., p. 392)

That last declaration of purpose not only moves Mary away from A Vindication with its pleas to men in power and its consideration of middle-class women only, but propels her as political thinker and feminist into our century, our very decade. It also taunts us with a promise of the works of Mary's maturity, whose fulfillment was prevented by her death at the age of thirty-eight.

A Vindication therefore remains Wollstonecraft's most solid monument, a work of extraordinary vision whose great strength the author dissipated somewhat by diverting the central argument into dead-end channels of audience watching and defensiveness about sex and self. Despite her efforts to placate her readers, Wollstonecraft's work suffered censure through judgments she tried to anticipate and answer, judgments that have more do with her life than her writing—emotionalism, immorality, extremism.12 The parts of A Vindication which have withstood the test of time are those in which she drops the mask in order to speak freely of women's oppression and in which she prophetically envisages women entering careers, being represented politically, and, most importantly, being educated alongside men so that they may cease to be The Other and become human beings.


  1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1975), pp. 16-18. All further references are to this edition.

  2. Lest we, who in the last decades of the twentieth century still await the passage of ERA, consider her naive for having thought to tap men's good will be means of a mere book, we must consider that Mary was living in a time of two successful revolutions—the American and the French, the latter having not yet turned to terror. Civil rights had not yet been abridged in England as a consequence of fear of Jacobinism, and Mary associated with a group of visionaries who firmly believed that in time social justice might be achieved.

  3. Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 164. References to this edition will be cited in the text as Coll.

  4. For the same argument see also pp. 27, 37, 50, 118-119.

  5. Wollstonecraft covertly emasculates the men whom she attacks, such as Burke and Rousseau, by depriving them of Reason—the masculine trait—and endowing them with Sensibility, the province of women. For a detailed analysis of this aspect of The Rights of Man and The Rights of Woman, see Elissa S. Guralnick's “Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,Studies in Burke and His Time, 18 (1977), 155-166.

  6. Carol Poston notes that Wollstonecraft's language about respected men's works such as Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son changes from outright dismissal (“frivolous correspondence”) to neutrality (“epistles”) in revision (p. 106, n. 5), a move which could serve no other purpose than placating male readers.

  7. Chief among Wollstonecraft's modern-day detractors is Richard Cobb, who in “Radicalism and Wreckage,” Times Literary Supplement, 6 Sept. 1974, pp. 941-944, goes so far as to propose that her very name makes her unfit for study (for an analysis of the detractor tradition in Wollstonecraft studies see Janet M. Todd's “The Polwhelean Tradition and Richard Cobb,” Studies in Burke and His Time, 16 [1975], 271-277). In the biographies, Margaret George, one of the most sympathetic of Mary's biographers, avoids discussion of anything but the main ideas in A Vindication (One Woman's “Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970], pp. 84-96); Eleanor Flexner in Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography (1972; rpt. Baltimore; Penguin Books, Inc., 1973) roundly takes Mary to task for her shortcomings in logical argument (p. 164), as does Ralph M. Wardle in Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), who attributes the book's “worst fault”—its lack of organization—to Mary's “intense feelings,” to “her usual want of mental discipline” (pp. 147, 156): Claire Tomalin dispenses with the method in A Vindication in The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974) by declaring that it is “a book without any logical structure: it is more in the nature of an extravaganza” (p. 105); these biographers, with George's exception, follow Godwin's lead in his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798; rpt. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1974), who declares the book to be “a very unequal performance, and eminently deficient in method and arrangement” (p. 83).

  8. The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1932; rpt. 1960) p. 145.

  9. For the most recent account of the Fuseli episode and the extent to which it preoccupied Mary, see Coll., p. 190, n. 1, p. 199, n. 5, pp. 202, 203, 205, 220 and 221, including n. 1 on p. 221.

  10. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, ed. Carol H. Poston (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976), p. 26. All references to this edition will be cited in the text as Letters.

  11. See pp. 35, 55, 99, 109, 160 in Letters and pp. 263, 302, 308 in Coll. for Mary's changed

  12. For an informative summary of contemporary resistance to A Vindication see Godwin, pp. 81-82, in which he fears the censure of Mary as political extremist rather than as an emotionalist. In Revolution and Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), Howard Mumford Jones also separates Wollstonecraft's “revolutionary” thinking from “romantic individualism” only to satirize her emphasis on freedom by briefly listing her free actions as her becoming Imlay's mistress and giving birth to “an illegitimate daughter” (pp. 252-253). By contrast, Eleanor L. Nocholes in “Mary Wollstonecraft” (Romantic Rebels: Essays on Shelly and His Circle, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973] maintains that Mary's writing style is intensely personal, and that she anticipates the “attitude and tone” of the Romantics (p. 45).

Further Reading

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Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Penguin Books, 1972, 307 p.

Scholarly account of Wollstonecraft's life that emphasizes her early years.

George, Margaret. “One Woman's Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970, 174 p.

Political and psychological study of Wollstonecraft that explores the connection between her life experience and her political ideas.

Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1798. Reprint. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987, 224 p.

Memoir of Wollstonecraft, written by her husband, that outlines the relation between Wollstonecraft's writings and her personal history, and offers candid analyses of her various relationships, including that with her husband.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000, 538 p.

Vivid portrayal of Wollstonecraft that quotes extensively from her correspondence and notes the difference between the author's emotion-laden writing about her personal life and her reasoned tone in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974, 316 p.

Account of Wollstonecraft's life and social context.

Wardle, Ralph M. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951, 366 p.

Detailed study of Wollstonecraft's life and works, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that examines the literary and social context in which the author worked.


Barker-Benfield, G., “Mary Wollstonecraft: Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthwoman.” Journal of the History of Ideas 50 (1989): 95-115.

Views Wollstonecraft's achievement as extending the Commonwealth analysis of male corruption and program for male reform to women and discusses the elements of Commonwealth thought on which Wollstonecraft drew in her political writings, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Field, Corinne. “Breast-Feeding, Sexual Pleasure, and Women's Rights: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication.Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture 9, no. 2 (1995) 25-44.

Explores Wollstonecraft's attitude toward female sexuality, motherhood, women's bodies, and women's rights as discussed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Gunther-Canada, Wendy. “Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft: Women and the Canonical Conversation of Political Thought.” Feminist Teacher 11, no. 1 (spring 1997): 20-29.

Examines the silence of women as authors in the canon of political writing and discusses the critic's own experience teaching Wollstonecraft in her classroom.

Khin Zaw, Susan. “The Reasonable Heart: Mary Wollstonecraft's View of the Relation Between Reason and Feeling in Morality, Moral Psychology, and Moral Development.” Hypatia 13, no. 1 (winter 1990): 78-117.

Discusses Wollstonecraft's view of moral psychology, moral education, and moral philosophy in her early works, especially A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

O'Quinn. “Trembling: Wollstonecraft, Godwin and the Resistance to Literature.” ELH 64, no. 3 (fall 1997): 761-88.

Examines Wollstonecraft's polemic against literature in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before discussing in detail her critique of the dangers of literature in Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman.

Robinson, Charles E. “A Mother's Daughter: An Intersection of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” In Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives, edited by Helen M. Buss, D. L. Macdonald, and Anne McWhir, pp. 127-38. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 2001.

Examines Mary Shelley's life and works in relation to her mother, noting the influence of Wollstonecraft on Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

Sulloway, Alison G. “Emma Woodhouse and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Wordsworth Circle 7, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 320-32.

Discusses Jane Austen's indebtedness to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as seen in her novel Emma.

Additional coverage of Mary Wollstonecraft's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 104, 158 and 252; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 5, 50; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature, ed. 2; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3.

Orrin N. C. Wang (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Wang, Orrin N. C. “The Other Reasons: Female Alterity and Enlightenment Discourse in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.The Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 1 (fall 1991): 129-49.

[In the following essay, Wang argues against readings of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a text that represses female imagination in favor of male reason, seeing the work as a complex study about repression, reason, gender, and imagination.]

It is uncannily fitting that Mary Shelley should dedicate her famous Romantic novel, Frankenstein, to her father, William Godwin, and not to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The literal—and literary—gap between mother and daughter is an appropriate emblem for the discontinuity between Wollstonecraft's theoretical writing and the work of contemporary feminist literary critics. This discontinuity is largely due to a public monumentalization and disfigurement of Wollstonecraft by her contemporaries that is similar, I would suggest, to the posthumous process that afflicted the writer she both admired and criticized, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.1 Much of the initial hostility toward both figures was associated with English horror at the French Revolution. Just as counterrevolutionaries viewed Rousseau's social thought and the politics of the French Revolution as one and the same, so too did many people view Wollstonecraft's Protestant bourgeois radicalism as an irrevocable contamination of her feminist position.2 In both cases, conservative critics saw the Reign of Terror as an inevitable consequence of each thinker's writing. A second, more important similarity was the extent to which late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century readers connected each thinker's theory with his or her biography.3 In each case, a theory associated with Enlightenment reason was subverted by a life of unrestrained passion and immoral activity. For such readers of Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, this subversion of theory by biography allegorized again what was occurring in France, a rational agenda of emancipation overcome by the uncontrollable demands of an irrational Reign of Terror. It is this early nineteenth-century monument of Wollstonecraft, as an individual aspiring to rational discourse while hopelessly repressing irrational emotion, that we have inherited and that has haunted even the most sympathetic perceptions of her by contemporary feminist critics.4

This is not to say that this reputation has remained completely the same since its inception. One change in this monument has been what exactly constitutes the “proof” of Wollstonecraft's unstable personal life. In its incarnation at the turn of the nineteenth century, Wollstonecraft's emotional instability was signified by every aspect of her lifestyle: her various love affairs, her illegitimate child, the “unconventional” form of her relationship to Godwin, and her attempted suicides. Today, only Wollstonecraft's attempted suicides can carry any of the same biographical weight. But just as the signs for her personal emotional life have changed, so too has the evaluation of those signs. Instead of seeing that life as a set of negative traits, a mark of Wollstonecraft's hypocrisy and limitations, most contemporary feminists see her private life as an emotional resource that Wollstonecraft heeded too little. For contemporary feminists, the emotional traces of Wollstonecraft's life are unstable, but in a positive sense; they represent needs and desires that have the potential to subvert patriarchal norms as much as Wollstonecraft's “reasoned” Enlightenment agenda. Indeed, they have become needs and desires tragically or inevitably hampered by that agenda.

Two things concerning Wollstonecraft's reputation, moreover, have remained relatively constant over the last two centuries. The first is the basic duality underwriting that reputation, reason versus imagination; the second, the genders assigned to the terms of that duality. No one has argued, in other words, with Mary Jacobus's description of the rational side of that duality as “the predominantly male discourse of Enlightenment Reason, or ‘sense.’”5 Opposing this discourse is the Otherness of Wollstonecraft's writing and biography, a chain of signifiers that links together such terms as femininity, imagination, irrationality, sensibility, and passion. In even the most sympathetic readings of Wollstonecraft, contemporary critics such as Cora Kaplan, Mary Poovey, and Mary Jacobus have portrayed her as trapped by this duality—at best, as reproducing the problems of this trap for our contemporary edification.6 In all cases Wollstonecraft remains an individual experiencing an identity crisis; if she is no longer as the nineteenth century represented her, an unstable woman whose life proves her error, she remains an individual reacting to the interpellating textual and personal effects of two opposing discourses, male reason and female imagination.

Associated with this perception of Wollstonecraft's identity is a literary history that narrativizes her texts in terms of a progress from her critical work, The Rights of Woman, to her unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria. The basic form of this narrative is one in which Wollstonecraft is more able, in her later works, to face the Otherness of her life—whether that be female desire or the “imaginative and linguistic excess” of female writing—that she represses or attacks in favor of male reason in The Rights of Woman.7 I want to argue against this view of The Rights of Woman as a text that is somehow blind to the insights of Wollstonecraft's other works. The Rights of Woman is a much more complex work about repression, reason, imagination, and gender, than the present monument of Wollstonecraft allows. My reading of Wollstonecraft differs from that expressed by the present monument in three ways. First, rather than seeing Wollstonecraft as being caught between the gender demands of male reason and female imagination, I see her text actively trying to disrupt that duality's assignation of gender, by strategically associating “woman” with a variety of local, contradictory identities.8 The second difference is that I also see Wollstonecraft's text preempting that very duality by destabilizing the opposition between reason and the host of terms the text contrasts with reason. The complicated relationships between reason and those terms underwrite not only Wollstonecraft's critique of the “feminine” imagination but also her critique of that imagination's structure of repression. Those complex relationships also underwrite the very semantic and stylistic tensions of her text that contemporary critics have only been able to recognize as a repression of female Otherness by male reason. Finally, the third difference is that I see these textual tensions also pointing to a certain reflexivity within Wollstonecraft's work, a reflexivity for which The Rights of Woman is given too little credit. Far from being a text blind to the limits of its own political and didactic discourse, The Rights of Woman carries out an ideological critique of its own teleological and millennial aspirations, precisely through its dissolution of the semantic identities that separate reason from passion.

I want to take up first the issue of what “woman” means in The Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft is most famous for equating “woman” with “human,” that beneficiary of both Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theories of democratic principles. It is in that spirit of a humanistic, democratic discourse that Wollstonecraft addresses the beginning of her book to M. Talleyrand-Perigord, the influential member of the new Republic of France, the nation most strongly associated with those democratic, anti-monarchist ideals. It is also in the spirit of that same discourse that Wollstonecraft chastises Talleyrand for not extending, in a government pamphlet, the human rights of education to women as well as to men:

I wish, Sir, to set some investigations of this kind afloat in France, and should they lead to a confirmation of my principles, when your constitution is revised the Rights of Woman may be respected, if it be fully proved that reason calls for this respect, and loudly demands JUSTICE for one half of the human race.9

As Wollstonecraft's words imply, the discourse she wants to enter primarily associates the human with the other half of the race, man. This fact has been turned against her, in that critics have accused Wollstonecraft of being blind to what happens to the feminine within such a discourse.10 Such a critique argues that a universal term such as “human” hides inequality and sexual difference; by equating woman with human which equates with man, Wollstonecraft can only reproduce that elision. But this critique ignores the possibility of a metaleptic effect caused by Wollstonecraft's incursion, that she is in fact introducing the alterity of sexual difference into this supposedly universal discourse, and thus enabling, as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe claim, “the birth of feminism through the use made of it in the democratic discourse, which was thus displaced from the field of political equality to the field of equality between the sexes.”11

Nor does “woman” signify only democratic humanism in The Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft associates the feminine with a variety of oftentimes contradictory qualities and positions. Because of these other significations, the equivalence between the feminine and democratic humanism does not reach the critical mass of an essential equation. Rather, this equivalence and the other instances of gender assignation operate as localized semantic moments, dependent upon the situational strategy of a fluid political polemic.

These local moments in The Rights of Woman comprise an argument by analogy, a strategy whose ubiquity must then be taken into account when we wish to determine the ontological status of those analogies. Yet, while the very number and variety of these analogies make them non-essentialist, they are not arbitrary. That is, all of Wollstonecraft's analogies are determined by the same theme; each analogy links women to a role of power—or powerlessness—at a different position within the socio-historic world of late eighteenth-century England. But while the theme of power thus structures Wollstonecraft's analogies, power itself is denied any essential signification. That is, in each example of women's empowerment or victimization, power is constituted by a different combination of codes of age, class, and gender. The result is a concrete depiction of the condition of women in the late eighteenth century that simultaneously repudiates the idea that there is any essential character to its catalogue of women's empowered and victimized identities.

In repudiating such a character, Wollstonecraft employs a linguistic method that denies what Laclau and Mouffe call “a fully sutured space” to both the patriarchy and the women it oppresses. Such a space posits an identity so sealed from outside signification that the identity achieves the “transparency of a closed symbolic order.”12 It is precisely this symbolic closure that the variety of Wollstonecraft's analogies denies. Yet, simultaneously, because of their role in articulating the position of women within eighteenth-century patriarchy, these analogies still deal with the brute fact of power and oppression.

Thus, while Wollstonecraft's polemic for women's rights utilizes the equation between woman and the human race, her critique of women's present condition associates women with the Others of democratic discourse: eastern princes, Roman emperors, monarchs and the aristocratic class. Here woman signifies a power that is not based on self-determination but on the analogy between the unearned, arbitrary trappings of despotic privilege and the equally capricious influence of physical beauty. Hence we have Wollstonecraft's rejection of such sexual influence in her famous reply to Rousseau: “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves” (62; chap. 4).13 But the tyrant's/woman's power over the people/man is also a powerlessness that must be constituted through other analogies, where the fact of women's limited opportunities and helplessness is signified by children and the lower class. Thus women are slaves oppressed by men who are tyrants, whose power is actually like that of women limited like children and the poor. Women are oppressed, but by a master/slave dialectic that resists any easy condensation of gender or class identities.

One might object that while women have been either “slaves or despots,” The Rights of Woman still associates the utopian democratic ideal with the “manly.” That opposition certainly does operate in Wollstonecraft's text. Yet, that duality becomes a fundamentally reified part of Wollstonecraft's thought only when we ignore the other positions and roles of gender that crisscross that duality, such as the fact that the discourse of the monarch rests on examples of male despotism—for example, Louis XIV—and that the politically progressive concept of modesty is chiefly associated not with the masculine, but with the feminine. Likewise, Wollstonecraft disparages Lord Chesterfield's worldly letters to his son as “unmanly”—that is, effeminate—for their libertine exploitation of women (106; chap. 5), while at the same time she begins her attack upon Mrs. Piozzi's statement, that “all [women's] arts are employed to keep the hearts of man,” by calling Piozzi's ideas “truly masculine sentiments” (102; chap. 5). Certainly Wollstonecraft does not want Piozzi to be less masculine in the way Chesterfield is, nor does she want Chesterfield to be more “manly” in the way Piozzi is. “Unmanly” and “truly masculine” do not constitute the intrinsic identities of gendered subjects, nor is Wollstonecraft downgrading them as such; rather, they are each a sign of a particular position within eighteenth-century English patriarchy, a position whose deadly denotative force Wollstonecraft dramatizes through the semantics—and politics—of gender.

By having the feminine and the masculine occupy, at different strategic moments, the key position of both her negative critique and utopian polemic, Wollstonecraft is, in effect, deconstructing the intrinsic identity of a gendered subject. Just as important, Wollstonecraft sees this deconstruction taking place within the context of an English androcentric society demanding the opposite of this deconstruction from its female population, so that

a virtuous man may have a choleric or a sanguine constitution, be gay or grave, unreproved; be firm till he is almost over-bearing, or, weakly submissive, have no will or opinion of his own; but all women are to be levelled, by meekness and docility, into one character of yielding softness and gentle compliance.

(95; chap. 5)

It is in this spirit, of an attack upon the “one character,” that we should read Wollstonecraft's famous dictum that boys and girls should study together in order to produce “modesty without those sexual distinctions that taint the mind” (165; chap. 12). Wollstonecraft is not trying to efface sexual difference here; instead, she is attempting to disrupt the imprisoning codification of sexual identity as constructed in invidious social distinctions. Similarly, when Wollstonecraft criticizes the French educative system by saying, “[young girls] were treated like women [i.e., coquettes] almost from their very birth,” she is not consigning “women” to an eternal identification with “coquetry” (81; chap. 5). Rather, she is trying to break up that singular identity imposed upon those girls, by exposing the identity's dependence upon linguistic and pedagogical structures: “they were treated like women almost from their very birth. …”

This strategy of gender disidentification is clear in one footnote commenting upon how men behave differently in front of women, depending upon the degree to which women stress their own “feminine” identity: “Men are not always men in the company of women, nor would women always remember that they are women, if they were allowed to acquire more understanding” (123; chap. 7). Upon which term of “men” or “women” should we confer originary status, to start this sentence's chain of signification? And who is the second “they”? Consider, also, how the meaning of the first clause and its relation to the rest of the sentence change, depending upon which, and how many, of the gender terms are placed in italics. This syntactical and grammatical indeterminacy succinctly dramatizes the dizzying spiral of signification that structures the absolute necessity and irreducible problem of sexual identity in The Rights of Woman. It is the text's consciousness of this indeterminacy that redirects the rage of sentences, such as the following one, away from an essential “woman” and toward the host of social, psychological, and linguistic forces that work to shore up the ontology of that identity: “This desire of being always women, is the very consciousness that degrades the sex” (99; chap. 5).14

By thus attacking the concept of a single feminine identity, The Rights of Woman escapes being located only within a duality of male reason and female imagination. It is precisely the hegemonic forces of that duality that Wollstonecraft disrupts, by deploying the feminine in a host of contradictory roles. But Wollstonecraft also disrupts this duality by subverting the unitary identities of imagination and reason. She emplots gender, repression, reason, and imagination in a narrative that is more complicated than the one that the duality of male reason and female imagination implies.

In order to understand this narrative, I want to examine two moments in The Rights of Woman in which Wollstonecraft appears explicitly to repress the female imagination in order to preserve male reason. One moment occurs when Wollstonecraft asserts that young children of the same sex should not be housed or educated together, so that they will not learn from each other the “vices, which render the body weak,” specifically, masturbation (164; chap. 12).15 Here, one can image the female imagination as a feminine interest in sexuality and pleasure, an interest which Wollstonecraft must repress in the name of a disembodied male rationality. The other moment occurs during Wollstonecraft's introductory remarks on style, when she promises not “to cull my phrases or polish my style … for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings …” (10; intro.). Here, the female imagination can be reinscribed within a feminine discourse of sensual and emotional rhetoric that Wollstonecraft also dismisses in favor of a more masculine type of writing and style of reason. Thus, one could argue that, through these two instances in the text, The Rights of Woman attempts both thematically and formally to repress a feminine alterity in favor of a masculine ontology of Enlightenment reason. Seemingly disparate, Wollstonecraft's view on writing and her prohibition against masturbation are connected, but not by the particular model of repression that I sketched above.16

First, let us consider Wollstonecraft's words against masturbation. Her interdiction comes as part of a broader polemic, against the “wearisome confinement” women experience at school together, which is even worse than what young men suffer. In a passage just before the one on masturbation, Wollstonecraft describes the negative effect of this confinement in vivid terms.

The pure animal spirits, which make both mind and body shoot out, and unfold the tender blossoms of hope, are turned sour, and vented in vain wishes or pert repinings, that contract the faculties and spoil the temper; else they mount to the brain, and sharpening the understanding before it gains proportionable strength, produce that pitiful cunning which disgracefully characterizes the female mind—and I fear will ever characterize it whilst women remain the slaves of power!

(164; chap. 12)

We notice immediately that Wollstonecraft has, as she often does, characterized the female in negative terms. But more important is the specific way she characterizes the female as negative. In this passage, the “female mind” is the consequence of the “souring” of the “pure animal spirits”—“spirits” charged by a sensual articulation, verging on the explicitly sexual for both the male (“shoot out”) and female (“tender blossoms”) organs. How do we reconcile Wollstonecraft's positive evaluation of these terms with her words against masturbation? I would argue that, instead of a simultaneous acknowledgement and repression of sexuality, this passage is a parable that warns against the repression of sexuality—the “animal spirits.” More precisely, Wollstonecraft's sexual language provides a biological metaphor for the process of social growth that Wollstonecraft opposes to the deforming and stunting socializing process women must undergo under England's contemporary educational system. The product of this system is “woman”—the “female mind”—whose essential consignment to this gender identity is undercut, not only by Wollstonecraft's visionary cry (“whilst women remain …”) but also by the male configuration of masturbation and loss that structures the entire procedure (“animal spirits … turned sour”), which itself is undercut, in turn, by the biological gender of Wollstonecraft's subjects: ghettoized young girls who are “obliged to pace with steady deportment stupidly backwards and forwards … instead of bounding … in the various attitudes so conducive to health” (164; chap. 12).

These young girls, moreover, are not the sole victims of this oppressive system of single-sex confinement. For in the next paragraph, Wollstonecraft shifts her attention from the girls to the “boys [who] infallibly lose that decent bashfulness” in the setting of a single-sex school (164; chap. 12). Thus, while it is the confined group of girls whose “animal spirits” metaphorically “turn sour,” it is the equally segregated group of boys who actually learn the “vices, which render the body weak.”

Thus, masturbation functions not only as a sign for this whole pedagogical system of “souring” but also as the final figurative and literal consequence of this system: the vice that girls and boys will experience because of their isolation from one another.17 By attacking that final consequence, Wollstonecraft is weighing in against the entire system, in which masturbation functions not as an expression but as a repression of the potential of mind and body. As such, the passage on masturbation exemplifies one particular target of Wollstonecraft's polemic, the repression of women's full emotional life by the schizophrenic identity men impose upon them: both coy mistress and chaste wife. (The fact that school boys specifically fall prey to masturbation stresses, for Wollstonecraft, how both sexes suffer the consequences of this repression.) Wollstonecraft's critique of this identity underscores the reason why she distinguishes between modesty and the desire for a good reputation. Modesty is the state of life one achieves after experiencing passion and the vicissitudes of life, whereas the desire for a good reputation is the hypocritical, deforming state that passes ignorance off as innocence, and whose end result is a titillation caused by the repression of desire. Thus Wollstonecraft does not repress passion in favor of a repressive reason; instead, she attacks passion when it has been repressed, when it is not allowed to become part of a lived experience, but instead is exploited as the fuel for what amounts to a solipsistic, masturbatory imagination.18

This is Wollstonecraft's critique of a certain type of “feminized” and “Romantic” imagination. By looking at this sensibility in The Rights of Woman more closely, we can understand more fully the implications of her introductory attack upon a writing style of supposed sensuality and feeling. Her emblem for this imagination is none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, as the writer of Emile, lays out in his education of Sophie the most specific blueprint for this particular kind of “feminization” of the female subject. But Rousseau is also the chief example of someone who indulges in this type of imagination:

Even [Rousseau's] virtues also led him astray; for, 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 away 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.

(my emphasis, 91; chap. 5)

If Rousseau had given into his lasciviousness, if he had actually met, rather then just gone toward, the other sex, his “animal spirits” would not have gone “sour,” and his imagination would not have been “debauched.”19 Here, virtue and self-denial are not continuous with modesty and reason; rather, the former terms are part of the moral ideology that is also responsible for the isolation of young girls in education and the specific type of “female mind” that is the result of such an isolation. Moreover, that literal isolation reminds us that the effects of feminine delicacy and virtue differ for Rousseau and for the women defined by this same code. For Wollstonecraft, Rousseau's Romantic imagination underwrites the identities of both women and men, but it assigns them to asymmetrical positions of power.

It is true that, for his contemporaries and later critics, Rousseau signified a sensibility that was always figured pejoratively in feminine terms.20 We might then be tempted to see Wollstonecraft's critique of Rousseau's imagination as merely reproducing the hierarchy of gender values she is trying to attack. Our analysis of the circulation of gender in Wollstonecraft—especially in her interdiction against masturbation—should warn us against that temptation. But Wollstonecraft also subverts the temptation by assigning that sensibility to the premier patriarch of her day, Edmund Burke. Wollstonecraft's association between Burke and this sensibility goes back to her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which portrays Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) as the reaction of an individual overcome by an unreasonable and emotional sensibility.21 This emotional sensibility, like Rousseau's, victimizes women with a particular type of feminization, even as it exemplifies that feminization.22 In much the same way, The Rights of Woman attacks the tautological reasoning of Burke's valorization of prejudice in the Reflections by likening that type of argument to “what is vulgarly termed a woman's reason” (113; chap. 5). Wollstonecraft's point is not that women essentially reason through prejudice but that Burke reasons in a way that patriarchy has “vulgarly” associated with the feminine.23

By identifying Burke and Rousseau with a “sensibility” that they and others have imposed on women, Wollstonecraft has, in effect, deconstructed their sexual politics, foregrounding the contradictions of their own logic of gender and identity. This is the context of Wollstonecraft's attack upon a writing style full of the “turgid bombast of artificial feeling.” That is, Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries attacked Burke's Reflections on the very issue of a contradictory style, on how he described the French Revolution as a hysterical event, even though hysteria more aptly described his own emotional, oftentimes lurid prose. This sensational style of Burke's is the target of Tom Paine's The Rights of Man (1791, 1792) and Wollstonecraft's own Rights of Men.24 By thus condemning a style of “sickly delicacy” and “false sentiments” at the beginning of The Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft is not so much repressing a feminine style in favor of a male rationality as devaluing that style and disrupting its gender by associating it with one of the leading English fathers of the day.

One could still argue that, because of Wollstonecraft's own rambling and passionate style, she merely reproduces the irrational emotion she finds in Burke, even as she makes claims for the rational nature of her own work.25 That argument would carry more force if the duality operating in Wollstonecraft's passage really was between reason and emotion. Yet she dismisses the “turgid bombast of artificial feeling” because it comes “from the head” and “never reach[es] the heart” (10; intro.). In fact, the duality dominating this passage is one between “false sentiments” and “natural emotions of the heart” (my emphasis, 10; intro.). Without the experience of such “natural emotions” one cannot become a “rational and immortal being”; instead, like the confined school girls, one's life—and writing—is stunted by the titillating “sickly delicacy” exemplified by the inflamed imagination of Rousseau. I would also stress that, for Wollstonecraft, these “natural emotions” must be experienced. Indeed, “false sentiments” are “false” only because they have not been experienced, since the purpose of the “natural emotions” is in fact to lead one to reason through error. Elsewhere, Wollstonecraft is explicit about how the experiential negativity of the passions is fundamentally involved in this dialectical progress toward reason, and how that progress has, in Wollstonecraft's time, been gender coded:

I must therefore venture to doubt whether what has been thought as an axiom in morals may not have been a dogmatical assertion made by men who have coolly seen mankind through the medium of books, and say, in direct contradiction to them, that the regulation of the passions is not always wisdom—On the contrary, it should seem, that one reason why men have superior judgment and more fortitude then women, is undoubtedly this, that they give a freer scope to the grand passions, and by more frequently going astray enlarge their minds. If then by the exercise of their own reason they fix on some stable principle, they have probably to thank the force of their passions, nourished by false views of life, and permitted to overleap the boundary that secures content.

(110; chap. 5)

Thus, “superior judgment and … fortitude” depend upon a prior experience of emotions that allows us to learn through our mistakes and our incorrect beliefs. One might argue, however, that such a schema accepts the passions as a fundamental part of life, only to relegate them still to a secondary role in relation to the final goal of this entire process, reason; that is, the passions are important only insofar as their negativity paves the way to our final attainment of reason. This critique is valid, insofar as it refers to one major aspect of The Rights of Woman, the utopian teleological impulse of the book, which images society and the individual as progressing toward the realization of their full potential, figured through the twin goals of God and reason. This Enlightenment diachronicity underwrites much of Wollstonecraft's polemic, insofar as Wollstonecraft opposes this diachronicity to a “propensity to enjoy the present moment” imposed upon and internalized by women, which stunts their political and social potential as much as their literal confinement in school (52; chap. 4). Yet this diachronicity and its politics do not exhaust Wollstonecraft's book. Her teleological movement toward reason is in direct tension with the epistemology structuring the critique that paradoxically pushes her teleological argument forward. Passion and reason imbricate this epistemology not diachronically but synchronically. That is, at any given moment, Wollstonecraft's feminist critique involves a reflexivity that resists any simple progress from passion to reason.

Wollstonecraft dramatizes this reflexivity, and the new complex dialectic between reason and passion it engenders, in the remarkable “Pisgah vision” she has right after the passage on the “regulation of the passions” I quoted at length above. “Pisgah” refers to the name of the mountain from which Moses was allowed to view the Promised Land; a Pisgah vision, then, was a mode of political prophecy that late eighteenth-century writers used to articulate their own feelings about the fate of the French Revolution and, by extension, the political future of Europe and England. One of the most famous visions of that period was that of Dr. Richard Price, an ardent supporter of the Revolution; Burke's Reflections is in large part a vehement attack upon Price's vision.26 Wollstonecraft's own Rights of Men defends Price against Burke; Wollstonecraft's use of the vision is thus no mere Biblical allusion but her own contribution to a specific form of political discourse, with which she was intimately familiar. At once an elaboration and critique of this form, this contribution structures itself around Wollstonecraft's complex perception of the dialectical interplay between reason and passion.

After Wollstonecraft's statement on how reasonable men should actually thank the “force of their passions, nourished by false views of life,” these lines follow:

But if, in the dawn of life, we could soberly survey the scenes before as in perspective, and see every thing in its true colours, how could the passions gain sufficient strength to unfold the faculties?

Let me now as from an eminence survey the world stripped of all its false delusive charms. The clear atmosphere enables me to see each object in its true point of view, while my heart is still. I am calm as the prospect in a morning when the mists, slowly dispersing, silently unveil the beauties of nature, refreshed by rest. In what light will the world now appear?—I rub my eyes and think, perchance, that I am just waking from a lively dream.

(110; chap. 5)

Wollstonecraft has introduced a vision that apparently simulates the telos of her Christian diachronic narrative, in which she has reached—indeed, climbed to—a vantage point from which her perspective is influenced by neither “false delusive charms” nor “a lively dream.” Instead, the “charms” of that “dream” will become the subject of her newly found, clear vision. By echoing the “false views of life,” these “false delusive charms” present themselves as the erroneous but necessary catalysts for passion that will bring people to reason.

This is what Wollstonecraft first views:

I see the sons and daughters of men pursuing shadows, and anxiously wasting their powers to feed passions which have not adequate object—if the very excess of these blind impulses, pampered by that lying, yet constantly trusted guide, the imagination, did not, by preparing them for some other state, render short-sighted mortals wiser without their own concurrence; or what comes to the same thing, when they were pursuing some imaginary present good.

(110; chap. 5)

At first, this passage appears to reproduce Wollstonecraft's teleological narrative, with the “excess of these blind impulses” preparing people for the state of reason. Yet we can also read this passage another way, in which the exact moment of sublation from passion to reason is never clear; that is, the blind impulses and lying imagination “render short-sighted mortals wiser without their own concurrence”—while these mortals are in error and negativity. These mortals are not prepared for reason by realizing their error; rather, they reach preparation the more they are in error and the more they cannot see their error. Passion and reason still relate, but in a way that problematizes any easy shift from one to the other.

The next part of Wollstonecraft's vision reinforces this more problematic reading. The vision blasts “the ambitious man consuming himself by running after a phantom” and observes how hard it would be for him to change his way even if he could clearly see the fallacy of his situation (111; chap. 5). Wollstonecraft then observes:

But, vain as the ambitious man's pursuits would be, he is often striving for something more substantial than fame—that indeed would be the veriest meteor, the wildest fire that could lure a man to ruin.—What! renounce the most trifling gratification to be applauded when he should be no more! Wherefore this struggle, whether man be mortal or immortal, if that noble passion did not really raise the being above his fellows?

(111; chap. 5)

Again, there is “something more substantial” in, not beyond, the ambitious man's pursuits—something that neither preempts nor coincides with the desire for fame, that which by itself would “lure a man to ruin.” Here Wollstonecraft's irony folds in upon itself. Mocking both the pettiness of fame and those who would dismiss fame as only petty, she describes fame as the “trifling gratification” that deals with death. “That noble passion,” then, neither works toward nor depends upon a release from the blindness of fame; instead, that passion raises the individual even as it works through its earthly double, the desire for fame.

The next part of Wollstonecraft's vision appears to retreat from this new problematic of passion's role. Discussing the follies of love, Wollstonecraft describes the process in which an individual creates a desired object with “imaginary charms.” When those charms disappear—when the individual is no longer in error—it is reason that saves the mistaken passion from devolving into mere lust:

And would not the sight of the object, not seen through the medium of the imagination, soon reduce the passion to an appetite, if reflection, the noble distinction of man, did not give it force, and make it an instrument to raise him above this earthy dross, by teaching him to love the centre of all perfection; whose wisdom appears clearer and clearer in the works of nature, in proportion as reason is illuminated and exalted by contemplation, and acquiring that love of order which the struggles of passion produce?

(111; chap. 5)

Here, we are raised “above this earthy dross” and taught “to love the centre of all perfection” by reflection, contemplation, and reason, all of which appear at and beyond the level of passion's struggles. Wollstonecraft has apparently reverted to her teleological narrative of God and reason. Yet she then completely scrambles this narrative in her next paragraph:

The habit of reflection, and the knowledge attained by fostering any passion, might be shewn to be equally useful, though the object proved equally fallacious; for they would all appear in the same light, if they were not magnified by the governing passion implanted in us by the Author of all good, to call forth and strengthen the faculties of each individual, and enable it to attain all the experience that an infant can obtain, who does certain things, it cannot tell why.

(111; chap. 5)

Wollstonecraft has, in effect, turned her teleological narrative inside out. First, she has transformed it into a genetic narrative, giving originary presence, moreover, not to reason but to “the governing passion implanted in us” by God. The process initiated and managed by this passion marginalizes reason even more so with the figure of the child, whose actions operate outside of the child's cognition, even as their existence calls forth Wollstonecraft's approval. While not simply erasing Wollstonecraft's teleological narrative, the genetic model does heighten the sense of disequilibrium the entire vision brings to bear on that teleological narrative, even at the moment when the vision appears most ready to fall back into that narrative.

Just as disorienting as the genetic model is the passage's doubling of passion. Not only does Wollstonecraft invoke the primary “governing passion,” she also contrasts “any passion” and the knowledge (of passion? or reason?) it attains with the “habit of reflection”—only then to collapse the main difference between them. She associates both of these epistemological modes with error; both can be turned upon objects that are “equally fallacious,” and both modes can still be productive, as long as they are redeemed—“magnified”—by the “governing passion.”

It is this leveling of the hierarchy between reason and passion that Wollstonecraft finally recuperates out of the dizzying deployment of both these terms in her vision. Thus, even if we could foresee the error passion will bring, and

had the cold hand of circumspection damped each generous feeling before it had left any permanent character, or fixed some habit, what could be expected, but selfish prudence and reason just rising above instinct? Who that has read Dean Swift's disgusting description of the Yahoos, and insipid one of Houyhnhnm with a philosophical eye, can avoid seeing the futility of degrading the passions, or making man rest in contentment?

(112; chap. 5)

Yet Wollstonecraft's point does not seem to be that we can or should find a middle ground between, or a synthesis of, Swift's Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. Instead, the moral is the dialectical limit reason and passion impose on each other's perceptual powers. Wollstonecraft stresses this limit with startling force when she turns her moral upon the truth claims of the Pisgah vision she has just had. Thus, before the passage on Swift, she writes,

I descend from my height, and mixing with my fellow-creatures, feel myself hurried along the common stream; ambition, love, hope, and fear, exert their wonted power, though we be convinced by reason that their present and most attractive promises are only lying dreams. …

(111-12; chap. 5)

Several paragraphs later, she adds,

The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng, and feel as men feel before we can judge their feelings. If we mean, in short, to live in the world to grow wiser and better, and not merely to enjoy the good things of life, we must attain a knowledge of others at the same time that we become acquainted with ourselves—knowledge acquired any other way only hardens the heart and perplexes the understanding.

(112; chap. 5)

Though Wollstonecraft recognizes that a descent from her vision will be into the error and “lying dreams” of passion she still descends. She does so not only because she must but also because of her recognition of the undependability of her position in that vision. What is her position in that vision but that of the “unmoved spectator” above the throng that she observes, but with whom she does not mix? The knowledge and wisdom that Wollstonecraft wants us to acquire echo those parts of her vision that imply that reason and insight are unknowingly found in, not through, passion and error. As such, the position of this knowledge and wisdom is radically antithetical to the epistemological position of the Pisgah vision—a vision that, for all intents and purposes, is the telos, the utopian vantage point of reason and clarity toward which Wollstonecraft's Enlightenment narrative moves.

Wollstonecraft's vision and its aftermath allegorizes a fundamental and irreducible tension in The Rights of Woman between a diachronic longing for an unambiguous political progress from passion to reason and a synchronic apprehension of the shifting epistemological boundaries between passion and reason, wherein reason functions not as a final goal but as a constant imperative toward critique, toward even the unmasking of its own dependency on the shadowed “wisdom” of passion. (We can recall that, much in the same way, the gender indeterminacy of the sentence, “Men do not always act like men …,” is set off by the intervention of “understanding.”) As a reflexive meditation upon the exigencies and duplicities of vision, this passage is as powerful an example of “literariness,” the insight into blindness and insight, as the one Paul de Man valorizes in the work of Wollstonecraft's own subject, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. More important, as an example of blindness and insight explicitly taking place within the context of a feminist politics, the passage at once powerfully acknowledges and critiques Wollstonecraft's text's own ideological inscription—a simultaneity given all the more force by Wollstonecraft's unreflective use of “man” as the human agent of the Pisgah vision.

Thus, Wollstonecraft's use of passion and reason, her critique of the Rousseauistic Romantic imagination, and her deployment of gender all resist her monumentalization as one who repressed her female Otherness in favor of a male identity of Enlightenment rationality. Indeed, the complex circulation of political, epistemological, and gender signs in The Rights of Woman reflect a discursive deftness that exceeds the aporia of writing Mary Jacobus finds only in Wollstonecraft's fragmentary The Wrongs of Woman, insofar as The Rights of Woman uses the errancy of language to press for an explicitly political, oftentimes didactic rhetoric. Perhaps the most uncanny thing about The Rights of Woman is that the text's (still unacknowledged) theoretical density and the text's given identity as political praxis occupy the same space without scandal. That is a doubling, repressed or unrepressed, from which we might do well to learn.


  1. As Katherine M. Rogers writes, “Widely admired during her lifetime, Wollstonecraft shortly after her death was vilified by her enemies and her work was ignored by her friends. Her reputation was so bad by the nineteenth century that several leading feminists repudiated her. … Even Wollstonecraft's friend [Mary] Hays omitted her from her five-volume Female Biography in 1803” (Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England [Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982], 3, 5).

  2. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England, 3. See also Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 9-12, and Alice Browne, The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 170. Wollstonecraft, needless to say, saw a necessary continuum between her two positions. For a discussion of England's reception of Rousseau, see Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley's Critique of the Enlightenment (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 37-53.

  3. Just as Rousseau's Confessions affected the interpretation of his political and social theory, so too did Godwin's biography of Wollstonecraft provide anti-Jacobinists and anti-feminists with the tools to attack The Rights of Woman. For a discussion of the effects of the publication of Rousseau's autobiography in England, see Duffy, Rousseau in England, 32-53; for a discussion of how Godwin's biography of Wollstonecraft affected her intellectual and political reputation, see Browne, The Eighteenth-Century Feminist Mind, 170-73.

  4. My notion of the historical “monument” develops out of Paul de Man's use of that term in his seminal essay, “Shelley Disfigured,” in Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1979), 39-73. See also Orrin N. C. Wang, “Disfiguring Monuments: History in Paul de Man's ‘Shelley Disfigured’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley's ‘The Triumph of Life,’ ELH 58, no. 3 (Fall 1991)—forthcoming.

  5. Mary Jacobus, “The Buried Letter: Villette,” in Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 59.

  6. Thus Mary Poovey portrays Wollstonecraft's duality in the ideological terms of the two literary discourses open to her as a women, sentimental fiction and the “how to” texts of “the proper lady.” Relying heavily on Wollstonecraft's biography, Poovey turns Wollstonecraft's life and texts into a seamless narrative of a figure—“Wollstonecraft”—who is, on the whole, blind to the limits of the discourses structuring her life and writing (The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 48-113). Likewise, Cora Kaplan sees in Wollstonecraft's supposed privileging of male reason over female sentiment a fear of the female body—a fear that duplicates current debates over the role of female sexuality and pleasure in contemporary feminist agendas (“Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,” in Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism [London: Verso, 1986], 31-57). Both Kaplan and Poovey primarily associate imagination in Wollstonecraft with a sexuality that the Romantic writer tries to occlude; in contrast, Mary Jacobus associates Wollstonecraft's imagination not only with passion but with the irreducible errancy—the “madness”—of language itself (“The Difference of View,” in Reading Woman, 33-34). Thus, unlike Poovey, Jacobus looks for the repressed effects of imagination not in Wollstonecraft's biography but in the rhetorical effects of her writing. Still, Jacobus has not really altered the Wollstonecraft paradigm that she, like Poovey and Kaplan, has inherited. She merely transfers Wollstonecraft's subversive Otherness from Wollstonecraft's biography to her literary works.

    An influential recent precursor of this critical plot that emphasizes the duality in Wollstonecraft as one between femininity and masculinity is Margaret Walters' “The Rights and Wrongs of Women: Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, and Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Rights and Wrongs of Women, ed. Anne Oakley and Juliet Mitchell (London: Penguin, 1976), 304-29.

  7. For a reading of Wollstonecraft's acknowledgement of female writing see Jacobus, “The Difference of View,” 32-33; for a reading of female desire, see Kaplan, “Wild Nights,” 35, 159. For Poovey the movement from The Rights of Woman to The Wrongs of Woman is both a progress and a decline. On the one hand Poovey sees The Rights of Woman as exhibiting a frustration over the split between Wollstonecraft's professional and sexual identities, a split that the later works confront more directly; yet Poovey also sees this later confrontation hampered by a reification of the bourgeois self that The Rights of Woman seeks to deny (The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, 80-81, 94-113). For the argument that The Wrongs of Woman actually has more in common with The Rights of Woman than Wollstonecraft's first novel, Mary, A Fiction (1788), see Laurie Langbauer, “An Early Romance: Motherhood and Women's Writing in Mary Wollstonecraft's Novels,” in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), 209-11.

  8. As Denise Riley points out, one can refute the essential nature of “woman” while still believing in some other hypostatized agent, such as “women.” (See her “Am I That Name?”: Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988], 2-3.) In my critique, however, I do not distinguish between the terms “woman,” “women,” and the “feminine” precisely because I see Wollstonecraft's rejection of the gendered duality between reason and imagination as a rejection of the ontological assumptions that would allow for the reification of all three terms.

  9. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 6; intro. All further references to this work appear in the text. So that readers may easily locate my references in other editions, I have cited chapters as well as page numbers.

  10. See Timothy J. Reiss, “Revolution in Bounds: Wollstonecraft, Women, and Reason,” in Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism, ed. Linda Kauffman (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 12-21, 39-44. From the same book, see also Frances Ferguson's rebuttal to Reiss, “Wollstonecraft Our Contemporary,” 51-62.

  11. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), 154.

  12. “Hegemonic practices are suturing insofar as their field of operation is determined by the openness of the social, by the ultimately unfixed character of every signifier. This original lack is precisely what the hegemonic practices try to fill in. A totally sutured society would be one where this filling-in would have reached its ultimate consequences and would have, therefore, managed to identify itself with the transparency of a closed symbolic order. Such a closure of the social is, as we will see, impossible” (Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 88). Also see Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 127-34.

  13. The quote by Rousseau that Wollstonecraft responds to is: “Educate [women] like men. The more women are like men, the less power they will have over men, and then men will be masters indeed” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Barbara Foxely [London: J. M. Dent, 1911], 327).

  14. I do not exaggerate when I claim that Wollstonecraft's analysis operates at the level of “forces”; the sentence I cite is in her chapter entitled “Animadversions on Some of the Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity, Bordering on Contempt,” which, as its title suggests, surveys and evaluates the cultural effect of a century's worth of literature aimed at conferring onto “woman” a single identity.

  15. I am indebted to Richard A. Strier for pointing out to me that Wollstonecraft's reference to masturbation (“vices which render the body weak”) is specifically aimed not at girls but at boys. Earlier, Wollstonecraft does refer to girls who might learn “nasty or immodest habits” from one another in nurseries and boarding schools (127; chap. 7).

  16. While she does not refer to the same passage on masturbation that I analyze, the most vivid example of this model of repression, articulated at the level of both style and sexuality, is offered by Kaplan, “Wild Nights,” 34-50.

  17. After this passage Wollstonecraft once again refers to the “bad habits which females acquire when they are shut up together,” thus stressing that masturbation is a literal fact for girls as well as boys (165; chap. 12).

  18. Richard A. Strier has pointed out to me that, for someone like Wollstonecraft who came out of the Protestant tradition of dissent, this solipsistic imagination would also have been associated with a Catholic sensibility. For a recent reading of Wollstonecraft with a view on sexuality and experience similar to mine, see Langbauer, “An Early Romance,” 210. Also, Wollstonecraft's critique of sentimental fiction is inscribed within the same polemic against female confinement and repression:

    There are the women who are amused by the reveries of the stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste, and draw the heart aside from its daily duties. I do not mention the understanding, because never having been exercised, its slumbering energies rest inactive, like the lurking particles of fire which are supposed universally to pervade matter.

    (183; chap. 13)

    Thus, sentimental fiction actually keeps the mind from experience, confining understanding and rendering it passive, much like the way schools restrict the exercise and activities of young girls. (And while the negative view of fiction does privilege reason over emotion, the analogy between reason and the school girls disrupts any facile reification of the male reason/female emotion split.) In the same vein Wollstonecraft also argues that the reading of sentimental fiction is better than no reading at all, since such fiction at least gives women some experience, even if it is the wrong kind (184; chap. 13).

  19. There is evidence that suggests that Wollstonecraft paints this picture of Rousseau with knowledge of his own literary references to masturbation. Consider, for example, this passage from a review of The Confessions in the Analytical Review which critics have attributed to Wollstonecraft:

    His most enthusiastic admirers must allow that his imagination was sometimes rampant, and breaking loose from his judgement, sketched some alluring pictures, whose colouring was more natural, than chaste, yet over which, with the felicity of genius, he has thrown those voluptuous shades, that, by setting the fancy to work, prove a dangerous snare, when the hot blood dances in the veins.

    (Analytical Review 11 [December 1791]; quoted in Duffy, Rousseau in England, 48)

    As Duffy writes, “The Analytical's critique of Rousseauean sensibility coincides exactly with the anti-Rousseauean message of [Wollstonecraft's] Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (48-49). We can also note the similarity between the Analytical's passage, the Wollstonecraft quote, and this piece from The Confessions, in which Rousseau explicitly connects the imagination to masturbation:

    I had preserved my physical but not my moral virginity. … The progress of the years had told upon me, and my restless temperament had at last made itself felt. … [I] learned that dangerous means of cheating Nature, which leads in young men of my temperament to various kinds of excesses, that eventually imperil their health, their strength, and sometimes their lives. This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first containing consent.

    (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. J. M. Cohen [London: Penguin, 1953], 108-90)

    The most thorough treatment of Rousseau and masturbation is, of course, Jacques Derrida's “… That Dangerous Supplement …” in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 141-64.

  20. “There is indeed much in [Rousseau's] make-up that reminds one less of a man than a high-strung woman. … By subordinating judgment to sensibility Rousseau may be said to have made woman the measure of all things” (Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism [1919; Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Cleveland: World Publishing, 1955], 130-32).

  21. Throughout your letter [i.e., Burke's Reflections] you frequently advert to a sentimental jargon, which has long been current in conversation, and even in books of morals, though it never received the regal stamp of reason. A kind of mysterious instinct is supposed to reside in the soul, that instantaneously discerns truth, without the tedious labor of ratiocination. This instinct … has been termed common sense, and more frequently sensibility; and by a kind of indefeasible right, it has been supposed, for rights of this kind are not easily proved, to reign paramount over the other faculties of the mind, and to be an authority from which there is not appeal.

    … [This sensibility] dips, we know not why, granting it to be an infallible instinct, and, though supposed always to point to truth, its pole star, the point is always shifting, and seldom stands due north.

    (Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men [Albany, NY: Delmar, Scholar's Facsimiles, 1975], 68-69)

    For an extended analysis of Wollstonecraft's critique of Burke's emotional sensibility, see James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 168-76.

  22. Thus Wollstonecraft attacks the assumptions of gender that underwrite Burke's duality between a masculine sublime and feminine beautiful in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), and then she asserts that Burke is himself actually inscribed not in the sublime but in the beautiful (The Rights of Men, 111-21, 138-42).

    Wollstonecraft also associates Burke's sensibility with a “personal pique” and a “hurt vanity”—those very traits of egomania that Burke attacks in Rousseau (The Rights of Men, 110).

  23. Elsewhere, in praising the writing of Catherine Macaulay, Wollstonecraft takes pains not to associate Macaulay's thought with the masculine:

    I will not call [Macaulay's] a masculine understanding, because I admit not of such an arrogant assumption of reason; but I contend that it was a sound one, and that her judgement, the matured fruit of profound thinking, was a proof that a woman can acquire judgement, in the full extent of the word.

    (105; chap. 5)

  24. See Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, 58-59, and James K. Chandler, Wordsworth's Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 63. See also note 21.

  25. This is exactly Boulton's final point about The Rights of Men (The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke, 172-76).

  26. For a discussion of Price's vision and Burke's repudiation of it, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 144-46.

Steven Blakemore (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Blakemore, Steven. “Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft's Subversion of Paradise Lost.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 4 (winter 1992): 451-80.

[In the following essay, Blakemore argues that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft engages in a radical, systematic subversion of John Milton's Paradise Lost and, further, that she subverts the feminist myth she herself creates.]

In 1784 Immanuel Kant published his famous essay in which he defined “enlightenment” as man's emergence from self-imposed nonage and challenged people to begin liberating themselves by pursuing knowledge instead of relying on tradition: “Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”1 Kant's paradigmatic equation of childhood with ignorance and knowledge with liberation was one of the great cultural commonplaces celebrated by a variety of Enlightenment writers and repeated with special resonance by radical writers during the revolutionary era (1789-1815). Indeed, the French Revolution consummated a preexistent cleavage in Western thought. Revolutionary representations of knowledge, for instance, aggressively contested traditional texts that stressed the satanic dangers of epistemological curiosity. Mary Wollstonecraft and other revolutionary writers were, in this context, waging an intertextual war against a conservative canon that emphasized epistemological restraint. In England this canon consisted of a variety of works by, inter alia, Milton, Pope, Johnson, and Burke. With reference to Milton, both revolutionary and antirevolutionary writers intuited that Paradise Lost, particularly Book 9, was a core text providing the “terms” for the battle over the French Revolution's mythical meaning.

Revolutionaries, like Mary Wollstonecraft, were rebelling against the canonical readings of the traditional order. In contrast, such antirevolutionary writers as Edmund Burke equated what they envisioned as an epistemological revolution with Satan's revolt—the satanic presumption, pride, and lust for forbidden knowledge inscribed in the textual falls of rebellious angels and postlapsarian people. This counterrevolutionary allegory coincided with the subversive allegory that revolutionary readers were writing: Satan as revolutionary liberator or, as we shall see, Eve as feminist rebel in Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Contemporary criticism of Wollstonecraft's reading of Milton centers on, as does most Milton criticism, the ideological presentation of Eve qua woman in Paradise Lost. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for instance, emphasize both a misogynistic Milton and Wollstonecraft's respondent antagonism, while Joseph Wittreich finds a “feminist” Milton, who Wollstonecraft and other eighteenth-century women sympathetically read in a “text torn by ideological contradictions that do not do irreparable damage and are evidence of Milton's subversion of stereotypical representations of Eve and of women generally, a Wollstonecraft determined to represent Milton's text in all its paradoxes and ambiguities.”2 In my essay, I propose to show, first, that Wollstonecraft, in fact, engages in a systematic and sustained subversion of Paradise Lost that is more radical and elaborate than has been previously maintained or documented and, second, that Wollstonecraft's text is itself “torn by ideological contradictions” that subvert the feminist myth she creates. Wollstonecraft not only subverts Milton's epic but his poem redounds upon her, so that she becomes a specter (or emanation) of Milton himself. I suggest that there is a doubleness inherent in rebellious reading—a doubleness that includes a counterrevolutionary reading that, in turn, subverts the revolutionary text by reconstructing the “terms” of rebellion. Wollstonecraft's reading of Milton entails this doubleness and has dialectic implications for the canonical texts of the revolutionary and Romantic eras.


One of Wollstonecraft's first allusions to Milton and Paradise Lost appears in chapter 2 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.3 [RW] Questioning why women should “be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence?” (Works, 5:88), she alludes to both Eve's Edenic “innocence” and the knowledge that is withheld from her. In Paradise Lost, there is a masculine hierarchy of knowledge that Wollstonecraft, as will be seen, reads as a patriarchal plot to keep Eve in a state of ignorant “innocence” and hence in a state of “feminine” weakness. “Children,” she notes, “should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness” (5:89). Wollstonecraft hence makes a series of condemnatory connections between Milton's prelapsarian Eve and the postlapsarian women who are argued into debilitating ignorance by males using Milton's authoritative language.

After referring to women's “cunning, softness or temper, outward obedience” and evoking Milton's Eve, she makes the connection clear: “Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation” (5:88).

Besides the reference to Paradise Lost (“For contemplation he and valour form'd / For softness she and sweet attractive Grace,” PL 4.297-8), Wollstonecraft's sarcastic comment that she “cannot comprehend” Milton's meaning alerts us that she is commencing a strong rebellious reading of Milton, and her reference to “the true Mahometan strain” of his poem (i.e., “the widespread Christian misconception that Islam denied that women had souls,” Works, 5:73, note a) connects Milton with Edmund Burke (in The Rights of Men), whom she also accused of stumbling into “the mussulman's creed” and laboring to prove “that one half of the human species, at least, have not souls” (Works, 5:45).

In addition, her contention that Milton's text turns woman into a sexual plaything “to gratify the senses of man” suggests, at this point, that woman's “fall” was and is sexual and not essentially epistemological, since knowledge is precisely the “forbidden fruit” prohibited by patriarchal oppressors who impose ignorance and define women's subordinate sexual roles. Wollstonecraft thus implies that woman's intellectual “innocence” is actually formulated in masculine terms of coercive prohibition.

Finally, the Miltonic libertine corrupted by his sensual desires, “when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation,” alludes to all the Miltonic (and satanic) references to soaring in Paradise Lost, especially Milton's boast that he intends “to soar Above the Aonian Mount” (1.15). In The Analytical Review (vol. 7, 1790)—the journal in which she reviewed books, off and on, for nearly a decade—Wollstonecraft noted that “Milton slackened his flight when he entered heaven, for with drooping wing did he vainly attempt to soar where the boldest imagination is soon overwhelmed with silent despair,” underscoring her preference for Milton's “satanic” books and reinforcing what had already become a cultural commonplace (Works, 7:250).

In this context, Wollstonecraft writes out both the fall of Milton and her correspondent feminist flight. She inverts, as will be seen, the biblical consequences of the Fall, resulting in woman's explicit subordination to man (see Genesis 3:16; Paradise Lost 10.195-6), and transforms Eve's eating of “knowledge” into an act of independence and empowerment. In a fallen world in which Wollstonecraft doubts whether “any knowledge can be attained without labour and sorrow” (RW, 182; my emphasis), she transforms the “curse” (84) of the Fall in Genesis (3:16-17) and Paradise Lost (10.194, 205) into the liberation of woman through the dolorous “labor” of knowledge.

Her vision of Milton's paradise as a state of ignorance corresponds to the postlapsarian European world where men keep women “in a state of perpetual childhood” (RW, 75; cf. 89, 99, 130, 178, 186, 190, 196). Wollstonecraft fleshes out the correlation between Miltonic “ignorance” and feminine “innocence” when she notes that when patriarchal “instructors” contend that women were created to be kept “innocent,” they really mean “in a state of childhood” (RW, 130). By this logic, women “might as well never have been born,” unless they were created “to enable man to acquire the noble privilege of reason, the power of discerning good from evil,” while women, themselves, return to “the dust from whence we were taken, never to rise again” (RW, 130). By equating Miltonic innocence with political and psychological childhood (and the obedience and submission this entails), Wollstonecraft begins transforming the mythic act of feminine disobedience (the eating of forbidden knowledge) into a feminist act of liberation.

Thus, in Wollstonecraft's inversion of Milton, man eats first from the tree of knowledge and then prevents woman from doing the same—thus man becomes the “tempter” who provokes her cunning curiosity for the “forbidden fruit.” The consequence is her “fall” into ignorance, metaphorically equivalent to “a knowledge of evil”: “… if men eat of the tree of knowledge, women will come in for a taste; but, from the imperfect cultivation which their understandings now receive, they only attain a knowledge of evil” (RW, 89). Wollstonecraft hence suggests that by depriving women of authentically “good” knowledge (cf. 108: “But I still insist, that … the knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree”), men tempt them into a knowledge of evil, causing them to act out all those self-fulfilling stereotypes men deplore.

By making men the first mythic eaters of knowledge and, by extension, the first tempters of women—the tantalizing withholders of “true” knowledge—she reverses Milton's parable of original fault, for her metaphors equate the real “fatal fruit” with the “ignorance” with which men tempt women into falling. In this context, it is not Milton's paradigm of a fall into fatal knowledge (which critics of the French Revolution were using) but a fall out or away from the knowledge appropriated by masculine “tyrants.” In Paradise Lost, Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, initially considers withholding the “Knowledge in [her] power,” so that she may be “Superior; for inferior who is free?” (9.820, 825). In contrast, Wollstonecraft switches the traditional positions of Adam and Eve and makes Adamic man the initiator of Eve's fall into false knowledge, or ignorance, while Eve's original sin is metaphorically posited as a positive act of self-assertion, even though she is subsequently punished by patriarchal authorities and “traditions.” Writing at a time (1792) when the French Revolution was still being celebrated by most of Europe, a revolution she connects with a correspondent “revolution in female manners” (RW, 114; cf. 251, 265), Wollstonecraft rebels against the oppressive texts of patriarchal tradition and crystallizes a feminist version of the Enlightenment's challenge to the Old Order—Sapere aude!


Indeed, Wollstonecraft sees knowledge as the liberating power by which women can break out of their subordinate “orbits” and “turn” to their Creator: “For if … women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues,” then “they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite” (RW, 89). She suggests that women must break out of the reflected light of patriarchal tradition and turn to God, praised in Paradise Lost by angelic choirs as “Author of all being, / Fountain of light” (3.374-75). But Wollstonecraft again turns Milton's language against him, for she adds that “Milton … was of a different opinion; for he only bends to the indefeasible right of beauty,” quoting as evidence Eve's submission to Adam:

To whom thus Eve with perfect beauty adorn'd.
My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst
Unargued I obey; so God ordains;
God is thy law; thou mine: to know no more
Is Woman's happiest knowledge and her praise.

(PL, 4.634-38; Wollstonecraft's emphasis)

Wollstonecraft's italicization of the words underscores her critique (“these are exactly the arguments I have used to children”) of what she believes is Milton's misogynous ideology expressed and parroted through the “fallen” words of prelapsarian Eve.4 In chapter 6, she refers again to this Miltonic passage when she observes that it is not surprising that women are so ignorant, “considering the education they receive, and that their ‘highest praise is to obey, unargued’—the will of man” (RW, 187).

Her linkage of Miltonic “beauty” with arguments used to coerce children into obedience and, by extension, the patriarchal texts keeping women in a state of political and psychological infantilism also suggests that in order to achieve “knowledge” and hence freedom and independence, women must rebel and disobey the patriarchal injunctions that equate knowledge with the forbidden province of “masculinity.” Indeed, she subverts the very terms of Paradise Lost, celebrating satanic rebellion and disobedience, and, in doing so, begins entangling herself in a series of satanic positions, for rebellion against patriarchal authority is the sin of both Satan and Eve.

Many of her arguments, for instance, resemble both Satan's and Eve's rationalizations of rebellion against God's “tyranny.” When she comments that the purpose of education is to “enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent” and that “it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (RW, 90), she begins an allusive turn reminiscent of Eve's contention (when she first exercises her reason against Adam) that the nature of labor in paradise requires their temporary separation and hence her initial independence (see PL, 9.205-384). In addition, her argument, throughout, that men have conspired to keep women weak by prohibiting them knowledge is also, mutatis mutandis, Satan's argument to Eve: God has forbidden “knowledge” in order “to awe” and keep His “worshippers” in a state of ignorance (PL, 9.703-04). Satan also equates knowledge with liberation and power—with “reason” and independence. His subversive question (PL 9.725-26), “… and wherein lies / Th' offense, that man [woman] should thus attain to know?” reverberates throughout Wollstonecraft's text.

Wollstonecraft is not unwittingly enmeshing herself in these satanic echoes; she is deliberately replicating them. She, in effect, takes the first act of female disobedience inscribed in the texts of patriarchal tradition and transforms it into an act of emancipation. She crystallizes the terms of female independence—the reason, labor, and knowledge that Milton qualifies.

But there are some redounding Miltonic ironies. For instance, Wollstonecraft argues that women are “drawn out of their sphere” by the intoxicating “regal homage” of male language, and hence it is difficult to convince them that their “illegitimate power” (male “homage” to female “beauty”) actually degrades them and “is a curse” (RW, 90). Although this is a recurrent Wollstonecraftian theme (cf. 164, 169)—the language of “regal” beauty psychologically debilitates women by conditioning them to act out the enslaving stereotypes of a chivalric language disingenuously worshipful—the reader remembers that the first enactment of this language thematically occurs in Satan's linguistic deification of Eve in Paradise Lost:

Empress of this fair World, resplendent Eve,
.....But all that fair and good in thy Divine
Semblance, and in thy Beauty's heav'nly Ray
United I beheld; no Fair to thine
Equivalent or second, which compell'd
Mee thus, … to come,
And gaze, and worship thee of right declar'd
Sovran of Creatures, universal Dame.

(9.568, 606-12; cf. Eve's satanic dream in Book 5, 45-46, 74)

In Paradise Lost, Satan's linguistic deification of Eve is the deceptive idolatry that precipitates both her fall and her correspondent “curse.”

Although Eve initially suspects the Serpent's “overpraising” (PL, 9.615), she is seduced through a language that glorifies her beauty and promises her empowerment through knowledge. Wollstonecraft hence unwittingly provides the terms for a subversive counterrevolutionary reading, in which she herself tempts woman to partake of “fallen” knowledge. If Satan and Eve are the real hero and heroine of her book, a counterrevolutionary reader would see them in and through the language of Milton.5

In her feminist reading, of course, the real satanic tempters are those Miltonic men who pay “regal homage” to the women they keep weak and “fallen.” It is the seductive language of patriarchy that is one of the metaphoric “apples” of Wollstonecraft's book—a deceptive language that seemingly elevates woman but actually degrades her—and not the true knowledge that patriarchy prohibits. Wollstonecraft hence urges a return “to nature and equality” (both suppressed in the fallen patriarchal past) which she projects in a revolutionary future when even kings and nobles will “throw off their gaudy hereditary trappings” and women will transparently resign the “arbitrary power” of feeble beauty (RW, 90-91).


But Wollstonecraft's “paradisiacal” state has nothing in common with Milton's. In fact, she pointedly alludes to Adam and Eve's existence in the garden of Eden when she criticizes eighteenth-century sexual roles:

… whoever has cast a benevolent eye on society, must often have been gratified by the sight of humble mutual love, not dignified by sentiment, or strengthened by a union in intellectual pursuits. The domestic trifles of the day have afforded matters for cheerful converse, and innocent caresses have softened toils which did not cause great exercise of mind or stretch of thought: yet, has not the sight of this moderate felicity excited more tenderness than respect? An emotion similar to what we feel when children are playing, or animals sporting, whilst the contemplation of the noble struggles of suffering merit has raised admiration, and carried our thoughts to that world where sensation will give place to reason.

(RW, 94)

Two allusions are conflated in this passage. In Paradise Lost, Eve enjoys receiving Adam's “Grateful digressions, [that would] solve high dispute / With conjugal Caresses, from his Lip / Not Words alone pleas'd her.” Later, Adam tries to convince her that prelapsarian labor does not preclude “sweet intercourse / Of looks and smiles, for smiles from reason flow” (8.55-57; 9.238-39). The theme of “domestic trifles” affording “matters for cheerful converse” and the “innocent caresses” that soften “toils” is the same (RW, 94), since Wollstonecraft is criticizing the childlike relations of both the prelapsarian pair and postlapsarian couples.

In her private correspondence, we can trace the evolution of this thought, since Milton's model of domestic bliss both attracted and repelled her. For instance, in a letter (23 August 1790) to her sister, Everina Wollstonecraft, she related her visit with Reverend Henry Dyson Gabell and his wife, Ann: “… after the various employments of the day they find most pleasure in each other's society—of which Milton has given a description, when he speaks of the first pair.” She proceeds to note the couple's “domestic felicity,” their pure “caresses,” and the abundant “happiness and innocent fondness” that illuminates their eyes (Letters, 192).

On 10 September, she wrote another letter to Everina in which she qualifies her approval of the couple's apparent Edenic bliss:

I did intend to have mentioned your situation [Everina was seeking employment] to the good folks here—but I have changed my mind—happiness is not a softener of the heart—and from them I should always expect little acts of kindness and grateful civilities [cf. PL, 8.600-01]—but never any great exertion, which might disturb, for a moment, the even tenor of their loves and lives. Whenever [I] read Milton's description of paradise—the happiness, which he so poetically describes fills me with benevolent satisfaction—yet, I cannot help viewing them, I mean the first pair—as if they were my inferiors—inferiors because they could find happiness in a world like this—A feeling of the same kind frequently intrudes on me here—Tell me, does it arise from mistaken pride or conscious dignity which whispering me that my soul is immortal & should have a nobler ambition leads me to cherish it?

(Letters, 195)

Wollstonecraft was undoubtedly thinking of the Gabells when she criticized “innocent” domestic bliss in The Rights of Woman. In the letter, the Gabells resemble, what to her is, Adam and Eve's thoughtless egotistic bliss as well as their immunity from “any great exertion” (Letters, 195) or, mutatis mutandis, “great exercise of mind or stretch of thought” (RW, 94). In addition, there are specific satanic echoes in both passages.

For instance, Wollstonecraft's condescending connection of “Edenic” domestic bliss with an “emotion similar to what we feel when children are playing, or animals sporting” (RW, 94), alludes to Satan's first view of Adam and Eve, who “dally” surrounded by “sporting” animals:

Nor gentle purpose [discourse], nor endearing smiles
Wanted, nor youthful dalliance as beseems
Fair couple, linkt in happy nuptial League,
Alone as they. About them frisking play'd
All beasts of th' Earth, since wild, and of all chase
In Wood or Wilderness, Forest or Den;
Sporting the Lion ramp'd, and in his paw
Dandl'd the Kid …

(PL, 4.337-44)

Since Satan is watching this scene, Wollstonecraft's correspondent “sight of this moderate felicity” (RW, 94) suggests that she is re-creating it in order to watch it with a subversive satanic eye. Indeed, her contrastable “admiration” for “the noble struggles of suffering merit” directly alludes to Satan's description of himself in Book 1 of Paradise Lost: “… that fixt mind / And high disdain, from sense of injur'd merit” (1.97-98). These intentional satanic echoes were initiated in her letter to Everina when, after asserting her superiority to Adam and Eve in “Milton's description of Paradise,” she asks if this feeling arises “from mistaken pride or conscious dignity” (Letters, 195), since she realizes that these are supposed satanic characteristics (cf. PL, 2.428-29: Satan “with Monarchal Pride / Conscious of highest worth”) and that Satan was the first subversive questioner of Adam and Eve's Edenic happiness.

All this impinges on Wollstonecraft's satanic reading—a reading she spells out in footnote 2, which follows the reference to the “emotion” we feel “when children are playing, or animals sporting”: “Similar feelings has Milton's pleasing picture of paradisiacal happiness ever raised in my mind; yet, instead of envying the lovely pair, I have, with conscious dignity, or Satanic Pride, turned to hell for sublimer objects” (RW, 94). The reference to her “conscious dignity” or “Satanic Pride” again connects her rebellious reading with the one initiated in the letter to Everina Wollstonecraft (“Tell me, does it arise from mistaken pride or conscious dignity?”), and even her distinction between Satan's envy of “the lovely pair” (see PL, 4.358-92) and her own superiority to them (“yet, instead of envying the lovely pair”) reinforces her strong satanic reading, since she turns “to hell for sublimer objects.”

She continues this reading in the same satanic footnote:

In the same style, when viewing some noble monument of human art, I have traced the emanation of the Deity in the order I admired, till, descending from that giddy height, I have caught myself contemplating the grandest of all human sights;—for fancy quickly placed, in some solitary recess, an outcast of fortune, rising superior to passion and discontent.

(RW, 94)

There are a series of Miltonic echoes that she again subverts.

First, her qualified admiration for the work of art (i.e., Paradise Lost) emanating from “the Deity” is connected with her “view” of Adam and Eve and her correspondent criticism of their illusive “paradisiacal happiness.” Her rejection of their paradise is hence linked to her turn from the Deity, or Milton's God (“till, descending from that giddy height”), and her superior contemplation of “the grandest of all human sights”—the satanic antagonist of God: “an outcast of fortune, rising superior to passion and discontent” (RW, 94). In Paradise Lost, Satan is “outcast from God” (2.694) and complains of his expulsion and “outcast” (4.106). In Wollstonecraft's rebellious reading, he rises superior “to passion and discontent”—precisely what he does not do in Paradise Lost. She, in effect, revises his rebellion into an act of imaginative liberation—“rising superior to passion and discontent.”

Second, her reference to “descending from that giddy height” (RW, 94) evokes the Miltonic narrator who has soared over the Olympian hill and wishes to descend (see PL, 7.1-23) and who from the beginning has also intentionally entangled himself in a series of satanic resemblances,6 as well as the postlapsarian Adam who descends the Hill of Speculation after receiving a “vision” of the future from Michael (see 12.588-89, 606-07).

Similarly, in chapter 5 (sec. 5), Wollstonecraft metaphorically ascends, like Michael and Adam in Book 12 of Paradise Lost, to survey the fallen world (cf. Poovey, 80): “Let me now as from an eminence survey the world stripped of all its false delusive charms” (RW, 179)—with a secondary allusion to the opening of Samuel Johnson's “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (“Let Observation, with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru”). She subsequently “descend[s] from my height” (RW, 181), alluding again to Adam's response to Raphael—“Therefore from this high pitch let us descend” (PL, 8.198)—and Michael's injunction to Adam—“Let us descend now therefore from this top / Of Speculation” (12.588-89).

But there are also satanic or “fallen” resemblances reminiscent of Eve's dream of apple eating, flying, and then falling (see PL, 5.28-94) or the many “descents” of Satan himself (see 2.14, 76; 9.163, 69; 10.394). In any case, her sympathetic identification with Satan underscores her subversive revision of Milton.


For instance, she suggests that there is a patriarchal conspiracy to keep women from the “tree of knowledge” by indoctrinating them with an ideology of sexual beauty: “But, according to the tenour of reasoning, by which women are kept from the tree of knowledge, the important years of youth, the usefulness of age, and the rational hopes of futurity, are to be sacrificed to render women an object of desire for a short time” (RW, 160). She traces, as will be seen, this ideological conspiracy back to the patriarchal authorities of Paradise Lost: Adam, Raphael, God, and, of course, Milton himself.

In this context, Milton's prelapsarian Eve is the implicit model for postlapsarian women's compelled ignorance, an ignorance that men translate as “innocence” in an effort to keep them weak and powerless: “Women are every where in this deplorable state; for, in order to preserve their innocence, as ignorance is courteously termed, truth is hidden from them, and they are made to assume an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength” (RW, 113). The contention that an oppressive order ideologically instills ignorance is, of course, an Enlightenment argument used repeatedly during the French Revolution. It is also, as has been seen, Satan's argument (PL, 9.703-06). Wollstonecraft's insight was to see that what was essentially a political and sociological explanation of “man's” fall had sexual and psychological implications for women as well.

Thus she argued that women acted out their debilitated roles in the very terms that patriarchy provided them. In The Rights of Woman, she confronts a series of “pestiferous” (87) texts in order to reveal how their misogynistic ideology contributes to women's psychological mutilation and hence their sociopolitical ignorance. Her equation of ignorance with innocence (“Why,” she asks, should women “be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence?” RW, 88; cf. 82, 112-13, 18, 23, 30, 32, 203, 45) is specifically aimed at Paradise Lost and the “innocence, that as a veil / Had shadow'd them [Adam and Eve] from knowing ill” (9.1054-55), as well as Milton's celebrations of Eve's Edenic innocence (4.388; 8.501; 9.373, 459). She criticizes, in a quotation from Vicesimus Knox, the contradictory equation of feminine ignorance with innocence in a fallen world where women need knowledge to resist temptation: “‘Can anything,’ says Knox, ‘be more absurd than keeping women in a state of ignorance, and yet so vehemently to insist on their resisting temptation?’” (RW, 195). In Wollstonecraft's formulation, the patriarchal paradigm of innocence is a prescription for woman's fall.

Since Wollstonecraft is questioning the terms of what she believes is the dominant ideological and political order, she becomes the satanic subverter of the texts sustaining it. Hence, it is not surprising that, like Satan in Paradise Lost, she is a revisionist historian. Her argument that men have conspiratorially kept women from the “tree of knowledge” (i.e., “masculine” education) and hence kept them in a state of ignorance is, mutatis mutandis, the argument Satan uses to seduce Eve. In Book 4, after enviously seeing Adam and Eve's paradisiacal bliss, Satan begins rehearsing the arguments he will eventually use on Eve in Book 9:

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd'n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they only stand
By Ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
… Hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with Gods. …

(PL, 4.514-20, 22-26)

The terms of Wollstonecraft's argument are similar to Satan's: the patriarchal order conspires to keep women weak by keeping them ignorant—only in Wollstonecraft's satanic reading, she herself is not the deceiver but the linguistic liberator of fallen woman.7

Like Satan, she subversively supplies the arguments that undermine traditional authority. In Book 9, Satan tells Eve why God has really forbidden the knowledge of good and evil (“Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe, / Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,” PL 9.703-041), and this is essentially Wollstonecraft's argument in The Rights of Woman, where the knowledge of “evil” is actually the liberating power that men forbiddingly hide under the bogey word “masculine,” and the fatal apple is the ideology of beauty through which men tempt women into their “fall.”

Thus she insists that women's “hearts have not been debauched by knowledge, or their minds led astray by scientific pursuits” (RW, 239), but rather “paradisiacal reveries” (143), the “ignorance” that turns women into the “crafty” Eve-like tempters of Paradise Lost (239): patriarchal ideology again creates the women it deplores. Earlier she had noted that men scare women away from knowledge and exertion by exclamations “against masculine women,” although she doubts their existence and suspects that men appropriate human virtues and selectively apply them to masculine or “manly” categories, in which case she wishes that women “may every day grow more and more masculine” (RW, 74; cf. PL, 9.803-04). Her subversive reading of Milton suggests that patriarchal prohibitors scare women away from the tree of knowledge by misnaming it “masculine” and insinuating that knowledge distorts woman's “femininity,” transforming them into “masculine women” or the sexually ambiguous Sin in Paradise Lost, who “seemed Woman” but is “arm'd / With mortal sting” (2.650, 52-53). Like Satan, she suggests that “forbidden knowledge” is the hidden power that will release women from their subordinate roles.

On another level, her endeavor to desex virtue and demystify masculinity coincides with her suspicion that sexual love or passion seduces women into weakness, which resembles Milton's parable of a sexual fall: Satan's temptation of Eve is linguistically seductive; sexual lust is a consequence of the Fall, as is woman's mandatory obedience (see PL, 10.195-96). Wollstonecraft, consequently, warns against the “depravity of the appetite which brings the sexes together,” a depravity that has a “fatal effect” (RW, 208), in her parable of sex as the fatal apple (cf. PL, 1.1-3, 9.889, 10.4). Later, the “feverish caresses of appetite” are connected to Milton's account of the first incestuous rape—“Sin embracing death” (RW, 264).8 The word appetite is a thematic word in Paradise Lost through which Milton associates the eating of the apple with both sexual and epistemological lust (see 7.126-7, 546-47; 8.308; 9.580, 740; 10.565) and hence the sexually fallen Adam and Eve “both in subjection now / To sensual Appetite” (9.1128-29). In Wollstonecraft's reading, sex makes “ignorant” woman vulnerable to masculine manipulators, and sexual distinctions are part of the social distinctions that she and the French Revolution are rebelling against (see, e.g., RW, 241, 263, 265).

In chapter 9, her rebellion is specifically satanic, since the plight of contemporary women (“one half of mankind … chained to its bottom by fate,” RW, 211) suddenly resembles that of Satan and the fallen angels, in Paradise Lost, “Chain'd on the burning Lake” (1.210, 2.169) and confined by “fate” (see 1.133, 2.197, 232, 393, 550). There is an allusive metaphoric inversion of the fallen angels into the “fallen” women kept down and in their “place” by their patriarchal oppressors, an argument first used, mutatis mutandis, by Satan and the fallen angels (in Books 1 and 2, passim).

Indeed Wollstonecraft's linguistic identification with Satan reverberates throughout the first paragraph of chapter 7, which, as the editors of her Works note, resembles Milton's opening invocation in Book 3 of Paradise Lost (Todd and Butler, 191, note a). But Wollstonecraft's allusive invocation culminates in her satanic prayer that “Modesty … modulate for me the language of persuasive reason, till I rouse my sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away!” (RW, 191; cf. 136: “And can she [woman] rest supinely dependent on man for reason, which she ought to mount with him the arduous steeps of knowledge?”). In Book 1 of Paradise Lost, Satan also endeavors to rouse the fallen angels who “lie / Grovelling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire” (1.279-80):

… Princes, Potentates,
Warriors, the Flow'r of Heav'n once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can seize
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos'n this place
After the toil of Battle to repose
Your wearied virtue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav'n?
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n.

(PL, 1.315-21, 330)

Wollstonecraft's allusion implies that, like Satan's fallen angels, women can choose to rise from their “fallen” state and rebel against the patriarchal oppressor. Her identification with Satan's rebellious energy reverberates in the verb “rouse” (“til I rouse my sex from the flowery bed”). For instance, after Satan's rousing speech, the fallen angels “Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake” (PL, 1.334), and Milton proceeds to name the devils who were “Rous'd from the slumber, on that fiery Couch, / At their great Emperor's call” (PL, 1.377-78). Wollstonecraft's allusion also suggests that “the flowery bed, on which” women “supinely sleep” (learned “female” behavior; cf. RW, 98) is actually the fallen region of “hell” to which they have been consigned by their triumphant oppressors. Similarly, she seeks to “raise” her sex out of their fallen state.

She hence repeatedly refers or returns to the scene of Eve's rebellion. She notes that in order to spread “enlightening principles”:

… women must be allowed to found their virtue on knowledge, which is scarcely possible unless they be educated by the same pursuits as men. For they are now made so inferiour by ignorance and low desires, as not to deserve to be ranked with them; or, by the serpentine wrigglings of cunning they mount the tree of knowledge, and only acquire sufficient to lead men astray.

(RW, 245)9

Wollstonecraft's version of an epistemological Fall makes women cunning tempters not because they possess “knowledge” but because they only eat partially: their curiosity and desire for forbidden knowledge turns them into the satanic seducers, à la Eve, who “lead men astray.” In other words, Wollstonecraft suggests that by withholding complete knowledge (another form of patriarchal temptation), men ironically turn women into the cunning creatures who haunt the misogynistic imagination. The implicit corollary is that full knowledge will restore woman to her proper ontological place, freeing both sexes from the sexual stereotypes perpetuated by patriarchal writers.

But it is again striking that Wollstonecraft's depiction of women's state (“for they are now made so inferiour by ignorance and low desires”) is precisely the language used by both Satan and Eve to rationalize their respective deceptions and rebellions. In Book 9, the serpentine Satan tells Eve that he was “at first as other Beasts that graze / The trodden Herb, of abject thoughts and low” until he ate the forbidden fruit (PL, 9.571-72), and Eve rationalizes her possession of “forbidden knowledge” in terms of her previous epistemological ignorance (PL, 9.820-22). In addition, Wollstonecraft's suggestion that it is the prohibition of true knowledge that tempts women into a fall into false knowledge echoes Eve's comment that God unwittingly commends “knowledge” by prohibiting it: “Thy praise hee also who forbids thy use, / Conceals not from us, naming thee the Tree of Knowledge … but his forbidding / Commends thee more” (PL, 9.750-54).10 Moreover, Wollstonecraft conflates Eve and women with Satan by placing them in a compromising satanic position: “by the serpentine wrigglings of cunning,” women “mount the tree of knowledge” (RW, 245)—since it is the serpentine Satan, in Paradise Lost, who “About the Mossy Trunk” wound himself (9.589). This illustrates the schizophrenic nature of her satanic ideology: Eve as satanic rebel coincides with Wollstonecraft as feminist revolutionary—yet she also depicts patriarchal men as satanic deceivers who trick innocent women into enacting Satan's and Eve's Ur-rebellion. Wollstonecraft's own role as feminist liberator—precisely the way Milton's duplicitous Satan casts and describes himself—complicates and begins subverting the feminist text she writes “out.”

Wollstonecraft, in effect, does two things simultaneously: she appears to accept the pejorative terms of Milton's poem (woman as satanic seducer), but she inverts Milton's parable by suggesting that it is not the “illegal” possession of knowledge that causes women to fall but the patriarchal prohibition that tempts them into a fallen state of ignorance. It is not knowledge per se, but too little genuine knowledge that causes the sexes to fall—Adamic men apparently “misled” by seductive Eves, although her real subversive message is that the patriarchal prohibition “misleads” women, who become, in turn, crafty creatures who try to compensate for their fallen condition. In this context, Wollstonecraft reinforces another theme specifically aimed at her male audience: women's ignorance paradoxically gives them too much power over men, that in compensating for their lack of authentic knowledge, women are forced to become the deceitful manipulators who create chaos in homes and states (see RW, 68, 113, 238-39, 245).11 Assuring her male audience that knowledge will restore the “natural” relation between the sexes and make women more “reasonable,” she creates her own mythic version of a fall “in the beginning” and redemption in a future presently aborning.


In arguing this, she also attempts to rescue Eve (as a symbol of woman) from Milton, since Eve, in Wollstonecraft's reading, is the misogynous emblem of patriarchy. Thus, if Eve is, at turns, the satanic seductress forced into her unnatural role by patriarchal prohibitors (after eating the fruit, Eve describes God as “Our great Forbidder,” PL, 9.815), she is also the vulnerable victim of man and must be redeemed through “a revolution in female manners”:

It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore to them their lost dignity—and make them, as part of the human species, labor by reforming themselves to reform the world. … If men be demi-gods—why let us serve them! [cf. PL, 1.373, 796]. And if the dignity of the female soul be as disputable as that of animals—if their reason does not afford sufficient light to direct their conduct … [then] they are surely of all creatures the most miserable! [cf. PL, 1.157] and … must submit to be a fair defect in creation. But to justify the ways of Providence respecting them, by pointing out some irrefragable reason for thus making such a large portion of mankind accountable and not accountable, would puzzle the subtilest casuist.

(RW, 114)

Wollstonecraft's call for “a revolution in female manners” (cf. 265) is perhaps a hostile reference to Burke's Reflections and his lament that a revolution in manners contributed to the French Revolution.12 Wollstonecraft connects this ongoing revolution with a correspondent feminist revolution by suggesting that the political liberation of mankind impinges on the social liberation of women as well. Indeed, in her reading, women potentially become active agents of social and political change, reforming themselves as they reform the world. She suggests that their own psychological liberation is part and parcel of the apocalyptic revolution transforming Europe. Her reference to women's “labour” (it is time to make women, “as part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world”) allusively transforms the curse of the Fall (man to work by the sweat of his brow, woman to labor—conceive in sorrow) into the creative reformation of the fallen world.13 In Milton's poem, restoration is initially projected in a Christian future already past—the Incarnation and Resurrection having already happened—and ultimately in a “future” outside of time. Wollstonecraft, in contrast, envisions the establishment of the first “unfallen” order in an egalitarian future she endeavors to justify.

Her subsequent comment that it is “time to restore to [women] their lost dignity” alludes to their Wollstonecraftian redeemer, who, like Christ in Paradise Lost, returns to “restore” postlapsarian women after the fall (see PL, 1.4-5). She continually locates woman's “fall” in the patriarchal texts she subverts, focusing on the consequences of Milton's fallen ideology—women “must submit to be a fair defect in creation”—Adam's misogynistic description of Eve after the Fall: “O why did God … create … this fair defect / Of Nature” (see 10.888-92). Throughout The Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft angrily wars with this phrase (see 103, 107, 109, 124, 131, 136, 173, 185), and her subsequent allusion to Milton, who, in her reading, rationalizes women's inferior subordination by supposedly justifying “the ways of Providence” (cf. PL, 1.25-26) subverts a patriarchal logic that “would puzzle the subtilest casuist” (114). Even when he is not named, Milton's patriarchal presence permeates her revisionist myth.

She thus continues her critique of Milton's misogynous “creation.” First, she attacks Milton's deceptive idealization of the first woman who, she maintains, is the submissive model for women, “outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man, ‘that with honour he may love’” (122). The quotation from Milton (“that with honour thou may'st love,” 8.577) is in context of Raphael's admonition to Adam that Eve is to be cherished but not overly admired, since he is her superior (see 8.573-77). In addition, Wollstonecraft's reference to woman “outwardly ornamented with elaborate care” alludes to Adam's deflationary praise of Eve as “Too much of Ornament, in outward show / Elaborate, of inward less exact” (8.538-39; cf. 8.542-43).

Her subsequent comment that woman “is always represented as only created to see through a gross medium, and to take things on trust” (122) refers to Eve in Paradise Lost, who is placed in relation to her masculine intermediaries (Adam, Raphael, and Michael) who, in turn, explain, guide, and instruct her in the ways of God—the ultimate patriarchal authority. Indeed, Eve usually receives her instruction at second hand, seeing “through a gross medium,” and Wollstonecraft's allusion to the Bible (1 Cor. 13:12) underscores the embedded patriarchal texts that perpetuate women's dependent “blindness.”

She dismisses these traditional representations of woman as “fanciful theories,” choosing to consider “woman as a whole … instead of a part of man” (RW, 122)—the “secondary” excrescence of Adamic man. Even patriarchal writers who “kindly restore the rib, and make one moral being of man and woman” (cf. PL, 4.483, 8.495, 9.915, and Genesis 2:23) are sure “to give her all the ‘submissive charms’” (RW, 102)—Milton's description of Eve's embellished charms that cause Adam to smile “with superior Love” (see 4.498-99). Milton's submissive prelapsarian Eve is hence the thematic model for Wollstonecraft's weak and submissive woman. In a letter to William Roscoe (3 January 1792), she refers to Henry Fuseli's illustrations of Paradise Lost, adding that she doubts whether Fuseli can “produce an Eve” to please her—“unless it be after the Fall.” Having just implied that Satan is the real “hero” of Milton's poem (Letters, 206), Wollstonecraft also suggests she prefers Milton's rebellious and fallen Eve as her feminist “heroine.”


In attacking the sexual ideology embodied in assorted traditional texts, she traces the origin and source of this ideology back to Milton's God, and hence she engages in another satanic reading of Milton's poem. Questioning the ideological primogeniture by which patriarchal writers perpetuate and pass down restrictive images of female behavior (“written in the same strain”), she simultaneously attacks “the boasted prerogative of man—the prerogative that may emphatically be called the iron scepter of tyranny, the original sin of tyrants,” as well as “all power built on prejudices, however hoary” (RW, 170). “Original sin” commences with man's tyrannous treatment and textual misrepresentation of woman, and his “iron scepter” evokes Satan's revisionist description of heaven's despotic God, seeking to extend “His [slave] Empire, and with Iron Scepter rule / Us here, as with his Golden those in Heav'n” (PL, 2.327-28). Wollstonecraft's allusion identifies her with Satan's characterization of Milton's God as Ur-tyrant—here the tyrant of women, rather than angels. She hence suggests subversively that the subordinate representation of woman was God and Adam's (i.e., man's) “original sin.” But since her allusions are recognizably satanic, her text is open to counterrevolutionary readings that ironically reinforce her subversive identifications: a satanic Mary Wollstonecraft engaged in revisionist readings of history and seductive speeches that tempt women to fall into the same revolutionary knowledge as satanic, revolutionary men.14

Since she engages in a sustained satanic reading of Milton's text, even her distinction between a just God of light and love and Milton's God of custom and prejudice seems, at this point, to collapse: “I disclaim that specious humility which, after investigating nature, stops at the author. The High and Lofty One, who inhabiteth eternity, doubtless possesses many attributes of which we can form no conception; but reason tells me that they cannot clash with those I adore—and I am compelled to listen to her voice” (RW, 115). In her pursuit of true origins, Wollstonecraft refuses “that specious humility” that “stops” its investigation when it reaches the nature of God “the author,” and hence she explicitly authorizes herself to proceed with her subversive writing. This opens her to conservative accusations of satanic presumption and arrogance—of wanting to transcend boundaries and hence “know” more than she should, linguistically enacting and hence repeating the Ur-rebellion. In this context, if there is a repressive Miltonic passage she is resisting, it is Raphael's espousal of epistemological restraint, “Of knowledge within bounds; beyond abstain / To ask” … “Heav'n is for thee too high / To know what passes there; be lowly wise” (PL, 7.120-21, 8.172-73). Like Satan, in Book 3, Wollstonecraft “explores” or investigates her way up to the precincts of light, and her reference to “the High [cf. PL, 1.40] and Lofty One” sounds slightly sarcastic, as if she is subverting the remote Miltonic Omnipotence by using, with mock humility, that “adulatory language” that, mutatis mutandis, she accuses Burke of using to deify kings (in RM, 20-21).

In addition, while apparently conceding that the “Lofty One” undoubtedly “possesses many attributes of which we can form no conception” (i.e., “know”), she negates the concession by declaring that “reason” tells her that “they” (God's unknown attributes) cannot clash with “those” (attributes) she “adores,” that is, “knows.” In other words, her “female” reason tells her that the attributes she admires in God are those that she already knows and adores. Milton's remote and hidden God suddenly surrenders to a reason that contradicts the conservative concession, and Wollstonecraft is “compelled to listen to her voice.”15

Any doubt that she is investigating Milton's “Paternal Deity” (PL, 6.750) is dispelled in the subsequent paragraph:

It seems natural for man to search for excellence, and either to trace it in the object he worships, or blindly to invest it with perfection, as a garment. But what good effect can the latter mode of worship have on the moral conduct of a rational being? He bends to power; he adores a dark cloud, which may open a bright prospect to him, or burst in angry, lawless fury, on his devoted head—he knows not why.

(RW, 115)

The pejorative reference to “the latter mode of worship”—blindly investing “excellence” or God “with perfection, as a garment” alludes to Burke's “decent drapery”—his lament, in the Reflections, that the Revolution was stripping away civilization's beautiful traditions (see Reflections, 171).

This complements, I suggest, the subsidiary allusion to the romantic clichés of masculine “adoration”: the worshipful lover doting on a piece of his absent mistress's clothing or “garment”—a conventional cliché lampooned throughout the eighteenth century. Milton, we will remember, “bends … to beauty” (RW, 89). Wollstonecraft's indictment is in the imagery of fetishistic idolatry. In this context, there is a thematic connection between man's sensual adoration of woman's “beauty” and the unreasonable glorification of an unapproachable “object” or God.

The ignorant man who “bends to power” evokes again Paradise Lost and the fallen angels who prostrate themselves and worship Satan: “Towards him they bend / With awful reverence prone; and as a God / Extol him equal to the highest in Heav'n” (PL, 2.477-79; cf. Eve's idolatrous worship of the forbidden tree, 9.834-38) or, more appropriately, the “subservient” angels' adoration of God and His Son in heaven: “… lowly reverent / Towards either throne they bow, and to the ground / With solemn adoration down they cast / Their Crowns …” (3.349-52). Indeed, her reference to the Deity as “a dark cloud” that idolatrous man “adores” alludes specifically to Milton's God in heaven who shades his glory “and through a cloud / Drawn round about thee like a radiant Shrine, / Dark with excessive bright thy skirts [robes] appear …” (3.378-80). In hell, Mammon remembers that God “amidst / Thick clouds and dark” resides and “with the Majesty of darkness round / Covers his throne” (see 2.263-68; cf. 10.32). Wollstonecraft's critique of God as the capricious patriarchal punisher (opening “a bright prospect” or bursting “in angry, lawless fury”) is, of course, a critique of Milton himself, who also “blindly” ascends from hell, in a speech resonant with satanic echoes, and sees only “cloud instead, and ever-during dark” (3.45).

In chapter 11, referring to Burkean prescription, she again attacks Milton's God and poem: “The supporters of prescription … taking refuge in the darkness, which, in the language of sublime poetry, has been supposed to surround the throne of Omnipotence, … dare to demand that implicit respect which is only due to His unsearchable ways” (RW, 225). Although she distinguishes between the prescriptive pretenders who hide in the obscurant “darkness” (i.e., the ignorance) sanctioned by their textual God and the reasonableness of the true revolutionary God, Wollstonecraft's attack on prescription protected by the darkness “supposed to surround the throne of Omnipotence” resembles Satan's linguistic attack against the “Monarch in Heav'n” Who “Sat on his Throne, Upheld by old repute / Consent or custom” (see PL, 1.638-40). At any rate, Wollstonecraft's ambivalence culminates in her identification of Milton with the dark patriarchal oppressor, the supreme ideologist of male power.


But even more than Milton's God, Wollstonecraft's principal target is Adam, whom she sees as the primary patriarchal symbol of male appropriation—an appropriation originating in a fictional “beginning” created by patriarchs such as Moses and reinforced in a series of masculinist texts that valorize a tradition of female subordination: “The rights of humanity have been … confined to the male line from Adam downwards” (RW, 157). Hence, she argues that the fiction of woman's exclusive subordination is based on the patriarchal myth of Adam and his reincarnation in patriarchal texts as the origin and source of male superiority:

Probably the prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses's poetical story; yet, as very few, it is presumed, who have bestowed any serious thought on the subject, ever supposed that Eve was, literally speaking, one of Adam's ribs, the deduction must be allowed to fall to the ground; or, only be so far admitted as it proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to shew that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.

(RW, 95)

Wollstonecraft's critique of Genesis (traditionally ascribed to Moses) also extends to Paradise Lost, since Milton is one of the “very few” to have “presumed” that “Eve was, literally speaking, one of Adam's ribs” (see PL, 8.465-71; 9.911-12, 1154; 10.884). In Wollstonecraft's reading, Milton's myth is based on Moses's tyrannical text.

“Moses's poetical story” is thus conflated with Milton's “myth,” and the defeated “deduction” falls “to the ground” like the Adamic story she inters. The mythic locus of man and woman's birth (ground/bone) is consigned to the realm of fantasy, although she allows a subversive historical reading of Genesis as an allegory of man's original oppression of woman—oppression legitimized by the enslaving texts that justify misogynous tradition. Her concluding reference to woman's “yoke” alludes to the state of marriage (see OED meanings nos. 7b and 8b) and hence her parable of Eve/woman's Ur-enslavement. In Wollstonecraft's feminist reading, woman is oppressed from the beginning of a male “Creation,” so that Milton's prelapsarian world is a prototype of the fallen one.

Later, she again traces the coercive cultural clichés of the writers that she discusses (Rousseau, Dr. Fordyce, Dr. Gregory, et al., as well as the women who reproduce patriarchal ideology) back to Moses and Milton's Adamic enslavement of Eve:

Hapless woman! What can be expected from thee when the beings on whom thou art said naturally to depend for reason and support, have all an interest in deceiving thee! This is the root of the evil that has shed a corroding mildew on thy virtues; and blighting in the bud thy opening faculties, has rendered thee the weak thing thou art! It is this separate interest—this insidious state of warfare, that undermines morality, and divides mankind!

(RW, 166)

The dependence of women on men, à la Eve on Adam, for “reason and support” is, of course, one of Milton's arguments throughout Paradise Lost.

In Wollstonecraft's reading, it is man's deceptive justification for woman's fallen condition (her supposed inferiority, and hence her subordinate dependence on him)—a restrictive rationale for woman's weakness disguised in the language of masculine support and help. She hence intends to reveal how Miltonic tradition is reified and reflected in contemporary patriarchal texts, for suddenly Adamic men are the satanic deceivers, and their covert “interest” in keeping women weak and “fallen” is the real “root of … evil,” and not the forbidden fruit (cf. PL, 1.1-4, 9.645) or woman's “first” disobedience. Indeed, she again suggests that patriarchal empowerment is man's original sin, initiating the fragmentation of the sexes and provoking woman's correspondent rebellion and hence the sexual war that “divides mankind.” Wollstonecraft effects a satanic reading of Milton in order to deconstruct Paradise Lost into a sourcebook of allusions for her new feminism.

Consequently, she engages in another subversive rewriting of Milton and Moses's “poetical story”:

… I … doubt whether woman were [sic] created for man: and, though the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against me, I will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that Moses's beautiful, poetical cosmogony, and the account of the fall of man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being: and, having no fear of the devil before mine eyes, I venture to call this a suggestion of reason, instead of resting my weakness on the broad shoulders of the first seducer of my frail sex.

(RW, 148-49)

Doubting woman's “natural” subordination, Wollstonecraft refuses to be intimidated by patriarchal charges of irreligion or atheism, and hence she doubts the biblical account of Genesis as well as Milton's, since an “angel” (Raphael) appears, in Book 7, and relates to Adam Moses's “poetical cosmogony” (cf. RW, 91). Anticipating that she will be accused of a “satanic” reading, she has “no fear” of a bogey devil conjured up by patriarchal authorities to scare her back into an orthodox reading of Genesis and Paradise Lost and hence woman's natural “place.”

But since Wollstonecraft herself raises the specter of a satanic reading by stating she has “no fear of the devil before my eyes,” she creates a series of unintended, subversive ironies. While dismissing Milton and Moses's superstitious “account” and hence the “existence” of their demonized “bogey,” the sentence can also be read to mean that she has no fear of the devil poised “before her eyes,” and hence she places herself in the position of Eve in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. Indeed, Wollstonecraft's sentences resonate with rebellious satanic echoes—echoes that Milton himself reproduced in associating Eve's rebellious fall with Satan's. Thus, like Eve, she opposes her own “reason” to patriarchal authority and tradition. Just before Eve's fall, Adam warns her against relying on reason, since it can be deceived (see PL, 9.351-66), a warning that Eve subsequently ignores. Satan's temptation of Eve is appropriately in the language of seduced reason (“his persuasive words, impregn'd / With Reason, to her seeming, and with Truth,” 9.737-38), which Eve subsequently replicates.

Moreover, Wollstonecraft's statement that she refuses to believe in traditional accounts of the Creation and the Fall and that, consequently, she refuses to believe what her “reason” tells her is “derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being” would certainly remind a traditional reader of Satan's seductive contention that God could not have forbid “knowledge,” since that would have contradicted His goodness (see PL, 9.698-701; cf. 9.692-94, 5.71). Such a reader may accept Wollstonecraft's satanic subversions—her rebellious readings—as a redounding parodic repetition. Indeed, a subversive counterrevolutionary reader may suggest that her rebellious reading is, like Eve's rib, textually derivative.

In addition, Wollstonecraft's dismissal of a fictitious devil “as the first seducer of my frail sex”—and hence her refusal to “rest” woman's reputed “weakness” on his “broad shoulders,” allusively conjures his satanic resembler—the “real” Satan of her revisionist book—Adam with “his shoulders broad” (PL, 4.303). Since Wollstonecraft has already referred to Adam as the first oppressor of the female sex, the possibility of a satanic reading resides in her exoneration of Satan. This suggests two possibilities: that having already provided intentional rebellious readings, Wollstonecraft provides another one here; or, that she reproduces, unwittingly, the satanic echoes reverberating throughout the passage.

In any case, Wollstonecraft continues her feminist critique of Adamic ideology:

Again; men boast of their triumph over women, what do they boast of? Truly the creature of sensibility was surprised by her sensibility into folly—into vice; and the dreadful reckoning falls heavily on her own weak head, when reason awakes. For where art thou to find comfort, forlorn and disconsolate one? He who ought to have directed thy reason, and supported thy weakness, has betrayed thee! In a dream of passion thou [consented] to wander through flowery lawns, and heedlessly stepping over the precipice to which thy guide, instead of guarding, lured thee, thou startest from thy dream only to face a sneering, frowning world, and to find thyself alone in a waste, for he that triumphed in thy weakness is now pursuing new conquests; but for thee—there is no redemption on this side the grave!—And what resource hast thou in an enervated mind to raise a sinking heart?

(RW, 195-96)

Wollstonecraft's melodramatic presentation of woman's fall illustrates how she continues to return to Milton's poem.

Men's “triumphs” over women are in the satanic context of temptation, seduction, and betrayal, and hence she begins, as she has done before, a series of metaphoric equations of Adamic men with the satanic betrayer in Paradise Lost. When she writes that woman is “surprised by her sensibility into folly—into vice,” the allusion is to Raphael's warning that man's “appetite” must be governed, “lest sin / Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death” (PL, 7.546-47). In Wollstonecraft's rewriting of Milton, sensibility—artificially emotional responses derived from sentimental, romantic texts and condemned throughout The Rights of Woman—is the “temptation” initiating woman's “fall,” since it causes woman to trust her masculine betrayer.16

Her allegory of woman's seduced reason wakening to “the dreadful reckoning” that “falls heavily on her own weak head” suggests woman's postlapsarian realization that she has been betrayed by “man” and evokes the punitive patriarchal God who can “burst in angry, lawless fury, on” man's “devoted head” (RW, 115).

With all these Miltonic echoes, Wollstonecraft envisions woman as the vulnerably innocent Eve betrayed by Adamic man, whom she conflates with the satanic deceiver. But her allegory of woman as Eve is ironically sentimental, since she falls into the very language she has previously criticized: her disappointed anger that woman has been betrayed by her masculine protector—the Adamic “guide” who should have “directed” her “reason” and “supported” her “weakness”—the last clause linguistically sustaining the very “weakness” she has formerly deplored.

Wollstonecraft than proceeds with a revision of Eve's dream in Book 5 of Paradise Lost: In a dream, Wollstonecraft's vulnerable Edenic woman wanders “through flowery lawns” and then stumbles “over the precipice to which thy guide, instead of guarding thee, lured thee.” In Book 5, Eve relates a “fallen” dream evoked by Satan, who has whispered it into her mind: a satanic voice awakes her which she mistakes for Adam's; she then proceeds to walk through Eden, searching for Adam, but she finds instead Satan, disguised as an angel, who tempts her to taste imaginatively the forbidden fruit that she fancies causes her to fly only suddenly to fall: “My Guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down” (see 5.28-94). Eve, however, awakes and is relieved “to find this but a dream” (5.95); whereas, in Wollstonecraft's allegory, the forsaken woman wakes to find her dream of Adamic betrayal true. In Wollstonecraft's version, the satanic deceiver is really Adam (note how Wollstonecraft transcribes the “mistakes” in Eve's dream), who “lures” her into falling, and she awakes “only to face a sneering, frowning world, and to find thyself alone in a waste”—or a world very much like “The Limbo of Vanity” Satan alights on: “Dark, waste, and wild, under the frown of Night” (PL, 3.424).

It is telling that in this version of woman's fall, Wollstonecraft's Eve is vulnerably weak not only because she depends on man but because she has no Adamic man to depend on. Her allegory is sexually sentimental—Adamic man as the “first seducer” of the “frail sex”—the seducer who tempts and “lures” woman into her sexual fall (here the proverbial abandoned and “fallen woman”)—the satanic Don Juan who betrays and deserts defenseless woman (and then proceeds to other “conquests”), leaving her “forlorn” and Adamless. Wollstonecraft reveals her own fear of sex and hence “falling,” as her parable encapsulates another primal return to the origin and source of woman's fall in a patriarchal “beginning.”


In retrospect, Wollstonecraft's inspired insight was to see how revolutionary arguments against coercive textual tradition applied to woman as well, for woman had also been assigned her “place” by the same oppressive powers that opposed the Revolution—the prohibitive, punitive powers of institutional patriarchy. Like men, women needed to be liberated from what Paine called “the Bastille of a word.” Hence, Eve was the critical term in Wollstonecraft's revisionary critique. Mary Poovey notes that for Wollstonecraft, Milton's unfallen Eve is a “commentary not on woman but on the men from whose imagination she sprang—from Milton's Adam and, before him, from Milton himself” (72). But Wollstonecraft imagined another Eve supplied unwittingly by Milton and biblical tradition, for just as she sensed that Satan was the first revolutionary, she intuited that “fallen” Eve was the first feminist.

Similarly, she implied that Milton unwittingly liberated Satan from hell, that Milton did not “tremble when he led Satan far from the confines of his dreary prison” (RW, 108), and she recognized the subversive potential of a postlapsarian Eve, who after eating the forbidden fruit, proclaims that without it, “I had remain'd / In ignorance” (PL, 9.808-09). She endeavored to rescue Eve from Milton, metaphorically equating her “first disobedience” with woman's epistemological liberation.

In this context, Wollstonecraft was also consciously miming Eve's rebellion through her own revolutionary reading of Milton—a reading that subversively rewrites the “myth” of patriarchy. The image of the reader as rebel or the writer as revolutionary—simultaneously interchangeable—inspired writers who were waging their own war against the textual tyranny of the old linguistic order.

But this created various ironies and complications. Wollstonecraft's own reading of Milton is not, of course, ideologically consistent: there are different versions of woman's fall, just as there are various “fruits” that cause it. In addition, Wollstonecraft sometimes engages in simple satanic inversions—God as tyrant, Satan as liberator, Eve as feminist rebel—while, at other times, she accepts Milton's demonization of the satanic order and simply applies it to Milton's prelapsarian progeny (Adam as the “real” Satan). The result, however, is also to create, exclude, and demonize a mythical “Other.” In this context, the Manichaean readings of both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary writers begin to resemble each other.

Wollstonecraft's subversive reading is, likewise, just as vulnerable as the traditional writing she deconstructs. Her celebration of Satan and Eve's rebellion against authority is also susceptible to “reconstructive” readings by counterrevolutionary readers who would see her linguistically enacting Satan's temptation of Eve—resembling the arrogant Satan, who pridefully rebels against authority and deludes himself that he can create an antagonistic canon, in a writing that is incriminatory and mimetic. In celebrating the forbidden fruit of “knowledge”—fatal knowledge based on a false theory or understanding of human nature and society (i.e., “revolutionary” knowledge)—she could be seen tempting her sex with the same knowledge that was causing European man to fall.17 This suggests that there are deconstructive dangers in embracing Satan too closely.

The conspicuous corollary is that subversive, satanic, deconstructive, and revolutionary readings can be reversed, reconstructed, returned, and “restored” (PL, 1.5) into the traditional terms they rebel against. In this rebellious reading, Wollstonecraft's subversive rewriting of Paradise Lost turns ironically into its opposite, since she exposes herself in the incriminatory language of Milton's critique and hence reveals herself, not as she intends, but in the language she both resists and embraces. Indeed, in this subversive counterrevolutionary reading, Wollstonecraft linguistically illustrates Milton's aesthetic critique of satanic rebellion: Satan and the fallen angels can only parody and invert their antagonistic models—they are essentially imitative and derivative, always returning to the “sources” and origins they rebel against. For in her “justification” of the “rights of woman,” in her parable of the Fall, in her prophecy of woman's future redemption, she resembles the primary literary patriarch she rebels against.

In the Reflections, Burke had presented a similar counterrevolutionary reading of the French Revolution. He contended that revolutionary ideology creates its own opposition by turning into the very thing it resists. It reveals its secret attraction for the power and authority it demonizes. He suggested that revolutionaries impose their own authoritative traditions and canons and hence create inevitable rebellions against their authoritarian “readings.” But Burke's revolutionary insight is, of course, also applicable to counterrevolutionary ideology upon which it can also “redound” (PL, 3.85, 9.128, 10.739).

The contradictions within Wollstonecraft's feminist text crystallize a crucial historical problem that confronts rebels and Romantics: How do you represent revolution when rebellion is written “out” (in the double sense of exposure and erasure) within the textual space of the tradition it resists? Since “tradition” even provides the “terms” of rebellion, revolutionaries write within the very system of representation they rebel against. They are profoundly implicated in the representations they react against. While Wollstonecraft and other radical readers subversively rewrite the traditional canon, their inversions are inscribed within a value system of good and evil, of fallen and unfallen worlds. Hence, they reproduce, mutatis mutandis, the same Manichaean readings of the traditional texts they subversively demonize. This contradiction, inscribed within traditional revolutionary texts, opens a rebellious “return”—a revolutionary reading that restores the ideological configurations of a reactive, reactionary text.18 In this echoic intertextual juncture, Blake and Burke dialectically conflate, so that reading rebels and Romantics rereading Milton and the canon is to know again that they are, like the devils, complicit in the tradition they refuse to acknowledge.


  1. Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” in The Enlightenment: A Comprehension Anthology, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 384.

  2. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 205; Joseph Wittreich, Feminist Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 3.

  3. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (hereafter cited as RW), The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 7 vols., ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (Washington Square, N.Y.: New York University Press, 1989), 5:88; hereafter cited as Works. John Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, ed. Christopher Ricks (New York: New American Library, 1982).

  4. Mary Poovey comments that Milton's cultural authority—“his preeminence in English literary, political, and religious traditions”—compels Wollstonecraft to “record her outrage … only by allusions and italicizing words in a quoted text (as in the passage just quoted),” suggesting “the extent to which she is still reluctant to take her aggression to its logical extreme” (The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austin [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 73). Wollstonecraft, however, had already critically named Milton (RW, 89)—the Bible is the intimidating cultural presence she is reluctant to name. The closest she comes to mentioning it pejoratively is in her critique of “Moses's poetical story” and Milton's unnamed God (see RW, 95, 115, 148-49, 225).

  5. In a letter to William Roscoe (3 January 1792), Wollstonecraft, referring to the illustrations Henry Fuseli was making of Paradise Lost, noted that “like Milton he seems quite at home in hell—his devil will be the hero of the poetic series.” Thus, like Blake, who was an acquaintance of hers, she was crystallizing a Romantic commonplace (see Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979], 206; hereafter cited as Letters).

  6. See Steven Blakemore, “‘With No Middle Flight’: Poetic Pride and Satanic Hubris in Paradise Lost,Kentucky Review 5 (1985): 23-31.

  7. Cf. Thomas Paine's critique of “priestcraft” in the Prospect Papers (1804): “As priestcraft was always the enemy of knowledge, because priestcraft supports itself by keeping people in delusion and ignorance, it was consistent with its policy to make the acquisition of knowledge a real sin. … Reason is the forbidden tree of priestcraft and may serve to explain the allegory of the forbidden tree of knowledge” (The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols., ed. Philip S. Foner [New York: Citadel Press, 1945], 2:800).

  8. See Paradise Lost, 2.746-809. Mary Poovey notes, however, that “Wollstonecraft's Sin … seems much more obliging; indeed, syntactically, she is the aggressor: ‘sin embracing death’” (76). Wollstonecraft apparently lost her correspondent fear of female sexuality (i.e., her own) after she became Gilbert Imlay's lover in 1793 (cf. her letter to William Godwin [13 November 1796, 360]).

  9. Her seemingly awkward nominalization of the adjective sufficient (women “only acquire sufficient to lead men astray”) emphasizes the deficiency of true knowledge, since the reader expects the sentence to read: “only acquire sufficient knowledge to lead men astray.”

  10. In Book 1, Satan formulated another version of the “concealment” that “tempts”: God “his strength conceal'd, / Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall” (PL, 641-42). Cf. Wollstonecraft's criticism of Rousseau in her quotation from Emile: “Her [Sophie's] dress is extremely modest in appearance, and yet very coquettish in fact: she does not make a display of her charms, she conceals them; but in concealing them, she knows how to affect your imagination” (RW, 157).

  11. For another version of this paradox, (cf. RW, 107, 133), see chapter 4 (RW, 128) where she quotes Adam's uxurious description of Eve (PL, 8.548-54) and contextually conjures up Raphael's correspondent rebuke to Adam with reference to the latter's intellectual and spiritual superiority to Eve (8.561-94). Hence, while her contention that masculine devotion to “feminine” beauty “changes the nature of things” (RW, 128) appeals to conservative readers with a clever argument that women's inferior beauty gives them too much seductive power over men, she simultaneously validates the patriarchal texts she subverts.

  12. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 175.

  13. Throughout RW, man's “curse” (labor) is his felix culpa, enabling him to be free and independent through physical and intellectual exertion (see, e.g., 155). Gilbert and Gubar note that Adam's punishment “seems almost like a reward” (197), and they quote his own relieved response to God's punitive judgment: “… labour I must earn / My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse” (PL, 10.1054-55). In contrast, weak women, in RW, are always in a state of fallen “relaxation.” Wollstonecraft insists that women will remain sexually weak and vulnerable, “while they depend on man for a subsistence, instead of earning it by the exertion of their own hands or heads” (140). Pampered “gentlewomen are too indolent to be actively virtuous,” while “many poor women maintain their children by the sweat of their brow [Adam's liberating curse], and keep together families that the vices of the fathers would have scattered abroad” (145).

  14. A similar counterrevolutionary reading was in the offing, albeit as a sexual fall. In 1798 Richard Polwhele published The Unsex'd Females, a poem in which Wollstonecraft is attacked for desiring to unsex women through female reason; in 1801 “The Vision of Liberty” appeared in the ultraconservative Anti-Jacobin Review. Wollstonecraft was again depicted as the seducer of her sex (see Janet M. Todd, ed., A Wollstonecraft Anthology [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977], 17).

  15. Throughout her works, Wollstonecraft usually personifies reason as a feminine “she,” but it is not clear whether she is making a feminist grammatical point or whether there is some precedent for her usage. Traditionally, reason was associated with masculinity (see, passim, Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984]).

  16. For instance, in chapter 4, Wollstonecraft suggests that women, having “missed” the “useful fruit” (cf. 167: “useful knowledge”), fall when they succumb to the fatal “fruit” of sensibility: “Their senses are inflamed, and their understandings neglected, consequently they become the prey of their senses, delicately termed sensibility, and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling” (RW, 129; in the Limbo of Vanity, the fanatic spirits of Catholic monks are blown “ten thousand Leagues awry,” PL, 3.488). Here there are additional echoes, I suggest, of the consequences of Adam and Eve's fall (“for Understanding rul'd not, and the Will / … both in subjection now / To sensual Appetite,” 9.1127-29) into postlapsarian sex (“Carnal desire inflaming”; “so inflame my sense,” 9.1013, 9.1031). See PL, 9.786-94, 1008-15; cf. Rousseau's “duped” imagination and his writing “inflaming the imagination of his readers” (RW, 160-61).

  17. In Letters on the Female Mind (London: 1793), Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, a conservative, antirevolutionary writer, made this point, passim, with reference to both Wollstonecraft and Helen Maria Williams.

  18. A reading that exploits the semantic doubleness of revolution and its primary meaning of orbital, planetary motion—a restoration or return to an original point (see OED, nos. 1, 1b, 2). Cf. Burke's celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the Reflections and Dr. Johnson's 1755 Dictionary, “revolution” (SV). In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx sees partially the problem of revolutionary representation as a parodic repetition of revolutionary history.

Amy Elizabeth Smith (essay date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Smith, Amy Elizabeth. “Roles for Readers in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Studies in English Literature 32, no. 3 (summer, 1992): 555-70.

[In the following essay, Smith examines A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to determine the intended audience of the work and argues that the treatise addresses both male and female readers.]

Critics who have sought to characterize the implied audience for Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) have been unable to reach a consensus. Most take one of two positions, arguing either for a primarily male or a primarily female audience.1 Elissa S. Guralnick claims that the work's “rambling, uneven” nature results from being aimed at an audience “unused and unreceptive to rational discourse—an audience of middle-class women,” and Cora Kaplan shares this position.2 Having assessed Wollstonecraft's tone, textual examples, and the rhetorical distance she creates between herself and other women, Anca Vlasopolos argues instead that the work “proves to be written for men” and her argument has also been adopted by other critics.3 In a political text a characterization of the implied audience is central for understanding the goals of the work. One must always exert caution when discussing an author's intentions, but questions of purpose and intention can be more safely broached with a text such as the Vindication. Primarily political in nature, it is clearly a voice in the debate spurred by the French Revolution, along with Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine's The Rights of Man. Wollstonecraft's Vindication is shaped by a political agenda. But without a firmer conjecture about just whom she expected her readers to be, one cannot reach an understanding of how she may have hoped her text would function.

The first questions that must be asked about each of the arguments concerning audience, therefore, are strategic—why would Wollstonecraft write her Vindication to a female audience or to a male audience? What would be gained by a single gender focus? Most important, what did Mary Wollstonecraft want to achieve with her work? The last is answered clearly by the text—ultimately, she hoped for nothing less than to help stimulate conditions that would “improve mankind.”4 But as improvement was being impeded by the condition of most women, educated only enough to please and serve, what needed to be effected first was a “REVOLUTION in female manners” (317). Thus far the necessary audience to reach would seem to be women. But in Wollstonecraft's opinion, were women, in 1792, ready to carry on such a revolution by themselves?

The complexity of Wollstonecraft's attitudes toward other women calls for examination at a later point in this essay, but the text reveals her belief that women could not perform the revolution alone. Men, empowered legally and socially, were also needed to effect change. Yet they too could not work alone; then as now, women must be convinced that the revolution would be to their benefit, before they will take an active role. Thus, one can understand why Wollstonecraft needs to address readers of both genders. In this essay I argue that a close study of her Vindication reveals a text that clearly anticipates both male and female readers. The work's reputation for unevenness arises primarily from its being aimed at more than one audience—and at audiences who were each to play very different roles in the proposed revolution. Some of the problems with her text, such as the widely varying length of chapters and the apparent randomness of her subjects, can perhaps be accounted for by the speed with which it was reportedly written.5 But what has often been seen as a lack of focus can be more accurately described as a double focus. The text's accommodation of a dual audience can be demonstrated through an analysis of the direct addresses and references to readers, the selection of examples, and the use of a semi-imperative mood, all of which shape and define the roles offered by the text for both male and female readers.


Although disagreement among critics might lead one to believe otherwise, Wollstonecraft makes a number of specific references to readers, beginning as early as her preface (see Table I).6

Middle-class women are the first audience specified: “The instruction which has hitherto been addressed to women, has rather been applicable to ladies, … but, addressing my sex in a firmer tone, I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state” (81). Early passages might lead one to believe that only a female audience is being addressed, but male readers too are anticipated. When Wollstonecraft describes the present deplorable state of the characters of most women, she “presume[s] that rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade [women] to become more masculine and respectable” (83).


Non Gender Specific References (19; 41.3٪ of total) References to Male Readers (11; 24٪ of total) References to Female Readers (16; 34.7٪ of total)
p. 110 (2)* p. 287 p. 83 p. 290 p. 81(2) p. 234
148 290 112 316 127 239
188 294 148 319 145 249
207 304 233-34 190 (2) 308
208 305 263 196 (2)
258 316 (2) 275 203 (2)
Second Person Singular Second Person Singular Second Person Singular
p. 94-95 (note 12) p. 216 p. 261 pp. 301-303
98 218 279
*Parenthetical figure indicates number of occurrences on page.

Her preface clearly establishes both male and female readers.7 In the body of the Vindication Wollstonecraft begins to define her audience more precisely, clarifying the separate roles that men and women are to play in the revolution. Male readers fall into two principal categories, the libertines and the men of reason. The first is typified by Lord Chesterfield, whom Wollstonecraft attacks for his licentiousness (147); in fact she traces the present lack of modesty in women directly to that of men, who, having been better educated, bear a heavier responsibility for improving general morals.8 The attitudes of such men continue to be the largest impediments to female improvement. “Yes, let me tell the libertine of fancy when he despises understanding in woman—that the mind, which he disregards, gives life to the enthusiastic affection from which rapture, short-lived as it is, alone can blow!” (316-17). The reform of such men is too vital a part of Wollstonecraft's plan to let them read her work unadmonished.

The other primary group of men, addressed more frequently, provides a contrast to the libertines. These are the “reasonable men” (263), the “many superior men” (275), and “ye men of understanding” (319). Vlasopolos sees such addresses as part of the “flattering and cajoling” demeanor adopted by Wollstonecraft to please male readers.9 But can one really assume Wollstonecraft believed there were no such men? A privileged female member of Joseph Johnson's “Academy” of writers, artists, and intellects, she was in steady contact with many of the most interesting and radical “men of understanding” of her day.10 Her references to the libertine portion of her male audience, however, make clear that she knows not all men are “superior.”

Yet even the men of superior judgment and intellect cannot effect changes in society unaided by women, and “how can woman be expected to co-operate unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous?” (86). The text's anticipation of a female audience is indicated by a variety of direct references and addresses. At two points she uses selective expressions of respect, echoing references to reasonable men, such as when she points out the hidden dangers of Dr. Gregory's Legacy to his Daughters which has “many attractions to recommend it to the notice of the most respectable part of my sex” (196). A more direct address is made later when she asks, “let not modest women start” (249) at the notion that sexual corruption on any level of society will inevitably permeate all levels. While the text implies some reasonable, respectable female readers, the majority of her references do not specify the character of the women being addressed.11 Overall, however, Wollstonecraft's addresses to women are more complex than those to male readers and merit closer examination.


As a female author, Wollstonecraft automatically achieves a certain distance when addressing her male audience. But as a woman, she is to some degree implicated when she examines the circumstances and behavior of other women. This situation causes Wollstonecraft to adopt language that critics have found troubling: “Where art thou to find comfort, forlorn and disconsolate one? He who ought to have directed thy reason, and supported thy weakness, has betrayed thee. In a dream of passion thou consented to wander through flowery lawns, and heedlessly stepping over the precipice to which they guide, instead of guarding, lured thee” (233). Elevated language of this sort, not used consistently, raises questions concerning Wollstonecraft's attitudes toward her female readers.12 Is she, as has been suggested, trying to establish a distance between herself and other women through the use of “artificial and abstract rhetoric”?13 The chapter on “Modesty” ends with a further extended address to women: “Would ye, O my sisters, really possess modesty, ye must remember that the possession of virtue, of any denomination, is incompatible with ignorance and vanity! ye must acquire that soberness of mind, which the exercise of duties, and the pursuit of knowledge, alone inspire” (239). The plea continues, repeating the style of the former, but here she has clearly allied herself with women. What may appear to be a contradiction can be better understood by an examination of not just the language of the passages but also the subjects of each. When Wollstonecraft addresses the weaknesses that leave women “forlorn and disconsolate” she adopts a more distant stance and does not directly associate herself with her sex. In the latter passage, however, women who strive for modesty and virtue are her “sisters.” Through her control of language she can create the distance that she has automatically from men and can selectively shape her relationship with female readers.

This vacillation between distance and solidarity manifests itself in other ways throughout the Vindication. Some critics claim that her use of pronouns—women are more often “they” than “we”—further indicates her desire to separate herself from other women.14 The extent to which her pronoun usage is inconsistent, however, is generally overlooked. Her introduction offers an interesting example:

But not content with this natural pre-eminence [of superior physical strength], men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow-creatures who find amusement in their society.


A telling switch occurs here from “us” to “their.” Wollstonecraft acknowledges that she too is a victim of attempted oppression but stops short of identifying with those who do fall prey to such men. An examination of the places throughout her work at which Wollstonecraft uses “we” and “us” reveals that she often does so to show herself the mutual victim of an insult without being a companion in folly.15 Thus she can exclaim “How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!” (101) but generally excludes herself from statements that demonstrate feminine follies and weaknesses.

To understand why Wollstonecraft apparently determined such a stance to be beneficial to her argument we must understand her role in the work. Regina Janes argues that “since society is the enemy the speaker wants no part of, her identification is with no particular class or segment of that society, but with the position of the critic outside the established order.”16 To achieve, let alone maintain, such a privileged position would be impossible for any writer bound inescapably by class and gender, but Wollstonecraft makes the attempt. Her persona is not in general that of a woman speaking to her sisters in suffering—such a stance could, among other things, alienate male readers. The references she makes to her duty as an author provide an alternative voice. In her “Modesty” chapter she invokes this virtue and asks that it “modulate for me the language of persuasive reason, till I rouse my sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away” (227). One of the needs for her frequent dissociation from women becomes clearer. She must establish herself as above the present ignorant condition of most women if she is to be their champion.

Wollstonecraft is cautious, however, not to appear overly presumptuous and thus weaken her ethos. Her discussion of modesty not only deals with the sexual varieties but opens with a section that can justify her in the role she adopts: “A modest man often conceives a great plan, and tenaciously adheres to it, conscious of his own strength, till success gives it a sanction that determines its character” (227). Her “great plan” is to awaken women to the oppressive nature of their present relationships with men: “When women are once sufficiently enlightened to discover their real interest, on a grand scale, they will, I am persuaded, be very ready to resign all the prerogatives of love, that are not mutual, … for the calm satisfaction of friendship, and the tender confidence of habitual esteem” (205). The source of enlightenment will be, of course, Wollstonecraft herself.

Along with this definition of Wollstonecraft's role in the proposed “REVOLUTION in female manners” (317) must come a definition of the roles of her audience, which she determines by their abilities. Wollstonecraft deplores the artificial differences that have been constructed between genders. However, she must acknowledge those differences and address women as she finds them—guilty of “headstrong passions and grovelling vices,” qualities that are the “natural effect” of little or no education (100). Wollstonecraft's criticisms of women are not a means of placating a male audience but a forthright assessment of what raw materials are available for the furtherance of her revolutionary plans.

Wollstonecraft's avowed primary objective with her female audience is to persuade them to relinquish the false power their culturally defined sexuality gives them over men: “I know that it will require a considerable length of time to eradicate the firmly rooted prejudices which sensualists have planted; it will also require some time to convince women that they act contrary to their real interest on an enlarged scale, when they cherish or affect weakness under the name of delicacy” (134). Wollstonecraft begins with the beginning. Women have no prospects for improvement until they stop degrading themselves. Temporary power can be obtained by acting the traditional role of the weak, delicate female, but when women employ these means, “virtue is sacrificed to temporary gratifications, and the respectability of life to the triumph of an hour” (125). Mary Poovey argues that, in regard to the revolution in female manners, “women are simply to wait for this revolution to be effected, for their dignity to be restored, for their reformation to be made necessary.”17 But however minor their role may seem to us now, they were being called upon to act—or in a sense, to stop acting. The traditional childlike role so many were playing, according to Wollstonecraft, was precisely what was impeding their progress as a sex, and indeed, all humanity's progress.

Throughout the Vindication Wollstonecraft warns women of the perilousness of any victory won by feminine wiles. Along with logical arguments, however, she paints distressing verbal portraits of neglected coquettes and appealing scenes of domestic bliss based on rational friendship. Other specific arguments are also strengthened with a variety of dramatic examples. Numerous and persuasive, these examples are one of the primary means by which the text shapes the roles anticipated for readers and thus they need to be examined in some detail.


Wollstonecraft's examples illustrate a variety of arguments, and not just those addressed to women. Vlasopolos accurately notes that “one of the chief strengths of A Vindication resides in its vivid portrayals of women in straitened circumstances.”18 She argues, however, that these examples are formed to create sympathy for the men who appear in them. Critics who disregard Wollstonecraft's anticipation of male readers fail to deal with the significant number of examples aimed primarily at male concerns. Depictions of unpleasant scenarios for men occur at many points in the text, serving to demonstrate the problems that result from female weaknesses:

The weak enervated women who particularly catch the attention of libertines, are unfit to be mothers, though they may conceive; so that the rich sensualist, who has rioted among women, spreading depravity and misery, when he wishes to perpetuate his name, receives from his wife only an half-formed being that inherits both its father's and mother's weakness.


Any attempt at reform must urge the necessity for that reform. With this example Wollstonecraft depicts the unhappy fruits of libertinism and the perpetuation of crippling “feminine” delicacy.

This tactic is complemented by portrayals of the domestic happiness a man will find with a properly educated woman unfettered by artificial, debilitating models of female behavior:

I have seen [a good wife] prepare herself and children, with only the luxury of cleanliness, to receive her husband, who, returning weary home in the evening, found smiling babes and a clean hearth. My heart has loitered in the midst of the group, and has even throbbed with sympathetic emotion when the scraping of the well-known foot has raised a pleasing tumult.


The lesson for male readers is clear. Frail and foolish women, however languid and appealing they appear, do not make good mothers; there are no real rewards for the encouragement of such behavior in females. Instead, sensible women will make a pleasing home and provide healthy, happy heirs. Despite the presence of women in each of the examples, the main appeal is made to men.

What is overlooked in Vlasopolos's argument, however, is that there is an equally strong network of examples in the Vindication that offer similar images of warning and reward to female readers (see Table II).


Examples Focused Primarily Toward Male Readers Examples Focused Primarily Toward Female Readers
p. 119 (“But to view the subject …”) p. 111 (“I now speak of women …”)
167 (“Love, considered as …”) 135-37 (“But, supposing a woman …”)
181 (“Of what materials …”)
188-89 (“The man who can …”) 138-39 (“Let fancy now present …”)
249 (“To satisfy this genius …”)
254-55 (“Cold would be the heart …”) 159 (“Besides, how many women …”
294-95 (“The libertinism …”) 165 (“A woman who has lost …”)
229-30 (“And thus have I argued …”)
*This table is by no means comprehensive. Many of Wollstonecraft's examples have a double focus and are difficult to classify with certainty. Those cited here are among the examples in which the gender focus is more obvious.

If a woman fails to cultivate her understanding and thinks only of setting a nice table and dressing well, her husband will soon tire of her:

How many women of this description pass their days, or at least their evenings, discontentedly. Their husbands acknowledge that they are good managers and chaste wives, but leave home to seek for more agreeable—may I be allowed to use a significant French word—piquant society; and the patient drudge, who fulfils her task like a blind horse in a mill, is defrauded of her just reward.


No good English woman could want to recognize herself in such a picture. And so, as with her examples for male readers, Wollstonecraft presents positive portrayals of women as well. The woman who concerns herself with being well educated, and subsequently educates her children, male and female, will find her happiness:

I think I see her surrounded by her children, reaping the reward of her care. The intelligent eye meets hers, whilst health and innocence smile on their chubby cheeks, and as they grow up the cares of life are lessened by their grateful attention. She lives to see the virtues which she endeavoured to plant on principles, fixed into habits, to see her children attain a strength of character sufficient to enable them to endure adversity without forgetting their mother's example. The task of life thus fulfilled, she calmly waits for the sleep of death, and rising from the grave, may say—“Behold, Thou gavest me a talent, and here are five talents.”


Wollstonecraft consistently gives powerful form to her ideas and theories through examples, some of which make a general appeal to both men and women. Many, however, are tailored to stress points which have application either for men or for women. The text presents each gender with images that reinforce the rewards of adopting roles in the revolution; dutiful, respectable men and women will be each other's own rewards and will produce families of happy children. Libertinism in men and foolish calculated weaknesses in women injure both sexes. Overall, the many examples embody Wollstonecraft's abstract arguments, but more important, the fact that they target different portions of her audience allows her a means to illustrate her expectations from each. These expectations also find expression in another of Wollstonecraft's important rhetorical techniques, one that complements the subtler, more emotionally based appeal made through examples. Wollstonecraft employs a direct—although softened—imperative form.

Just as the examples indicate an anticipation of male and female readers and help to shape their roles, her use of a semi-imperative mood reveals more of the expectations she has from readers. Repeatedly throughout her text, requests and pleas are issued concisely but politely by her use of “let” joined with a noun or pronoun: “I would fain persuade my sex to act from simpler principles. Let them merit love, and they will obtain it” (200). The arguments that limit Wollstonecraft to a male or a female audience overlook the heavy use she makes of the semi-imperative, directed specifically at each sex, or at both together (see Table III).

This usage is inextricably tied with the roles assigned to her readers. Warnings that prompt women towards valuing rational relationships with men before short-lived reigns of coquettish tyranny often take the semi-imperative form: “Let them not expect to be valued when their beauty fades, for it is the fate of the fairest flowers to be admired and pulled to pieces by the careless hand that plucked them” (263). Combined with powerful imagery this rhetorical technique makes a strong appeal, presenting a voice firm but not strident.


Non Gender Specific Focus (27; 46.5٪ of total) Male Focus (15; 26٪ of total) Female Focus (16; 27.5٪ of total)
p. 102 p. 205 p. 84 p. 181 p. 116 p. 200
108 212 112 193 134 201
109 230 (2) 119 (3) 296 182 235
110 233 (2) 132 (3) 311 190 (4) 238 (2)
115 (3) 269 144 319 191 249
121 (3) 274 160 198 (note #6) 263
138 279
160 (4) 286
199 304

This voice is also directed at male readers, reinforcing for them as well the messages conveyed through examples. While she makes use of full imperative also, the repeated usage of the “let” pattern allows for mnemonic ties between principal ideas. Wollstonecraft uses this semi-imperative form in a variety of ways, but primarily to issue warnings and challenges to her male audience. Often prefacing brief examples, the semi-imperative calls direct attention to what moral men are to extract from the portrait. In addressing, once again, the issue of a female education that emphasizes fawning servility at the expense of sincerity, Wollstonecraft warns: “Let the husband beware of trusting too implicitly to this servile obedience; for if his wife can with winning sweetness, caress him when angry, and when she ought to be angry, unless contempt has stifled a natural effervescence, she may do the same after parting with a lover” (181). The problem with teaching women dishonesty, Wollstonecraft demonstrates, is that men can be its dupes as well as its beneficiaries. By calling special attention to the brief example that follows, the use of the semi-imperative prepares the reader to expect an important lesson. Clearly, female manners are not just a female problem—men have a very real reason to take part in the revolution.

Wollstonecraft further strengthens her arguments advocating reformed female education by issuing challenges to men, also expressed in the semi-imperative mood. She argues that if what she is calling for is so unnatural—if women truly are not rational creatures—then educating them properly will be unproductive. But why not, she questions, try the experiment and find out? “When man, governed by reasonable laws, enjoys his natural freedom, let him despise woman, if she do not share it with him; and, till that glorious period arrives, in descanting on the folly of the sex, let him not overlook his own” (132). Her usage of the semi-imperative provides her with a voice of reasonable stability that commands attention without seeming inflexible. When addressing male readers with this voice, she emphasizes reasons why they will benefit from the revolution in female manners and issues rational but memorable challenges, both inciting them to want change and pointing to how it can come about.

One important point that becomes apparent through a study of the semi-imperative addressed to men is the extent to which Wollstonecraft relies on male action for the revolution: “Let men take their choice. Man and woman were made for each other, though not to become one being; and if they will not improve women, they will deprave them” (296). A closer look needs to be taken at what the text can reveal of Wollstonecraft's expectations about the practical aspects of the revolution. She claims that “the improvement must be mutual” (296) yet an examination of her language seems to reveal that men are to perform the more active role in the revolution. One must, therefore, determine if and why Wollstonecraft has doubts about women's ability to take the lead.


Although she is consistent in her demands that women resign their reigns as “short-lived queens” (145), Wollstonecraft alternates between hope and despair regarding further expectations. At times, she is quite optimistic about what women should attempt and she is willing to ally herself with her sex: “Let us, my dear contemporaries, arise above such narrow prejudices. If wisdom be desirable on its own account, if virtue, to deserve the name, must be founded on knowledge, let us endeavour to strengthen our minds by reflection till our heads become a balance for our hearts” (190). Yet despite the encouraging tone of this passage a pessimism about women pervades much of the work. The real problem, Wollstonecraft realizes, is nothing less than the entire structure of society, firmly stratified according to class and gender. Thus the “romantic and inconstant” behavior of women is a result of the training they receive for their approved social role and “in the present state of society this evil can scarcely be remedied” (169). Difficulties, however, do not cause Wollstonecraft to give way to despair. An ambivalence towards women emerges strongly from the text, often suggesting frustration, and thus the role she assigns them is not one that would overturn the structure of society. The “men of understanding” must play the most active part in the proposed Revolution (319).

Why are men assigned the more active role? “Who can tell, how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves?” (171-72). At more than thirty points throughout the Vindication, Wollstonecraft directly likens women, in their present condition, to slaves—“slaves to their bodies” (130), “slaves of opinion” (139), “slaves to their persons” (257), and “the slaves of injustice” (313); in the present system, woman is made “the slave of her own feelings” (202) and “the slave of sensibility” (232).19 Holding strong convictions about the lasting effects of education and the absolute necessity of the proper shaping of character, which in children is “fixed before their seventh year” (314), Wollstonecraft is dubious about the ability of the present generation of women to take the lead in a lasting revolution. Vlasopolos argues that through flattery Wollstonecraft “makes men feel in control of the proposed ‘REVOLUTION in female manners.’”20 But in fact, to a considerable extent she wants men to be in charge of the Revolution: “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens” (263). Appeals such as this are not mere fawning. Wollstonecraft repeatedly voices severe doubts about the ability of most women to overcome their faulty educations.

Women, however, are not the only party in need of reform. Miriam Brody notes that Wollstonecraft's logic can be thus reduced: “If men will not be reasonable, they will be sensualists. If they will be sensualists, women will be their slaves.”21 The corollary is that while women behave slavishly, men will not be reasonable. Clearly, what emerges is a vicious cycle that must be broken largely by those most capable of doing so. In 1792 that group was “ye men of understanding,” to whom Wollstonecraft's final paragraph is addressed (319). Throughout her work she makes clear that women are oppressed by their faulty educations, not by any defect in their natures. She must acknowledge where power lies, but cautions men: “Let not men then in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so” (132). Power, Wollstonecraft argues throughout her Vindication, corrupts, when exerted without reason. Because the problems between men and women take on a cyclic form both men and women must act to dispel them. Simultaneously, women must abdicate their short-lived reigns of superficial power, purchased at the price of their future happiness—they must become worthy of respect—and men must learn to value the truly virtuous, reasonable woman, abandoning the desire for “a meretricious slave to fondle” (204). Wollstonecraft is more optimistic about the ability of men to rectify the problems she examines and so she shapes for them a more active role in the revolution, asking them to grant women the powers, primarily those endowed by a better education, that can allow women to rise above their present frailties. Since neither men nor women, however, can accomplish a complete revitalization of English society alone, her vision of social change entails, as Judith Lee argues, “a twofold process in which men and women evolve independently but reciprocally.”22 Without both halves of society acting together the nation cannot progress. “Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally” and “a crowd of authors that all is now right”; but Wollstonecraft envisions that when men and women can work and live harmoniously and reasonably, “all will be right” (95).

Unless the dual nature of the action needed to bring about the revolution is understood, Wollstonecraft's work cannot be fully appreciated. And the dual nature of this action cannot be understood until one realizes that Wollstonecraft's Vindication implies both male and female readers. Critics who believe that she wrote for men often depict her as insincere and confused—essentially charging her with the very traits she deplores so much in most women. The central problem with both of the existing critical stances, however, is that arguments limiting her to one audience or the other distort her complex work. To say that she wrote for women only is to underrate Wollstonecraft's abilities as a social analyst. She was well aware, as an examination of her work demonstrates, that society's problems have more than one source. Thus, she makes her powerful rhetorical appeals to both men and women as the best way to bring about her proposed “REVOLUTION in female manners.”


  1. Regina Janes states that Wollstonecraft addresses an audience that “constantly shifts,” but, as this point is not central to her argument, provides no real textual support for this claim. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Or, Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft Compared,” SECC 5 (1976): 121-39, 133. Lucy Kelley Hayden cites brief examples indicating a mixed audience, but offers no analysis. “A Rhetorical Analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” diss., University of Michigan, 1971 (pp. 135-38). Zilla Eisenstein claims that the work “was written to men as much if not more so than to women,” in The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (New York: Longman, 1981), p. 107.

  2. Elissa S. Guralnick, “Rhetorical Strategy in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” The Humanities Association Review 30, 3 (1979): 174-85, 174, and Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,” in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 160-83, 175.

  3. Anca Vlasopolos, “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mask of Reason in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,DR 60, 3 (Autumn 1980): 462-71, 462. Also see Laurie A. Finke, “‘A Philosophic Wanton’: Language and Authority in Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth Century, ed. Robert Ginsberg (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna Univ. Press, 1987), 155-76, 159; and Kathleen McCormack, “The Sybil and the Hyena: George Eliot's Wollstonecraftian Feminism,” DR 63, 4 (Winter 1983-84): 602-14, 605.

  4. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody (London: Penguin, 1983), p. 317. All subsequent references are to page numbers in this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  5. Emily W. Sunstein, in A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (New York: Harper, 1975), p. 208, describes how Wollstonecraft's publisher, Joseph Johnson, had a printer's devil at her door waiting for copy, giving her “little opportunity to correct or reorganize.”

  6. In Brody's edition, due to her lengthy introduction, the text of the Vindication does not begin until page 79.

  7. One prospective reader is specified by name. In addition to the introduction, Wollstonecraft includes a dedication to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, in response to his 1791 work on education, Rapport sur l'Instruction Publique, fait au nom du Comité de Constitution. She does not, however, make further reference in the body of her work to suggest that Talleyrand is her primary audience.

  8. “The little respect paid to chastity in the male world is, I am persuaded, the grand source of many of the physical and moral evils that torment mankind, as well as of the vices and follies that degrade and destroy women” (282; see also 233, 249, and 318).

  9. Vlasopolos, “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mask of Reason,” p. 462.

  10. Gary Kelly, “Mary Wollstonecraft as ‘Vir Bonus,’” English Studies in Canada 5, 3 (Autumn 1979): 275-91, 275.

  11. The final chapter contains a notable exception. Her most memorable and lengthy address, extending approximately two and one half pages, is harshly critical. Superstitious women, however, are the primary target of this section containing the infamous “O ye foolish women!” expostulation (302). While Wollstonecraft does claim that “I have throughout supposed myself talking to ignorant women,” earlier references indicate that she does not believe herself to be addressing ignorant women exclusively.

  12. Mary Wilson Carpenter's “Sibylline Apocalyptics: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Job's Mother's Womb,” in Literature and History 12, 2 (Autumn 1986): 215-28, discusses the biblical character of Wollstonecraft's prose, and Laurie A. Finke suggests that Wollstonecraft's deliberately archaic style is “a parody of feminine discourse” (p. 165). However, arguments that represent Wollstonecraft's use of archaic pronouns as biblical, ironic, or merely poetical do not entirely account for the effect the language has on her relationship with female readers.

  13. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 78.

  14. Vlasopolos, “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mask of Reason,” p. 463; Finke, p. 159.

  15. Uses of first person plural pronouns which refer exclusively to women occur on the following pages: 80 (2), 82, 100-101 (8), 111, 132, 153 (5), 182-83 (2), 190-91 (16), 201, and 263 (5).

  16. Janes, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” p. 133.

  17. Poovey, p. 79.

  18. Vlasopolos, “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mask of Reason,” p. 466.

  19. Further examples occur on the following pages: 82, 104, 107, 108, 117, 120, 121 (2), 122, 131, 132, 134, 144, 153, 171, 172, 179, 195, 204, 224, 256, 257 (2), 263, 265, 270 (3), 282, 285 (2), 286, and 294 (2).

  20. Vlasopolos, “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mask of Reason,” p. 464.

  21. Miriam Brody, “Mary Wollstonecraft: Sexuality and Women's Rights,” in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women's Intellectual Traditions, ed. Dale Spender (London: The Woman's Press, 1983), 40-59, 57.

  22. Judith Lee, “Ways of Their Own: The Emanations of Blake's Vala, or The Four Zoas,ELH 50, 1 (Spring 1983): 131-53, 133. Lee demonstrates the influence of Wollstonecraft's social theories on Blake.

Moira Ferguson (essay date autumn 1992)

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SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery.” Feminist Review 42 (autumn 1992): 82-102.

[In the following essay, Ferguson examines Wollstonecraft's discourse on slavery in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other works as it pertains to the “enslavement” of women as well as to colonial slavery.]

A traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion … [an] inhuman custom.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

I love most people best when they are in adversity, for pity is one of my prevailing passions.

Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft


In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft became a major participant in contemporary political debate for the first time, due to her evolving political analysis and social milieu. In contrast to A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790 which drew primarily on the language of natural rights for its political argument, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) favoured a discourse on slavery that highlighted female subjugation. Whereas the Rights of Men refers to slavery in a variety of contexts only four or five times, the Rights of Woman contains over eighty references; the constituency Wollstonecraft champions—white, middle-class women—is constantly characterized as slaves. For her major polemic, that is, Mary Wollstonecraft decided to adopt and adapt the terms of contemporary political debate. Over a two-year period that debate had gradually reformulated its terms as the French Revolution in 1789 that highlighted aristocratic hegemony and bourgeois rights was followed by the San Domingan Revolution that primarily focused on colonial relations.

Wollstonecraft's evolving commentaries on the status of European women in relation to slavery were made in response to four interlocking events: first, the intensifying agitation over the question of slavery in England that included the case of the slave James Somerset in 1772 and Phillis Wheatley's visit in 1773; second, the French Revolution in 1789; third, Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education (1790) that forthrightly argued against sexual difference; and fourth, the successful revolution by slaves in the French colony of San Domingo in 1791.

This discourse on slavery employed by Wollstonecraft was nothing new for women writers, although it was now distinctly recontextualized in terms of colonial slavery. Formerly, in all forms of discourse throughout the eighteenth century, conservative and radical women alike railed against marriage, love, and education as forms of slavery perpetrated upon women by men and by the conventions of society at large.


Prior to the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft had utilized the language of slavery in texts from various genres. In Thoughts (1786), an educational treatise, Wollstonecraft talked conventionally of women subjugated by their husbands who in turn tyrannize servants, ‘for slavish fear and tyranny go together’ (Wollstonecraft, 1787: 63). Two years later, in Mary, A Fiction (1788), her first novel written in Ireland during trying circumstances as a governess, the heroine decides she will not live with her husband and exclaims to her family: ‘I will work …, do anything rather than be a slave’ (Wollstonecraft, 1788: 49).1 Here as a case in point, Wollstonecraft inflects slavery with the orthodox conception of slavery that had populated women's texts for over a century—marriage was a form of slavery; wives were slaves to husbands.

Wollstonecraft's early conventional usage, however, in which the word slave stands for a subjugated daughter or wife was soon to complicate its meaning. From the early 1770s onward, a number of events from James Somerset's court case to Quaker petitions to Parliament and reports of abuses had injected the discourse of slavery into popular public debate.

The Abolition Committee, for example, was formed on 22 May 1787, with a view to mounting a national campaign against the slave trade and securing the passage of an Abolition Bill through Parliament (Coupland, 1933: 68). Following the establishment of the committee, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson wrote and distributed two thousand copies of a pamphlet entitled ‘A Summary View of the Slave-Trade, and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition’ (Clarkson, 1808: 276-85 and passim). Wollstonecraft's friend, William Roscoe, offered the profits of his poem ‘The Wrongs of Africa’ to the committee. The political campaign was launched on the public in full force (Craton, 1974: chapter 5).

Less than a year after the Abolition Committee was formed, Wollstonecraft's radical publisher, Joseph Johnson, co-founded a radical periodical entitled the Analytical Review. Invited to become a reviewer, Wollstonecraft's reviews soon reflected the new influence of the abolition debate (Sunstein, 1975: 171). One of the earliest books she critiqued in April 1789 was written by Britain's most renowned African and a former slave; Wollstonecraft was analyzing a text based on specific experiences of colonial slavery for the first time. Its title was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African Written by Himself, in which Equiano graphically chronicles being kidnapped from Africa, launched on the notorious Middle Passage, and living out as a slave the consequences of these events.

While the Analytical Review acquainted the public with old and new texts on the current debate, Wollstonecraft was composing an anthology for educating young women that also reflected her growing concerns. Published by Joseph Johnson and entitled The Female Reader: or Miscellaneous Pieces for the Improvement of Young Women, the textbook cum anthology included substantial extracts promoting abolition. It included Sir Richard Steele's rendition from The Spectator of the legend of Inkle and Yarico, Anna Laetitia Barbauld's hymn-in-prose, ‘Negro-woman’, about a grieving mother forcibly separated from her child, and a poignant passage from William Cowper's poem, ‘The Task’, popular with the contemporary reading public:

I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earn'd.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation priz'd above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave,
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.

(Wollstonecraft, 1789: 29-31, 171, 321-2)

A series of events then followed one another in rapid succession that continued to have a bearing on the reconstitution of the discourse on slavery. In July 1789, the French Revolution erupted as the Bastille gaol was symbolically stormed and opened. Coinciding with the French Revolution came Richard Price's polemic, Edmund Burke's response, and then Wollstonecraft's response to Burke and her review of Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education. Meanwhile, in September and the following months, Wollstonecraft reviewed in sections the antislavery novel Zeluco: Various Views of Human Nature, Taken from Life and Manners, Foreign and Domestic, by John Moore. Let me back up and briefly elaborate how all this attentiveness to colonial slavery affected public debate and Mary Wollstonecraft's usage of the term.


On 4 November 1789, Wollstonecraft's friend, the Reverend Richard Price, Dissenting minister and leading liberal philosopher, delivered the annual sermon commemorating the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 to the Revolution Society in London. The society cherished the ideals of the seventeenth-century revolution and advocated Dissenters' rights. This particular year there was much for Dissenters to celebrate. Basically, Price applauded the French Revolution as the start of a liberal epoch: ‘after sharing in the benefits of one revolution,’ declared Price [meaning the British seventeenth-century constitutional revolution], ‘I have been spared to be a witness to two other Revolutions, both glorious’ (Price, 1790: 55). The written text of Price's sermon, Discourse on the Love of Our Country, was reviewed by Wollstonecraft in the Analytical's December issue. A year later, on 1 November 1790, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that attacked both Price and his sermon was timed to be published on the anniversary of Price's address. It soon became a topic of public debate. Several responses quickly followed.

As the first writer to challenge Burke's reactionary polemic, Wollstonecraft foregrounded the cultural issue of human rights in her title: A Vindication of the Rights of Men. It immediately sold out. Not by political coincidence, she composed this reply while evidence about the slave trade was being presented to the Privy Council during the year following the first extensive parliamentary debate on abolition in May 1789. The Rights of Men applauded human rights and justice, excoriated abusive social, church and state practices, and attacked Burke for hypocrisy and prejudice. She argued vehemently for a more equitable distribution of wealth and parliamentary representation. By 4 December the same year, Wollstonecraft had revised the first edition and Johnson rapidly turned out a second one in January 1791 (Tomalin, 1974).

In The Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft also frontally condemns institutionalized slavery:

On what principle Mr. Burke could defend American independence, I cannot conceive; for the whole tenor of his plausible arguments settles slavery on an everlasting foundation. Allowing his servile reverence for antiquity, and prudent attention to self-interest, to have the force which he insists on, the slave trade ought never to be abolished; and, because our ignorant forefathers, not understanding the native dignity of man, sanctioned a traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion, we are to submit to the inhuman custom, and term an atrocious insult to humanity the love of our country, and a proper submission to the laws by which our property is secured.

(Wollstonecraft, 1790: 23-4)

In The Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft explicitly argues for the first time that no slavery is natural and all forms of slavery, regardless of context, are human constructions. Her scorching words to Burke about his situating slavery ‘on an everlasting foundation’ (in the past and the future) sharply distinguishes her discourse from her more orthodox invocations of slavery in Thoughts and Mary. Contemporary events have begun to mark the discourse on slavery in a particular and concrete way.

In particular, Wollstonecraft challenges the legal situation. In The Rights of Men, she graphically represents slavery as ‘authorized by law to fasten her fangs on human flesh and … eat into the very soul’ (Wollstonecraft, 1790: 76). None the less, although she supports abolition unequivocally, she considers ‘reason’ an even more important attribute to possess than physical freedom. ‘Virtuous men,’ she comments, can endure ‘poverty, shame, and even slavery’ but not the ‘loss of reason’ (Wollstonecraft, 1790: 45, 59).

The same month that Wollstonecraft replied to Burke, she favourably reviewed Catherine Macaulay Graham's Letters on Education. Macaulay's argument against the accepted notion that males and females had distinct sexual characteristics was part of the evolving discourse on human rights that connected class relations to women's rights. Macaulay also expropriated the language of physical bondage and wove it into her political argument. Denouncing discrimination against women throughout society, Letters also rails against ‘the savage barbarism which is now displayed on the sultry shores of Africa’ (Ferguson, 1985: 399). Macaulay takes pains to censure the condition of women ‘in the east’—in harems, for example—and scorns the fact that men used differences in ‘corporal strength … in the barbarous ages to reduce [women] to a state of abject slavery’ (Ferguson, 1985: 403-4). Macaulay's historical timing separates her from earlier writers who used this language; by 1790 slavery had assumed multiple meanings that included the recognition, implied or explicit, of connexions between colonial slavery and constant sexual abuse.

In The Rights of Men, however, Wollstonecraft had not exhibited any substantial attention to the question of gender. But, after she read Macaulay, her discourse on gender and rights shifted. Notably, too, as one edition after another of A Vindication of the Rights of Men hit the presses, Johnson was concurrently publishing Wollstonecraft's translation of Christian Gotthilf Salzmann's Elements of Morality for the Use of Children. In the preface to this educational treatise, Wollstonecraft pointedly inserted a passage of her own, enjoining the fair treatment of Native Americans. In terms of democratic colonial relations as they were then perceived, Wollstonecraft rendered Salzmann more up to date. There was, however, still more to come before Wollstonecraft settled into writing her second Vindication in 1792.

First of all, information about slavery continued to flow unabated in the press. According to Michael Craton, ‘William Wilberforce was able to initiate the series of pioneer inquiries before the Privy Council and select committees of Commons and Lords, which brought something like the truth of slave trade and plantation slavery out into the open between 1789 and 1791’ (Craton, 1974: 261). None the less, in April 1791, the Abolition Bill was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 163 to 88, a massive blow to the antislavery campaign.

Just as much, if not perhaps more to the point, in August of that year, slaves in the French colony of San Domingo (now Haiti) revolted, another crucial historical turning point. The French Caribbean had been ‘an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation’ (James, 1963: ix).

The conjunction of these events deeply polarized British society. George III switched to the proslavery side, enabling faint-hearted abolitionists to change sides. Meanwhile, radicals celebrated. This triumphant uprising of the San Domingan slaves forced another angle of vision on the French Revolution and compounded the anxiety that affairs across the Channel had generated. Horrified at the threat to their investments and fearful of copycat insurrections by the domestic working class as well as by African Caribbeans, many panic-stricken whites denounced the San Domingan Revolution (Klingberg, 1926: 88-95).

Although no one spoke their pessimism outright, abolition was temporarily doomed. When campaigners remobilized in 1792, they were confident of winning the vote and refused to face the implications of dual revolutions in France and San Domingo. Proslaveryites, now quite sanguine, capitalized on the intense conflicts and instigated a successful policy of delay. A motion for gradual abolition—effectively a plantocratic victory—carried in the Commons by a vote of 238 to 85.


The composition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman started in the midst of these tumultuous events, its political ingredients indicating Wollstonecraft's involvement in all these issues. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft seems to have been the first writer to raise issues of colonial and gender relations so tellingly in tandem.

More than any previous text, the Rights of Woman invokes the language of colonial slavery to impugn female subjugation and call for the restoration of inherent rights. Wollstonecraft's eighty-plus references to slavery divide into several categories and subsets. The language of slavery—unspecified—is attached to sensation, pleasure, fashion, marriage and patriarchal subjugation. It is also occasionally attached to the specific condition of colonized slaves.

Wollstonecraft starts from the premise that all men enslave all women and that sexual desire is a primary motivation: ‘I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex. … For I will venture to assert, that all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity, which I have already enlarged on, branch out of one grand cause—want of chastity in men’ (1792: 37, 138).

Men dominate women as plantocrats dominate slaves: ‘As blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves and the latter a play-thing. … All the sacred rights of humanity are violated by insisting on blind obedience; or, the most sacred rights belong only to man’ (44, 83). In permeating the text with the idea that women are oppressed by all men, Wollstonecraft accords all women, including herself, a group identity, a political position from which they can start organizing and agitating.

However, when Wollstonecraft begins to argue at a concrete level, when she confronts, say, the ‘foibles’ of women, that sense of group solidarity dissolves. Notable examples are women's too ready acceptance of inferior educations, female vanity and an excessive display of feeling, exemplified in the following passages on: First, education:

Led by their dependent situation and domestic employments more into society, what they learn is rather by snatches; and as learning is with them, in general, only a secondary thing, they do not pursue any one branch with that persevering ardour necessary to give vigour to the faculties, and clearness to the judgment.


Second, self-involvement:

It is acknowledged that [females] spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves,—the only way women can rise in the world,—by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures. Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!—Can they be expected to govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?


With such attention to vain practices and little intellectual encouragement, women can scarcely be expected to lead (nor do they lead) sensible lives:

Nor can it be expected that a woman will resolutely endeavour to strengthen her constitution and abstain from enervating indulgencies, if artifical notions of beauty, and false descriptions of sensibility, have been early entangled with her motives of action.


In censuring how white middle-class women act, Wollstonecraft views them as a homogenized group—‘I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex. … It is time to effect a revolution in female manners’ (37, 45). She separates herself off from them as a mentor-censor.

Wollstonecraft's self-distancing arises from an understandably positive view she holds of her own ability to transcend situations that she generally deplores in the female population. Since she had broken through prescribed barriers in a rather independent fashion from an early age, she deplores the same lack of resourcefulness in other women; she sees no valid reason why other women cannot act the same way, her sense of female conditioning somewhat precarious. Or perhaps she understands her own social construction and her past inability to remove herself from certain scenarios—when she worked as the irascible Mrs Dawson's companion, for example. She could be projecting anger at her own passivity in earlier situations.

This sense of herself as set apart comes out even more clearly, though somewhat indirectly, in a footnote to the second Vindication. In the text proper, Wollstonecraft is referring to the length of time it will take for slaves—like white women presumably—to gather themselves up from the condition of slavery:

Man, taking her body, the mind is left to rust; so that while physical love enervates man, as being his favourite recreation, he will endeavour to enslave woman:—and, who can tell, how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves.


In the footnote Wollstonecraft quotes herself, stating that slavery always constitutes an untenable human condition: ‘Supposing that women are voluntary slaves—slavery of any kind is unfavourable to human happiness and improvement’. (77). Then she purportedly quotes from an essay by a contemporary, Vicesimus Knox, as follows:

The subjects of these self-erected tyrants [i.e., those who establish what norm of human affairs will be, either ‘some rich, gross, unphilosophical man, or some titled frivolous lady, distinguished for boldness, but not for excellence’] are most truly slaves, though voluntary slaves; but as slavery of any kind is unfavourable to human happiness and improvement, I will venture to offer a few suggestions, which may induce the subjugated tribes to revolt, and claim their invaluable birthright, their natural liberty.


However, as it turns out, Wollstonecraft has altered Knox's quotation to underscore her own political orientation. In his essay, Knox was not talking of women, let alone calling them slaves.

Wollstonecraft's fiery response to female domination echoed in Knox's essay—that women should act independently and ignore strictures—is probably why the essay appeals so much to her. Entitled ‘On the fear of appearing singular’, one of the essay's most telling passages encourages such (singular) thought, no matter the consequences or the social ridicule:

It may not be improper to premise, that to one individual his own natural rights and possessions, of whatever kind, are as valuable as those of another are to that other. It is his own happiness which is concerned in his choice of principles and conduct. By these he is to stand, or by these to fall.

In making this important choice, then, let the sense of its importance lead him to assert the rights of man. These rights will justify him in acting and thinking, as far as the laws of that community, whose protection he seeks, can allow, according to the suggestions of his own judgment. He will do right to avoid adopting any system of principles, or following any pattern of conduct, which his judgment has not pronounced conducive to his happiness, and consistent with his duties; consistent with those duties which he owes to his God, to his neighbour, to himself, and to his society. Though the small circle with whom he is personally connected may think and act differently, and may even despise and ridicule his singularity, yet let him persevere. His duty to freedom, his conscience, and his happiness, must appear to every man, who is not hoodwinked, superior to all considerations.

(Knox, 1782: 21-2)

This sense of importance that Wollstonecraft attached to independent or singular thought—a cornerstone of bourgeois individualist ideology—helps to explain her apparent lack of emotional solidarity with the white women she roundly castigates throughout the second Vindication. Although her intentions are unreservedly positive—to restore natural rights to all women—her approach is not entirely compassionate. She sees all around her that women ‘buy into’ societal norms. Because she has resisted these norms and short-circuited her own social construction, she deplores women who have not followed suit.

This separation that Wollstonecraft maintains from other women prevents her from seeing the implications of women's response, especially in the common frivolous practices she condemns. She cannot see that flirting and vanity could have a positive dimension, could sometimes be deployed by these very women as strategies of resistance, as devious ways of assuming a measure of power. Wollstonecraft, instead, sees the trope of the coquette, for example, as exclusive evidence that women accept their inferiority. The following passage on Rousseau's ideas about women as sexual objects illustrates Wollstonecraft's dislike of teasing behaviour. ‘Rousseau declares that a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquetish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire’ (1792: 25). Wollstonecraft sees women as slaves to men not just because of male sexual lust, but because women enslave themselves through an obsession with fashion and an eager acceptance of inadequate education. She cannot see female foibles in any other context than female self-trivialization.

Furthermore, the blame that Wollstonecraft attaches to white women for their vanity is complicated by her assessment of the relationship between African women and dress:

The attention to dress, therefore, which has been thought a sexual propensity, I think natural to mankind. But I ought to express myself with more precision. When the mind is not sufficiently opened to take pleasure in reflection, the body will be adorned with sedulous care; and ambition will appear in tattooing or painting it.

So far is this first inclination carried, that even the hellish yoke of slavery cannot stifle the savage desire of admiration which the black heroes inherit from both their parents, for all the hardly earned savings of a slave are expended in a little tawdy finery. And I have seldom known a good male or female servant that was not particularly fond of dress. Their clothes were their riches; and, I argue from analogy, that the fondness for dress, so extravagant in females, arises from the same cause—want of cultivation of mind.

(1792: 186-7)2

Wollstonecraft equates self-conscious dressing with lack of intellectuality. In doing so, she reveals her own acceptance (and construction) as a contemporary woman, bombarded by and receptive to such ideas about Africans as David Hume's:

There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. … Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.

(Hume, 1898: III, 252)3

Wollstonecraft does not take into account either white women's resentment about powerlessness, their displacement of anger, their projection of personal power and pleasure, or, in the case of Africans and African Caribbeans, some customary cultural practices.4 Given, too, her protestations to Sophie Fuseli about her scrupulous conduct toward the Swiss painter, Henry Fuseli (and his toward Mary Wollstonecraft), her attack on coquetry might also betray a rather personal subtext.5

Wollstonecraft's views, then, of white women's behaviour in particular, and of sexual difference in general are complex and politically self-contradictory.6 Justifiably, she thinks of herself positively breaking through social constraints while the vast majority of women conforms to a restrictive mandate. She sees this process continuing as a result of practices that reach back to antiquity:

Man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to shew that she ought to have her neck bent under its yoke; she, as well as the brute creation, was created to do his pleasure.


These contentions parallel ideas expressed in Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education where she argues that women are historically oppressed because of situation and circumstances; the only item distinctly separating men and women is physical strength which men have used to exercise freely their physical desires. The fine differences between them seem to be as follows: Catherine Macaulay wants women to stop being giddy but recognizes their social construction. At one level, Wollstonecraft concurs with this and even uses the language of ‘circumstances’ to explain vain and flirtatious female behaviour. But she seems much less patient—more desperate even—with women's situation. Catherine Macaulay is calmer, less rhetorically intense in her analysis, perhaps because with a certain amount of middle-class privilege in her life, the situation has affected her less.

Wollstonecraft's argument from antiquity has further implications, too. She contends that this age-old subjugation for unspecified reasons enables men's desire to transform women into tools for sexual lust. These beaten-down women with bent necks resemble the brute creation, brute a synonym in contemporary vocabulary for slaves. Thus, white women, slaves and oxen become part of a metonymic chain of the tyrannized; this association of colonial slavery with female subjugation opens up new political possibilities. The bent yoke, for example, suggesting excessive maltreatment also suggests insecurity on the part of the oppressor, a combination that precipitates insurrection. The question that permeates the image is: who will eternally bear a brutelike status? Remember, too, that the San Domingan Revolution is less than a year old so Wollstonecraft's words inscribe a threat of resistance in them: ‘History brings forward a fearful catalogue of the crimes which their cunning has produced, when the weak slaves have had sufficient address to over-reach their masters’ (167).

Moreover, Wollstonecraft deliberately uses the language of slavery to define women's status: ‘When, therefore, I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for, indirectly they obtain too much power, and are debased by their exertions to obtain illicit sway’ (167). This imposed status, this condition of subjugation provokes women into the flirtatious behaviour she dislikes, but also provokes duplicitous strategies of gaining power. In histories of slave insurrections, the ear of the master—necessary for finding things out and for facilitating the timing of rebellions—was frequently obtained through such ‘illicit sway’. While decrying the domestic sabotage of coquetry, she affirms a time-honoured slave strategy and the need for resistance. Perhaps more importantly, Wollstonecraft is suggesting collective opposition, but can only do so through positing the resistance of slaves and the London mob. Put bluntly, to suggest that women politically resist—although she herself does—only seems possible for Wollstonecraft at an oblique level, given her social conditioning.

Wollstonecraft also re-emphasizes that the historical subjugation of women is linked to male desire for sexual as well as political and social power. In doing so, she fuses the oppression of white women and black female slaves as well as slaves in general. A striking passage from The Rights of Woman based on the trope of sexual abuse exemplifies the point. It includes one of the few specific references to contemporary African slaves in The Rights of Woman, or in any of Wollstonecraft's texts for that matter.

Why subject [woman] to propriety—blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality? Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a sure guard, only to sweeten the cup of man?

(Wollstonecraft, 1792: 82-3)

The passage announces that slaves and white women are subjected to tyrannical practices that have no purpose beyond the paltry one of ‘sweeten[ing] the cup of man’. On the one hand, slaves should not be expected to give ‘vital blood’ to produce sugar and cater to white British colonial-patriarchal whim and profiteering. On the other hand, the ‘cup of man’ symbolically intimates that a female (opponent) is doing the filling. This sexual innuendo is consistent with Wollstonecraft's complex socio-sexual discourse throughout The Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft's awareness of the generic use of man further problematizes her provocative phraseology and the relationship she hints at between sweetening men's cup and ‘poor African slaves’. If only as faint shadows, black female slaves and the specific kind of sexual persecution they endure are ushered into view, interjecting themselves as sexual victims. Aware of political and personal levels, Wollstonecraft subtly denotes sexuality as one of the ‘prejudices’ that brutalize white and black women alike. As Cora Kaplan suggests, ‘We must remember to read A Vindication [of the Rights of Woman] as its author has instructed us, as a discourse addressed mainly to women of the middle class. Most deeply class-bound is its emphasis on sexuality in its ideological expression, as a mental formation, as the source of woman's oppression’ (Kaplan, 1986: 48).

Sex and resistance interact. A coquette's cunning that can overpower (manipulate) men, links to subterfuges and plots by slaves, especially by black female slaves who double as objects of desire. Or at least Wollstonecraft might unconsciously recognize that undue attentiveness to one's person means that desire is suppressed and life is lived on almost self-destructive, self-contradictory planes; excess vanity is not as foolish as she superficially thinks. Thus sexuality becomes the site of black female and by implication white female resistance. Women use the very object of desire—themselves, their bodies—to thwart those who desire.

Wollstonecraft knows, too, that external forces cause sexual and racial difference. She articulates this understanding in a positive review of Samuel Stanhope Smith's An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1787). She agrees with Smith that climate and social conditions are the principal causes of difference among men and women throughout the world, but that, above and beyond these differences, human beings constitute a unity (Johnson, 1788: Vol. 2, 431-9).7 She again pinpoints superior male physical strength as the reason for this ongoing situation.

Thus she denies the conservative argument of innate difference and necessary cultural separations—that God created essentially distinct beings.8 Such subjected people as African-Caribbean slaves and white Anglo-Saxon women are prevented from developing and exercising their reason; certain environments have precipitated their alleged propensity for passion. Once again, Wollstonecraft is arguing opposing sides of a question. Whereas attention to dress proves that Africans, conceived in a totalized way, are an unmeditative people, in this reading they became people historically cut off from intellectual pursuit. With a change in circumstances, she argues, reason can replace alleged naiveté and infantilism.9

Wollstonecraft's intervention regarding sexually abused female slaves is not surprising. Through reviews and personal reading, Wollstonecraft was well attuned to this phenomenon. In 1789, a review of Equiano's Travels centre-stages her horror at ‘the treatment of male and female slaves, on the voyage, and in the West Indies, which make the blood turn its course’ (Johnson, 1789: 28). Equiano categorically indicts ‘our clerks and many others at the same time [who] have committed acts of violence on the poor, wretched, and helpless females' (Equiano, 1789: 69). In chronicling his feelings on finally leaving Montserrat, Equiano harrows readers by undergirding his despondency, disgust, and (silently) his sense of impotence: ‘I bade adieu to the sound of the cruel whip and all other dreadful instruments of torture; adieu to the offensive sight of the violated chastity of the sable females, which has too often accosted my eyes’ (Equiano, 1789: 121).

Besides her intimacy with Equiano's first-hand experiences, Wollstonecraft has presented a paradigm of slavery in an extract on Inkle and Yarico in The Female Reader. Shipwrecked British merchant Inkle is rescued and nursed back to health by islander Yarico. After they fall in love, Inkle promises to take Yarico to London and treat her royally, but when a rescue ship appears, Inkle cavalierly sells her to slave traders when their ship docks in Barbados. To top off his inhumanity, after Yarico pleads for mercy on account of her pregnancy, Inkle ‘only made use of that information to rise in his demands upon the purchaser’ (Wollstonecraft, 1789: 31).10

Hence, Wollstonecraft's subtle approach to the sexual abuse of black women in the ‘vital blood’ passage, in reviewing Equiano, in spotlighting that last look at a pregnant Yarico in an anthology for adolescent girls. Since her discourse as a white woman is already shockingly untraditional, to speak sex, and of all things to speak openly of black women's sexuality and hint at abuse suffered at the hands of white planters, would be an untenable flouting of social propriety. She has to maintain a semblance of conventional gender expectations.

On the site of the body and sex, then, Wollstonecraft foregrounds the relationship between black and white women and their common point of rebellion. At one point even, referring to women as ‘brown and fair’, meaning dark and fair-haired white women most likely, slippage and connexion between black and white women reopen a fissure of sorts for comparing overlapping oppressions. Slave auctions and the marriage market, for example, are represented as variations on activities that are life-threatening to African-Caribbean and Anglo Saxon women (Wollstonecraft, 1792: 144). None the less, Wollstonecraft acknowledges by her loaded silences that the representation of others' sexuality as well as sexual self-representation is a tricky business (Jordan, 1968: 150-4). Thus, in one sense, equal rights and a self-denying sexuality go hand in hand, because sexuality for Wollstonecraft (dictated at large by men) imperils any chances of female autonomy. Not only that, Wollstonecraft recognizes dissimilar codings for white female and bondwomen's bodies, differences in complicity and coercion. In keeping with her sense of singularity, she is much harder on middle-class white women, in part because she is closer to them. She does not feel affected by or implicated in female social conditioning. Unlike Catherine Macaulay who argues that women will only waken up if they understand their oppression, Wollstonecraft implicitly recommends imitation of her own bold behaviour as the ‘wakening up’ device. To recap briefly: all women have the same choices available as she did and should forego vanity and self-indulgence; they should break their ‘silken fetters’. If she can short-circuit subjugation, her brief goes, so can anyone.

Thus beyond a rhetorical appeal to effect a revolution in female manners, Wollstonecraft tends to eschew a group response to the absence of female rights. This aloofness, furthermore, permeates—even undercuts—her sense of vindication. A buried sense of identification and solidarity expresses itself, instead, in a displaced way.

Specifically, Wollstonecraft talks about resistance only by talking about slaves. The successful revolution by slaves in San Domingo taught the British public that slaves and freed blacks could collectively overthrow systematic tyranny. In the following passage, by equating slaves with labouring class ‘mobs’ and using highly inflated diction for rebels, Wollstonecraft censures slaves' reaction. ‘For the same reason’, states Wollstonecraft, quoting from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘women have, or ought to have but little liberty; they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them. Addicted in every thing to extremes, they are even more transported at their diversions than boys.’ She continues this response to Rousseau: ‘The answer to this is very simple. Slaves and mobs have always indulged themselves in the same excesses, when once they broke loose from authority.—The bent bow recoils with violence, when the hand is suddenly relaxed that forcibly held it’ (Wollstonecraft, 1792: 144-5).

Yet since Wollstonecraft disdains passivity and servitude, she may be embedding an unconscious desire about female resistance that corresponds to her own. She could be hinting that women should emulate the San Domingan insurgents and fight back. The nuance is further stressed pictorially by the sexual overtones of female compliance in ‘bent bow’. Just as importantly, the image resonates with the previous textual image of women from earliest times when necks bent under a yoke.

Put succinctly, what slaves can do, white women can do; or, as she asserts in The Rights of Woman, authority and the reaction to it push the ‘crowd of subalterns forward’ (Wollstonecraft, 1792: 17). Sooner or later, tyranny incites retaliation. San Domingo instructs women about the importance of connecting physical and moral agency. Struggle creates a potential bridge from ignorance to consciousness and self-determination. In the most hard-hitting sense, the San Domingan revolutionaries loudly voice by their bold example—to anyone ready to listen—that challenge to oppression is not an option but a responsibility. The social and political status quo is anything but fixed.

Wollstonecraft's metaphor of the bent bow also decrees a stern warning to men. It reminds readers that male tyrants and predators incite their own opposition; at some point those who are ‘bowed’ may uncoil themselves and assault the ‘bender’.

This image of the bent bow further recalls Wollstonecraft's own situation in the last decade. Undeterred by an emotionally unnerving home life, she tried her hand at most of the humdrum occupations open to women, refusing to be moulded or deterred by social prescription. Befriending and being befriended by Dissenters like Richard Price only fortified Wollstonecraft's already firm opposition to women's lot. Moreover, her subtle, analogous and multiply voiced threats address at least two major audiences. She overtly advises women to educate themselves and warns men that vengeance can strike from several directions. The fierce, conservative reaction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a response to the covert as well as the overt text.

In that sense, the wheel comes almost full circle. Wollstonecraft recognizes that all women are opposed by all men in a general group identity. However, because she privileges personal and political singularity and takes pride in independent thought and action, she identifies her own resistance to gendered tyranny as the means by which women should subvert domination. She projects outwards from her personal response to female domination, oblivious to more devious practices on the part of other females to assert themselves and gain at least some personal if not political power. In one sense, her bourgeois individualism prevents that insight since she sees herself outside customary female assimilation. Faced with oppression, women have simply made wrong choices. Consequently, Wollstonecraft can posit collective rebellion by white women to prescribed subordination only by analogy.

With this displaced reaction in mind, certain re-views of Wollstonecraft's diatribe against female reactions to males—their flirtatious behaviour—can be more sympathetically read. Just as Wollstonecraft can indict Africans for being neither intellectual nor reflexive while portraying a carefully executed and successful revolution, so, too, does she exhibit a conflictual stance toward women. Since slaves resist masters and since all men oppress all women, women will, by implication, resist their male masters. Thus indirectly, Wollstonecraft registers that through coquettish manipulation, however feebly or distortedly, a women's resistance could be enacted.11

This argument about slaves and mobs, that is, creates a fissure in the text. If we doubled back, say, on salient passages where Wollstonecraft condemns Rousseau—‘Women should be governed by fear’, he says, ‘to exercise her natural cunning and made a coquettish slave’ (47)—Wollstonecraft's view of slaves' and mobs' resistances becomes open to reinterpretation: even though she assaults these self-trivializing behaviours and deplores their forms, at some level she may recognize them as tropes of insurrection; she uses female reaction to male domination in a plural way. Deploring how women try to finesse and please men through sexual manoeuvring, she rhetorically conflates coquettish with cunning and makes sexual manipulation double as a form of resistance to tyranny. Women ‘play at’ blind obedience not only to get some of what they want, but unconsciously to ridicule their ‘masters’ to cancel out tyranny with emotional excess, with a mirror-image perversion of power. Frivolous giggling is also a signal act of mimicry whereby women seem to conform to expectations. Ironically, the artificiality of forced laughing marks male desire and orthodox prescriptions for female behaviour.

If Wollstonecraft is (unconsciously or not) subtly mocking the idea that fear works as a governing principle to produce obedience, she foregrounds the idea that forced obedience linked to sex is a practice that can turn into its opposite: women will mimic the master's desire with design, they will use conformist ideas about womanhood to gain power. At times, Wollstonecraft recognizes these strategies more openly. The state of warfare which subsists between the sexes (races), makes them (the tyrannized group) employ those ruses or ‘illicit sway’ that often frustrate more open strategies of force.

The aim of The Rights of Women, then, is to vindicate women's rights. Starting from the premise that all women are oppressed by all men, Wollstonecraft subscribes to a concept of overall group identity. This is undercut, however, when she probes particulars because her sense of a personally wrought self-determination causes her to find women culpable for their vanity, their acceptance of an inferior education, their emphasis on feeling. She locates herself outside what she deems self-demeaning behaviour.

So in the end, she posits a group response indirectly, only by looking at oppressed communities who have actively resisted—slaves in particular—and sometimes ‘mobs’. Her suppressed sense of solidarity and identification with women express themselves through the rebellion of slaves whose bow (back) has been bent too far. This analogy also constitutes a threat against masters; contradiction is there from the beginning since all men are oppositional—within Wollstonecraft's political framework—to all women.

Put another way, Mary Wollstonecraft's construction within specific social and cultural boundaries that she resists produces a covert text. Her sense of personal singularity occludes her vision so she cannot always imagine or conceptualize flirtation as a tool of resistance. Despite a radical outlook, moreover, she still subscribes to a sense of class hierarchy that contradicts her demands for greater distribution of wealth and legal representation and for female independence and colonial emancipation. In that sense, her text brilliantly illuminates the bourgeois project of liberation. She embodies the liberal ideal of progress in demanding freedom in certain individuals but the shortcomings inherent in that ideal undercut it. The conditions that produced the text, then, end up questioning the text itself and highlighting its gaps and incompletions, its long series of tensions between bourgeois values and issues of class, race, gender and desire. So deeply estranged from its internal conflicts is The Rights of Woman that it cannot ideologically fulfil itself; an authentic, workable solution to female subjugation is impossible. The text trips over itself, its variant vindications ideologically incompatible. As a result, contradiction emerges as a major textual coherence, problem-solving beyond reach.

Additionally, because the text invokes the French and San Domingan revolutions, the complexity of sexual difference, inequities perpetrated against Dissenters, and the abolition movement, textual implosions inevitably occur. Even while the text appears to dampen inflammatory ideas and underwrite the current system, liberating ideas erupt to refute the self-contradictory discourse of bourgeois feminism.

Thus the issues that Wollstonecraft avoids or bypasses end up hollowing and shaping the text into a new determination. She talks about disaffection, yet often blames women's alienation on their own behaviour; she poses the problem as one for which women bear responsibility. Her socio-cultural myopia leads her to misread resistance. Concurrently, she undermines her own argument through parallels between white women and black slaves. Moreover, the condition of women that she illumines pinpoints an important area of sexual difference and pushes the frontiers of this debate forward. Put baldly, the text ironically subverts the very bourgeois ideology it asserts (that creates alienation) and demands liberation despite the restrictive system it promotes.

Furthermore, Wollstonecraft's usage of colonial slavery as a reference point for female subjugation launches a new element into the discourse on women's liberation. No coincidence, then, that Charlotte Smith in Desmond (1792) and Mary Hays in Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) criticize colonial slavery along with discussions of women's rights; exploring popular controversies, they simultaneously allude to Wollstonecraft's innovative investigations and connexions. First of all, their inscription of colonial slavery presupposes the presence of women of colour and assumes a white, patriarchal class system as its common enemy. Second, it suggests unity among the colonized and their allies. Third, it centre-stages the question of sexuality in gender relations and stresses the ubiquity of sexual abuse in qualitatively different environments.

By theorizing about women's rights using old attributions of harem-based slavery in conjunction with denotations of colonial slavery, Wollstonecraft was a political pioneer, fundamentally altering the definition of rights and paving the way for a much wider cultural dialogue.


  1. Writers as diverse as Katherine Philips, the Duchess of Newcastle, Aphra Behn, Mrs Taylor, Lady Chudleigh, Sarah Fyge Field Egerton, Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, Elizabeth Rowe, Elizabeth Tollett, and many more frequently employed the metaphor of slavery to express the subjugation of women; marriage was far and away the front-runner situation in which women described themselves or other women as ‘enslaved’. Note also that Wollstonecraft refers to the Spartan's perpetual subjugation in Lacedaemonian society of the Helots, state serfs bound to the soil, with no political rights. See Shimron (1972: 96), Mitchell (1952: 75-84), and MacDowell (1986: 23-5, 31-42).

  2. Wollstonecraft does not hold exclusively to those attitudes, however. In the Analytical Review somewhat later, for example, she argues that Hottentot people act in harmony with their situation (Analytical Review Vol. 25, May 1797, p. 466).

  3. The essay was first published in 1742, but the passage quoted was added as a footnote in the edition of 1753-4. See Cook (1936) and Curtin (1964: 42).

  4. Mary Prince, for example, as a slave in Bermuda and then in Antigua is described by a vitriolic writer in a pro-slavery newspaper article. The trunk of her only worldly possessions (containing unspecified items) that she took from her owner when she left is exaggerated by this writer to ‘several trunks of clothes’ to suggest excess vanity and even prostitution. ‘She at length left his house, taking with her several trunks of clothes and about 40 guineas in money, which she had saved in Mr. Wood's service’ (Zuill, 1937: 37).

  5. Attentiveness to appearance, across cultures and stemming from different origins, infuriates Wollstonecraft. The fact that her own appearance is negatively commented upon at this time suggests itself as a factor that enters in. Apparently she spruced herself up when she became infatuated with Henry Fuseli, the Swiss painter. See Flexner (1972: 138-9).

  6. For Wollstonecraft's views on Eros and her anger at women as sexual objects for men, see Blake (1983: 103-4).

  7. See also Smith (1787).

  8. Hannah More's renowned opinions on women constitute one of Mary Wollstonecraft's significant textual silences, but most notably in the second Vindication. When Wollstonecraft vociferously applauds women's assuming more prominent socio-cultural roles, she implicitly intertextualizes More's opposition to this advice. See also Myers (1990: 260-2).

  9. However, despite Wollstonecraft's argument that ethnic differences are due to climate and social conditions à la Stanhope Smith and her unilateral commitment to abolition, she remains ambivalent about black equality. Her acceptance of a system that operates on the differential between owners and workers and on the basis of certain assumptions about European superiority can never square with an absolute human liberation. Everything is measured against the model of a European society that regards African society as the other. Wollstonecraft may Eurocentrically contend that people in other cultures would be smart and civilized if they were raised as she was, but her review of Olaudah Equiano's narratives gives the lie even to that belief:

    We shall observe, that if these volumes do not exhibit extraordinary intellectual powers, sufficient to wipe off the stigma, yet the activity and ingenuity, which conspicuously appear in the character of Gustavus, [i.e., Equiano] place him on a par with the general mass of men, who fill the subordinate factions in a more civilized society than that which he was thrown into at his birth.

    (Analytical Review Vol. 4, May 1789, p. 28)

  10. Aside from her commentary on Equiano's and Yarico's experiences, among others, Wollstonecraft also recognizes other ways that sexuality oppresses white women. She had dealt on a personal level with her sister Eliza's post-partum depression by effecting Eliza's separation from her husband, Hugh Skeys. She felt, it seems, as if Skeys were responsible for her sister's condition; she treated him, more or less, as a male predator, a villain of sorts. At the same time, the Rights of Woman appeared at a time in her life when she was immersed in a difficult personal situation; the choices open to a woman who wants to work and to love—she was discovering—were very limited.

  11. Remember too that, psychologically, Wollstonecraft's attack on male sexuality could mark a displaced attack on Fuseli whose male sexuality has engendered inner turmoil. Mary Poovey's argument that ‘men's [and not women's] unsatiable appetites’ are Wollstoncraft's target is worth considering in the light of her passion for the Swiss painter (Poovey, 1984: 71-6 and passim). See also discussions of displacement in Freud (1966: 155-6 and passim).


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Salzmann, Christian Gotthilf (1790) Elements of Morality for the Use of Children London: Joseph Johnson.

Shimron, Benjamin (1972) Late Sparta. The Spartan Revolution 243-146 B.C. Arethusa Monographs III, Buffalo: State University of New York, Department of Classics.

Smith, Samuel Stanhope (1787) An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species. To which are added, Animadversions on certain Remarks made on the first edition of this Essay, by Mr. Charles White, in a series of Discourses delivered before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester in England. Also, Strictures on Lord Kaims' Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind, New York; second ed. New Brunswick: J. Simpson and Co.; New York: Williams & Whiting, 1810.

Sunstein, Emily (1975) A Different Face. The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft New York: Harper & Row.

Tomalin, Claire (1974) The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1787) Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the more Important Duties of Life London: Joseph Johnson.

———. (1788) Mary, A Fiction London: Joseph Johnson; reprinted as Mary and the Wrongs of Women (1976), editor Gary Kelly, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. (1789) The Female Reader; Or Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse; Selected from the Best Writers, and Disposed Under Proper Heads; for the Improvement of Young Women. By Mr. Cresswick, Teacher of Elocution to Which is Prefixed a Preface, Containing Some Hints of Female Education London: printed for Joseph Johnson.

———. (1790) A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honorable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France 2nd. ed., London: printed for Joseph Johnson.

———. (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Women London: Joseph Johnson.

Zuill, William (1937) Bermuda Samples 1815-1850: Being a Collection of Newspaper Items, Extracts from Books and Private Papers, together with many Explanatory Notes and A Variety of Illustrations, Bermuda: Bermuda Book Stores; rpt. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay & Son.

Tom Furniss (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Furniss, Tom. “Nasty Tricks and Tropes: Sexuality and Language in Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman.Studies in Romanticism 32, no. 2 (summer 1993): 177-209.

[In the following essay, Furniss offers a deconstructionist reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and questions its relevance for modern struggles for rights.]

The following discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman necessarily raises general questions about the textual analysis of texts which have become important in the history of a political movement. It is intended as a deconstructive reading of Rights of Woman which traces and analyzes the contradictions of its project by situating it within a network of texts which constitutes one of its discursive contexts. In this way, it attempts to restage the text's crucial intervention in the Revolution Controversy and its bid to influence the deliberations of the National Assembly. But although the reading thereby suggests that Wollstonecraft's feminism can be partly understood as an extension of an essentially middle-class struggle for, and theory about, the “rights of man,” this is not to judge the text from a historical moment which “knows better” (for one thing, “middle class” means differently now than it did at the end of the eighteenth century). One of the consequences of the following reading, therefore, is implicitly to question the supposition that Rights of Woman contains a “relevance” which can be unproblematically extracted and appropriated for contemporary struggles which are at once continuous with it and crucially different. To search this text for relevance is potentially to fail to recognize its difference (from itself as well as from ourselves), and hence overlook the challenges it can pose to sympathetic and unsympathetic readers alike. As Gillian Beer argues, “The encounter with the otherness of earlier literature can allow us to recognize and challenge our own assumptions” as well as “those of the society in which we live.”1

One of the most significant political lessons we are still learning from deconstruction is that no position is immune from or able to stand outside of the unpredictable “tricks” of the textuality it encounters. It is especially important for the discourse and criticism of radical politics to open itself to this possibility, since it habitually claims to ground itself in some reality or truth outside discourse. Producing gaps and contradictions in the texts of the past which have been assigned the warning label “reactionary” has come to be seen as a radical reading practice, yet all too often such reading strategies are carried out as if from a place of safety—on the assumption, perhaps, that if we take the necessary precautions we will not be affected, or infected, by the texts we encounter. Beer suggests that such reading practices assume that we can stand outside history “like those late nineteenth-century doctors who described their patients and yet exempted themselves from the processes of disease and decay they described.” We must ask ourselves, therefore, whether “Our necessary search for gaps, lacunae, as analytical tools may have the effect of privileging and defending us,” allowing us to think that we read from a place of “authority and externality” (Beer 69). In other words, such guarded encounters with “reactionary” texts may end up repeating the reactionary position which they set out to read against and undo.

A radical reading, then, can neither simply condemn reactionary texts nor appropriate radical texts: “Radical reading is not a reading that simply assimilates past texts to our concerns but rather an activity that tests and de-natures our assumptions in the light of the strange languages and desires of past writing” (Beer 80). This is to acknowledge that texts actively affect the position from which they are read—that they might unsettle, or “read,” the assumptions which are brought to bear upon them. This means that there are risks involved in producing radical readings of “reactionary” texts. Our reading of texts labelled “radical” will involve even greater risks in proportion to the extent that particular readings of such texts constitute the grounds of our own politics. But if we cannot avoid that risk (unless we abstain from reading and thinking altogether), and if we cannot limit these effects except by transforming our radicalism into a conviction criticism which unwittingly shares aspects of the conviction politics it seeks to criticize, then perhaps we ought to be alert to the ways a more “open” radicalism might result from such encounters with the otherness of other texts.2

To represent the relation between a reading and a text in terms of encounters and infections (and relations) is clearly to invoke, and be informed by, contemporary questions of sexuality and sexual politics. Such metaphors also inform—though in ways whose difference we must be open to—Wollstonecraft's reading of questions about sexuality and gender at the end of the eighteenth century. I will suggest that such metaphors come to inhabit Wollstonecraft's text partly through her encounter with the texts of Edmund Burke—in which, at different moments, women and revolutionary thought are figured and resisted as sources of an infection fatal to human and political constitutions. The irony, and the interest, of Wollstonecraft's critique of Burke is that while she identifies and criticizes this figurative pattern in Burke it also infects and energizes her attempt to isolate and resist it. A reading of Wollstonecraft's reading of Burke can therefore become an exemplary reading of the complexities of reading.


One of the principal projects and strategies of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is to turn Rousseau's egalitarian principles against his negative characterization of women in Emile (1762).3 The arguments of Rights of Woman are based on Wollstonecraft's answer to the recurrent question of whether inequality arises from nature or from culture. Wollstonecraft stresses throughout her text that the weakness and sensuality attributed to a certain class of women in eighteenth-century Europe are not part of their biological nature but the inevitable results of their education and social conditioning. She states her “profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore, and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes.”4 One of the central assumptions of Rights of Woman [RW] is that a transformation of education and social mores would bring about a transformation in women which would in turn transform the whole of social and political life. Wollstonecraft thus offers her book as “a treatise … on female rights and manners” designed to counter the prevailing tendency to make women “alluring mistresses [rather] than affectionate wives and rational mothers” (RW 79).

But although the physical, intellectual, and moral debility of women is culturally produced and therefore susceptible of being transformed by cultural transformations, Wollstonecraft is at pains to stress that she does not intend to transgress the natural order of things:

In the government of the physical world it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of Nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. A degree of physical superiority cannot, therefore, be denied, and it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural preeminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment.

(RW 80)5

Not wishing to violate nature's law, Wollstonecraft wrestles with those cultural forces which extend and exploit natural differences through defining the feminine as a more than natural weakness. In thus attacking the predominant representation of women, Wollstonecraft implicitly concurs with the eighteenth century's negative valuation of the “feminine.”6 At the same time, however, she sets out to redefine “masculinity” as a set of “manly virtues” which, since they consist of “those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character,” may be cultivated by both sexes. Since the acquisition of such virtues “raises females in the scale of animal being,” Wollstonecraft expects that “all those who view [women] with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine” (RW 80).

Although his name is relegated to the footnotes of Rights of Woman, the paradigms Wollstonecraft engages with and employs in these passages indicate that Right of Woman is a critical response to Edmund Burke as much as to Rousseau.7 I want briefly to sketch how Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) exposes the way the politics of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) draws upon the aesthetics Burke develops in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757/59). This will allow me to argue that Wollstonecraft's great insight in Rights of Men is that the political assumptions embedded in Burke's early aesthetics are inimical to the politics Burke appears to promote in Reflections towards the end of his life.8

In the Philosophical Enquiry, the aesthetic distinction between the sublime and the beautiful is underpinned by a distinction between masculine and feminine respectively. The beautiful (i.e. the feminine) is associated with relaxation and luxury and is represented as dangerously debilitating for the body. Burke claims that although beauty is alluring, it has potentially fatal effects on the human beings who cultivate or admire it. When we observe beauty, Burke argues, we experience “an inward sense of melting and languor”; this is because “beauty acts by relaxing the solids of the whole system.”9 The consequences of this relaxation are quite alarming since it “not only disables the members from performing their functions, but takes away the vigorous tone of fibre which is requisite for carrying on the natural and necessary secretions.” Even more alarming is the suggestion that

in this languid and inactive state, the nerves are more liable to the most horrid convulsions, than when they are sufficiently braced and strengthened. Melancholy, dejection, despair, and often self-murder, is the consequence of the gloomy view we take of things in this relaxed state of body.

(PE 135)

Immediately prior to this, Burke argues that terror—the primary source of the sublime—induces “an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves” which produces pain accompanied by a delight which is utterly different from the pleasure associated with the beautiful (PE 134). The bracing effects of the sublime (i e. the masculine) is thus constituted as the most effective preventative against the relaxing effects of the beautiful:

The best remedy for all these evils is exercise or labour. … Now, as a due exercise is essential to the coarse muscular parts of the constitution, and that without this rousing they would become languid, and diseased, the very same rule holds with regard to those finer parts we have mentioned [i.e. the imagination and the other “mental powers”]; to have them in proper order, they must be shaken and worked to a proper degree.

(PE 135)

Frances Ferguson shows how Philosophical Enquiry implicitly suggests that the beautiful is equally dangerous for the body politic and for the body, and that the antidote for both is the same—the “masculine” exertions involved in the sublime.10 Reading between the lines here, Burke seems to be suggesting that society, and each member of that society, can only resist or prevent “horrid convulsions” by being “shaken and worked to a proper degree.”

In Reflections, on the other hand (as Wollstonecraft was the first to point out), Burke seems to abandon the political position implicit in this aesthetics. The most well-known instance of this is his defense of monarchical beauty in the person of Marie Antoinette, whose treatment by the revolutionary crowd at Versailles on 5-6 October 1789 becomes a micro-drama of the Revolution's violation of the ancien régime. Shortly before his celebration of the queen's beauty, Burke has her escaping “almost naked” from a “band of cruel ruffians and assassins” who invade her chamber.11 This becomes the occasion for Burke's lament for the passing of the age of chivalry—a code of behavior which ought to be valued because,

Without force, or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, [and] compelled stern authority to submit to elegance.


In other words, whereas the beautiful in Philosophical Enquiry is alluring but potentially fatal to body and body politic alike, in Reflections it is presented as a crucial corrective to the sublime aspects of political power. Curiously, the beautiful is explicitly presented as a set of “pleasing illusions” constituting a necessary supplement or fiction figured as a drapery which the Revolution threatens to tear away:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature … are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

(Refs 171)

If this passage makes an analogy between the fate of the queen at Versailles and that of European civilization as a whole (in that both are left exposed and vulnerable), the consequences of this are concentered in the change in the way men will henceforth regard women:

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general … is to be regarded as romance and folly.

(Refs 171)

If a particular kind of woman (or way of regarding women) forms a paradigm of that which is being destroyed by the Revolution, another, seemingly very different, class of women epitomizes the most uncontrollable forces of destruction. As a prelude to his eulogy of Marie Antoinette and lament for the passing of the political culture she represents, Burke figures the Revolution's chief protagonists as a set of lower class women more brutal and inhuman than their male counterparts (Refs 159-65). In Burke's text, these women are not only the unrepresented (because of their class and sex), but the unrepresentable—an excess which society would overlook and exclude but which nevertheless returns with a vengeance. Since, for Burke (as for Rousseau), women's power over men ought to derive from weakness rather than strength (see Emile 322), the “brutal” behavior of these “masculine” women represents a terrifying revolution in manners.

I have reviewed these passages in Reflections, which are almost too well-known, in order fully to register how insightful Wollstonecraft's readings of Burke are and how these readings have a crucial impact on the feminist assumptions developed in Rights of Woman. In her two Vindications, Wollstonecraft directly encounters the sexualized nature of Burke's representation of ancien régime politics and aesthetics. Wollstonecraft endorses Burke's negative conception of feminine beauty in Philosophical Enquiry in order to remount the critique of the ancien régime which is implicit in that text, and to turn its aesthetic theory against the politics of Reflections. If, in Reflections, Burke laments the passing of the age of chivalry, Wollstonecraft celebrates and hastens that passing; if Burke is terrified by the prospect of “masculine” women and eulogizes Marie Antoinette as a feminine icon, Wollstonecraft would eliminate (through their own exertions) the “femininity” of monarchs, aristocracy, soldiers, and so on, as well as that of fashionable women.

Wollstonecraft's attempt to rewrite Burke's aesthetics is central to this project. Although her politics lead her to value the sublime as an aesthetic which promotes individual exercise and labor, the philosophical basis of that politics also impels her to claim that reason, far from being antithetical to the sublime, as Burke argues, is the most sublime of human faculties. In addition, she attempts to articulate a “good,” almost neoclassical conception of the beautiful to set in opposition to “feminine” beauty. This radical recasting of Burke's aesthetics begins in the opening pages of Rights of Men [RMen]:

truth, in morals, has ever appeared to me the essence of the sublime; and in taste, simplicity the only criterion of the beautiful.

truly sublime is the character that acts from principle, and governs the inferior springs of action without slackening their vigour.12

Responding to Burke's anxiety that the revolution in manners which took place on 5-6 October 1789 exposes woman as an animal not of the highest order and transforms homage to women in general into romance and folly, Wollstonecraft counters that it is courtly homage itself, rather than revolutionary politics, which reduces women's humanity: “such homage vitiates them, prevents their endeavouring to obtain solid personal merit; and, in short, makes those beings vain inconsiderate dolls” (RMen 54). The feminine beauty cultivated by and characteristic of the ancien régime is, for Wollstonecraft, mere “animal perfection” (RMen 114). One of the effects, she suggests, of Philosophical Enquiry is to induce women themselves to cultivate this debilitating image of the beautiful by convincing them “that littleness and weakness are the very essence of beauty” (RMen 112). But the crucial point here is that Wollstonecraft's understanding of both feminine beauty, which “relaxes the solids of the soul as well as the body” (RMen 115), and her antidote to it, concurs with Burke's in Philosophical Enquiry:

you have clearly proved that one half of the human species, at least, have not souls; and that Nature, by making women little, smooth, delicate, fair creatures, never designed that they should exercise their reason to acquire the virtues that produce opposite, if not contradictory, feelings.

(RMen 113-14)

In fact, as an antidote to feminine beauty, Wollstonecraft's “good” beauty might also be called “manly” beauty—since it is characterized and brought about, like the sublime, through exertion. Wollstonecraft points out that the logical consequence of Burke's analysis of the beautiful in Philosophical Enquiry ought to be that “we must endeavour to banish all enervating modifications of beauty from civil society” (RMen 115), but she imagines and sponsors a quite different kind of beauty to this which would be beneficial to human and political constitutions:

should experience prove that there is a beauty in virtue, a charm in order, which necessarily implies exertion, a depraved sensual taste may give way to a more manly one—and melting feelings to rational satisfactions.

(RMen 116)

This “manly” beauty, however, can only be achieved in an egalitarian society and so Wollstonecraft looks forward to what the members of the National Assembly can achieve through “active exertions that were not relaxed by a fastidious respect for the beauty of rank” (RMen 117).

Of particular importance for the following discussion of Rights of Woman is the way Rights of Men distinguishes these different kinds of beauty as the naked and the clothed:

Is hereditary weakness necessary to render religion lovely? and will her form have lost the smooth delicacy that inspires love, when stripped of its Gothic drapery? … is there no beauteous proportion in virtue, when not clothed in a sensual garb?

Of these questions there would be no end, though they lead to the same conclusion;—that your politics and morals, when simplified, would undermine religion and virtue to set up a spurious, sensual beauty, that has long debauched your imagination, under the specious form of natural feelings.

(RMen 120-21)

Wollstonecraft seems, then, to share Rousseau's impulse to “strip man's nature naked.”13 This is driven by an anxiety that although the pleasing illusions of life may be figured as if they were merely clothes (“Gothic drapery,” “sensual garb”), they work to surreptitiously “undermine” the human forms and/or institutions they seem to decorate or protect and to “debauch” the imagination which contemplates them.


The necessity of Wollstonecraft's celebration of the “manly” is clear in that it forms a paradigm by which radicalism can differentiate its political structures and theories of language from those corrupted and corrupting forms which it identifies as characteristic of the ancien régime. In the second Vindication the notion of the “manly” allows Wollstonecraft to rescue a certain class of women (“those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state” [RW 81]) from women's association with the corruptions of a feminized ancien régime—as well as from the regime of sexual difference itself. Such women are presented as being able to realize, through self-effort and through a different political system and culture, their “true” nature (which, like men's, is a “manly” blend of rationality and authentic feeling).

In defining her program to encourage women toward such attainments, and in her reasons for doing so, Wollstonecraft's reading of Burke's Philosophical Enquiry becomes apparent:

I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinements of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.

(RW 82)

That reference to “soft phrases” indicates how much Wollstonecraft's project is bound up with questions of language and suggests that her conceptions about language are gendered according to the gender codes she inherits from reactionary and radical discourse alike. Unexpectedly concurring with Hamlet's vitriolic attack on women, Wollstonecraft asserts that they sacrifice “strength of body and mind … to libertine notions of beauty,” that their desire merely to marry well makes animals of them, and that “when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act—they dress, they paint, and nickname God's creatures.” The “pretty superlatives” current in fashionable society “vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth” (RW 83, 82).14 Thus it is possible to see that figurative analogies are being developed in Rights of Woman between sexuality, political systems, and rhetorical language. All three domains are discussed in terms of the relationship between dress and body, and in all three Wollstonecraft's politics impel her to distrust the clothed and to valorize the unadorned.

This necessarily leads Wollstonecraft into a consideration of her own rhetorical practice:

Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style. I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart. I shall be employed about things, not words! and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversations.

(RW 82)

Wollstonecraft's concern to deflower her language here draws on a general set of assumptions about language and its relation to politics articulated in the discourse of radical politics at the end of the eighteenth century. We will see, however, that the claim to employ a straightforward, transparent language as part of a critique of the “false” rhetoric through which the old order maintained power (a claim which has been reiterated by radical thought across history) is a founding rhetorical gesture in what is actually a densely and complexly rhetorical text—an enabling fiction which potentially undermines the distinction between radical and reactionary discourse it is used to establish.15

Although Rights of Women can be read as a critique of male-centered radicalism which turns its egalitarian principles against its failure to extend them to women,16 there are many similarities between Wollstonecraft's Vindications and Paine's Rights of Man—the second part of which was published almost simultaneously with Rights of Woman. Both make the rhetorical gesture of discarding rhetoric in the process of criticizing the false rhetoric of the old order, and both figure the adornments of the ancien régime as feminine and dangerous. Both prescribe the same panacea—the masculinization of society through fundamental reforms in politics, language, aesthetics, and ethics. This process can be seen, for example, in Paine's critique of monarchy:

what is called monarchy, always appears to me a silly, contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.

(RMan 204)

In contrast to this,

In the representative system of government, nothing of this can happen. Like the nation itself, it … presents itself on the open theatre of the world in a fair and manly manner. Whatever are its excellencies or its defects, they are visible to all. It exists not by fraud and mystery … but inspires a language, that, passing from heart to heart, is felt and understood.

(RMan 204)

Paine's figuration of monarchy—in terms of its displacement of affect onto dress—aligns it with Burke's and Rousseau's representation of femininity, whereas representative government is at once “fair and manly.” The “manly” representative system stands naked on the world's stage, openly displaying its own excellencies and defects (in marked contrast to Burke's desire to cover the “defects” of our naked shivering nature). Behind monarchy's implicitly feminine veils, on the other hand, Paine hints that there is nothing to see at all.

For Paine and Wollstonecraft, then, “masculine” and “feminine” are paradigms for two opposed systems of thought and practice. The feminine characterizes the ancien régime in a range of ways which become correlatives of one another: its language is ornate and polished but lacks both force and a motivated relation to “reality”; its political arrangements are said to be based on little more than a conventional, though mysticized relation between rulers and ruled (in which the masses are seduced into submission by ceremonies and splendor, and in which the signs of authority—robes, ornamentation, custom—dazzle the sense and distract attention from the lack of substance behind them). The converse and antidote of these is the “manly”—that which is on open display, which says what it means, and is genuinely representative without reserve or equivocation.17

And yet the company's burst of laughter in Paine's text is perhaps an uneasy one. For although representative government is on open display, Paine's figure does not quite reveal the whole truth about monarchy. We are assured that we would laugh if we accidentally saw behind the curtain, but we are not told what we would laugh at. Paine's own figure thus turns out to conceal as much as reveal, and his open, representational language, “passing from heart to heart,” seems unwittingly to repeat the deceptive structures it claims to expose. Paine's language therefore retains its power of arousing speculation through a concealment analogous to the one he criticizes. The attempt to distinguish the “sexual difference” of different governmental forms and between different rhetorical structures unexpectedly confuses the difference between them. One of the concerns of the present paper is to trace the way Wollstonecraft's texts become entangled in their own particular version of this endemic problem in late-eighteenth century radical thought.


We have seen that Wollstonecraft's argument is grounded on the possibility that “masculine” and “feminine” are not anatomically determined, and that both men and women are capable of achieving “manly” virtues through self-effort and education. The Protestant work ethic, Enlightenment rationality, and the commercialization of society are combined in representing the middle class capitalist ethos as a masculinization of society open to men and women alike. This is urgent for Wollstonecraft, because the condition of women in prerevolutionary societies is shown to be symptomatic of an endemic cultural malaise. I want to begin this section by examining the way this set of assumptions informs Wollstonecraft's prescription for the National Assembly, in which she suggests that the continued feminization of women would inevitably undermine the new society being developed in France. This allows me to argue that the repression of the feminine is for Wollstonecraft both a means of liberating women and a way of preventing women from undermining the bourgeois enterprise.

If the argument and concerns of Rights of Woman are shaped by its response to Rousseau, Burke, and Paine, Wollstonecraft's text also addresses itself to a still more immediate political context. Wollstonecraft's dedication of Rights of Woman to M. Talleyrand-Périgord shows that her book is conceived not only as a treatise on female manners and language but as a practical political intervention on behalf of women's rights. The National Assembly was considering a national system of education with Rousseau as its principal inspiration, and Talleyrand had prepared a report on public education for the Constituent Assembly which had failed to extend Rousseau's egalitarian ideals to the equal education of women. This is why “In 1792 … between the fall of the Bastille and the Terror when A Vindication was written, it must have seemed crucial that Rousseau's crippling judgement of female nature be refuted” (Kaplan, “Pandora's Box” 156). Although Wollstonecraft claims she has “read [Talleyrand's report] with great pleasure,” she finds it defective with regard to women's education and seeks to “induce” him “to reconsider the subject and maturely weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education” (RW 85).18

Wollstonecraft addresses the Assembly through Talleyrand, thinking it “scarcely possible” that, having read her treatise, “some of the enlarged minds who formed your admirable constitution, will [not] coincide with me” (RW 85). Indeed, Wollstonecraft's argument in the dedication is eloquent and forceful; the principles which make the rights of men irrefutable apply equally, and with the same effect, to women:

Consider, Sir, dispassionately, these observations, for a glimpse of this truth seemed to open before you when you observed, “that to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain.” If so, on what does your constitution rest? If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test; though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman—prescription.

(RW 87)19

Thus, on the question of women's rights, even the Revolution seems to mimic Burke's recourse to the long usage of custom in order to justify things as they are. This style of argument is employed by “tyrants of every denomination,” and “if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind,” then “this flaw in your New Constitution will ever show that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant” (RW 87 and 88). Thus, if the revolutionary government were to ignore the question of women's rights and education, it would build into its constitution the same “flaw” which had brought aristocratic society to its own crisis. This one prejudice (an opinion formed prior to reason) will necessarily prejudice (injure or impair) a constitution which claims to be formed upon principles of reason.20 Thus Wollstonecraft closes her dedication with the request that “when your constitution is revised, the Rights of Woman may be respected” (RW 89).


In the same moment that Wollstonecraft makes the unprecedented suggestion to the National Assembly that “women ought to have representatives” (which she expects will “excite laughter”), the potentially more radical implications of women's ambiguous place in prerevolutionary societies are touched upon:

But, as the whole system of representation is now, in this country, only a convenient handle for despotism, [women] … need not complain, for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hard-working mechanics.

(RW 259, 260)

Such parallels between women and disenfranchised men continue throughout her text. Responding to Rousseau's suggestion that women should have “but little liberty [because] … they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them” (Emile 333), Wollstonecraft suggests that the reason for this tendency “is very simple”:

Slaves and mobs have always indulged themselves in the same excesses, when once they broke loose from authority. The bent bow recoils with violence, when the hand is suddenly relaxed that forcibly held it.

(RW 179)

Again answering Rousseau, Wollstonecraft says that his argument that some should not be educated like men is in “the same strain” as those of men who “argue against instructing the poor”:

“Teach them to read and write,” say they, “and you take them out of the station assigned them by nature.” An eloquent Frenchman has answered them, I will borrow his sentiments. “But they know not, when they make man a brute, that they may expect every instant to see him transformed into a ferocious beast.”

(RW 154)

Elsewhere, and for similar reasons, Wollstonecraft likens women to “the poor African slaves,” to “savages,” and to “Butler's caricature of a dissenter” (RW 257, 311, 318). Regardless of which class they “properly” belong to, then, women have a political kinship with the most subjected or marginal groups in aristocratic societies. This is potentially to collapse the difference between queens and the women of the Revolution—though we will see that Wollstonecraft excludes both lower and upper class women from the revolution she envisages.

Wollstonecraft goes on to show that the analogy between women and the poor does not fully bring out the implications of Rousseau's objection to educating women:

“Educate women like men,” says Rousseau, “and the more they resemble our sex the less power they will have over us.” This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.

(RW 154; see Emile 327)

Women's “power” in Rousseau is paradoxically proportional to their educational inferiority to men. The relation between men and women is therefore not straightforwardly translatable into that between rich and poor because the sexuality of the relation introduces certain contradictions which subvert the apparent hierarchy.21 For Patricia Parker the power which Sophie's weakness gives her over Emile “introduces … a crucial instability” into “the binary opposition of strength and passivity” (Literary Fat Ladies 203). In fact, Wollstonecraft's own text draws out the contradictory place of women in an aristocratic order, for if they are in many ways analogous to the oppressed and disenfranchised, women are also “a sex, who, like kings, always see things through a false medium”; a sex who “The passions of men have … placed … on thrones”; and a sex whose condition—since they are born “with certain sexual privileges”—is compared to that of “the rich” (RW 128, 146, 148). The situation and consequent effects of women and the rich are the same:

Weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society.

(RW 81)

As both Vindications recognize, and as Frances Ferguson theorizes, the danger of the beautiful—or of what Wollstonecraft identifies as “mistaken notions of beauty” (RW 182)—is that it can be contagious, surreptitiously recreating (and therefore undermining) the onlooker, and eventually a whole society, in its own image.22

Thus the obsessions and occupations women are educated to adopt allow parallels to be drawn between their condition and various central institutions of traditional society—including the monarchy, the aristocracy, military forces, and even the clergy.23 In prerevolutionary societies, women occupy, precariously but perhaps subversively, the place at once of the highest and the lowest in society. They are equivalent both to the class which governs but does not represent, and to those classes which are unrepresented and unrepresentable. Dress, manners, custom, and chivalrous gallantry appear to keep up the distinction between women as monarchs and women as slaves, but are in fact precisely the means of enslaving women (and men) at one and the same time. These “pleasing illusions” seem to exalt women, but such exaltation is also their debasement. Such social mores render women equivocal, ambiguous, irresolvably oxymoronic—they are, Wollstonecraft ironically writes, “the fair defects in Nature” (RW 160).24 Women so constituted are potentially disruptive of the society which constitutes them: akin at once to the monarchy and to the mob, they show how monarchy and mob might be mirror images of, or mutually implicated with, one another. By foregrounding and extrapolating the implications of such figurations of women, Rights of Woman thus shows how those images which have been identified as paradigmatic of aristocratic society also undermine its central institutions and hierarchies.

This is to offer a second opinion on Burke's diagnosis of the crisis in civilization facing Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. For Wollstonecraft, the disease is not French revolutionary thought (whose egalitarian principles are rather the antidote), but the maintenance of hierarchical institutions which have become prejudicial to society itself: “It is the pestiferous purple which renders the progress of civilization a curse,” and the “baneful lurking gangrene is most quickly spread by luxury and superstition” (RW 99). This was Rousseau's diagnosis too, but he failed to realize that “the nature of the poison points out the antidote” (RW 99). In other words, for Wollstonecraft, the European crisis cannot be treated by reestablishing feminized institutions and manners, as Burke argued, nor by chaining women to femininity, as in Rousseau, but by instituting rational, egalitarian—in a word, “manly”—political organizations and cultural codes. This radical revolution can only take place if it simultaneously transforms (through effort and education) gender roles as well as class divisions. This is why the burden of this text is to help “effect a revolution in female manners” in order that women might “labour by reforming themselves to reform the world” (RW 132).


Part of Wollstonecraft's radical importance is that she tries to show that gender and sexuality—at least in the ancien régime—are not only socially constructed but have an unstable and shifting relation to biological sex. Femininity is neither a natural quality of the female sex, nor is it confined to that sex. Defined as an undue attachment to appearance (to pluming and plumage) rather than substance, femininity crosses gender divisions and begins to confuse them. It thus undermines the distinction between the sexes in a society which is in many ways founded on such distinctions. But although Wollstonecraft's antidote is to make women (and men) more “manly,” her position is more ambivalent and potentially conservative than it would appear. Her description of sexuality in the ancien régime is an anxious one, but it is not clear that the problem would be resolved by introducing a different set of images or an alternative social structure. If “Riches and hereditary honours have made cyphers of women” (RW 106), then Wollstonecraft attempts utterly to distinguish between “secondary things,” such as dress and ornamentation (RW 151), and that which ought to be primary and proper to women as human beings: women “have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, [and] have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny” (RW 121). But there are uncomfortable parallels here between the cause of the disease and its cure: for if women “have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity” (my emphasis), virtue seems to be a custom or costume in much the same way as the “artificial graces” which women have been “decked with.” Thus Wollstonecraft shies away from stripping woman naked—perhaps because she fears that behind the dress and before social conditioning there may be no essential self at all, merely (as Burke notoriously puts it) an animal not of the highest order.

Instead of simply stripping away the false ornaments which have corrupted them, then, Wollstonecraft also seeks to dress women more “wholesomely.” In the dedication to Talleyrand, she distinguishes between manners and modesty: “a polish of manners … injures the substance by hunting sincerity out of society,” while “modesty … [is] the fairest garb of virtue” (RW 86). According to this, neither manners nor morals—neither “polish” nor “garb”—are intrinsic to the “substance” or “virtue” (of society or individual), but are added to it. Both, then, are supplements to what Burke calls “our naked … nature.” For Wollstonecraft, the difference between modesty and manners is that the polish of manners “injures the substance,” while the garb of modesty seemingly protects and reinforces it. Thus manners and modesty are distinguished in the way that Jacques Derrida finds Rousseau desperately trying to distinguish between the benign and the dangerous supplement.25 Wollstonecraft is therefore caught up in the same problematic as Rousseau and Burke—though she would argue that both of them have offered the wrong solution by mistaking the dangerous for the benign supplement. For Wollstonecraft, such a “mistake” is peculiar to and characteristic of the historical and political moment she intervenes within:

Manners and morals are so nearly allied that they have often been confounded; but, although the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners … morality becomes an empty name.

(RW 86)

In a healthy (middle class, egalitarian) society, then, manners are the “natural reflection” or authentic representation of morals and attain to a degree of naturalness in their own right. But although it is only in a diseased society that manners become “factitious and corrupt,” the logic here suggests that such manners—making morality “an empty name”—are at once symptom and disease. Manners are presented as either a natural representation of morals or as destructive of morality. But it might be that this all-important distinction is one without a difference, since the relation of manners to morals, of representation to represented, is the same in each case. For dress is presented here as simultaneously that which undermines and that which defends body, mind, and state. Thus dress—and its range of equivalents: manners, decorum, habit, custom, modesty—functions according to the “strange economy of the supplement”: “A terrifying menace, the supplement is also the first and surest protection; against that very menace.”26 In this way, the supplementary relation of dress to body—which society has made women's central obsession—means that women have become a paradigm for a whole cultural problematic.27


By recognizing that the ancien régime has made men “feminine” Wollstonecraft at once diagnoses its enervating effects and shows that “masculine” and “feminine” are not anatomically determined. Indeed, that “masculine” and “feminine” are political and ethical qualities is precisely why she can argue that women should become more “masculine.” But the possibility that masculine and feminine are not straightforward reflections of anatomy is one of the problems Rights of Woman wrestles with as well as being the enabling grounds of its argument. The fact that Wollstonecraft does not rigidly associate the manly with men or the feminine with women begins to appear uncannily like one of the symptoms she is trying to prescribe for rather than the basis of a remedy.28 If there is nothing natural or anatomical which might legitimize gender roles and behavior, then Wollstonecraft's argument is based not on the distinction between the natural and the artificial, as she often claims, but on that between two sets of social conditioning which are presented as “artificial” and “natural.” If gender roles and women's characters are formed discursively (through education, example, and the world's opinion), they are susceptible of being transformed through (and for) alternative ideological and aesthetic values. But this analysis also opens up the possibility that women (and men) have no essential character prior to social conditioning. Wollstonecraft attempts, therefore, to limit the transformations which her argument both depends upon and makes possible: “I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour” (RW 147). Thus although Wollstonecraft argues that “the sexual distinction which men have so warmly insisted upon, is arbitrary” (RW 318), sexuality yet retains a differential function in the egalitarian society she envisages. Although she insists that there is no essential difference between men and women,29 Wollstonecraft urgently reinscribes the difference when faced with what she believes to be monstrous transgressions of gender roles in sexual and political behavior. But if Wollstonecraft (like Burke in Philosophical Enquiry) would exclude femininity as negative, unstable, deceitful, we will see it return in her text as a troublesome problem which frustrates her efforts to establish an unequivocal politics, language, and gender.

The tensions and resistances within Wollstonecraft's text may be traced in moments where issues of education, sexuality, and class intersect. Consistent with her general argument for more openness and straight-talking—which is exemplified by her claim to have conversed “as man with man, with medical men on anatomical subjects” (RW 229)—Wollstonecraft suggests that young children should be given a basic education on sexual matters in order that the attempt to “obscure certain objects” might not “inflame their imaginations” (since “it is the modesty of affected modesty that does all the mischief”). And yet in her discussion of women's sexuality Wollstonecraft's text becomes secretive and obscure:

In nurseries and boarding schools, I fear, girls are first spoiled, particularly in the latter. A number of girls sleep in the same room, and wash together. And though I should be sorry to contaminate an innocent creature's mind by instilling false delicacy, or those prudish notions which early cautions respecting the other sex naturally engender, I should be very anxious to prevent their acquiring nasty or immodest habits; and as many girls have learned very nasty tricks from ignorant servants, the mixing them thus indiscriminately together, is very improper.

(RW 234)

Wollstonecraft's project, then, turns out to depend upon a crucial but problematic distinction between “false delicacy” (the modesty of affected modesty) and that true modesty needed to prevent “immodest habits.” This distinction rests, in turn, upon maintaining what seem inherently unstable class divisions. The “indiscriminate” mixing of the classes and/or young girls (the syntax does not allow us to discriminate) leads to sexual impropriety, since the “very nasty tricks” learnt from “ignorant servants” are inevitably passed on, like diseases, to other girls. Far from stripping woman's nature naked, Wollstonecraft would prohibit girls from seeing each other without clothes. Her language correspondingly drapes its subject in mystery, introducing elements of obscurity and modesty in a text which originally set out to remove them. Faced with delicate, and indelicate, subjects, her text becomes delicate and evasive, taking on the very “feminine” traits it seeks to condemn, as if “manly language” were constitutionally incapable of broaching female sexuality.30

But if the improper mixing of the classes leads to sexual impropriety, there is no suggestion that the coming bourgeois order ought to erase class difference; however ignorant, servants will be necessary to free middle-class women from the chains of domestic duty. Thus in aristocratic and bourgeois society alike, differences and distances ought to be kept up—between young girls and between girls and their servants—for otherwise they might discover what makes them the same: if girls need assistance in washing, “let them not require it till that part of the business is over which ought never to be done before a fellow creature” (RW 235). “To say the truth,” Wollstonecraft concludes, “women are in general too familiar with each other, which leads to that gross degree of familiarity that so frequently renders the marriage state unhappy” (RW 234). The representation of the female, here, seems in many ways to parallel that which Wollstonecraft is ostensibly writing against: girls, female servants, and women in general are presented as being in need of constant restraint; their sexuality is seen as tending almost irresistibly towards unspeakable corruptions. According to her own metaphor, Wollstonecraft seems to restring the bow in the very moment she seeks to relax the hand that holds it.31

In this moment of caution, the eighteenth-century's conception of the intimate relation between female sexuality and madness seems to resurface. This can be seen by juxtaposing Wollstonecraft's scene of female corruption with a passage Michel Foucault quotes concerning the correction wards of La Salpêtrière:

“The correction ward is the place of greatest punishment for the House, containing when we visited it forty-seven girls, most of them very young, more thoughtless than guilty. … And always this confusion of ages, this shocking mixture of frivolous girls with hardened women who can teach them only the art of the most unbridled corruption.”32

Thus Wollstonecraft's concern to maintain women's “proper” sexuality for the marriage state seems compounded of an array of interrelated concerns—not only that women should form rational and virtuous companions for their husbands, but also that they might not be the vehicles for an outbreak of that madness which the age of reason lived in constant fear of.33 Masturbation or lesbianism—practices which her “manly” language cannot openly speak of—are therefore regarded as “nasty tricks” which are dangerous not only for individual body, mind, and morality, but for the well-being of society as a whole. It is not that boys are incapable of getting up to similar kinds of tricks—Wollstonecraft also condemns the “nasty indecent tricks” which boys learn from each other in boarding schools, “not to speak of the vices, which render the body weak, whilst they effectually prevent the acquisition of any delicacy of mind” (RW 282)—but that, as this quotation shows, these unspeakable practices render the body and mind dangerously weak—i.e. “feminine.” “Feminine” thus becomes associated with any kind of sexual activity which lies outside the procreative act. Although Wollstonecraft might want to confound sexual difference, this would require both sexes to become more “masculine” by limiting their sexuality to reproduction.

One way of attempting to impose such limitations is to intervene in that area which most encourages sensuality—women's reading habits. Wollstonecraft distinguishes between women's and men's imaginative activity by suggesting that while male artists are able to embody their imaginings in art objects or texts, “in women's imagination, love alone concentrates these ethereal beams” (RW 156 n. 8). Debarred from creative production, women's imagination is subject to and manipulated by the imaginative creations of other people:

Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry, all tend to make women the creatures of sensation. … This overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain to render a rational creature useful to others.

(RW 152)

Reading “the unnatural and meretricious scenes sketched by the novel writers of the day” becomes an unnatural outlet for women's repressed sexuality (RW 309). With the “passions thus pampered, whilst the judgement is left unformed, what can be expected to ensue? Undoubtedly, a mixture of madness and folly!” (RW 152). Such novels provide women with a mere replica of human passion and a borrowed language:

the reading of novels makes women, and particularly ladies of fashion, very fond of using strong expressions and superlatives in conversation; and, though the dissipated artificial life which they lead prevents their cherishing any strong legitimate passion, the language of passion in affected tones slips for ever from their glib tongues, and every trifle produces those phosphoric bursts which only mimic in the dark the flame of passion.

(RW 309)

As Kaplan puts it, Wollstonecraft thus “sets up a peculiarly gendered and sexualized interaction between women and the narrative imaginative text, one in which women become the ultimately receptive reader easily moved into amoral activity by the fictional representation of sexual intrigue” (“Pandora's Box” 160). Once again, Foucault provides a discursive context: if women were thought to especially enjoy theatrical spectacles “that inflame and arouse them,” novels were thought to be “a still more artificial milieu, and … more dangerous to a disordered sensibility”:

The novel constitutes the milieu of perversion, par excellence, of all sensibility … “The existence of so many authors has produced a host of readers, and continued reading generates every nervous complaint; perhaps of all the causes that have harmed women's health, the principal one has been the infinite multiplication of novels in the last hundred years … a girl who at ten reads instead of running will, at twenty, be a woman with the vapours and not a good nurse.”34

Yet although this description of the impact of novels on women's sexuality, language, and health seems to identify the source of corruption as cultural rather than natural, Wollstonecraft can also appear to represent women's potential corruption as arising from the female anatomy and as being in need of cultural control. In her discussion of the results of over-familiarity between females the underlying concern seems to be about female genitals and their various processes and functions. That which ought to be kept covered is at once an anatomical part or process which should not be seen and a tale which should not be told:

I could proceed still further, till I animadverted on some still more nasty customs, which men never fall into. Secrets are told where silence ought to reign; and that regard to cleanliness, which some religious sects have perhaps carried too far, especially the Essenes, amongst the Jews, by making that an insult to God which is only an insult to humanity, is violated in a beastly manner. How can delicate women obtrude on notice that part of the animal economy, which is so very disgusting?

(RW 235)

Once again, an analogy is formed between women's sexuality and a secret which should not be told (even among women). And once again, Wollstonecraft's own text at once refers to female secrets and refuses to tell them. While Wollstonecraft prides herself on being able to talk as “man to man” about anatomy, she can also suggest that excessive familiarity between women is dangerous for women's moral being: “That decent personal reserve, which is the foundation of dignity of character, must be kept up between woman and woman, or their minds will never gain strength or modesty” (RW 326). Men never fall into these “nasty customs” not because they are more naturally modest, but because Wollstonecraft seems to be obliquely referring to processes characteristic of the female body. The reference to the Essenes is doubly suggestive in that this branch of the Pharisees “conformed to the most rigid rules of Levitical purity,” being “particularly careful that women in the menstrual state should keep apart from the household,” as well as adhering to the law which “enjoins modesty in regard to the covering of the body lest the Shekinah [i.e. the presence of God] be driven away by immodest exposure.”35 Woman's anatomy is her destiny here, making necessary an unremitting modesty and surveillance.

However ironic Wollstonecraft's “delicate women” might be, that irony rebounds back on the general tendency of her text to criticize the cultivation of delicacy in women. In wishing that these women would cultivate delicacy and cover up those parts of the “animal economy” which are so “disgusting” and “beastly,” Wollstonecraft repeats Burke's anxieties that the stripping of Marie Antoinette reveals even the highest of women as “an animal not of the highest order” (Refs 171). If the Essenes go too far in conceiving female anatomy and its functions as an insult to God, Wollstonecraft still finds them “an insult to humanity”—a secret best kept hidden. Such anxiety spurs Wollstonecraft's text into a revealingly Burkean passage:

Perhaps, there is not a virtue that mixes so kindly with every other as modesty. It is the pale moonbeam that renders more interesting every virtue it softens, giving mild grandeur to the contracted horizon. Nothing can be more beautiful than the poetical fiction, which makes Diana with her silver crescent, the goddess of chastity.

(RW 327)

Rather than exposing the naked truth of women's sexuality, Wollstonecraft's text retreats into a set of beautiful poetic fictions in a way which seems to repeat Burke's recourse to the pleasing illusions of life. Tales which should not be told are displaced by an all-too-familiar tale about women and modesty. For this repeats Rousseau's view that while men are endowed with reason to control their desires, women, being by definition lacking in reason, have been given “modesty” with which to restrain their “boundless passions” (Emile 323). Thus Wollstonecraft unexpectedly cedes to Burke's and Rousseau's view that women must be kept within the bounds of modesty's “contracted horizon.” Her resolution to be employed about things rather than words breaks down when confronted with female sexuality and retreats into a language and a representation of women (a “beautiful … poetic fiction”) which it sets out to refute.

The restraint on the habits and nasty tricks women seem so prone to is linked, again, to a concern with language, since women's “sexual tricks” are associated with double entendre. Wollstonecraft objects to women's development of what she calls “bodily wit” which evolves from the “jokes and hoyden tricks” which are learnt while “shut up together in nurseries, schools, or convents,” and which resemble “the double meanings which shake the convivial table when the glass has circulated freely” (RW 236). Breaking out in such enclosed female spaces, remote from the influence of men, “bodily wit” therefore seems to arise from women's potentially “corrupt” nature and is only then brought into society to engage men's wit and gallantry. What Wollstonecraft refers to by “bodily wit” is, like many of the terms in these passages, left obscure. A reading of Rousseau, however, suggests that “bodily wit” might refer to those bodily and sartorial signs through which women communicate the sexual messages which propriety denies to their verbal language. Rousseau advises the would-be lover to become proficient readers of this second language:

Why do you consult their words when it is not their mouths that speak? Consult their eyes, their colour, their breathing, their timid manner, their slight resistance, that is the language nature gave them for your answer. The lips always say “No,” and rightly so; but the tone is not always the same, and that cannot lie. Has not a woman the same needs as a man, but without the same right to make them known? Her fate would be too cruel if she had no language in which to express her legitimate desires except the words which she dare not utter.

(Emile 348)

Thus woman becomes an equivocal sign composed of two contradictory messages (her words say “no” but her body sometimes says “yes”). Bodily wit is women's equivalent to verbal gallantry—allowing them to pursue “coquetry” yet keep “within bounds”—and men need all their wit to participate in the dialogue.36 Women's body language thus emerges as the very reverse (or betrayal) of the manly language Wollstonecraft would have both men and women cultivate. These passages imply that such a double language is almost inevitable in women without the constraints of modesty, decorum, and delicacy. In other words, the (supposedly dangerous) supplements Wollstonecraft would strip away from the body and the body politic are immediately replaced by another set of (supposedly benign) supplements indispensable to her own sociosexual ethics.37 Yet the sheer complexity of Wollstonecraft's dilemma is indicated by the fact that, for Rousseau, women's bodily wit is produced precisely because they are subjected to the constraints of decorum.

Wollstonecraft is perhaps still more troubled about what she sees as the dangerous ambiguity introduced into gender by homosexuality, which she conceives to be the extension and inevitable result of a society whose sexuality has become a question of mere sensuality rather than of love and reproduction. Her analysis towards this conclusion is revealing. Nature—which “must ever be the standard of taste”—is “grossly … insulted by the voluptuary,” whose “casual lust” reduces “a very considerable number of women” to “standing dishes to which every glutton may have access” (RW 248). But Wollstonecraft argues against the suggestion that prostitutes, by offering themselves to such gluttons, spare women in general. This is because prostitution and marriage are not mutually exclusive institutions but deeply implicated with one another. Married women are forced, by the false tastes which men develop through contact with prostitutes, “to assume, in some degree, the same character themselves” (RW 249). For the origin of prostitution, and of the weakness cultivated by married women in order to pander to their husbands' tastes, is one and the same: “want of chastity in men” (RW 249). But if this seems to counter the suggestion that women's sexuality is the “contagion” which debilitates society, in fact the feminine remains the problem in the form of the feminization of men. The appetite of unchaste men becomes so depraved “that a wanton stimulus is necessary to rouse it,” and men are led to forget “the parental design of Nature” through a taste for “the mere person, and that for a moment” (RW 249). Once sexuality is separated from its reproductive purpose, the “person” of the object of desire entirely displaces the “natural meaning” of the act:

So voluptuous, indeed, often grows the lustful prowler, that he refines on female softness. Something more soft than women is then sought for; till, in Italy and Portugal, men attend the levees of equivocal beings, to sigh for more than female languor.

(RW 249)

Wollstonecraft's doubled emphasis on the “more than female” softness and languor of these “equivocal beings” underlines the anxiety that sexuality may become detached from its meaning (its basis in reproductive anatomy) and become pure excess or irreducibly ambiguous. The beautiful recreates men in its own image and more.

For Wollstonecraft, this leads in turn to yet further depravity, since women endeavor to recreate themselves in the more than female image held up to them—becoming ever more soft and languishing in order to gratify men's tastes, but in the process depriving themselves and sexual relations of their “proper” meaning. The result of this is to render women unfit for the role which their anatomy destines them:

Women becoming, consequently, weaker in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into account, that of bearing and nursing children, [no longer] have … sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and … either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast if off when born.

(RW 249)

Poston reads this as implying that “The lascivious father spreads syphilis to his wife, who for her part is so unhealthy and weak that the embryo is naturally aborted or the child is born blind and misshapen by venereal disease” (Norton 139). But to emphasize syphilis as the prime cause of these problems in generation is to overlook both the immediate context of the passage and the larger discursive network we have been tracing. Both these contexts suggest that the more pervasive “disease” is the enervating model of femininity developed by and characteristic of late eighteenth-century aristocratic culture. The effect of this endemic epidemic is to plunge that culture into a crisis which threatens its very survival:

The weak enervated women who particularly catch the attention of libertines, are unfit to be mothers, though they may conceive; so that the rich sensualist, who has rioted among women, spreading depravity and misery, when he wishes to perpetuate his name, receives from his wife only an half-formed being that inherits both its father's and its mother's weakness.

(RW 249)38

This is why Wollstonecraft is concerned both to eliminate femininity by making men and women more masculine and yet maintain the sexual difference involved in “proper,” reproductive sexuality.39

In this way, Wollstonecraft extends Burke's analysis in Philosophical Enquiry of the dangerous, yet seductive, effects of the beautiful in order to show, by implication, that Burke's celebration of the beautiful in Reflections will inevitably precipitate a crisis in the hereditary principle which forms the very basis of the society he appears to defend. Wollstonecraft's analysis suggests that if, as C. B. Macpherson argues, Burke is actually seeking to institute bourgeois capitalism by introducing it under the guise of traditional forms (or by assimilating the new order to the old), then those forms would be just as inimical to the new as to the old order.40 In the same way, for the Revolution to ignore the question of women's rights and education would be to build into its constitution the same “flaw” which had brought aristocratic society to its own crisis. A concept of the masculine—constituted as the repression of sexuality and sensuality save for the supposedly “natural” function of reproduction—is thus developed and promoted as an antidote to the sexual confusion and debilitation which supposedly characterizes a feminized social order.

Taking advantage of the possibility that gender might have a conventional rather than natural relation to sexual anatomy in order to redefine masculinity as an ideal for both men and women, Wollstonecraft is nevertheless impelled to anchor her cultural and ideological project in “nature”—the biological reproduction of the species—and to limit the masculinization of woman through reference to “one of the grand designs of her being.” This is achieved by distinguishing between “natural” reproductive functions and “unnatural” sensuality, and between aristocratic and bourgeois mores as sexual cultures which respectively impair and conform to nature. (This counters the suggestion sometimes made that Wollstonecraft was horrified by sensuality and argues instead that the repression of sensuality is inevitable to the logic of her text and the discursive network it intervenes and gets embroiled within.)

Although Wollstonecraft proposes the introduction of schools in which the sexes (and the social classes) would be educated, and dressed, alike—“to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity they [the classes? the sexes?] should be dressed alike”—she also suggests that,

After the age of nine, girls and boys, intended for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction in some measure appropriate to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning; but in the afternoon the girls should attend a school, where plain work, mantua-making millinery, etc., would be their employment.

The young people of superior abilities, or fortune [of both sexes], might now be taught, in another school, the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and continue the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature.

(RW 286, 287)

In other words, what in its context is an enlightened and innovative program of education is also a state apparatus for constructing new class and gender differences conducive to capitalist production. Children from the “lower orders”—those “intended” for domestic and mechanical trades—are educated into their “destined” places (a word which recalls Burke's rationale for class division), while the middle classes (marked by their “fortune” or “superior abilities”) are correspondingly educated to fulfill their own “destiny.” The division of education after the age of nine perpetuates, for a new political order, the different levels of language use which Olivia Smith identifies as one of the central distinctions of traditional society which radical politics set out to remove.41 Literature (as well as advanced history and politics) is reserved for middle-class children in a way which anticipates the distinction in French schools between basic and literary uses of language which Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey suggest is fundamental to the institution and maintenance of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie in France.42 Sex equality in secondary education is therefore reserved for middle class children—the girls of the “lower orders” being expected to learn skills “appropriate” to their “destined” adult lives (and appropriate, incidentally, to conventional ideas of women's “proper” employment). In this way, rather than dismantling the old order's ideology of destined or natural hierarchies, radical bourgeois capitalism—even in its feminist guise—simply reorganizes those hierarchies for a different political and economic interest. The revolution in female manners is reserved for middle class women—who “appear to be in the most natural state” (RW 81)—while those women who are most problematic for Burke and Wollstonecraft alike (aristocratic women and women from the “lower orders”) are excluded as “unnatural” and irrecuperable. Nor is there an attempt, Wollstonecraft confesses, to “emulate masculine virtues” or “to invert the order of things” (RW 288, 109). In the end, she sums up her argument as follows: “Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers” (RW 299). Rather than being equivocal figures (undermining sexual roles and the distinction between aristocracy and mob), female citizens will dutifully fulfill their natural destiny and meaning in a bourgeois society.


  1. Gillian Beer, “Representing Women: Re-presenting the Past,” The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London: Macmillan, 1989): 63-80 (67). Beer suggests that reading the literature of the past for its contemporary “relevance” reproduces the attitude to the past, and to the texts of the past, currently adopted by the Conservative government in Britain (67-68). For an impressive reading of Rights of Woman which both traces its historical specificity and shows how it foregrounds for analysis the assumptions of a strand of feminism in the late 1980s, see Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,” Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986) 31-56.

  2. I am alluding here to Jacques Derrida's scattered remarks about the possibility of an “open Marxism”—see, for example, James Kearns and Ken Newton, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” Literary Review 14 (18 April-1 May 1980): 21-22; or Jacques Derrida, Positions (1972), trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981; London: Athlone, 1987) 62-67. For a full-length study which attempts to develop the possibilities raised by these hints, see Michael Ryan, Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982).

  3. Patricia Parker points out that “If the work of Rousseau is the first major attempt to justify equality among men … [Emile] also does much to elaborate … a justification of the inequality of men and women” (Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property [New York: Methuen, 1987] 203). The significance of Emile in the constitution of bourgeois gender roles is still being reconstructed by feminist critics—see Parker 201-17, and Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights,” in Sea Changes 31-56, and “Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism,” Sea Changes 147-76.

  4. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982) 79. This text is based on the second edition of 1792. All quotations from Rights of Woman in the present article are taken from this edition, hereafter cited as RW.

  5. The first edition reads “the female, in general, is inferior to the male. The male pursues, the female yields—this is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of women” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston [New York: Norton, 1988] 8n).

  6. For a discussion of Wollstonecraft's acceptance of the eighteenth century's degradation of the feminine, see Kaplan, “Pandora's Box,” Sea Changes 157-59.

  7. Wollstonecraft's only explicit mention of Burke in Rights of Woman, comes in a footnote (RW 216n). Poston discovers only two other allusions to Burke (34 and 64), but although it would certainly be possible to trace more allusions, I am arguing that Rights of Woman engages with Burke intertextually rather than simply through the occasional reference. The figuration of women which Wollstonecraft attacks in Rousseau is endemic to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (witness her guarded criticisms of Milton and Pope), but it is more urgent for Wollstonecraft to focus on Emile because of Rousseau's importance for late eighteenth-century radical thought. Even more troubling is that Rousseau's conception of women appeared to coincide with that which had become so powerfully politicized in Burke's Reflections. Yet Rousseau's formulations about women and their education can also be strikingly similar to Wollstonecraft's—see, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (1762), trans. Barbara Foxley (London: Dent and Dutton, 1947) 329, 330, 335. These similarities perhaps indicate that Wollstonecraft attacks those passages in Rousseau which most resemble Burke and quietly overlooks those which are akin to her own ideas.

  8. For a more extended account of this, see Tom Furniss, “Gender in Revolution: Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft,” Revolution in Writing: British Literary Responses to the French Revolution, ed. Kelvin Everest (Milton Keynes: Open UP, in press).

  9. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757/59), edited with an introduction by James T. Boulton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987) 149-50, hereafter cited as PE.

  10. See Frances Ferguson, “The Sublime of Edmund Burke, Or the Bathos of Experience,” Glyph: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies 8 (1981): 62-78.

  11. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 164, hereafter cited as Refs.

  12. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), introduced by Eleanor Louise Nicholes (Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1960) 2 and 6, hereafter referred to as RMen.

  13. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (1781), trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953) 362.

  14. See Hamlet III.i.146-47.

  15. Miriam Kramnick points out that “In spite of Wollstonecraft's best intentions … her prose is an imitation, and not a particularly felicitous one, of the rounded sentences of eighteenth-century prose” (Introduction to Rights of Woman 41). For a discussion of the complexities of Paine's similar attempt to write a clear language as part of his response to Burke, see Tom Furniss, “Rhetoric in Revolution: The Role of Language in Paine's Critique of Burke,” Revolution and English Romanticism: Politics and Rhetoric, ed. Keith Hanley and Raman Selden (New York: St. Martin's; Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1990): 23-48.

  16. In the first volume of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791), the distinction between the sexes—in contrast to that between classes—is presented as divinely ordained: “The Mosaic account of the creation,” Paine writes in his counter-attack on Burke, “is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expressions admit of no controversy. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied” (Thomas Paine, Rights of Man [1791/92], edited and introduced by Henry Collins [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969] 88-89, hereafter cited as RMan). Finding that Rousseau's egalitarianism is reserved for men and that he cultivates a “male aristocracy” ascendent over women, Wollstonecraft ruefully notes that “The rights of humanity have been … confined to the male line from Adam downwards” (RW 185). As Kaplan notes, “When feminists sought to appropriate liberal humanism for their own sex they had to contend with the double standard prominently inscribed within radical tradition, as well as with its suffocating and determining presence in dominant ideologies” (“Wild Nights” 33).

  17. This conventional distinction between masculine and feminine is given its most powerful formulation for eighteenth-century readers, even as it is undone, in the description of sexual difference in Paradise Lost IV.295-318.

  18. Rapport sur L'Instruction Publique, fait au nom du Comité de Constitution (Paris, 1791). France's present system of compulsory free education owes a great deal to the model recommended over 150 years ago by Talleyrand” (Carol H. Poston, RW [Norton] 3, n. 2). Claire Tomalin records Talleyrand's visit to Wollstonecraft, in acknowledgement of her dedication, while he was in London in February 1792 (Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, first published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974] 146-47).

  19. Poston suggests that the passage in quotation marks might be “a liberal translation from Talleyrand's Rapport … : ‘sur quel principe l'un des deux pourroit-il en être désherité par la Societé protectrice des droits de tous?’” (RW [Norton] 5, n. 6). She also points out that “In France's Constitution of 1791 only males over twenty-five were citizens. Women were not to get the vote until 1944” (5, n. 7).

  20. For Wollstonecraft's explicit attack on Burke's defense of prejudice in Reflections, see RW 216-17.

  21. Rousseau talks of “the shame and modesty with which nature has armed the weak for the conquest of the strong” (Emile 322).

  22. See Ferguson, “The Sublime of Edmund Burke” 76. Rousseau seems to recognize such a danger when he says that “The exaggeration of feminine delicacy leads to effeminacy in men” (Emile 329). His antidote against such a danger (young girls should be encouraged to engage in “pleasant, moderate, and healthy exercise” [329-30]) suggests that Wollstonecraft exaggerates the tendency of Rousseau's prescriptions for women, and that in some instances the two writers are in concord.

  23. In a phrase which ironically echoes Burke, for example, soldiers are said to be “a set of idle superficial young men, whose only occupation is gallantry, and whose polished manners render vice more dangerous, by concealing its deformity under gay ornamental drapery” (RW 97). Their “air of fashion … is but a badge of slavery,” and “Like the fair sex, the business of [soldiers'] lives is gallantry; they were taught to please, and they live only to please” (RW 97, 106). In a footnote, she asks “Why should women be censured … because they seem to have a passion for a scarlet coat? Has not education placed [women] more on a level with soldiers than any other class of men?” (RW 106).

  24. Wollstonecraft returns to such formulations throughout her text (see 118 and 145). Poston refers the reader to Paradise Lost X.891-92: “This fair defect / Of nature”; and to Pope, Moral Essays II: 44: “Fine by defect, and delicately weak” (Norton 34, n. 9). Burke's and Rousseau's representations of women in the same vein are much more disturbing and immediate for Wollstonecraft than Milton's or Pope's.

  25. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (1967), trans. and introduced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976) 163.

  26. Of Grammatology 154. There is a suggestion, running through the texts of Rousseau, Burke, and Wollstonecraft, that woman is the supplement of society—that which both civilizes and endangers it, both its disease and its cure. If, in Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft would “grub up” the ivy which threatens the oak, in Rights of Woman she identifies Rousseau's conception of woman's relation to man as that of a “graceful ivy, clasping the oak that supported it” (104). Thus, women have “parasitical tendency” (153), and are treated as an “afterthought of creation” (178). Patricia Parker traces the way “the second sex” functions as a supplement in Genesis, Milton, Rousseau, and Freud (Literary Fat Ladies 178-233).

  27. For Wollstonecraft's attack on the idea that women have an innate love of dress, see RW 111; but for her acknowledgement that women have been successfully conditioned into a harmful preoccupation with dress, see RW 170.

  28. My analysis of the complicated relation between disease and cure in Wollstonecraft's reading of Burke is influenced by Derrida's discussion of “Plato's Pharmacy,” in Dissemination (1972), trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981) 61-171.

  29. “I wish to sum up what I have said in a few words, for here I throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty. For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same” (RW 139; also see 105, 119, 121, 124, 128).

  30. For Wollstonecraft's “refusal to acknowledge female sexuality,” see Mary Poovey, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Female Sexuality” (included in RW [Norton]: 343-55 [353]). Poovey suggests that “the surprisingly vitriolic language” of these passages reveals Wollstonecraft's “vehement disgust with female sexuality.” This directly impinges on Wollstonecraft's language: “We can see one consequence of this evasion [of sexuality] in her own use of euphemisms and circuitous phrasing. Whenever Wollstonecraft approaches a subject that arouses her own volatile emotions, her language becomes both obscure and abstract; she shuns concrete nouns as if they were bodies she is trying to cover over” (350, 352).

  31. Miriam Kramnick points out that although Wollstonecraft's “criticism of … aristocratic and would-be aristocratic ladies resembles the more scathing of the misogynist satirists of the eighteenth century,” her anger arises over “what she perceived was a waste of potential and because she realized that it was women themselves who, by their ignorance and uselessness, provided the fuel for the traditional anti-feminists” (Introduction to RW 48). It is important to hold this in mind, but I am arguing that Wollstonecraft's project has a more complex relation to that which arouses its indignation than Kramnick allows. As Kaplan suggests, Wollstonecraft's use of the sexual metaphor of the bent bow recoiling with violence indicates that her figurative language, like the imaginary force of female sexuality itself, is “out of control” (“Wild Nights” 44).

  32. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (London: Tavistock, 1971) 208, quoting La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt.

  33. It is suggestive that much of the action of Wollstonecraft's late, unfinished novel—which sets out to dramatize the issues of Rights of Woman in the same way that Caleb Williams does Political Justice—takes place during its heroine's unmerited incarceration in a madhouse. See The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria (1798), reprinted in Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, ed. Gary Kelly (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980).

  34. Foucault 218-19, quoting Edmé-Pierre Beauchesne, De l' influence des affections de l'âme dans les maladies nerveuses des femmes (Paris, 1783) 31.

  35. The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1903) v: 224-26.

  36. See Emile 348. The analogy between “male wit” and “female beauty” is pursued throughout Wollstonecraft's two Vindications (see RW 146 and 311), while Rights of Men repeatedly condemns Burke as a wit (see RW 4, 7, 139, and 142).

  37. “Delicacy” and “decorum” can mean opposite things in Wollstonecraft: she writes against that “decorum” which Rousseau suggests is the “constant and severe constraint” which women must be subject to all their lives (RW 178); she condemns decorum as a supplement harmful to women (197); yet she praises a “man of delicacy” for requiring “neither weakness nor sensibility” in women, but “affection” (232-33).

  38. For a discussion of the contrasting effects of poverty and luxury on generation, see Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), ed. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd in two volumes (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979) 1: 96-97.

  39. This is an anxiety Wollstonecraft shares with Rousseau—for whom the distinction between the sexes is vital to uphold civilization itself (Emile 326). Rousseau writes that “In the present confusion between the sexes it is almost a miracle to belong to one's own sex” (356). Foucault reveals how the transgression of gender boundaries—and especially men's imitation of female qualities and roles—is associated with madness in the eighteenth century. Foucault records one representation of the night-time activities of a house of confinement which is clearly influenced by De Sade: “‘There, the most infamous excesses are committed upon the very person of the prisoner; we hear of certain vices practiced frequently, notoriously, and even publicly in the common room of the prison, vices which the propriety of modern times does not permit us to name. We are told that numerous prisoners, simillimi feminis mores stuprati et constupratores; that they return from this obscure, forbidden place covered over with their own and others' debaucheries, lost to all shame and ready to commit all sorts of crimes’” (Foucault 208, quoting H. Mirabeau, Observations d'un voyageur anglais [Paris, 1788] 14). A tentative translation of Mirabeau's (appropriately) corrupt Latin would be “a manner very like the ravished and ravishers of women.”

  40. See C. B. Macpherson, Burke (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980) 51-70 (69).

  41. See Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) 1-34.

  42. See Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, “On Literature as an Ideological Form,” Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) 79-99.

Catriona MacKenzie (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: MacKenzie, Catriona. “Reason and Sensibility: The Ideal of Women's Self-Governance in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 8, no. 4 (fall 1993): 35-55.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie argues against interpretations of Wollstonecraft that stress her commitment to a liberal philosophical framework and valuation of reason over passion, claiming that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts Wollstonecraft exposes the inadequacies of traditional liberalism.]

When morality shall be settled on a more solid basis, then, without being gifted with a prophetic spirit, I will venture to predict that woman will be either the friend or slave of man. We shall not, as at present, doubt whether she is a moral agent, or the link which unites man with brutes.

(Wollstonecraft 1975, 120)


In a letter written in 1795 while she was traveling in Scandinavia doing business on behalf of Gilbert Imlay, the man who had recently abandoned both her and her child by him, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of herself: “For years have I endeavored to calm an impetuous tide—laboring to keep my feelings to an orderly course.—It was striving against the stream.—I must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness” (Wollstonecraft 1977, 160). It is reflections such as these, as well as the tempestuous events of Wollstonecraft's personal life, that have led one of her biographers to suggest that Wollstonecraft was unable to live her own life by the ideal of self-governance that she proposed for women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.2 The explanation proffered for this apparent discrepancy is that the Vindication was written when Wollstonecraft was childless and inexperienced in sexual relationships with men. Her later experiences, however, taught her that passion cannot always, or cannot very easily, be governed by reason. More recent feminist commentators have rejected this rather patronizing view of the relationship between Wollstonecraft's life and her writings.3 But the idea that Wollstonecraft defined self-governance in opposition to passion has not been challenged and still prevails even in feminist interpretations of her work.4 Jane Martin, for example, argues that Wollstonecraft adopts a “sovereignty model of personality,” which posits reason in opposition to feeling as the “ruling element” of the soul and which allows between reason and feeling “no give and take, no interaction, no sensitivity to context” (Martin 1985, Chap. 4).

In this essay I argue that the overriding preoccupations of Wollstonecraft's work, as well as of her life, were to articulate what it means for women to think and act as autonomous moral agents, and to envisage the kind of social and political organization required for them to do so. Although at times she seemed to identify autonomy with reason, defining it in opposition to passion, in a context in which woman was “always represented as only created to see through a gross medium, and to take things on trust” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 142). Wollstonecraft also struggled to develop an account of women's moral agency that would incorporate a recognition not only of women's capacity to reason but also of their right to experience and give expression to passion, including sexual desire. Of particular concern to her was the need to create the possibility for genuinely reciprocal friendships and love relationships between men and women. She was also vehement that women's bodies should be regarded neither as mere objects of use, pleasure, and exchange among men, nor by women as objects of narcissistic attention. Rather, respect for the body is an integral part of both self-esteem and respect for others. Wollstonecraft's view was that such reciprocity and respect could be realized only in a context in which women are able to exercise control of both the external—financial, educational, and political—circumstances of their lives and the direction of their own affections.

Such an interpretation need not deny that there are tensions within Wollstonecraft's account of women's autonomy, as well as difficulties with it for contemporary feminists. In particular, Wollstonecraft's treatment of the distinctions between reason/passion and public/private seems to raise problems from a feminist perspective for her understanding of self-governance. But I will suggest that these problems are not as clear-cut as they are sometimes made to seem. First, it is true that at many points in the Vindication Wollstonecraft is explicit that virtue must be founded on reason, not sensibility. She also ties virtue to the notion of the perfectibility of the soul. This lends credence to the view that she regards self-governance as a matter of reason's control over unruly passions associated with the body. From a feminist perspective this is problematic because it allies Wollstonecraft's account of self-governance with hierarchical oppositions between soul/body, reason/passion, and masculine/feminine. The supposedly sex-neutral “self” that controls the body is thus implicitly associated with “masculine” virtues while downgrading “feminine” virtues associated with affectivity.5 While not denying that Wollstonecraft does appeal to the idea of a “soul which knows no sex,” I will try to show that, within the inevitable limits imposed by this idea, Wollstonecraft was also struggling to articulate a more subtle view of self-governance, one that would not pit women's reason in opposition either to their bodies or to affectivity. The outlines of this view are certainly present in the Vindication, but they are more fully developed in Wollstonecraft's posthumously published novel The Wrongs of Woman (Wollstonecraft 1980b) and in some of her travel writings and personal letters.6

Second, in the Vindication Wollstonecraft makes much of the claim that although virtue must be regarded as the same in both sexes, men and women have different “duties.” Women's “duties,” associated with the care of children and the running of the household, are considered by Wollstonecraft to follow “naturally” from women's role in reproduction. But as feminists have pointed out, this division of the sexes according to duties, as well as the idea that certain duties are “natural” to women, derives from and preserves the distinction between public and private that is at the root of women's subordination. Moira Gatens, for example, argues that Wollstonecraft's endorsement of a sexual division of labor is a consequence of her attempt to extend the liberal ideal of equality to women (Gatens 1991a).7 According to Gatens, Wollstonecraft assumes that the liberal notion of equality, and the reason that grounds it, are sex-neutral. In fact, however, the characteristics of the “equal” liberal citizen are defined in opposition to, but also presuppose, those affective virtues associated with women. As a result, the liberal public sphere is a sphere of male equality that can function only through the subordination of women in the private sphere. Wollstonecraft's argument that women can fulfill dual roles as mothers-daughters-wives and as equal citizens thus overlooks the fact that within liberalism women's duties are necessarily tied to women's subordination. According to Gatens, Wollstonecraft attempts to deal with this difficulty by denying the ethical significance of women's embodiment and of those virtues associated with women, and by adopting a supposedly sex-neutral but in fact masculine ideal of virtue in both public and private spheres. But given the practical consequences of women's embodiment (in particular, the nature of women's involvement in reproduction), while the ethical significance of sexual difference is denied, difference reemerges at the level of the division of labor. Because the sexual division of labor lies at the heart of women's social inferiority, the net effect of Wollstonecraft's account of virtue is to leave intact the structures of women's subordination.

While I do not deny that the idea that women have certain “natural” duties must be rejected, I do maintain that Wollstonecraft's views on the relation between public and private spheres are more complex than perhaps Gatens allows. Although Wollstonecraft certainly wants nothing to do with the Rousseauian idea of specific “feminine” virtues, she does not deny the ethical importance of the affections. Nor does she overlook the ethical significance of sexual difference.8 Her concern is to understand the kind of moral character required in order to achieve justice in the public realm and genuine reciprocity in the private. But what motivates this concern is a recognition that male and female embodiment are different and that this difference has ethical and political significance. It was for this reason that she called for not only a “revolution in female manners” but also a complete transformation of the legal and economic relations of both public and private spheres.

It is certainly true that Wollstonecraft was not entirely successful in her effort to combat the representation of women's bodies as obstacles to women's moral agency, a view that came to dominate philosophical and cultural conceptions of femininity from the Enlightenment onward. At times she seems to take over the view that women's bodies are more “dependent” than men's bodies are and hence that women's bodies may be impediments to virtue. Particularly in The Wrongs of Woman and in some of her reflections on her own feelings for her daughter, she also seems to suggest that women are by nature more susceptible to the “attached affections” than are men. And, as I stated above, she seems to endorse the idea that certain duties are natural to women. But even here Wollstonecraft shows an awareness that perhaps her views, as well as her own susceptibilities, arise more from “the imperfect state of society” than from the nature of women's bodies.


When reading Wollstonecraft it is important to try to disentangle her somewhat sketchy conception of self-governance from the arguments for equality out of which it arises. In her defense of equality she puts a great deal of stress on women's capacity to reason and on the idea that virtue must be founded on reason. This gives rise to the impression that for Wollstonecraft self-governance is equivalent to the rule of reason. I suggest, however, that Wollstonecraft does not straightforwardly endorse the extreme rationalism of the arguments for equality. Rather, these arguments serve the strategic function of directly answering the charges against women's equality that were raised by Enlightenment thinkers—but in particular, by Rousseau. Although the arguments for equality provide the necessary theoretical underpinning for her account of self-governance, in this account the role of reason figures more as a necessary part of a virtuous character than as the sole authority in all matters.

Wollstonecraft's argument in defense of women's equality works by extending the Enlightenment critique of sovereign power to relations between the sexes. Her claim is that if sovereign power is deemed illegitimate because it sanctions arbitrary power, then logical consistency requires that any exercise of arbitrary power be deemed illegitimate. What she seeks to show is that women's subordination to men is purely arbitrary, that is, it cannot be justified by reason. Wollstonecraft's main method of exposing the arbitrary nature of patriarchal power is via a critique of Rousseau's arguments against women's claims to equality. Her targets are, first, Rousseau's claim that women are by nature inferior to men with respect to those capacities that ground equality—namely reason, independence, and virtue—and, second, his claim that women's equality would subvert the social order.9 In the Vindication Wollstonecraft presents two main arguments against the first claim, an environmental argument and an argument based on an appeal to the perfectibility of the soul. The environmental argument involves a straightforward appeal to empiricist psychology. Following Locke she argues that our capacities are developed and our characters formed in response to our environment, or what she terms “the effect of an early association of ideas.” For Wollstonecraft, one of the most significant features of the environment is education or its lack, but environment also embraces customs, habits, opportunities, parental influences, and so on. Her response to Rousseau concedes that women “in the present state of society” do seem to be less capable of both reason and virtue than men are, but she seeks to show that this is simply a product of women's education and environment rather than a natural incapacity.

The environmental argument has, of course, been rehearsed repeatedly under a number of different guises by feminists since Wollstonecraft. A more interesting argument from the point of view of Wollstonecraft's concern with autonomy is the appeal to the perfectibility of the soul. At one level this argument works simply to challenge the coherence of any claim that certain groups of human beings can be naturally subject to others. Women, says Wollstonecraft, are either human beings or they are not—that is, they are either capable of reason and virtue or they are not, they either have an immortal soul or they do not. To postulate the possibility of a being that is neither one thing nor the other is to suggest that women are “beautiful flaws in nature. Let it also be remembered that they are the only flaw” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 122). If women are not human beings, then they must be regarded as subject to their impulses and hence incapable of freedom of the will. If this is the case, then their subjection to the authority of others is perfectly justifiable. However, if women are human beings, then their subjection to the will of others is completely unjustifiable. Furthermore, if this is the case, it is morally requisite that women be given the liberty and the scope to perfect their souls through the exercise of their reason. Underlying this challenge is the idea that human beings have a duty to improve their souls, more than this, that the highest aim of human life is self-improvement.10 Thus Wollstonecraft's argument against Rousseau is that by denying women equality, he undermines the foundation of morality because he denies women the possibility of undertaking what is in fact the sternest duty of beings accountable for themselves to God. Shortly we will see how this doctrine of perfectibility underpins Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance.

In response to Rousseau's claim that women's equality would subvert the social order, Wollstonecraft seeks to show that precisely the reverse would be true.11 Her argument to this effect focuses on Rousseau's conception of feminine virtue as founded not in reason but in modesty, which, she claims, is not virtue at all but a sham more likely to corrupt and degrade women and the social order than to improve either. The strategy of Wollstonecraft's argument is to concede to Rousseau certain assumptions but to deny the validity of the inferences he makes on the basis of those assumptions. First, she agrees that public virtue must be founded in private virtue, conceding also the importance of modesty and fidelity in relationships between men and women. However, she argues that Rousseau's recommendations for the education of women and his subjection of women to the authority of men will not bring about the desired result. According to Wollstonecraft, modesty must be founded in self-respect and in respect for the integrity of one's body, while fidelity is only a virtue if it arises out of genuine affection. Understood thus, modesty and fidelity are not sexually specific virtues at all. But Rousseau adopts a sexual double standard and makes modesty and fidelity the paramount virtues for women. Furthermore, he grounds these allegedly “feminine” virtues not in women's self-respect and capacity for affection but in male needs. It is clear that for Rousseau the function of so-called feminine virtue is to make women pleasing to men and to ensure that women's own needs are subordinated to this end. Wollstonecraft cites as evidence of this claim Rousseau's injunctions to Sophie to ensure that she is always alluring for Emile, while at the same time insisting that her chastity is her main asset. But pointing to the behavior of the leisured middle-class and aristocratic women whom Wollstonecraft so despised, she suggests that Rousseau's advice is more likely to produce infidelity, or at least sham fidelity, than genuine fidelity because it focuses women's whole attention on “corporeal embellishments” rather than on attaining genuine virtue.12 The fact that feminine “virtue” must in the end be assured through force indicates that Rousseau was in fact aware of this.13 Wollstonecraft's joking suggestion is that he abandoned logic on this issue because he succumbed to his own lasciviousness! Wollstonecraft is also outraged by Rousseau's insistence that it is not sufficient for a woman to be faithful; in addition, everyone must know of her fidelity. By making virtue a function of the opinions of others rather than of a person's own integrity and honesty, Rousseau deliberately undermines women's independence. More than this, he quite openly incites women to duplicity and cunning. But by depriving women of integrity and of every legitimate means of exercising power, Rousseau ensures that women will in fact create social disorder because despotism becomes the only path open to them. By being civil and political slaves women become private tyrants (Wollstonecraft 1975, esp. chaps. 4,5, and 12).14 Wollstonecraft's conclusion is that Rousseau's recommendations teach women manners rather than morals—hardly an adequate basis for the virtue required to perfect the soul.

Rousseau's second argument in support of the claim that women's equality would subvert the social order is that women's primary function in life is to raise and educate children. Were women themselves to be educated to participate as equal citizens who would take responsibility for this crucial task? Wollstonecraft's response is simple but devastating. Once again she concedes certain assumptions to Rousseau, namely, that the family is indeed the foundation of social life and that women's primary social duty is to raise and educate children. However, she points out that if women are trained to be dependent on men, and required to base their judgements on the authority of men, then they will be incapable of raising and educating children. Wollstonecraft's argument is that the task of education demands independence of judgment. This in turn requires a capacity for reflection and generalization. But the education and social position that Rousseau recommends for women denies them the opportunity of developing these capacities. Furthermore, if women are ignorant of virtue and are themselves subjected to arbitrary authority, how likely is it that they will inculcate virtue in their own children? What is more likely is that they in turn will subject their children to arbitrary authority rather than teach them virtue through the use of reason. But having conceded that women's primary social duties are maternal duties, Wollstonecraft also argues that women have a duty to which their social duties must always be secondary. This is their duty to themselves as beings accountable to God.


Wollstonecraft's views on the perfectibility of the soul are beautifully captured in one of her travel letters written in Tonsberg, Norway. This letter shows that Wollstonecraft's belief in the immortality of the soul did not prevent her from reflecting on the moral significance of human embodiment. In the letter, Wollstonecraft recounts her horror at discovering in the town's church a recess full of coffins containing embalmed bodies. Her horror arose from a sense that it degrades humanity to attempt to preserve the body when all active life has been extinguished, when “the enchantment of animation” is broken. In contrast to the “noble ruins” that are reminders of the exertions and efforts of earlier generations and that “exalt the mind,” these futile attempts at prolonging life bring home the “littleness” and morality of the individual. Reflecting on her reaction, Wollstonecraft writes,

Life, what art thou? Where goes this breath? this I, so much alive? In what element will it mix, giving or receiving fresh energy … I feel a conviction that we have some perfectible principle in our present vestment, which will not be destroyed just as we begin to be sensible of improvement.

(Wollstonecraft 1977, Letter VII, 158-59)

Although at times Wollstonecraft's belief in the immortality of the soul led her to adopt an attitude of stoicism and resignation in the face of life's sorrows and injustices, her more considered view was that it is by learning from error and experience and by fighting injustice that the soul is improved.15 As we will see, Wollstonecraft's views on what constitutes virtue or the perfection of the soul shifted somewhat from the Vindication to The Wrongs of Woman. But the idea that self-governance is essential to virtue and to the possibility of perfectibility or self-improvement remained a constant theme in her work, as did the idea that sexual inequality is immoral because it deprives women of self-governance.

Central to Wollstonecraft's notion of perfectibility and to her account of self-governance is a contrast—not accidentally echoing the same contrast in Rousseau—between independence and dependence. To be dependent is “to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 135). However, independence, which Wollstonecraft calls “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 85), is not the mere converse of dependence, namely, being self-willed, but is a more complex virtue. In the Vindication Wollstonecraft lays great stress on the importance of reason to independence. She characterizes reason in the following terms:

Reason is … the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all, if it be an emanation of divinity, the tie that connects the creature with the Creator; for, can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason?

(Wollstonecraft 1975, 142)

According to Wollstonecraft, a person must exercise her reason in a number of different ways in order to achieve independence. The most important of these ways, and the one to which she remains committed throughout her writings, is that exercise of reason which counters the effects of prejudice and which refuses blind obedience to authority. Our actions can be free and virtuous, she wants to say, only if they are based on reasoned judgments, rather than arising out of conformity to social expectations or from notions of duty that require the individual to submit her own judgment to the arbitrary authority of others. In the Vindication this view leads Wollstonecraft to condemn military training and discipline as incompatible with freedom (Wollstonecraft 1975, 97).16 In The Wrongs of Woman she has Darnford declare that “minds governed by superior principles … were privileged to act above the dictates of laws they had no voice in framing” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 187).17 These “superior principles” are principles founded in respect for the rights of rational beings, including self-respect, as opposed to the principles of social utility that justify, among other things, the subordination of women and the exploitation of the poor. Her view was that a knowledge of such principles could only be arrived at by “enlarging the mind” through education, sensibility, and experience. By “cramping the understanding,” women's education and social position, as well as Rousseau's recommendations on these matters, put the capacity for making independent judgments out of the reach of most women, condemning them to be slaves to the opinions of others.

In the Vindication Wollstonecraft seems to follow Rousseau in linking dependence on the opinions of others to being subject to one's own inclinations and passions.18 In some places she therefore connects that exercise of reason which leads to independence of judgment and virtue with the control of the passions and with a kind of self-denying fortitude. Her complaint against the indolent women of the middle classes, for example, is that their senses are inflamed by the pursuit of pleasure and by momentary feelings. As a result, their reason is prevented from “attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain to render a rational creature useful to others and content with its own station” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 152). In contrast, the virtuous widow Wollstonecraft depicts for us is a woman who subdues any passionate inclinations, selflessly devotes herself to educating and providing for her children, and then “calmly waits for the sleep of death” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 138-39). In a similar vein, Wollstonecraft also declares that “a master and mistress of a family ought not to love each other with passion. I mean to say that they ought not to indulge those emotions which disturb the order of society.” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 114).

However, even in the Vindication Wollstonecraft seems to be ambivalent about this view. In a number of places she contrasts the “romantic, wavering feelings” that “inflame” the passions with those “strong, persevering passions” that “strengthen” the passions and so enlarge the understanding and ennoble the heart. (See, for example, Wollstonecraft 1975, 115, 152, 169.) Similarly she contrasts lust with love, sensuality with sensibility, parental self-love with parental affection, and so on, suggesting that although the first term in the pair undermines virtue the second term is essential to it. She also suggests that “the regulation of the passions is not, always, wisdom” and that the reason why men seem to be more capable of independent judgement than women are is because they have more scope to exercise “the grand passions” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 212). Even more surprising, she claims for women the right to sexual desire: “Women as well as men ought to have the common appetites and passions of their nature, they are only brutal when unchecked by reason: but the obligation to check them is the duty of mankind, not a sexual duty” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 238).

In the novel The Wrongs of Woman, the character Maria cautions her daughter in a letter to learn to distinguish genuine love and affection from passing infatuation but also urges her not to flee from pleasure and to open her heart to affection, even though that will also make her vulnerable to pain. In an important passage she deplores contemporary moral standards that require women to remain married to men for whom they have neither affection nor esteem: “woman, weak in reason, impotent in will, is required to moralize, sentimentalize herself to stone, and pine her life away, laboring to reform her embruted mate” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 154). Maria declares that, to the contrary, lack of passion and coldness of heart undermine virtue, and she argues that desire must be reciprocal and women must have the freedom to express “that fire of the imagination, which produces active sensibility, and positive virtue” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 153). Later she rails against the tyranny of laws that pit women's reason in opposition to their inclinations.

How should these apparent tensions be read, and what implications do they have for Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance? In the Vindication Wollstonecraft does seem to waver between two different ways of thinking about self-governance. On the one hand, especially in her insistence on women's capacity to reason and in her scathing condemnation of the “manners” of contemporary women, she seems to regard the control of the passions by reason as essential to self-governance. On the other hand, she seems also to be moving toward the view that in a well-balanced, virtuous character, reason and sensibility should mutually strengthen and support each other rather than either dominating the other. This seems clearly to be the view of The Wrongs of Woman. Why, then, this ambivalence on Wollstonecraft's part? There may be some truth in the claim that the events of Wollstonecraft's own life helped confirm her in the latter view. However, there may also be other reasons for Wollstonecraft's wavering. A clue to these reasons is found in one of her travel letters. Reflecting on her fears and hopes for her daughter Fanny, Wollstonecraft writes:

You know that as a female I am particularly attached to her—I feel more than a mother's fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the despondent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment, lest, while I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard—I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit—Hapless woman! what a fate is thine.

(Wollstonecraft 1977, Letter VI, 156)

In many other places in her writings Wollstonecraft qualifies her claims with a statement to the effect that what she describes characterizes the situation of women “in the current imperfect state of society.” This indicates that Wollstonecraft's apparent devaluation of passion stems from a number of sources. As I argued above, it must be seen, in the context of Wollstonecraft's defense of equality and of women's capacity to reason, as a counter to the Rousseauian depiction of “feminine” virtue. But Wollstonecraft's anxiety about passion is also a response to a social situation that denied to women the scope for expressing desire and passion and hence gave rise to devastating conflicts between reason and sensibility. This is particularly evident in Wollstonecraft's reflections on Fanny quoted above and in her depiction of Maria's marriage to George Venables, a situation that Maria managed to tolerate for six years only by deadening her sensibility. A further reason for Wollstonecraft's ambivalence was her view that “in the current state of society” there was always the danger that women's sensibility was more likely to undermine than strengthen virtue by encouraging “romantic, wavering feelings” rather than “strong, persevering passions.” As Maria reflects while gazing out of her asylum window hoping to catch a glimpse of Darnford, “how difficult it was for women to avoid growing romantic, who have no active duties or pursuits” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 1: 87).

Wollstonecraft's attempt in the Vindication to distinguish between those passions that undermine and those that strengthen virtue echoes Rousseau's attempt to make a similar distinction. Like Rousseau, she feels that the very same faculties and capacities, under different circumstances, may give rise to virtue and generosity of heart or self-centered vice. She also shares Rousseau's views about the power of education to shape these faculties and capacities for good or ill. Where she differs from Rousseau is in her acute awareness that virtue and vice arise as much, if not more, from the character of our social and affective relations with others as from our individual dispositions, characteristics, and capacities. Although she often wants to make exceptions for individuals of “genius” and at times portrays herself as Rousseau's solitary walker, requiring solitude for reflection, Wollstonecraft's individuals are nevertheless much more embedded in their relations with others than are Rousseau's.19 Despite the fact that she condemns the kind of obedient dependence characteristic of subordination, for Wollstonecraft independence is not defined in opposition to a mutually supportive dependence on others. In fact, the values of affection, reciprocity, and love for humanity are central to her account of self-governance. Wollstonecraft's view is that in the absence of genuine feelings for others, self-governance is most likely to be displaced by a kind of self-interested prudence. This was one of the aspects of Imlay that so wounded her, and which she blamed on his involvement with commerce.20 In the Vindication she claims:

The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator; we must mix in the throng and feel as men feel, before we can judge of their feelings … we must attain knowledge of others at the same time that we become acquainted with ourselves. Knowledge acquired any other way only hardens the heart and perplexes the understanding.

(Wollstonecraft 1975, 215)21

And in The Wrongs of Woman Jemima is presented as a woman with a great capacity for virtue, but in her “virtue, never nurtured by affection, assumed the stern aspect of selfish independence” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 1: 82) until Maria treats her with affection and respect.

Many of the tensions in her writings and the conflicts in her life bear testimony to Wollstonecraft's painful awareness that for women “in the current state of society” this kind of self-governance founded in generosity and affection was very difficult to achieve. On the one hand, she argues, women's subordination to men within the family, the idea that women's function is solely to please men, and the denial to women of the right to express or act in accordance with their affections all conspire to make love and friendship founded on respect just about impossible between men and women. This is because the effect of women's situation on women is to give rise either to an excess of affectionate sensibility—as Wollstonecraft felt was true of herself—or else to coquetry, while its effect on men is to render them lascivious or tyrannical or both. In these circumstances it is highly unlikely that women will have sufficient self-respect, or command sufficient respect from men, to make reciprocity a genuine possibility. In this context it is interesting to note that Wollstonecraft's sometimes prudish remarks in the Vindication about the need for bodily modesty arise from the conviction that self-respect and respect for others is necessarily connected with respect for the integrity of one's own body and for the bodies of others. By the time of The Wrongs of Woman the prudish aspects of this conviction have disappeared, and Wollstonecraft's comments about marriage laws—“legal prostitution”—that make women and their children the property of men suggest that she regarded women's right to self-governance with respect to their bodies as integral to the demand for equality.

On the other hand, she continues, women's exclusion from the duties of citizenship tends to promote a kind of self-centeredness and leads to a lack of that sense of justice that is necessary if we are to treat others with respect. Here Wollstonecraft points to the behavior of those leisured women who show more concern for their dogs than for their servants. She also points to the kind of parental affection that is an extension of this kind of self-love: “Justice, truth, everything is sacrificed by these Rebekahs, and for the sake of their own children they violate the most sacred duties, forgetting the common relationship that binds the whole family on earth together” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 265). Wollstonecraft is adamant that the only solution is a transformation of women's situation in both private and public spheres.


One of the major themes of Wollstonecraft's work is that women will not be able to attain self-governance without a certain degree of material—particularly financial—independence. Wollstonecraft's concern with women's financial independence arises out of two firm convictions. The first is that women's emotional dependence and subjection to the tyranny of men will continue so long as women are financially dependent on men and so long as women's independence is not protected by the law. This conviction is articulated most forcefully in The Wrongs of Woman, where it is dramatized in the stories of Maria, Jemima, and the various women in whose houses Maria takes lodgings after leaving George Venables, all of whom are victims of the law's inequality. The second is that financial independence, but more importantly, work, is essential to self-esteem and to virtue. As Wollstonecraft remarks in the Vindication, “virtue, says reason, must be acquired by rough toils, and useful struggles with worldly cares” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 143, note 5). These convictions underlie her suggestion that women could very usefully be trained for a number of professions, including medicine, education, politics, and business.

Wollstonecraft was aware that women's financial independence could not be achieved without large-scale changes in the organization of society. To this end she advocated sweeping changes in marriage and property laws, urged the introduction of a system of public coeducation, and suggested, even if somewhat tentatively, that it was not sufficient for women to be citizens, they must also be represented in government. Her view was that these were matters for public, not private, concern and felt that until such changes were introduced women would be unable to achieve self-governance in either their social or their affective relationships. However, Wollstonecraft had no clear proposals for how the changes she advocated might be compatible with the maternal “duties” that she seemed to think were natural to women. For this reason feminists recently have raised two serious objections to Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance.

First, it is often claimed that Wollstonecraft's ideal of self-governance is an ideal attainable only by middle-class women. In the Vindication, for example, her description of a harmonious and fulfilling domestic scene includes reference to a woman “discharging the duties of her station with perhaps merely a servant-maid to take off her hands the servile part of the household business” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 254-55), and it is evident that without such domestic help Wollstonecraft herself would not have been able to devote much of her time to the business of writing.22 The character of Jemima in The Wrongs of Woman indicates that Wollstonecraft became increasingly aware of this problem. Nevertheless, much of the narrative is occupied with the story of the middle-class Maria, who promises, in exchange for Jemima's support, to better her situation. Is the self-governance of educated middle-class women therefore to be achieved at the expense of working-class women who can relieve them of the “servile” aspects of their duties?23 This question remains pertinent today.

Second, it is argued that despite the importance of Wollstonecraft's critique of property and marriage laws and of her argument that the rights of citizenship must be extended to women if they are going to be expected to fulfill what are after all social duties (the rearing of children), her critique of civil society works by trying to extend the contractual relations of civil society into the private sphere rather than by challenging the association between the masculine/feminine distinction and the tensions within the liberal public sphere between justice and love, contract and kinship, individuality and community. In other words, Wollstonecraft claims for women the capacities of the self-governing male citizen, arguing that relations within the family between men and women and parents and children must be founded on the same basis as relations between equal citizens within the public sphere. Given this starting point, Wollstonecraft can only acknowledge the ethical and political implications of women's specific embodiment by arguing that women have specific social duties—namely, their maternal duties—to which any activities in which they engage in the public sphere must be seen as secondary. Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance thus compels her to preserve the distinction between public and private spheres and consequently to accept the oppressive representation implicit in this distinction of women's bodies as passive and bound to nature.24

These criticisms can begin to be addressed by first assessing Wollstonecraft's views on maternity. Wollstonecraft's remarks about women's maternal duties need to be read fairly carefully for the following reasons. First, it is clear that these remarks play a very important strategic function in her argument in defense of equality. For as was indicated above, what she seeks to show is that even granting the premises of the Rousseauian argument, the conclusions thought to follow from it do not in fact do so. It should not be assumed, however, that Wollstonecraft simply endorses these premises. Second, that Wollstonecraft does not straightforwardly endorse these premises is evident from a number of conflicting remarks she makes about maternity. It is true that she does claim that “the care of children in their infancy is one of the grand duties annexed to the female character by nature” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 265). However, she also claims that “natural affection, as it is termed, I believe to be a very faint tie, affections must grow out of the habitual exercise of a mutual sympathy” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 266). And in The Wrongs of Woman Maria remarks that “in the present state of women it is a great misfortune to be prevented from discharging the duties, and cultivating the affections” of a mother (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 154 Italics added). These remarks suggest that Wollstonecraft's views on maternity pertain to a very specific context, one in which women had few options as far as contributions to society were concerned, apart from the raising of children; in which, given the lack of genuinely reciprocal relationships between men and women, the only outlet for women's affections was in their relationships with their children; in which women were by default primarily responsible for the raising of children because there was no legal or social obligation for men to do so; and in which many leisured women effectively abrogated their responsibilities toward their children.

Given the complexity of this context, Wollstonecraft's views on maternity need to be read on a number of different levels. At one level they are addressed to men, in particular to middle-class men, in the hope of convincing them that the education of their daughters and wives will in fact better enable them to perform those duties that she concedes are “annexed to the female character by nature.” At another level, by distinguishing between affections and duties and by suggesting that maternity is a social duty, not a merely “natural affection,” Wollstonecraft aims to contest the assumption that maternity and self-governance are incompatible virtues by showing that the kind of affections, responsibilities, and skills that arise in the context of child rearing are essential to self-governance. On this basis she can then argue that “maternal duties” are not incompatible with the duties of a citizen. At yet another level, this distinction also enables Wollstonecraft to suggest that women should be able to fulfill their obligations to society in ways other than, or additional to, maternity. Although Wollstonecraft was very well aware that this would not be possible without vast changes in the structure of society, it seems clear that she thought the difficulty was a question of social organization rather than of women's natures.

If this reading of Wollstonecraft's views on maternity is correct, what are its implications for the claim that her ideal of self-governance is an ideal attainable only by educated middle-class women? It is important to distinguish between the issue of whether class distinction is a necessary feature of Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance and the issue of what she herself says on the matter. As far as Wollstonecraft herself is concerned, she seems to voice a number of somewhat conflicting views, probably reflecting the limited range of conceivable options that were available to her, indeed to all women. In a number of places she suggests that self-governance has less to do with what she calls a woman's “station” than with a woman's dignity and independence. In the Vindication, for example, she claims that virtue seems to be most prevalent among poor, uneducated working-class women (Wollstonecraft 1975, 171), and in The Wrongs of Woman Maria writes to her daughter: “I fondly hope to see you … possessed of that energy of character which gives dignity to any station; and with that clear, firm spirit that will enable you to choose a situation for yourself, or submit to be classed in the lowest, if it be the only one in which you can be the mistress of your own actions.” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 149). Wollstonecraft was aware, however, that poor women, in addition to suffering the “wrongs of woman,” also suffered the burdens of the poor more generally, and she believed that poor women were unlikely to be the mistresses of their own actions until both class and sex inequalities are abolished. Yet elsewhere Wollstonecraft seems to align self-governance with “cultivated sensibilities” and to take the existence of servants for granted, even though she is insistent that servants must be regarded and treated as fellow human beings. It is clear, though not surprising, that Wollstonecraft did not really come to terms with the question of who would care for the children of professional women. It is therefore quite possible that she assumed another woman, probably a servant, would take up some of the responsibility. Despite this, I would deny that Wollstonecraft's conception of self-governance presupposes class distinction. For her ideal of self-governance is not committed to the idea that only professional women can achieve independence, even though she is adamant that a certain degree of education is essential for all women. Rather, at the heart of Wollstonecraft's concern with women's independence are the ideas that women must have the liberty and resources to assume responsibility for their own actions and that self-governance is not inconsistent with maternity, affection, or interdependence.

Where does this leave Wollstonecraft with respect to the public/private distinction and with respect to the alleged masculinity of her conception of self-governance? Again, Wollstonecraft's views need to be read carefully. On the one hand, she was aware that, “in the present imperfect state of society,” men's equality and reason were achieved at the expense of women's liberty and autonomy and that reason and sensibility, justice and love, citizenship and kinship, and individuality and community seemed irreconcilable, particularly for women. I have tried to show that because she was concerned with the ethical implications of sexual difference, Wollstonecraft tried to articulate a conception of women's self-governance that does not simply identify self-governance with one side of these oppositions (the “masculine” side), but rather tries to reconcile them, as well as to disentangle them from their association with the masculine/feminine distinction.25 I have also argued that Wollstonecraft was aware that her recommendations for women would require massive reorganization of the public sphere, including the political representation of women's interests. That Wollstonecraft in 1792 could not envisage the full extent of this reorganization should not lead us to conclude that she underestimated its difficulty or immensity.

But what is to be made of Wollstonecraft's agreement with Rousseau that the family is the foundation of civil life? And what is to be made of her concession that women's comparative physical weakness may make them more “dependent,” and so perhaps less able to achieve virtue, than men? (Wollstonecraft 1975, 80, 109). To some extent this concession should be read as a response to Rousseau's attempt to link his claims about “feminine” reason and virtue to the supposed “natural” passivity and dependency of the female body. Wollstonecraft seeks once again to show that one may accept Rousseau's premises without accepting his conclusion—that virtue is different for the different sexes. This interpretation is supported by Wollstonecraft's frequent arguments to the effect that the physical incapacities to which many women are subject are the direct result of their subordination—in particular, of ideals of feminine beauty that actively discourage women from developing physical strength and skill. However, in light of the fact that Wollstonecraft's text wavers between the character ideal conception of self-governance that I have highlighted in this article and the idea that self-governance is a matter of reason's sovereignty over the body, this concession also indicates that Wollstonecraft was still struggling in the grip of the dominant cultural representation of women's bodies as passive, heteronomous bodies. This is perhaps why in the Vindication she could not see a clear solution to the problem of women's subordination except a transformation of the family. The events of Wollstonecraft's life after the publication of the Vindication, as well as her later writings, indicate that she became somewhat less optimistic about this solution. But the fact that feminists today are still coming to terms with the problem she so acutely diagnosed, and with some of her solutions, shows that many of the conflicts Wollstonecraft experienced and expressed in trying to articulate an adequate ideal of self-governance for women are still with us.


  1. I use the terms “autonomy” and “self-governance” interchangeably in this article, although only the latter term was used by Wollstonecraft. My tendency, however, is to stick with Wollstonecraft's own term.

  2. This view is expressed by Claire Tomalin (1974). Between the time of the publication of Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and her death following childbirth in 1797, Wollstonecraft had lived in revolutionary circles in Paris during the French Revolution; had had an affair with the American, Imlay, who was the father of her first child, Fanny; attempted suicide on two occasions following the break up of her relationship with Imlay; and lived with and then married William Godwin, who was the father of her second child, Mary (Shelley). By the standards of her time, and indeed even by our own, her life was extremely unconventional. It is partly because of this that the nature of her personal life has often provided the main context for the reception and interpretation of her work since the publication of Vindication.

  3. See especially Miriam Kramnick's introduction to the 1975 edition of Vindication, and Moira Gatens (1991a). Although my interpretation of Wollstonecraft differs quite markedly from that of Gatens, her discussion in this article helped provoke a rethinking of my views on Wollstonecraft.

  4. An exception to the standard contemporary feminist interpretation of Wollstonecraft's work is that of Jean Grimshaw (1989) which I discovered after writing this article. Grimshaw does not specifically discuss Wollstonecraft's views on autonomy, but she does argue that a careful reading of Wollstonecraft's other writings, apart from the Vindication, is essential if we are to understand the tensions and shifts in her views.

  5. For a scholarly account of the changing associations within the history of philosophy between the reason/passion and public/private oppositions and ideals of masculinity and femininity, see Lloyd (1984).

  6. This unfinished novel, which Wollstonecraft tells the reader is the story “of woman, rather than of an individual,” is set in an asylum—Wollstonecraft's metaphor for women's “civil death” in eighteenth-century English society (see note 12 below). Its three central characters are Maria, a woman who has been committed and had her child abducted by an unfaithful and impecunious husband (George Venables) seeking to gain control of her inheritance; Jemima, Maria's warder, a working-class woman whose basically virtuous character has been deadened by poverty, sexual abuse, hard labor, and lack of affection; and the ambivalent Darnford, Maria's lover, who seems to embody both the virtues and the vices that Wollstonecraft discovered in men.

  7. See also Moria Gatens (1986) and the discussion of Wollstonecraft in Chapter 1 Gatens (1991b).

  8. Gatens' arguments in both her articles on Wollstonecraft (Gatens 1986, 1991a) seem to assume that a recognition of the ethical significance of sexual difference entails the idea of a specific feminine ethic. This assumption does not seem to me to be self-evident.

  9. Rousseau's proposals concerning the education of women and his attempts to justify these proposals through an account of woman's “nature,” occupy most of book V of Emile which is an account of the appropriate education for Sophie, Emile's future wife and helpmeet (Rousseau 1974). In book V it becomes clear that the concern with equality that preoccupies Rousseau in the Social Contract and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is a concern with men's equality only, as women are specifically excluded from the rights and duties of citizenship. In connection with this, feminist commentators have pointed out how Sophie's education is designed not around her own needs but around the idea that her role is to be Emile's complement and subordinate: “Nature herself has decreed that woman, both for herself and her children, should be at the mercy of man's judgment. … A woman's education must therefore be planned in relation to man” (Rousseau 1974, 328). For a sample of some of these commentaries see the discussions of Rousseau in Lloyd (1984), Martin (1985), Okin (1979), and Pateman (1988).

  10. Wollstonecraft's interest in the doctrine of human perfectibility seems to be have been aroused by her association with the dissenting theologian and reformer Dr. Richard Price. For an account of this association at various periods of Wollstonecraft's life, see Tomalin (1974).

  11. In contrast to Gatens (1991b, 23), who argues that Wollstonecraft's critique of the inequities of Rousseau's educational proposals for women does not take into account the integral role that these proposals play in Rousseau's overall social and political project, the following argument is intended to show that Wollstonecraft was well aware of this connection. In fact, what Wollstonecraft seeks to show is that Rousseau's proposals for women's education will actually undermine his social and political project.

  12. In many places in the Vindication Wollstonecraft is quite scathing about the coquettish, pleasure seeking, self-obsessed behavior of these women who could take as long as five hours to get dressed! Her observations as well as her animosity arose from her experience working as governess to the children of a landed Irish aristocratic couple, the Kingsboroughs. Wollstonecraft felt that there was little hope, short of revolution, for changing the ways of the aristocracy. However, she hoped to influence the middle classes, to whom, she claims, her book is addressed. Wollstonecraft was appalled by the way in which the newly leisured middle-class women were attempting to emulate their aristocratic sisters, but, despite her scorn, the argument of the Vindication is that the behavior of these women has only one source—their social position. As Miriam Kramnick makes clear, (Wollstonecraft 1975), the social position of both middle- and working-class women and the opportunities open to them were dramatically different at the end of the eighteenth century from what they had been one hundred years previously. The rapid expansion of industrialization and mechanization in production had shifted much productive work out of the domestic economy and out of family-based businesses and into factories removed from the home. As a result, middle-class women, who previously had played a significant role in the economy, had become a leisured class dependent entirely on their husbands for economic support and “protection,” while working-class women spent increasingly long hours outside the home, performing badly paid menial work with very little time left to care for their children. While working-class women thus ruined their health in factories, middle-class women ruined their health through idleness and through attempts to achieve ideals of “feminine” beauty. Women's economic disenfranchisement became “civil death” when Blackstone announced in 1757 that “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband” (quoted by Kramnick in Wollstonecraft 1975, 34). As I will suggest later in this article, sensitivity to this context makes more comprehensible some of Wollstonecraft's more drastic pronouncements against pleasure.

  13. According to Rousseau, feminine virtue must be enforced in two ways: first, by ensuring that women not only remain in the private sphere but also lead retiring, almost reclusive lives: “the genuine mother of a family is no woman of the world, she is almost as much of a recluse as the nun in her convent” (Rousseau 1974, 350), and second, through the iron grip of social opinion. Rousseau asserts in Emile: “A man has no one but himself to consider, and so long as he does right he may defy public opinion; but when a woman does right her task is only half finished, and what people think of her matters as much as what she really is” (Rousseau 1974, 328).

  14. Compare Wollstonecraft (1980b, 1: 137): “By allowing women but one way of rising in the world, the fostering the libertinism of men, society makes monsters of them, and then their ignoble vices are brought forward as proof of inferiority of intellect.”

  15. The attitude of stoic resignation is most evident in Wollstonecraft's early novel Mary, A Fiction, originally published in 1788 (Wollstonecraft 1980a). At the end of the novel the heroine's response to sorrow and sexual injustice is resignation mixed with joy at the prospect of death and the thought that “she was hastening to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage” (Wollstonecraft 1980a, 68). Even here, however, Wollstonecraft's irony gets the better of her resignation.

  16. Compare the following remarks, “Standing armies can never consist of resolute robust men; they may be well-disciplined machines, but they will seldom contain men under the influence of strong passions, or with very vigorous faculties; and as for any depth of understanding I will venture to affirm that it is as rarely to be found in the army as amongst women … The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural. Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 106).

  17. Compare Maria's picture of her uncle who “inculcated, with great warmth, self-respect, and a lofty consciousness of acting right, independent of the censure of the world,” (Wollstonecraft 1980b, 2: 128).

  18. Compare Wollstonecraft (1975, 202) on woman “becoming the slave of her own feelings, she is easily subjugated by those of others.”

  19. In a footnote in the Vindication that anticipates contemporary feminist critiques of liberalism, Wollstonecraft suggests that Rousseau's picture of the solitary individual in the “state of nature” overlooks “the long and helpless state of infancy” and so the necessary sociality of human life (Wollstonecraft 1975, 94). Many contemporary feminists have argued that liberal political theory, particularly in its more libertarian guises, is deeply flawed because it assumes a mistaken conception of human subjectivity, namely, that human beings spring out of the earth fully developed like mushrooms, to paraphrase Hobbes. For a sample of these critiques, see Pateman (1988); Jaggar (1983); and Tapper (1986). Whether this characterization is applicable to contemporary forms of liberalism and social contract theory is, of course, the subject of considerable debate among liberals, communitarians, and feminists.

  20. See, for example, her letter to him written in Hamburg en route to England from Scandinavia (Wollstonecraft 1977, Letter LXVII, 251). Wollstonecraft seemed to regard commerce as inherently corrupting. Compare her portraits of George Venables and the young Darnford in The Wrongs of Woman (Wollstonecraft 1980b).

  21. Compare also Wollstonecraft (1977, Letter III, 150-51): “Mixing with mankind, we are obliged to examine our prejudices, and often imperceptibly lose, as we analyze them.”

  22. Wollstonecraft employed a French nursemaid named Marguerite to care for Fanny.

  23. This objection is raised by Gatens (1991a), Martin (1985), and Eisenstein (1981, chap. 5).

  24. As was mentioned earlier, this criticism is raised by Gatens (1986, 1991a, and 1991b). Carole Pateman also makes a similar criticism in Pateman (1988).

  25. In this respect, her work anticipates some of the preoccupations of contemporary feminist philosophers interested in moral theory and theories of justice. See, for example, Benhabib (1987), Okin (1989); and Young (1990).


Benhabib, Seyla. 1987. “The generalized and the concrete other.” In Feminism as critique, ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Eisenstein, Zillah. 1981. The radical future of liberal feminism. New York: Longman.

Gatens, Moira. 1986. “Rousseau and Wollstonecraft: Nature vs. reason.” In Women and philosophy, ed. Janna Thompson. Supplement to Australasian Journal of Philosophy 64 (June): 1-15.

———. 1991a. “The oppressed state of my sex: Wollstonecraft on reason, feeling and equality.” In Feminist interpretations and political theory, ed. Carole Pateman and Mary Lyndon Shanley. Cambridge: Polity Press; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

———. 1991b. Feminism and philosophy: Perspectives on equality and difference. Cambridge: Polity Press; Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Grimshaw, Jean. 1989. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the tensions in feminist philosophy.” Radical Philosophy 52 (Summer): 11-17.

Jaggar, Alison. 1983. Feminist politics and human nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld; Brighton: Harvester.

Kittay, Eva, and Diana T. Meyers, eds. 1987. Women and moral theory. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lloyd, Genevieve. 1984. The man of reason. London: Methuen; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Martin, Jane Roland. 1985. Reclaiming a conversation: The ideal of the educated woman. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Okin, Susan. 1979. Women in Western political thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

———. 1989. Justice, gender and the family. New York: Basic Books.

Pateman, Carole. 1988. The sexual contract. Cambridge: Polity.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. [1755] 1973. “Discourse on the origins of inequality.” In “The Social Contract” and other discourses. London: Dent (Everyman's Library).

———. [1762] 1974. Emile. London: Dent; New York Dutton (Everyman's Library).

———. [1762] 1983. On the social contract; Discourse on the origin of inequality; Discourse on political economy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Tapper, Marion. 1986. “Can a feminist be a liberal?” In Women and philosophy, ed. Janna Thompson. Supplement to Australasian Journal of Philosophy 64 (June): 37-47.

Tomalin, Claire. 1974. The life and death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Todd, Janet M., ed. 1977. A Wollstonecraft anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. [1792] 1975. Vindication of the rights of woman, ed. Miriam Kramnick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

———. [1796] 1977. Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In A Wollstonecraft anthology, ed. Janet M. Todd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. [1788] 1980a. Mary, A Fiction. In Mary and “The Wrongs of Woman,” ed. James Kinsley and Gary Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. [1798] 1980b. The wrongs of woman; or, Maria: A fragment. In Mary and “The wrongs of woman,” eds. James Kinsley, and Gary Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, Iris. 1990. Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sally-Ann Kitts (essay date April 1994)

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SOURCE: Kitts, Sally-Ann. “Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: A Judicious Response from the Eighteenth-Century Spain.” Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 351-59.

[In the following essay, Kitts discusses a 1792 review of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a Spanish periodical that was very favorable but which played down the work's more revolutionary aspects.]

Those familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft's radical feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, may be surprised to discover that it received a lengthy and favourable review in a periodical published in the reactionary Spain of 1792. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789, the government of Charles IV, headed by the Count of Floridablanca, had taken increasingly severe measures to curb the spread of revolutionary ideas from France, a country which had exerted a great influence on the development of Spanish culture and ideas throughout the eighteenth century. Beginning on a small scale with border seizures of books and prints, restrictive measures soon became more institutionalized: exactly a year after the storming of the Bastille, an updated index of prohibited and expurgated books, including revolutionary writings, was published; a severe press law was promulgated on 24 February 1791 forbidding the publication of any periodicals except the two official gazettes (Mercurio histórico y político de España, Gaceta de Madrid) and the Diario de Madrid, and in June 1793 a blanket ban was declared on any mention, whether critical or favourable, of the events occurring in France.1 The government was helped in establishing a ‘cordón sanitario’ between France and Spain by a renewed rapprochement with the Inquisition from September 1789 onwards, a notable change in policy following a period in which the power of the Church as a whole over Spanish society had been gradually restricted by the government of Charles III.2

One of the most wide-reaching and harmful of these measures, as far as the cultural and intellectual development of Spain was concerned, was the Royal Resolution of 24 February 1791 banning all private periodicals, except for the Diario de Madrid, ‘por haber [en ellos] muchas especies perjudiciales’.3 Indeed, the periodical press had become the major vehicle for the dissemination of new ideas in eighteenth-century Spain.4 From its earliest polemical example, the Diario de los literatos de España (1737-42), through its first burgeoning in the decade of the 1760s with the essay-periodicals, modelled on Addison and Steele's earlier Spectator, the periodical press reached a period of daring and brilliance in the 1780s. The outspoken Madrid periodical El censor (1782-87) enlivened the early years, while the decade was to culminate in a burst of information and discussion of new ideas and advances in almost all fields of knowledge from 1786 until the untimely demise of periodicals in 1791.

Floridablanca's law caused irreparable damage to the periodical press, which was not to recover any real vigour until the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, apart, that is, from two brief periods of activity during the liberal years of 1810-14 and 1820-23.5 Those few journals which were able to publish in the last decade of the eighteenth century were forced to concentrate on issues of lesser importance, with no possible political significance. They were largely of commercial, agricultural, or scientific interest, or concentrated on the arts, publishing readers' poems and short articles together with bland reviews and tedious historical or geographical anecdotes.6 Yet one topic which did continue to be aired was that of women's rights and role in society, a subject which had received much attention throughout the century in books, pamphlets, the theatre, and above all in the periodicals.7 It was presumably seen by the government as a safe subject, offering no serious threat to either the political or the social stability of the country, a perception confirmed by the innocuous nature of the discussion in this period, which was largely limited to the question of the need for, nature, and aims of education for women, together with the possibility of enhancing their contribution to the welfare of society.8

While Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman addresses both these apparently safe matters, it offers at the same time a radical review of the whole basis and structure of contemporary society.9 Wollstonecraft was a staunch supporter of both the French Revolution and the egalitarian principles which underpinned it, and a vociferous and outspoken defender of women's rights at a time when the vast majority of women had virtually none. She stands out as one of the first women to work in a typically male profession, managing to support herself financially as a reviewer and editorial assistant to Thomas Christie on Joseph Johnson's journal, The Analytical Review. Her emotional life also set her apart from the accepted norm: in the Spring of 1793 she began a passionate affair with the American, Gilbert Imlay, and in May 1794 gave birth to their illegitimate daughter, Fanny. Learning of his faithlessness, she made the first of two attempts at suicide in May 1795, finally managing to break off with him later in 1795 after her second attempt at suicide failed. She began a relationship with William Godwin in 1796 and they were married in March 1797 following the discovery of her second pregnancy. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died following the birth of her second daughter in August 1797.10

First published in January 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects was swiftly translated into French. The French edition, entitled Défense des droits des femmes, is an accomplished, enthusiastic, and accurate translation of the original work.11 The translator is an unnamed woman, who adds a number of footnotes to the text. They explain certain customs peculiar to English society or expand upon some of Wollstonecraft's arguments, calling at one point for better education and the right to divorce for women in France (pp. 448-49).12

The first part of the Spanish review of the French edition appeared in the Diario de Madrid on 6 September 1792, less than nine months after the publication of the first English edition.13 The Diario de Madrid, a publication dating back to 1758, was the first daily newspaper to be published in Spain. The only non-governmental periodical allowed to continue publishing after Floridablanca's press ban, the Diario de Madrid is also noteworthy for its support of women writers and poets, publishing a large number of poems, letters, and short articles by women through to the first years of the nineteenth century.14 This increase in the presence of creative writing by women in the last years of the eighteenth century may be seen as a positive and tangible effect of the debate in Spain on women's intellectual abilities which had begun with Feijoo's feminist essay, Defensa de las mujeres (1726). It reflects an increasing acceptance amongst the educated classes of woman's rationality and her ability to undertake intellectual pursuits and not just limit herself to domestic skills, an acceptance brought about by the substantial presence of writings about woman, both in the press and in books.

The review of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is signed simply ‘J. de V.’, the initials of Julián de Velasco, co-editor of the Diario de Madrid with Pedro Salanova since the beginning of 1791.15 Velasco's career in journalism appears to have begun in 1789 when, aged only twenty-five, he published the Discursos literarios, políticos y morales, a periodical which declared in the first issue that it was for ‘las personas que se dedican al estudio de la moral, de la política y de la legislación’.16 The periodical ran to only seven issues following the seizure of issue No. 6, a history of the Jesuits, and was condemned by the Inquisition in an edict of 10 May 1789.17 Velasco is also known to have presented several requests to publish new periodicals, but these were not approved for publication: in 1787 for a Mercurio filosófico, together with his brother Bernardo who was a Juez de Imprentas; in 1802 for a Diario de los teatros, with Eusebio Alvarez; in 1803 for the Efemérides de la instrucción de España, thought to have been the inspiration behind Pedro Olivé's successful Efemérides de la Illustración de España (1804-05).18 Velasco is also known to have been secretary to the Marqués de Valdelirio, a member of the Madrid Economic Society and would appear to have been an able French linguist.19

A forthright and politically radical text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman would have suffered an immediate and probably total ban in Spain, from both the governmental and the inquisitorial censors, had its full contents been known. It is therefore not surprising to discover that the reviewer should have been selective in his choice of passages and arguments to highlight. Velasco paraphrases and translates extracts of around a paragraph in size, mostly taken from the beginnings and ends of chapters, which generally summarize the chief points made. Overall, the reviewer is very favourable to the book, providing an accurate summary of most of its arguments, although tempering their more revolutionary aspects. He also does not communicate the tone of anger and defiance and the feeling of personal involvement which come from the process of discussing a problem which the author shared with her readers and which characterizes Wollstonecraft's original text. The French edition gives the author's name as Mary Wollstonecraft and the text provides numerous indications of the sex of the author.20 However, Velasco appears to wish the readers to think that Wollstonecraft is a man, since he assiduously avoids any reference to her as a woman. His Spanish version of the title gives her name as ‘Marly Wollstone-craft’ (p. 1043), and she is referred to variously throughout the review in either a male or a neutral fashion: as ‘Wolstone Craft’ (p. 1051), ‘Wolstone’ (p. 1051), ‘Wolstonecraft’ (p. 1052), ‘Wollstonecraft’ (p. 1179), ‘M. W.’ (p. 1180), ‘Nuestro Filósofo’ (p. 1183), ‘Mr. Wolstonecraft’ (p. 1185), and most frequently as ‘el autor’ or ‘nuestro autor’.

Velasco begins by declaring that the fundamental idea of Wollstonecraft's work is ‘explicada y discutida con mucha propiedad’ (p. 1043) and he goes on to call it a ‘sabia defensa de los derechos de las mujeres’ (p. 1051). The review captures succinctly the general thrust of Wollstonecraft's argument, highlighting a number of important points. It states that the apparent improvement in the situation of women in Europe from the slavery of past centuries is deceptive, since women are in fact held in esteem by men only for their beauty, and this esteem lasts only as long as their good looks endure. This fictitious position of equality of men and women in European society exists at the expense of virtue, and it still remains the case that women have no rights whatsoever and no freedom. Rights for women can be obtained only by means of an education based on reason and which aims to enable women to exercise their mental faculties. It is only in this way that women will gain a precise knowledge of their obligations in and to society. Velasco notes that Wollstonecraft believes women cannot be criticized for failing to carry out their obligations, since no obligation can be said to bind if it is not backed by reason and the choice to fulfil it has not been freely and rationally made. Women's lack of education makes such a choice impossible for them. The reviewer draws a set of requirements from Wollstonecraft's text for the improvement of women's situation and society in general:

Dar a las mujeres los mismos principios de educación que a los hombres, aficionarlas a sus obligaciones por el mismo conocimiento de estos deberes, dirigir su corazón y su espíritu por las luces de la razón, libertarlas de toda opresión que se oponga a los progresos de su espíritu y que suele ahogar todas las semillas de lo bueno, son otros tantos manantiales fecundos que producirán las mayores ventajas en la sociedad.

(p. 1184)

Velasco writes that for Wollstonecraft, virtue is more than a superficial attitude projected onto the world and is common to both sexes. Real virtue is based on solid principles and rational reflection, and he notes that Wollstonecraft believes it is impossible for an individual to be virtuous in a state of total dependence on others, such as that in which women find themselves. Women, therefore, need the protection of civil laws to enable them to carry out their social and human obligations. To deny women education to develop their faculties of reason is a public waste of half the human race, since there are many occupations in which they could engage. If men were to treat women rationally and not as slaves, they would be better mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, and have a true and real love for men once they were able to have respect for themselves. This would lead to true feelings of affection amongst families, and society as a whole would benefit. To achieve this harmonious state, women need a proper intellectual and rational education, preferably in co-educational schools, as this will help to prepare them for coping in marriage and in society.

Velasco concludes his review with a quotation from Wollstonecraft:

La virtud no prevalecerá en la sociedad, hasta que las virtudes de ambos sexos estén fundadas en la claridad de la razón, después de estarlo en la religión y hasta que se deje que los afectos que les son comunes adquieran la fuerza de que son capaces para poner en práctica sus mutuas obligaciones.

(p. 1185, my italics)

The quotation comes from Chapter 12 of the Vindication, entitled ‘On National Education’, and reads in the French version:

Le vertu ne prévaudra dans la société, que lorsque les vertus des deux sexes seront fondées sur la raison, et que lorsqu'on laissera les affectations qui leur sont communes, acquérir la force dont elles sont susceptibles par la pratique de leurs mutuels devoirs.21

Velasco may well have added the reference to the primacy of religion to suit the requirements of Spanish Catholic readers and the Inquisition. The conclusion of the review corresponds with the middle of Chapter 12, which is the penultimate chapter of Wollstonecraft's text. Given that the French translation is complete, it appears that Velasco chose to ignore the authors' detailed recommendations in Chapter 12 for national public education for girls and omitted her final chapter, ‘Some instances of the folly which the ignorance of women generates; with concluding reflections on the moral improvement that a revolution in female manners might naturally be expected to produce’.

The Spanish review of the translation of the Vindication, although (as can be seen from the above summary) for the most part a fair and detailed account of Wollstonecraft's arguments, is noticeably silent on one important aspect. Chapters 1 and 2 criticize the oppression of society exercised by the aristocracy, the army, and the Church. Wollstonecraft sees these authorities as tyrannical, arbitrary powers which subvert the natural order of equality and bar any possibility of social improvement and progress for women by inhibiting the development of reason. The overthrow of these institutions and the individuals who support them is a precondition for any real change in women's situation. Her criticism of the Church, and in particular of the aristocracy and monarchy, would assuredly have caused outrage and suffered the harshest censorship in the Spain of 1792.22 It would seem reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Velasco may have chosen to operate a system of self-censorship and simply omit this aspect, in spite of it being a precondition to Wollstonecraft's later arguments. He presumably judged that it was better to disseminate successfully the particular idea on women's rights than to attempt to put forward the whole argument and thereby risk problems with the censors similar to those which he had experienced four years earlier with the Discursos literarios, políticos y morales.

A similar approach was adopted by a later Spanish translator of one of Wollstonecraft's texts, Francisca Ruiz de Larrea, the wife of Juan Nicolás Böhl de Faber. In his article on Francisca Ruiz de Larrea and Mary Wollstonecraft, Guillermo Carnero identifies a manuscript of travel letters, apparently written by Francisca, as being in fact a translation of Wollstonecraft's Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, published by Joseph Johnson in 1796.23 A careful comparison with the original revealed to Carnero that certain deliberate changes had been made:

Se trata de conscientes censuras. […] En resumen: ha desaparecido todo lo que había en las Letters de Mary Wollstonecraft favorable a la crítica de los tópicos religiosos, o demonstrativo de comprensión hacia la Revolución Francesa. Y no falta en cambio, carta decimotercera, el ataque a Robespierre.

(p. 141)

It would seem that Francisca Ruiz de Larrea also considered some of Wollstonecraft's views to be inappropriate for a prospective Spanish readership.

Yet Julián de Velasco's review of the Vindication was not unusual in its support of the case for women's rights, in its favourable reception of the work, or in its omitting the more radical aspects of the book. Spain was an increasingly reactionary country in 1792 and it is therefore both likely and understandable that the more radical aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's work should have been excluded. It is surprising, however, to discover that they were also ignored by most of the English reviews of her work. Thus R. M. Janes notes that all except one of the first English reviews of the Vindication were favourable and that:

The contents of the reviews favourable to the work indicate why it was ignored rather than virulently attacked by most of those opposed to the political assumptions Wollstonecraft held. Most took it to be a sensible treatise on female education and ignored those recommendations in the work that might unsettle the relations between the sexes.24

It would appear that the majority of reviewers, be they English or Spanish, emphasized the work as an educational treatise and may have considered that the views on political and social revolution were too extreme to be taken seriously. As Miriam Brody notes:

Although the argument is inherently revolutionary, advocating the replacement of an aristocracy of inherited property and titles with a meritocracy based on reason, the Vindication professes with such self-evident sincerity the values of a harmonious, affectionate family life, respect for faithfulness between husband and wife, and devotion to the welfare of children, that the traditional humanistic concern of women for family and children is satisfied.

(p. 63)

Velasco's presentation of the work purely as a respectable treatise on women's upbringing and social role appears to be a standard interpretation for his time.

Velasco's particular focus and emphases are likely to be governed not only by common-sense expediency but also by an understanding of the needs and interests of his readership. Having been presented with a lengthy series of articles discussing the nature, education, and role of women in society in the periodical press of the 1780s, the literate Spanish public of 1792 could be assumed to be conversant with many of the central issues and arguments of the debate. A number of the points raised by Wollstonecraft and referred to by Velasco had already been articulated by Spanish authors in relatively recent popular discussion of female issues. For example, in 1786 a Spanish female intellectual, Josefa Amar y Borbón, writing in favour of the admission of women to the Madrid Economic Society, had highlighted the emphasis placed on appearance and on such so-called feminine qualities as delicacy and grace to the detriment of women's education.25 Her answer was an education for women based on reason, and the later publication of a book permitted her to set out a detailed set of proposals for a comprehensive intellectual education for women.26 A similar observation on the evanescence of beauty and the need for women to be educated in order to be virtuous had been made some twenty-five years earlier in José Clavijo y Fajardo's El Pensador.27

Similarly, Wollstonecraft's claim that women need to be freed from their state of dependence on men and given the protection of civil laws was forcefully put by ‘D. J. G.’, a contributor to the Correo de Madrid, in 1789.28 The article compares the perceived slavery of women in Eastern harems with the deceptive freedom of European women in eighteenth-century society. In fact, D. J. G. argues, European women are frequently imprisoned by poverty, by the outcome of double moral standards which condemn them to lives of vice for a single sexual transgression, or by despotic husbands aided and abetted by a legal system which refuses to recognize women as having any independent status under the law.

The argument put forward by Wollstonecraft, that to deny women a rational education is a waste of a potential workforce of half of the human race, is one which had been articulated in September 1786 by another contributor to the debate on the admission of women to the Madrid Economic Society, Ignacio López de Ayala.29 The idea of using women as a workforce was very appealing to contemporary Spanish intellectuals, in particular politicians and those involved in the Economic Societies, who were faced with the task of rebuilding Spain's economy at a time when her world prestige was low and her impoverished industrial base could not compete with the tide of imports of manufactured goods which were draining further the national resources. Ayala states his case in simple but forceful terms:

Trátese de saber si las mujeres españolas, esto es, si la mitad de España, han de permanecer inútiles como hasta aquí; o si, por el contrario, se les han de suministrar luces y conocimientos para que ayuden a los hombres y gobiernen con inteligencia sus caudales y familias. Trátese de saber si se puede sacar de este sexo utilidad o si es un gremio réprobo que debe quedar abandonado al capricho, a la inutilidad, ociosidad y desenvoltura; porque en sustancia esto se inquiere cuando se pregunta si han de tener parte en las Sociedades Económicas.

(p. 176)

Ayala exhibits a similar view to that expressed throughout her work by Wollstonecraft on the present degenerate state of much of womankind as a result of a deficient upbringing and education. His arguments are based on a premise shared with Wollstonecraft that men and women have mutual obligations founded on their equal capacities for rational thought and he too argues for a review of the relations between the sexes in order to achieve proper and natural harmony in human interaction: ‘No miremos, pues, como máquinas o como estatuas a las mujeres, hagámoslas compañeras del hombre en el trabajo, hagámoslas racionales, y sepan lo que son y lo que pueden’ (p. 178).

Velasco himself had contributed to the debate on woman in the Diario de Madrid, both as an author and as the editor of a periodical which published articles on female issues, as well as poems, letters, and essays by women. In June of 1792 he published an article on women's education, highlighting the important role which women have within the family, and extending from that, within the state.30 He emphasized, as Wollstonecraft had, the need for both men and women to be properly educated so as to understand and acquire virtue, and he considered that without this understanding the moral character of society would suffer. The date of his article does not preclude his having been influenced in his writing by his awareness of Wollstonecraft's text.

Julián de Velasco was typical of a small but vociferous number of progressive Spanish writers of the 1780s and 1790s who supported an improved education and social status for women. He was clearly familiar with the current parameters of the debate on woman in Spain and may well have been influenced in his choice of which arguments to highlight from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by his knowledge of what was acceptable and of current interest to his readership. His obvious acquaintance with the Spanish debate on women's rights and role in society enabled him to present a detailed and favourable review of the main thrust of those of Wollstonecraft's arguments which concentrated on feminist issues. At the same time his common sense and perception of the difficult times faced by Spanish intellectuals in the period following the French Revolution led him to keep a judicious silence on the radical elements which form the foundation for Wollstonecraft's vision of an egalitarian society. When these various implications and factors have been considered, it would appear that the publication in the Spain of 1792 of a favourable review of Wollstonecraft's most outspoken and well-known work may not be as strange and surprising as it might first have seemed.


  1. On the measures taken to control the spread of revolutionary ideas in this period, see Lucienne Domergue, Le livre en Espagne au temps de la Révolution Française (Lyons: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1984), especially pp. 11-53; Lucien Dupuis, ‘Francia y lo francés en la prensa periódica española durante la Revolución francesa’, in La literatura española del siglo XVIII y sus fuentes extranjeras, ed. by Joaquín Arce, Nigel Glendinning, and Lucien Dupuis, Cuadernos de la Cátedra Feijoo, 20 (Oviedo: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, 1968), pp. 95-127.

  2. See Lucienne Domergue, Tres calas en la censura dieciochesca (Cadalso. Rousseau. Prensa Periódica) (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 1981), pp. 79-81. She notes: ‘A partir de la Revolución el Inquisidor General [fue el] nuevo aliado del ministerio contra el enemigo comun’ (p. 179).

  3. ‘Cesen los papeles periódicos a excepción del Diario de Madrid’, Novísima recopilación de las leyes de España (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1805), Tomo IV, Libro VIII, Título XVIII, Ley V, pp. 151-52.

  4. On the eighteenth-century Spanish press, see Paul-J. Guinard, La presse espagnole de 1737 à 1791: Formation et signification d'un genre (Paris: Centre de Recherches Hispaniques, 1973); Francisco Aguilar Piñal, La prensa española en el siglo XVIII: Diarios, revistas y pronósticos, Cuadernos Bibliográficos, 35 (Madrid: C.S.I.C., 1978); María Dolores Sáiz, Historia del periodismo en España, 1: Los orígenes. El siglo XVIII (Madrid: Alianza, 1983).

  5. On the nineteenth-century press, see María Cruz Seoane, Historia del periodismo en España, 2: El siglo XIX (Madrid: Alianza, 1983).

  6. On the periodicals of this period, see the relevant years' entries in Aguilar Piñal.

  7. For a concise review of the debate on woman in Spain in the eighteenth-century press, see my ‘La prensa y la polémica feminista en la España del siglo XVIII’, Estudios de Historia Social, 52-53 (1990), 265-73.

  8. For a detailed account of the writings on woman in this period see my ‘The Debate on Woman in Spain, 1726-1808 (with Special Reference to Pamphlets and the Periodical Press)’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 1991), pp. 249-79.

  9. On A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, see Miriam Brody's excellent introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin, 1988), in which she highlights the dual radical nature of the Rights of Woman as both a political and a feminist text; also Moira Ferguson and Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 59-74.

  10. For further information on Wollstonecraft's life and works, see inter alia, Ferguson and Todd, Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974), and The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, 7 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1989), 1, 7-28.

  11. Mary Wollstonecraft, Défense des droits des femmes, suivie de quelques considérations sur des sujets politiques et moraux (Paris: Buisson; Lyon: Bruyset, 1792). A copy of this edition is held in the British Library.

  12. Verbal agreement in a sentence in an earlier note indicates that the translator is, in fact, a woman: ‘J'étois allée voir un petit garçon dans une école où l'on préparoit de jeunes enfans pour une école plus grande’ (p. 438).

  13. Claire Tomalin notes that the completed text was handed to the printer on 3 January 1792 (p. 105). The precise date of publication of the French translation is unknown. The title and publication details given in the Diario de Madrid are: ‘Defensa de los derechos de las mujeres, a la que siguen algunas consideraciones sobre asuntos políticos y morales. Obra escrita en Inglés por Marly Wollstone-craft, [sic] traducida al francés, y dedicada al Illmo. Obispo de Autun: Paris, Buisson; Lyon, Bruyset, 1792’ (Diario de Madrid, 6 September 1792, p. 1043). The review was published in four parts: part 1, 6 September 1792, pp. 1043-45; part 2, 8 September, pp. 1051-52; part 3, 8 October, pp. 1179-81; part 4, 9 October, pp. 1183-85.

  14. Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Apuntes para una biblioteca de escritoras españolas desde el año 1401 al 1833, 4 vols, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, 268-71 (Madrid: Atlas, 1975), lists alphabetically by author a large number of poems, letters, and short articles published by women in periodicals during the eighteenth century, the majority of which are to be found in the Diario de Madrid in the 1790s. Francisco Aguilar Piñal also comments on the contribution of female poets to the periodical press in the introduction to Indice de las poesías publicadas en los periódicos españoles del siglo XVIII, Cuadernos Bibliográficos, 43 (Madrid: C.S.I.C., 1981), p. xiii.

  15. Aguilar Piñal, La prensa, p. 36.

  16. Aguilar Piñal, La prensa, p. 37. Lucienne Domergue, Censure et lumières dans l'Espagne de Charles III (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1982), gives Velasco's age as twenty-five in 1789 (p. 174).

  17. Guinard, p. 221.

  18. See Aguilar Piñal, La prensa, pp. 34, 41, 42. Domergue, in Tres calas, argues that Velasco was the originator of the idea which led to the Efemérides of Olivé (pp. 114-15).

  19. Aguilar Piñal, La prensa, p. 37. Two works are credited to Velasco in Antonio Palau y Dulcet, Manual del librero hispano-americano, 28 vols (Barcelona: Palau, 1948-77), VII, 7, entries 357158 and 357159: an Elogio del Rey read at a prize-giving ceremony of the Madrid Economic Society on 17 March 1796 (Madrid: Sancha [1796]); Historia maravillosa de la naturaleza y propiedades del elefante (Madrid: Villalpando, 1806). He also translated a French play by a Monsieur Desforges, La muger zelosa (Madrid: Benito García, 1801), a copy of which is kept at the British Library and which names Velasco as the translator.

  20. Apart from overt references (‘Je plaide pour mon sexe’ (Dedication, p. 1); ‘J'espère trouver grace aux yeux de mon propre sexe’ (Introduction, p. 8)) the very personal and informal nature of Wollstonecraft's text ensures that indications of the sex of the author abound through the feminine verbal agreements in its French version.

  21. Wollstonecraft, Défense, p. 442. The English original reads: ‘Virtue will never prevail in society till the virtues of both sexes are founded on reason; and till the affections common to both are allowed to gain their due strength by the discharge of mutual duties’ (Brody, p. 283).

  22. For example, Wollstonecraft writes on monarchy in general:

    It is impossible for any man, when the most favourable circumstances concur, to acquire sufficient knowledge and strength of mind to discharge the duties of a king, entrusted with uncontrolled power; how then must they be violated when his very elevation is an insuperable bar to the attainment of either wisdom or virtue, when all the feelings of a man are stifled by flattery, and reflection shut out by pleasure! Surely it is madness to make the fate of thousands depend on the caprice of a weak fellow-creature, whose very station sinks him necessarily below the meanest of his subjects! (Brody, p. 96).

  23. Guillermo Carnero, ‘Francisca Ruiz de Larrea de Böhl de Faber y Mary Wollstonecraft’, Hispanic Review, 50 (1982), 133-42.

  24. R. M. Janes, ‘On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 39 (1978), 293-302 (p. 294).

  25. Josefa Amar y Borbón, ‘Discurso en defensa del talento de las mujeres, y de su aptitud para el gobierno y otros cargos en que se emplean los hombres’, Memorial literario, instructivo y curioso de la Corte de Madrid, 8.32 (August 1786), 400-30. On the debate on the admission of women to the Madrid Economic Society, see Lucienne Domergue, Jovellanos à la Société Economique des Amis du Pays de Madrid, 1778-1795 (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 1969); Olegario Negrín Fajardo, Ilustración y educación: La Sociedad Económica Matritense (Madrid: Nacional, 1984); Paula de Demerson, María Francisca de Sales Portocarrero: (Condesa de Montijo), Una figura de la Ilustración (Madrid: Nacional, 1975); see also my ‘The Debate on Woman’, pp. 158-98.

  26. Josefa Amar y Borbón, Discurso sobre la educación fisica y moral de las mujeres (Madrid: Cano, 1790).

  27. José Clavijo y Fajardo, ‘Carta del pensador a las damas’, El Pensador, 1.2 (September 1762), 23-48.

  28. D. J. G., ‘Paralelo de la suerte feliz o desgraciada entre las mujeres asiáticas y africanas, y las europeas’, Correo de Madrid, 5.299 (October 1789), 2403-05. I have been unable to ascertain the identity of D. J. G.

  29. Ignacio López de Ayala, ‘Papel sobre si las señoras deben ser admitidas como individuos de las sociedades’, reprinted in Negrín, pp. 177-83.

  30. J. de V., ‘Sobre la educación’, Diario de Madrid, 18 June 1792, pp. 835-36. His ideas were reiterated in a further article in the Diario on 21 June, pp. 847-48, when he emphasized that women's knowledge is for the betterment of society and must not be an end in itself. It gave rise to a positive reply in the issue published on 29 June, pp. 879-80.

Susan Gubar (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Gubar, Susan. “Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One.’” Feminist Studies 20, no. 3 (fall 1994): 453-73.

[In the following essay, Gubar analyzes Wollstonecraft's feminism and her often unflattering portraits of women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts.]

In a self-reflexive essay representative of current feminist thinking, Ann Snitow recalls a memory of the early seventies, a moment when a friend “sympathetic to the [women's] movement but not active [in it] asked what motivated” Snitow's fervor.

I tried to explain the excitement I felt at the idea that I didn't have to be a woman. She was shocked, confused. This was the motor of my activism? She asked, “How can someone who doesn't like being a woman be a feminist?” To which I could only answer, “Why would anyone who likes being a woman need to be a feminist?”

Quite properly my colleague feared woman-hating. … Was this, as [she] thought, just a new kind of misogyny?

Although Snitow eventually finds “woman-hating—or loving—… beside the point,” she admits that she “wouldn't dare say self-hatred played no part in what I wanted from feminism,” a remark that takes on added resonance in terms of her first reaction to consciousness raising: “‘Woman’ is my slave name,” she felt back then; “feminism will give me freedom to seek some other identity altogether.”1

“‘Woman’ is my slave name; feminism will give me freedom to seek some other identity altogether”: Snitow's formulation dramatizes a curious contradiction feminism exhibits from its very inception to present times. The oxymoronic title of this essay—feminist misogyny—risks political incorrectness and implicitly asks us to pause, to consider the efficacy of the appellations “feminism” and “misogyny,” not to derail our commitment to social justice but to make it more savvy, more supple. For when put to the test in the “Can you really tell?” game, current conceptualizations may not always help us distinguish feminist from misogynist claims.

On the one hand, can you judge the sexual politics of the thinker who wrote: “There is a pleasure, … an enjoyment of the body, which is … beyond the phallus”? What does it mean that this apparently liberated sentiment comes from Jacques Lacan (the same Lacan who boasted that “[women] don't know what they're saying, that's all the difference between them and me”)?2 On the other hand, can you surmise the ideology of the writer who declared that “woman is body more than man is” or of the theorist who stated that “woman has sex organs more or less everywhere”?3 What does it mean that these two quotations, from feminist theorists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, eerily reiterate a proposition made by masculinist writers from Rousseau to Ambrose Bierce so as to deny women equal educational opportunities, specifically the idea that “to men a man is but a mind. … But woman's body is the woman”?4

Pursuing the same inquiry, we might ask why Denise Riley recently chose the allusive title Am I That Name? (1988) for a book advocating a poststructural approach to feminism, when the line (originally spoken in the femicidal atmosphere of Shakespeare's Othello) conflates the “name” woman with the name-calling that demotes woman to whore?5 Finally, who would guess that this critique of Adrienne Rich—“The feminist dream of a common language … is a totalizing and imperialist one”—issues not from Lacan or some modern-day Iago but from the women's studies scholar Donna Haraway?6 If the histories of feminism and misogyny have been (sometimes shockingly) dialogic, as I will try to suggest, what impact should that have on the ways in which we understand the once and future state of feminist theory?

The subtitle of my meditation may seem just as incongruous as its title, because we generally view Mary Wollstonecraft as a pioneer whose feminist efforts were tragically misunderstood by the misogynist society in which she lived. And, of course, as the aesthetic foremother of feminist expository prose, Wollstonecraft established a polemical tradition mined by such literary descendants as Olive Schreiner, Emma Goldman, and Virginia Woolf as well as by contemporary thinkers from Simone de Beauvoir to Kate Millett and, yes, Cixous and Riley. Indubitably, all of these theorists profited from and extended Wollstonecraft's insistence on righting the wrongs done to women. Paradoxically, however, they also inherited what I am calling her feminist misogyny. Indeed, the very troubling tenacity of this strain in feminist expository prose calls out for further thought.

That Wollstonecraft did, in fact, function as an effective advocate for women is probably self-evident, especially to anyone familiar with the political and literary culture into which she interjected her views. Although I will be examining a pervasive contradiction in her life and work, in no way do I mean to diminish or disparage her achievements. Quite rightly regarded as the founding feminist text in English, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) links the radical insurrection of the French Revolution to the equally radical insubordination of the feminist project. Nor do I think we should judge Wollstonecraft by late-twentieth-century definitions of feminism and find her wanting, “as if”—to quote Frances Ferguson—“Wollstonecraft would have turned out better work if she had had a word processor or a microwave oven.”7

Although she has been faulted for adhering to a suspect faith in reason as an innate human characteristic,8 Wollstonecraft exploited Enlightenment language to claim that—at least theoretically—women and men were alike in being endowed with reason, a divine faculty which only needed to be cultivated so as to perfect the human species. Many of the thinkers of her time emphasized the differences between the sexes, with the influential Rousseau demanding that women's education “should be always relative to the men. To please, to be useful to [men,] … to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times.”9 But Wollstonecraft believed that because both sexes shared an equal capacity for reason, women—considered as human, not as sexual, beings—should benefit from the educational programs historically only afforded men. In addition, Wollstonecraft's commitment to rationality made her especially sensitive to representations of female irrationality that enslaved women's hearts and minds.

From her meditations on the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost to her interpretations of Pope's, Dr. Gregory's, and Rousseau's treatises, Wollstonecraft's analyses of debilitating female images assume that we are what we read and therefore these passage in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman constitute one of the earliest instances we have of feminist criticism. According to Wollstonecraft, female readers necessarily internalize male-authored and manifestly false impressions of who they are and what they should aspire to be, impressions that weaken rather than strengthen women's self-image. Confronting the socialization process effected by reading as well as by other child-rearing practices, Wollstonecraft used her expository prose and her two novels to theorize about the psychological and cultural engendering of femininity. None of her contemporaries devised as sophisticated a model for understanding the social construction of womanhood, speculations which laid the groundwork for Simone de Beauvoir's famous claim that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”10 Yet it is in this area—Wollstonecraft's analysis of the feminine—that we will find most striking evidence of the contradiction in her thinking that I am terming “feminist misogyny.”

What image of woman emerges from the pages of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? Repeatedly and disconcertingly, Wollstonecraft associates the feminine with weakness, childishness, deceitfulness, cunning, superficiality, an overvaluation of love, frivolity, dilettantism, irrationality, flattery, servility, prostitution, coquetry, sentimentality, ignorance, indolence, intolerance, slavish conformity, fickle passion, despotism, bigotry, and a “spaniel-like affection.” The feminine principle, so defined, threatens—like a virus—to contaminate and destroy men and their culture. For, as Wollstonecraft explains: “Weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society.”11

Here in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as in the next sentences I quote, femininity feels like a malady:

[Women's] senses are inflamed, and their understandings neglected, consequently they become the prey of their senses, delicately termed sensibility, and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling. Civilized women are, therefore, … weakened by false refinement. … Ever restless and anxious, their over exercised sensibility not only renders them uncomfortable themselves but troublesome … to others. … [T]heir conduct is unstable, and their opinions are wavering. … By fits and starts they are warm in many pursuits; yet this warmth, never concentrated into perseverance, soon exhausts itself. … Miserable, indeed, must be that being whose cultivation of mind has only tended to inflame its passions!12

According to this passage, civilized women suffer from an illness, a veritable fever of femininity, that reduces them to “unstable” and “uncomfortable,” “miserable,” exhausted invalids. Wollstonecraft's description of women's restlessness, of the “warm gusts” of inflammation they suffer, sounds like nothing less than contemporary complaints about hot flashes and menopausal mood swings, as if the long disease of femininity has itself become a critical “change of life.” At the close of the paragraph in which these words appear, Wollstonecraft takes to its logical conclusion the implications of women's “fits and starts”: when “passions” are “pampered, whilst the judgment is left unformed,” she asks, “what can be expected to ensue?” and she promptly answers, “Undoubtedly, a mixture of madness and folly!”

Elsewhere in a related series of metaphors, women operate like “gangrene, which the vices engendered by oppression have produced,” and the mortal damage they inflict “is not confined to the morbid part, but pervades society at large.” Even if she is not noxious, the female is obnoxious, a diminished thing which has dwindled, dehumanized, into something like a doll, providing merely an aimless leisure pastime for men: “She was created,” Wollstonecraft claims, “to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.”13 Like a virus spreading corruption; like an illness condemning its victim to madness; like gangrene contaminating the healthy; like a jingling toy distracting irrational pleasure seekers: because femininity figures as, at best, frivolity and, at worst, fatality, the principle character emerging from the pages of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is the femme fatale.

Wollstonecraft's derogations of the feminine, to be sure, are framed in terms of her breakthrough analysis of the social construction of gender. The above quotations, for instance, insist that women's “senses are inflamed” because “their understandings [are] neglected”; that women are artificially “raised” above the race; that the gangrene of their vices is “engendered” by oppression; and that they are “created” to be toys. Thus, her thesis—that a false system of education has “rendered [women] weak and wretched”—emphasizes the powerful impact of culture on subjectivity, the capacity of the psyche to internalize societal norms.14 Indeed, Wollstonecraft stands at an originatory point in feminist thought precisely because she envisioned a time when the female of the species could shed herself of an enfeebling acculturation or feminization. Yet although (or perhaps because) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sets out to liberate society from a hated subject constructed to be subservient and called “woman,” it illuminates how such animosity can spill over into antipathy of those human beings most constrained by that construction.

Laying the groundwork for the first and second wave of the women's movement, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman implies that “‘Woman’ is my slave name; feminism will give me freedom to seek some other identity altogether.” About the “few women [who] have emancipated themselves from the galling yoke of sovereign man,” therefore, Wollstonecraft speculates that they are virtually transsexuals. Just as Newton “was probably a being of superior order accidentally caged in a human body,” she imagines that “the few extraordinary women” in history “were male spirits, confined by mistake in female frames.”15 No wonder that, as Mary Poovey has pointed out, Wollstonecraft often speaks of herself “as a philosopher,” “as a moralist,” even “as [a] man with man,” concluding her work with a plea to “ye men of understanding.”16 Rarely, in other words, does she present herself as a woman speaking to women.

Curiously, then, Wollstonecraft's radical stance nevertheless ends up aligning her with women's most fervent adversaries, as she herself admits. “After surveying the history of woman,” she concedes, “I cannot help, agreeing with the severest satirist, considering the sex as the weakest as well as the most oppressed half of the species.” And several passages in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman do seem to agree with “the severest satirist[s]” of women. While analyzing the “sexual weakness that makes woman depend upon man,” for example, Wollstonecraft scorns “a kind of cattish affection which leads a wife to purr about her husband as she would about any man who fed and caressed her.” If the female looks subhuman in her cattiness here, elsewhere she appears sinful in her cunning trickery. To castigate those made “inferiour by ignorance and low desires,” Wollstonecraft describes “the serpentine wrigglings of cunning” that enable women to “mount the tree of knowledge, and only acquire sufficient [reason] to lead men astray.”17 Like their foremother, Eve, women bear the responsibility for the fall of man, and they do so because of their misuse of knowledge. Predictably, one of Wollstonecraft's favorite Greek allusions is to Eve's prototype, Pandora.

And a number of other passages in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman concur with the satirists of women, whom Wollstonecraft actually echoes. Take, for example, the following attack on the institution of marriage as a commodities market:

It is acknowledged that [women] spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves,—the only way women can rise in the world,—by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures.—Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!18

Not only does Wollstonecraft paraphrase Hamlet's angry speech to Ophelia—“You jig, you amble, and you lisp; you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance”; by relegating the feminine woman to a seraglio, she also glosses his refrain—“get thee to a nunnery”: both nunnery and seraglio were common euphemisms for whorehouse. But the word “seraglio”—a Turkish or Eastern lodging for the secluded harem of Islamic noblemen—captures Wollstonecraft's disdain for a feminine lassitude so degenerate, so threatening to Western civilization that it must be marked as what Edward Said would call a kind of “Orientalism.”19

If we compare Wollstonecraft's portrait of the feminine here with the notoriously severe eighteenth-century satirists of the weaker sex, it becomes clear that she shares with them Hamlet's revulsion. Judge Wollstonecraft's emphasis on libertine notions of beauty, for example, in terms of Pope's famous lines in his “Epistle to a Lady”—“ev'ry Woman is at heart a Rake” and “Most women have no characters at all”—as well as his insistence that the best woman is “a contradiction” in terms, “a softer man.” Consider her picture of female animality and dilettantism in relation to Swift's monstrous Goddess of Criticism in A Tale of a Tub, a symbol of ignorance portrayed as part cat, part ass. Compare Wollstonecraft's vision of feminine hypocrisy and prostitution to Swift's attacks in his mock pastorals on dressing and painting, debased arts that conceal syphilitic whores; or place her indictment that unaccomplished women “nickname God's creatures” up against Dr. Johnson's comparison between a woman preaching and a dog dancing. Finally, examine Wollstonecraft's childish wives in terms of the earl of Chesterfield's definition of women as “children of a larger growth.”20

Why does Wollstonecraft's text so eerily echo those composed by masculinist satirists?21 A number of critics have noted problems, tensions, and repressions in the oeuvre produced by Wollstonecraft.22 In particular, these scholars claim that, by appropriating an Enlightenment rhetoric of reason, Wollstonecraft alienated herself and other women from female sexual desire. Throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft elevates friendship between the sexes over romantic and erotic entanglements (which she condemns as ephemeral or destructive). Yet I would view this motif not merely as a repression of sexuality but more inclusively as a symptom of the paradoxical feminist misogyny that pervades her work, only one sign of the ways in which Wollstonecraft's feminism operates vis-à-vis feminization and by no means an eccentric fault of her philosophizing. For, as Cora Kaplan has insightfully remarked: “There is no feminism that can stand wholly outside femininity as it is posed in a given historical moment. All feminisms give some ideological hostage to femininities and are constructed through the gender sexuality of their day as well as standing in opposition to them.”23

If feminist expository prose necessarily situates itself in opposition to self-demeaning modes of feminization even as it is shaped by them, what Moira Ferguson describes as Wollstonecraft's propensity “to find women culpable of their vanity, their acceptance of an inferior education, their emphasis on feeling,” her tendency to “locate herself outside what she deem[ed] self-demeaning behavior,” takes on not only personal but also political and philosophical import.24 Indeed, the tensions at work in Wollstonecraft's text dramatize, on the one hand, the ways in which “feminisms give some ideological hostage to femininities,” as Kaplan puts it, and, on the other hand, the ironies embedded in the stage of patrilineal affiliation that Sandra Gilbert and I have examined in the aesthetic paradigm we call “the female affiliation complex.”25

To take the first subject first, is it possible to view Wollstonecraft's description of the fever of femininity in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a portrait of any middle-class woman of her age, indeed as a self-portrait? Could the disgust at fallen, fated, or fatal females be self-disgust? In the words of Emma Goldman, the “sexually starved” Wollstonecraft was “doomed to become the prey of more than one infatuation” and her “insatiable hunger for love” led not only to a tragic desire for the married painter Fuseli but also to the two suicide attempts resulting from her tempestuous involvement with the philanderer Gilbert Imlay.26 Wollstonecraft was so overcome by passion for Fuseli that she suggested a mé-nage à trois to his shocked wife; after discovering Gilbert Imlay's actress-mistress, she soaked her skirts so as to sink into the water after she threw herself from Putney Bridge. Did anyone better understand slavish passions, the overvaluation of love, fickle irrationality, weak dependency, the sense of personal irrelevance, and anxiety about personal attractiveness than Wollstonecraft herself?

Thus, Virginia Woolf, considering the various ways in which Wollstonecraft “could not understand … her own feelings,” believed that the eighteenth-century polemicist made theories every day, “theories by which life should be lived,” but “Every day too—for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist—something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh.”27 From the perspective of Goldman's and Woolf's essays, therefore, the misogyny of Wollstonecraft's work dramatizes the self-revulsion of a woman who knew herself to be constructed as feminine, and thus it exhibits a kind of “antinarcissism.”28 Indeed, what both Goldman and Woolf implicitly ask us to confront is the disparity between the feminist feats of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the gothic fates inflicted on Wollstonecraft's fictional heroines in Mary, a Fiction (1788) and Maria (1798).

Of course, the subtitle of Maria—The Wrongs of Woman—establishes it as a counterpart or extension of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as does the gloomy insight of its heroine when she asks, “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?”29 Curiously, however, both novels negate or traverse the argument of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which, after all, condemns precisely the conventions of sentimental fiction Mary and Maria exploit. For the enflamed, volatile emotions Wollstonecraft castigates as weakness, folly, and madness in her polemic infuse, motivate, and elevate the heroines of both novels. After weeping, fainting, and bemoaning her love for a dead friend and a dead lover, the admirable paragon of sensibility who is the central character of Mary exclaims: “I cannot live without loving—and love leads to madness.”30 Just as rapturous and tearful, the heroine of Maria exhibits the passion denounced throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a narrative that at moments seems not to caution against romance so much as to consecrate it: “So much of heaven” do the lovers of Maria enjoy together “that paradise bloomed around them. … Love, the grand enchanter, ‘lapt them in Elysium,’ and every sense was harmonized to joy and social extacy.”31

But the startling slippages in Wollstonecraft's thinking about heterosexuality are accompanied by equally dramatic strains in her meditations on the bonds between women. Although historians of homosexuality have been led by Wollstonecraft's emotional relationships with Jane Arden and Fanny Blood to argue that the female intimacies celebrated in Mary should be situated on what Adrienne Rich calls a “lesbian continuum,” several passages in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman inveigh against the “grossly familiar” relationships spawned in female communities.32 Women “shut up together in nurseries, schools, or convents” engage in “nasty customs,” share “secrets” (on subjects “where silence ought to reign”), and indulge in “jokes and hoiden tricks.”33 Wollstonecraft the novelist valorizes the nurturing comfort and intensity of female intimacies; however, Wollstonecraft the philosopher hints at the obscene debaucheries of such contacts.

The odd juxtapositions between A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the novels imply that the misogynist portrait of the feminine penned by the feminist may, in fact, represent Wollstonecraft's efforts to negotiate the distance between desire and dread, what she thought she should have been and what she feared herself to be. In other words, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman presents a narrative voice of the feminist-philosopher and a fictive profile of femininity that interact to illuminate a dialogue between self and soul, the culturally induced schizophrenia of an antinarcissist. And in some part of herself, Wollstonecraft seemed to have understood this very well. In October 1791, after she had begun composing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and while she was sitting for a portrait a friend had commissioned, she wrote that friend the following lines: “I do not imagine that [the painting] will be a very striking likeness; but, if you do not find me in it, I will send you a more faithful sketch—a book that I am now writing, in which I myself … shall certainly appear, head and heart.”34

Just this dialectic—between head and heart, between a hortatory philosophic voice and a debased self-portrait of femininity—characterizes the feminist misogyny Wollstonecraft bequeathed to her literary descendants, including feminist polemicists writing today. Partially, it was informed by Wollstonecraft's inexorable entrapment inside a patrilineal literary inheritance. In The War of the Words, Sandra Gilbert and I argued that women writers before the late nineteenth century necessarily affiliated themselves with an alien and alienating aesthetic patrilineage. But this is even more true for the author of feminist expository prose than it is for the woman poet or novelist who, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “look[ed] everywhere for [literary] grandmothers and [found] none” because, instead of looking for aesthetic grandmothers, Wollstonecraft set out to debate the most powerfully paternal influences on her own culture: Moses and St. John, Milton and Rousseau, Pope and the authors of conduct and etiquette books.35

As a genre, feminist expository prose inevitably embeds itself in the misogynist tradition it seeks to address and redress. Representing the masculinist voice in order to controvert its messages, one chapter of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—brilliantly analyzed by Patricia Yaeger—proceeds by lengthily quoting Rousseau's portrait of womanhood “in his own words, interspersing [Wollstonecraft's] comments and reflections.”36 Thus, another dialectic emerges beyond the one between the individual author's head and heart, specifically in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman the conversation between Wollstonecraft and Rousseau and more generally in the expository prose of her descendants the dialogic relationship between the histories of feminism and misogyny.

“It Takes One to Know One”: the “One” in my subtitle is meant to indicate that it takes a feminist to know a misogynist, and vice versa. The terms of their engagement—as they bob and weave, feint and jab, thrust and parry in their philosophical fencing match or boxing ring—are particularly important to understand because, although feminism historically has not been the condition for misogyny's emergence, the pervasive threat of misogyny brought into being feminist discourse. To the extent that there can be (need be) no feminism without misogyny, the sparring of this odd couple—the feminist, the misogynist—takes on a ritualized, stylized quality as they stroll through the corridors of history, reflecting upon each other and upon their slam dancing. A full description of the choreography of their steps remains beyond the scope of this paper; however a brief study of the eccentric dips and swirls executed by these curiously ambivalent partners at the beginning and end of this century can begin the task Judith Butler sets feminist critique—namely, understanding “how the category of ‘woman,’ the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.”37

Like Mary Wollstonecraft's, Olive Schreiner's feminist prose stands in a vexed relationship to her fiction: specifically her polemical Woman and Labour (1911)—calling for “New Women” and “New Men” to enter “a new earth”—contrasts with a novel that obsesses over the self-pitying masochism of those who dream of altered sexual arrangements, just as it broods with nauseated fascination on the horrible tenacity of traditional women.38 The would-be author of an introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Schreiner formulated her demands for female liberation as an attack not on men but on women and specifically on what she called “the human female parasite—the most deadly microbe … on the surface of any social organism.”39 In Woman and Labour, which functioned as “the Bible” for first wave feminists, the idle, consuming “parasite woman on her couch” signals “the death-bed of human evolution.”40 Strangely, too, Schreiner seems to blame the limits of evolution on female anatomy when she speculates that the size of the human brain could only increase “if in the course of ages the os cervix of women should itself slowly expand.”41

Just as discomforting as the thought of an os cervix having to extend so as to produce larger human heads may be the less biologistic but comparable woman blaming in Schreiner's second wave descendants. Perhaps Ann Douglas's Feminization of American Culture (1977) furnishes the best case among the pioneers in women's studies. For here, nineteenth-century women's “debased religiosity, their sentimental peddling of Christian belief for its nostalgic value,” and their “fakery” manage to “gut Calvinist orthodoxy” of its rigorous intellectual vitality. So aware was Douglas herself about faulting women for the fall (the “feminization”) of American culture that she used her introduction to defend herself against the charge that she had “sid[ed] with the enemy.” Although Douglas claimed to be motivated by a “respect” for “toughness,” this (implicitly male) toughness seems entwined with self-hatred: “I expected to find my fathers and my mothers,” she explains about her investigations into the past; “instead I discovered my fathers and my sisters” because “The problems of the women correspond to mine with a frightening accuracy that seems to set us outside the processes of history.”42

About the immersion of Douglas's contemporaries in the literary history of the fathers, we might ask, what does it mean that a generation of readers was introduced to the works of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer through the long quotations that appeared in Kate Millett's important 1970 text, Sexual Politics? In this respect, Millett's work typifies a paradox that persists in a branch of feminist criticism which, following in the wake of Wollstonecraft's work, tackles the problematics of patriarchy by examining sexist authors (from Milton to Mailer) or by exploring male-dominated genres (pornography, the western, adventure tales, men's magazines, film noir). No matter how radical the critique, it frequently falls into the representational quandary of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: replication or even recuperation. Throughout the feminist expository prose of the 1970s, the predominant images of women constellate around the female victim: foot binding and suttee, cliterodectomy and witch burning appear with startling frequency; the characters of the madwoman, the hysteric, the abused whore, the freak, and the female eunuch abound.

From The Troublesome Helpmate (1966), Katharine Roger's ground-breaking history of misogyny in literature, to my own work with Sandra Gilbert, moreover, feminist literary criticism has demonstrated that the most deeply disturbing male-authored depictions of women reveal with exceptional clarity the cultural dynamics of gender asymmetries. Thus, although Sandra and I usually focus on the female tradition, it seems striking that our most extended meditations on male authors center on such infamous masculinists as John Milton, H. Rider Haggard, Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, rather than, say, John Stuart Mill, George Meredith, or George Bernard Shaw, all self-defined friends of the women's movement. When questioned about our reliance on Freud, Sandra and I tend to respond by emphasizing how we have sought to disentangle the descriptive powers of his insights into the sex/gender system from the prescriptive overlay contained in the values he assigns aspects or stages of that system.

Perhaps this speculation tells us as much about the masculinist tradition as it does about the intervention of feminism. Can we extend it by proposing that misogynist texts often elaborate upon feminist insights but within structures of address or rhetorical frames that—in different ways, to different degrees—vilify, diminish, or dismiss them? For example, can it be that Shakespeare's portraits of femicidal heroes in Hamlet, or Othello, or King Lear lay bare the causes and dynamics of woman hating, albeit in plots that equivocate about the value placed upon such an emotion? To return to Freud, didn't his description of psychosexual development in Western culture make possible the radical revisions of a host of feminist theorists, ranging from Joan Riviere and Karen Horney to Shulamith Firestone, Juliet Mitchell, Gayle Rubin, Nancy Chodorow, and Adrienne Rich? In other words, if Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman embeds within it a misogynist text, do Shakespeare's Hamlet, Milton's Paradise Lost, Rousseau's Confessions, and Freud's “Female Sexuality” contain antithetical feminist subscripts?43

The idea of feminist misogyny might thereby explain a host of critical controversies over the ideological designs of individual authors or texts. For at the current time probably every “major” writer in the canon, possibly every touchstone work, has been claimed by one scholar or another as prototypically feminist and quintessentially masculinist. Nor is this surprising, given that each individual's “language,” according to the foremost theorist of this issue, “lies on the borderline between oneself and the other.” As M. M. Bakhtin's most evocative description of the “over-population” of language explains, “The word in language is half someone else's … it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own.”44 “[E]xpropriating” language from the purposes or designs of others, “forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents”: this is the “complicated process” in which feminists and misogynists necessarily engage so their discourses necessarily intersect in numerous ways, undercutting or supplementing each other over time, contesting what amounts to a complex nexus of ideas, values, perspectives, and norms, a cultural “heteroglossia” of gender ideologies and power asymmetries. Like the concepts of Black self-hatred and Jewish anti-Semitism, feminist misogyny might bring to critical attention the interlocutionary nature of representation, that is, the crucially different effects of the sentence “I am this” and “You are that.”45

Inevitably, as the interaction between “I am this” and “You are that” implies, feminist consciousness today still bears the marks of its having come into being through interactions with a masculinism that has been shaped, in turn, by women's independence movements, a phenomenon that explains a number of anomalies: that Mary Daly, not Norman Mailer, entitled a volume Pure Lust (1984) and coined the phrase “fembot,” for instance; that Norman Mailer, not Kate Millett, wrote The Prisoner of Sex (1971); that after Kate Millett's Sexual Politics—an analysis of masculine domination, feminine subordination—she published The Basement (1979), a gothic meditation on the sexual subordination and ultimate annihilation of a young girl by a power-crazed, sadistic woman.46 Similarly, feminist misogyny amplifies the eerie reverberations set in motion by Germaine Greer's decision to follow The Female Eunuch (1970) with Sex and Destiny (1984). The former sprinkles quotations from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman throughout a plea for a “revolution” in consciousness which requires that women refuse to bow down to “the Holy Family,” reject the desexualization of their bodies, and protest against the manifold ways “our mothers blackmailed us with self-sacrifice.”47 However, the latter champions the family as the best social organization for women and children; touts chastity, coitus interruptus, and the rhythm method as optimal birth control methods; and nostalgically hymns the praises of the nurturance provided in so-called primitive cultures, specifically lauding “Mediterranean mothers [who] took their boy babies' penises in their mouths to stop their crying.”48

Feminist misogyny in Mary Wollstonecraft's oeuvre may also help us understand why Andrea Dworkin has supplemented her antipornography expository prose with a gothic novel that could be said to be pornographic: Ice and Fire (1986) stands in as vexed a relation to Intercourse (1987) as Mary and Maria do to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Dworkin, the antipornography polemicist, condemns sexual intercourse in our culture as “an act of invasion and ownership undertaken in a mode of predation: colonializing, forceful (manly) or nearly violent.”49 However, her Ice and Fire includes two types of sexually explicit scenes that contravene this definition, one in which “a girl James Dean” uses men to invade or colonize herself—

When a man fucks me, she says, I am with him, fucking me. The men ride her like maniacs. Her eyes roll back but stay open and she grins. She is always them fucking her, no matter how intensely they ride—

and the second in which the female narrator takes on the office of instructing her male lover on how to invade or colonize her:

I teach him disrespect, systematically. I teach him how to tie knots, how to use rope, scarves, how to bite breasts: I teach him not to be afraid: of causing pain.

To be sure, when the masochistic speaker here explains about her abusive lover “Reader, I married him” and when “Reader, he got hard” metamorphoses into “he got hard: he beat me until I couldn't even crawl,” we are meant to understand that Dworkin is returning to the romance tradition of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”) so as to uncover its abusive sexual politics.50 Nevertheless, the question remains, if the antipornography ordinance Dworkin framed with Catharine McKinnon were deemed constitutional, would she be able to publish this kind of fiction? How can it be that her heroines resemble the actresses in the snuff films she seeks to outlaw, women bent on finding sexual fulfillment in their own destruction?

More generally, the feminist misogyny that pervades Dworkin's work typifies the uncanny mirror dancing that repeatedly links feminist polemicists to their rivals and antagonists. In 1975, the feminist-linguist Robin Lakoff published her groundbreaking Language and Woman's Place, a description of the genderlect she called “women's language”: euphemism, modesty, hedging, polite forms of address, weak expletives, tag questions, empty adjectives and intensives, and hypercorrect grammar were said to characterize women's speech. Curiously, her findings accorded with those of Otto Jesperson, whose 1922 study, Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin, proved that women were timid, conservative, even prudish language users and thus incapable of linguistic inventiveness. As I intimated earlier, another odd coupling could be said to exist between Jacques Lacan, who viewed women as inexorably exiled from culture, and the French feminists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, who valorize female fluidity, multiplicity, sensuality, and libidinal jouissance. Are all these feminists dancing with wolves?

“Feminism,” Nancy Cott reminds us in much less heated or metaphorical terms, “is nothing if not paradoxical.”

It aims for individual freedoms by mobilizing sex solidarity. It acknowledges diversity among women while positing that women recognize their unity. It requires gender consciousness for its basis, yet calls for the elimination of prescribed gender roles.51

Just as aware of internal differences, Jane Gallop locates tensions within the psychology of feminism that explain the questions with which I began, the query of Ann Snitow's friend (“how can someone who doesn't like being a woman be a feminist?”) as well as Snitow's response (“Why would anyone who likes being a woman need to be a feminist?”): “The feminist,” according to Gallop, “identifies with other women but also struggles to rise above the lot of women. Feminism both desires superior women and celebrates the common woman.”52

Over the past two decades, the stresses described by Cott and Gallop, along with professional competition inside the academy and social setbacks outside it, have given rise to internecine schisms in women's studies, divisions widened by feminists faulting other feminists as politically retrograde or even misogynist: activists and empiricists denounced theorists and vice-versa; lesbian separatists castigated integrationists; “prosex” and antipornography advocates clashed; class and race divided feminists, as did competing methodologies based on sexual difference or sexual equality, as did contested definitions of womanhood arising from cultural or poststructuralist thinkers.53 Infighting reached a kind of apex in literary criticism as various histories began to appear, some featuring feminist critiques of feminism which served intentions not always hospitable to academic women. Here the Toril Moi of Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985) can officiate over feminist woman bashing: Moi dismisses American women's studies scholars as “patriarchal” because of their naive faith in the authority of the female subject and the unity of the work of art while she touts as her heroine Julia Kristeva, who “refuses to define ‘woman’” and judges the belief that one “is a woman” to be “absurd.”54

This atmosphere in which women need to beware women is probably what has led me to see feminist misogyny now and not, say, back in the seventies. As “constructionists” like Moi continue to vilify “essentialists,” both groups segue into defensive and offensive steps that recall the rhythms of competing nationalities satirized in Sheldon Harnick's song, “The Merry Minuet”:

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles,
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don't like anybody very much.(55)

Does the price of institutionalization—of women's studies' inclusion in the academy—consist of our reduction to a plethora of jostling fields or approaches in which unhappy souls war for precedence with even more ferocity than they do in longer established areas or departments?

Have we attained our maturity in an age of ethnic purges and nationalistic frays that in our own domain take the form of battle dances which cause us to lose sight of our common aim to expropriate not only language but also society of overpopulated intentions hostile to women's health and welfare? When strutting our stuff with each other, among ourselves (and who, after all, are “we,” given our institutional, generational, ethnic, and methodological differences?), have we lost sight of the ways in which unsympathetic outsiders or hostile institutions can appropriate or co-opt our internal debates, transforming self-critiques into assaults against our larger project? The recent brouhaha over Katie Roiphe's book epitomizes such difficulties. When in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus Roiphe—a self-defined feminist—attacked Take Back the Night, antipornography, and sexual harassment activists for reenforcing Victorian stereotypes of predatory men and victimized women, it seemed eerily appropriate that she aligned herself with Ishmael Reed by entitling one of her chapters “Reckless Eyeballing.” Just as Reed's masculinist novel Reckless Eyeballing lambastes Alice Walker for promoting a knee-jerk, racist suspicion about the criminality of African American men (and in the process illuminates the culturally diverse constructions of the feminist-misogynist dialogue), Roiphe's chapter presents contemporary feminists as retrograde zealot-puritans who would criminalize all men and indeed all forms of heterosexuality.56

Questioning another feminist critique of other feminists, namely constructionists' wholesale dismissal of essentialists, Diana Fuss has recently argued that “the political investments of the sign ‘essence’ are predicated on the subject's complex positioning in a particular social field, and … the appraisal of this investment depends not on any interior values intrinsic to the sign itself but rather on the shifting and determinative discursive relations which produced it.”57 Similarly, about feminist misogyny I think that—instead of furnishing us with yet another label to brand each other—it should make us sensitive to the proliferation of sexual ideologies, to the significance of who is deploying these ideologies and with what political effect, even as it breeds a healthy self-skepticism born of an awareness of our own inexorable embeddedness in history. Because we cannot escape how culture makes us know ourselves, we need to understand that even as our own theorizing engages with the social relations of femininity and masculinity, it is fashioned by them. Ultimately, then, the game of “Can you really tell?” reminds us that claims and counterclaims in the feminist-misogynist dialogue cannot be appraised without some consideration of the complex social identities, rhetorical frameworks, and historical contexts upon which they are predicated.

To adopt Gallop's words once again, “I am as desirous of resolving contradictions as the next girl, but I find myself drawing us back to them, refusing the separations that allow us to avoid but not resolve contradiction.”58 On the list of paradoxes she and other thinkers have enumerated, I would write the one so telling and compelling in the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. For the contradiction in terms that her life and letters dramatize continues to fashion the discourses through which many have struggled to vindicate the rights of women and men. As I think this, I seem to see them lining up for a succession of pas de deux; or is it a Virginia Reel? a do-si-do? a last tango? a merry minuet?—Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner, Freud and Woolf, Sartre and Beauvoir, Mailer and Millett or Dworkin, Lacan and Irigaray or Cixous, Reed and Walker. But out of whose mouth does a voice issue to save the waltz by declaring, “Your turn to curtsy, my turn to bow”? And who takes the lead, if (when?) we turn to tap dance or shuffle along with one another?


  1. Ann Snitow, “A Gender Diary,” in Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990), 33, 9.

  2. Both Lacan passages are discussed by Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 34, 345.

  3. Hélène Cixous in Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 95; Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 28.

  4. Ambrose Bierce, in “Know Your Enemy: A Sampling of Sexist Quotes,” in Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), 34. Throughout this paragraph, I am grateful to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who questions the efficacy of the “Can you really tell?” test with reference primarily to the ethnicity of the author in “‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree,New York Times Book Review, 24 Nov. 1991.

  5. Denise Riley, “Am I That Name?: Feminism and the Category ofWomenin History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988). Tania Modleski cogently argues about this and other “postfeminist” theorists that “for many ‘women’ the very term arouses a visceral, even phobic reaction.” See her Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in aPostfeministAge (New York: Routledge, 1991), 16.

  6. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review, no. 80 (March-April 1985): 92.

  7. Frances Ferguson, “Wollstonecraft Our Contemporary,” in Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism, ed. Linda Kauffman (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 60-61.

  8. See Timothy J. Reiss, “Revolution in Bounds: Wollstonecraft, Women, and Reason,” in Gender and Theory, 11-50.

  9. Rousseau's infamous remark appears in Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, the Wollstonecraft Debate, Criticism, ed. Carol H. Poston (1792; New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1988), 79.

  10. Sandra M. Gilbert and I have examined the seeming eccentricity of the literary women of Wollstonecraft's generation, the problem they pose to conventional definitions of the period, in “‘But Oh! That Deep Romantic Chasm’: The Engendering of Periodization,” Kenyon Review 13 (summer 1991): 74-81. For an interesting discussion of de Beauvoir's much quoted point, as well as Monique Wittig's revisionary response to it, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 111-12.

  11. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 34, 9.

  12. Ibid., 60-61 (emphasis mine).

  13. Ibid., 178, 34.

  14. Ibid., 7.

  15. Ibid., 35. Equally telling, as Elissa S. Guralnick points out, Wollstonecraft couples the term “woman” with bashaws, despots, kings, emperors, soldiers, and courtiers, all of whom exercise “illegitimate power” and thus “enjoy the degradation of the exalted.” See Elissa S. Guralnick, “Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 308-16.

  16. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 79-80. Along similar lines, Joan B. Landes argues that Wollstonecraft subscribes to an ideology of republican motherhood that views women's civic role as one performed inside the home, ascribes to men unbridled physical appetites, sets up a model of female duty, and displays an adherence toward male linguistic control that aligns her with the male philosophers of her day. See Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 129-38.

  17. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 35, 175, 173.

  18. Ibid., 10.

  19. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

  20. For a general discussion of the misogyny in these eighteenth-century texts, see my “The Female Monster in August Satire,” Signs 3 (winter 1977): 380-94.

  21. Ironically, then tragically, Wollstonecraft's detractors exploited precisely the images she shared with her philosophical opponents. She was depicted as one of the “philosophizing serpents in our bosom,” a “hyena in petticoats,” lampooned in The Unsex'd Females: A Poem as a “Poor maniac,” ridiculed in a review in the European Magazine as a “philosophical wanton,” and mocked in The Shade of Alexander Pope on the Banks of the Thames as “passion's slave.” Similarly, her Memoirs and Posthumous Works was judged: “A Convenient Manual of speculative debauchery,” and in 1801 the author of “The Vision of Liberty” intoned: “Lucky the maid that on her volume pores / A scripture, archly fram'd, for propagating w——s”: see Ralph M. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), 318, 321, 322; as well as Janet Todd, “Introduction,” in A Wollstonecraft Anthology, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 16-19.

  22. Besides Poovey's and Landes's studies, see Mary Jacobus, “The Difference of View,” in Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Mary Jacobus (London: Croom Helm, 1979), 16-17, as well as Cora Kaplan, “Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism,” in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn (London: Methuen, 1985), 157-60. Janet Todd reviews all these critics in Feminist Literary History (New York: Routledge, 1988), 103-10. On Wollstonecraft's making “genius a machismo male,” see also Christina Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (London: Women's Press, 1989), 98.

  23. Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,” in Frederic Jameson et al., Formations of Pleasure (London: Routledge, 1983), 29.

  24. Moira Ferguson, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery,” Feminist Review 42 (autumn 1992): 97.

  25. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The War of the Words, vol. 1 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), chap. 4.

  26. Emma Goldman, “Mary Wollstonecraft: Her Tragic Life and Her Passionate Struggle for Freedom,” in Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 254-55.

  27. Virginia Woolf, “Mary Wollstonecraft,” in Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 269-70.

  28. I am relying here on a term proposed by Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 (summer 1976): 878.

  29. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Women (1798; New York: Norton, 1975), 27.

  30. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary, a Fiction (1788; New York: Schocken, 1977), 102.

  31. Wollstonecraft, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Women, 51.

  32. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in Women: Sex and Sexuality, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 60-91. On Wollstonecraft, see Jeannette Foster, Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956; Baltimore: Diana Press, 1976), 56-60; and Lillian Faderman, “Who Hid Lesbian Theory?” in Lesbian Studies: Present and Future, ed. Margaret Cruikshank (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982), 117. Interesting in this regard is the misogyny in lesbian literature that can be traced back to Radclyffe Hall's portraits of “feminine” women in The Well of Loneliness, many of whom strike her mannish Stephen Gordon as manipulative, materialistic, and frivolous. The words “grossly familiar” are from Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 127.

  33. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 128.

  34. Mary Wollstonecraft, Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 202-3.

  35. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1897), 1: 231-32. In The War of the Words, Sandra Gilbert and I discuss the woman writer's “turn toward the father”: 171-81. The two female precursors Wollstonecraft admires are Hester Mulso Chapone and Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, both discussed quite briefly in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 105-6 and 137.

  36. Patricia Yaeger, “Writing as Action: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,Minnesota Review 29 (fall 1987): 74-75. See Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 77.

  37. Butler, 2.

  38. Olive Schreiner, Woman and Labour (1911; London: Virago, 1978), 272, 282. The long, slow death of the New Womanly Lyndall in The Story of an African Farm (1883) contrasts throughout the novel with the obesity, stupidity, voracity, racism, and cruelty of the traditional woman Tant' Sannie. Like Wollstonecraft, too, Schreiner publicly protested against female dependency on men but suffered repeated thralldom to men in her private life.

  39. Schreiner, Woman and Labour, 82.

  40. On Schreiner's plans to produce an introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and on Woman and Labour as a “Bible,” see Joyce Avrech Berkman, Olive Schreiner: Feminism on the Frontier (St. Alban's, Vt.: Eden Women's Publications, 1979), 7, 10, 2. Schreiner's discussion of the “parasite woman on her couch” appears in Woman and Labour, 132-33.

  41. Schreiner, Woman and Labour, 129-30.

  42. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), 6, 12, 8. See also 11.

  43. In a recent essay, Sandra M. Gilbert explains her own attraction to D. H. Lawrence's works and that of women readers from Katherine Mansfield and H. D. to Anaïs Nin by envisioning Lawrence as “a proto French feminist.” See her Acts of Attention: The Poems of D. H. Lawrence, 2d ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), xix. In this regard Rachel Blau DuPlessis's often reprinted essay, “For the Etruscans,” evokes D. H. Lawrence's Etruscan Places. See Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), 1-19.

  44. M. M. Bahktin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 293-94.

  45. According to Barbara Johnson, in a subtle analysis of the impact of racial stereotypes on racial identity, “questions of difference and identity are always a function of a specific interlocutionary situation—and the answers matter of strategy rather than truth.” See Barbara Johnson, “Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston,” Critical Inquiry 12 (autumn 1985): 285.

  46. On “fembot,” see Mary Daly, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 93.

  47. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: Bantam, 1971), 335, 12, 157.

  48. Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 248.

  49. Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (New York: Free Press, 1987), 63.

  50. Andrea Dworkin, Ice and Fire (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986), 72, 54-55, 101, 104-5.

  51. Nancy Cott, “Feminist Theory and Feminist Movements: The Past before Us,” in What Is Feminism? ed. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 49.

  52. Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1992), 138.

  53. For background on such debates, see Joan Scott, “Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference”; and Theresa de Lauretis, “Upping the Anti (sic) in Feminist Theory,” both in Conflicts in Feminism, 134-48 and 255-70.

  54. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 1985), 62-63, 163. Later, Moi stated that her book was “written from a feminist perspective, or, in other words, from a perspective of political solidarity with the feminist aims of the critics and theorists I write about.” In addition, she claims that after “the reactionary backlash of the eighties,” she found it “far more difficult to be sanguine about one's feminist position” and “would now emphasize much more the risks of being a feminist.” See her Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 95, 102.

  55. Quoted in Tom Glazer, ed., Songs of Peace, Freedom, and Protest (New York: McKay Press, 1970), 217-18. Here, as always and elsewhere, I am grateful for the help of Marah Gubar.

  56. Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993), 85. Significantly, Roiphe also aligns herself with John Irving and David Mamet (35 and 107). Yet in the opening of the book, she describes her own brand of feminism which she inherited from her mother. On Reckless Eyeballing and Alice Walker, see Ishmael Reed, “Steven Spielberg Plays Howard Beach,” in Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (New York: Atheneum, 1988), 145-60.

  57. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), 20. See also Claire Goldberg Moses, “‘Equality’ and ‘Difference’ in Historical Perspective: A Comparative Examination of the Feminisms of French Revolutionaries and Utopian Socialists,” in Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution, ed. Sara E. Meltzer and Leslie W. Rabine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 248, in which Moses points out: “The argument that feminist discourses of ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ are neither right nor wrong but relate to historically specific concerns or opportunities is further strengthened by noting the instability of these categories.”

  58. Gallop, 139.

Harriet Guest (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Guest, Harriet. “The Dream of a Common Language: Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Textual Practice 9, no. 2 (summer 1995): 303-23.

[In the following essay, Guest considers the similarities between the arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hannah More's Structure, noting especially the representation of the corruption perceived to be endemic among middle-class women.]


‘Have you read that wonderful book, The Rights of Woman’, wrote Anna Seward to Mr Whalley, on 26 February 1792. ‘It has, by turns, pleased and displeased, startled and half-convinced me that its author is oftener right than wrong.’1 Seward's enthusiasm for Wollstonecraft's work, and sympathy for the trials of her life, seem to have endured despite her passionate antagonism to political radicalism in England. By August of 1792, she writes, with what is clearly a deeply felt sense of personal as well as political alarm, of:

Paine's pernicious and impossible system of equal rights, [which] is calculated to captivate and dazzle the vulgar; to make them spurn the restraints of legislation, and to spread anarchy, murder, and ruin over the earth.2

But neither Wollstonecraft's use of the discourse of natural rights, nor the scandal of her personal career, seem to have dismayed her. In 1798 she reports that Wollstonecraft's ‘death shocked and concerned me’,3 and, in a letter to Humphry Repton, she writes in praise of Godwin's Memoirs that:

Bearing strong marks of impartial authority as to the character, sentiments, conduct, and destiny of a very extraordinary woman, they appear to be highly valuable. Since, on balancing her virtues and errors, the former greatly preponderate, it is no disgrace to any man to have united his destiny with hers.4

Seward seems to have found in Wollstonecraft's work and life principles she could continue to admire even though she recognized the sympathy between Wollstonecraft's political opinions and the radicalism she hated and feared. She went on to explain, in her discussion of the Vindication of 1792, that:

Though the ideas of absolute equality in the sexes are carried too far, and though they certainly militate against St Paul's maxims concerning that important compact, yet they do expose a train of mischievous mistakes in the education of females;—and on that momentous theme this work affords much better rules than can be found in the sophist Rousseau, or in the plausible Gregory. It applies the spear of Ithuriel to their systems.5

What's intriguing about Seward's comments, I think, is the implication that Wollstonecraft's arguments about the education of women are somehow separable from the politics of her Vindication of their rights. Seward links her admiration for Wollstonecraft as an educational theorist with her feeling for her as a woman victimized by what she described as her ‘basely betrayed attachment to that villain Imlay,’ rather than with arguments for rights to sexual and political equality.6 Now, I don't want to suggest that it was commonplace for women who rejected Wollstonecraft's political views to see her theories on the education of women as a distinct body of beliefs, uncoloured by her radicalism, and capable of being uncoupled from the claim to sexual equality. Writing in July 1792, Sarah Trimmer, for example, remembered the second Vindication exclusively as a claim for ‘a further degree of liberty or consequence for women’ within marriage; a claim which, she felt, threatened her own ‘happiness in having a husband to assist me in forming a proper judgement, and in taking upon him the chief labour of providing for a family’. Trimmer regretted that Wollstonecraft had not employed her ‘extraordinary abilities … to more advantage to society’.7 In August of the same year, Horace Walpole wrote congratulating Hannah More on not having read the Vindication. Apparently confident of More's agreement, he observes that:

I would not look at it, though assured it contains neither metaphysics nor politics; but as she entered the lists on the latter, and borrowed her title from the demon [Paine]'s book, which aimed at spreading the wrongs of men, she is excommunicated from the pale of my library.8

More herself claimed to find the notion of the rights of woman both absurd, and a regrettable staining of ‘domestic manners … with the prevailing hue of public principles’.9 Whether or not they had actually read the second Vindication, these writers clearly perceived it in the context of a polemical genre associated primarily with the discourse of rights—they perceived it as a political text.

What I do want to suggest, however, is that for a surprising range of readers the educational theories of Wollstonecraft's work did represent a common currency apparently uninflected by political differences. These readers seem to identify substantial parts of the text, at least, with a subgenre of educational conduct books and satires on social morality which they do not perceive to be appropriate to the articulation of political views. They seem, perhaps, to see gender as a category of concern that cuts across political differences. Mary Berry, the society hostess and correspondent of Walpole and More, acknowledges this possibility most directly. She writes, in a letter of 1799:

I have been able … to go entirely through Hannah More, and Mrs Woolstonecraft immediately after her. It is amazing, but impossible, they should do otherwise than agree on all the great points of female education. H. More will, I dare say, be very angry when she hears this, though I would lay wager that she never read the book.10

In Hannah More's Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, first published in 1799, and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects, of 1792, Mary Berry detects an agreement on ‘all the great points of female education’ that would be amazing if it were not inevitable. And her observation may point up, I think, that aspect of the Vindication that seemed to Anna Seward to remove the text from political controversy, and to make it praiseworthy despite its arguments for sexual equality.

In a footnote to The Unsex'd Females: A poem, published in 1798, Richard Polwhele wrote that: ‘Miss Hannah More may justly be esteemed, as a character, in all points, diametrically opposite to Miss Wollstonecraft.’11 The polarization of the public and private characters of the two women is evident in the texts they produced, but nevertheless what seems to be common to them is the language, the discourse in which they characterize the corruptions of femininity. Their texts propose, on the whole, different remedies for that corruption, and identify its causes in markedly divergent terms. But the figure of the corrupt woman produced in these texts seems indistinguishable, and she seems characterized in terms that can stand independent of what Walpole and Polwhele saw as the absolute moral and political opposition of their views. That figure is, of course, familiar to any student of eighteenth-century writing on women. But I want now to examine her familiar features again, and to consider how they may illuminate the politics of feminism in the 1790s.12


Both More and Wollstonecraft allude, early in their arguments, to Hamlet's speech to Ophelia—‘You jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures.’13 And the allusion seems to trigger, in their very different polemical texts, strikingly similar rehearsals of an apparently misogynistic discourse. Wollstonecraft argues that women—and particularly middle-class women—are encouraged to acquire ‘a kind of sickly delicacy … a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart’ (10). More similarly believes that ‘unqualified sensibility’ has been cultivated in affluent women, ‘till a false and excessive display of feeling became so predominant, as to bring into question the actual existence of … true tenderness’ (VII, 79-80). It should be enough here to sketch only the outlines of the discursive construction of corrupt femininity that both texts then elaborate. In both, the feminine subject is represented as peculiarly the creature of her material circumstances, which absorb her perceptions and adapt or accommodate them to their own nature. More writes that:

Women too little live or converse up to the standard of their understandings. … The mind, by always applying itself to objects below its level, contracts its dimensions, and shrinks itself to the size, and lowers itself to the level, of the object about which it is conversant.

(VIII, 57)

As a result of their preoccupation with trivial and unconnected phenomena, women are unable to generalize their ideas, are peculiarly localized, and cannot maintain a coherent train of thought. They are enthralled by novels, fascinated by manners, superficial appearances, surface ornamentation, distracted by isolated incidents and random, occasional events. The desire for continual and easy stimulation that these habits of mind entail results in a debilitating absorption in the sensible body, in the addictive pleasures of luxury, the lowest forms of taste. Women are slaves to the demands of the fashionable body for adornment, for epicurean and sexual sensation, for an endless diet of ever novel and artificial stimuli. … More writes that:

To attract admiration, is the great principle sedulously inculcated into [a woman's] young heart; and is considered as the fundamental maxim; and, perhaps, if we were required to condense the reigning system of the brilliant education of a lady into an aphorism, it might be comprised in this short sentence, To allure and to shine.

(VII, 98)

Corrupted femininity is all surface, all display, lacking the detachment, the critical distance, necessary to the production of a continuous consciousness or integrity of identity capable of deferring its gratifications.

In Wollstonecraft's Vindication the analogy of travel provides a peculiarly revealing figure for the incoherence of feminine subjectivity. She argues that:

A man, when he undertakes a journey, has, in general, the end in view; a woman thinks more of the incidental occurrences, the strange things that may possibly happen along the road; the impression that she may make on her fellow-travellers; and, above all, she is anxiously intent on the care of the finery that she carries with her, which is more than ever a part of herself, when going to figure on a new scene; when, to use an apt French turn of expression, she is going to produce a sensation.—Can dignity of mind exist with such trivial cares?


It may be worth noting that, in this passage, Wollstonecraft's writing seems almost to yield to the pleasures of the narrative that's afforded by the feminine attraction to incidental events and details, and almost to acknowledge that the woman does have an ‘end in view’ in her desire to produce a sensation, though it's an end that could only be appropriate to genres more amenable to sentiment, such as travel letters or the novel. But the point is that feminine lack of purpose is represented here as producing a kind of dissipation of subjectivity into a succession of accidents, so that feminine identity becomes indistinguishable from the finery, the things which ‘are more than ever a part’ of what it is that constitutes its tenuous and apparent continuity. More argues, in an intriguingly similar image, that:

The female … wanting steadiness in her intellectual pursuits, is perpetually turned aside by her characteristic tastes and feelings. Woman in the career of genius, is the Atalanta, who will risk losing the race by running out of her road to pick up the golden apple; while her male competitor, without, perhaps, possessing greater natural strength or swiftness, will more certainly attain his object, by direct pursuit, by being less exposed to the seductions of extraneous beauty, and will win the race, not by excelling in speed, but by despising the bait.

(VIII, 31-2)

In the Strictures, the analogy of masculine direction and feminine aimlessness provides what is a much more explicit image of the feminine incapacity to regulate desire for tangible and immediate gratifications. But for both Wollstonecraft and More, corrupt femininity is characterized by its attachment to what is incidental or extraneous, and by the absence of the sense of purpose and direction that seems to them necessary to self-possession and moral control.

The image of corrupt femininity, abandoned beyond all coherence or control, is familiar enough. In the Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (which was published in 1798, but largely written earlier in the decade), for example, Mary Hays (who seems the most probable author14) implies that it is unnecessary to detail the character of immoral femininity again. It seems enough, on the whole, merely to allude to women's ‘state of PERPETUAL BABYISM’ (97), and occasionally to flesh out the fascination with dress, the slavery to fashion, the addiction to what she calls ‘the idle vagaries of the present moment’ (82), that characterize the image. In general terms, corrupt femininity represents the obverse side of all that is valued in the dominant moral discourses of the eighteenth century. But in the 1790s it has a distinctive character, the implications of which I want to consider. For it is peculiarly an image of the feminine role in commercial culture—of the feminine consumer. In what seems to me to be one of the more striking passages of the Vindication, Wollstonecraft writes:

The conversation of French women … is frequently superficial; but, I contend, that it is not half so insipid as that of those English women whose time is spent in making caps, bonnets, and the whole mischief of trimmings, not to mention shopping, bargain-hunting, &c. &c.: and it is the decent, prudent women, who are most degraded by these practices; for their motive is simply vanity. The wanton who exercises her taste to render her passion alluring, has something more in view.


The real crime here, Wollstonecraft is careful to emphasize, is that attention to ‘the frippery of dress’ weakens the mind, and distracts it from social duty. These women deprive the poor of employment, and themselves of the leisure necessary to self-improvement, for, she writes, they ‘work only to dress better than they could otherwise afford’ (75). But the most remarkable feature of this characterization must be that suggestion that the absorption in self-adornment, in the almost unmentionable folly of shopping and bargain hunting, is more contemptible and degrading than the behaviour of the sexually voracious woman, who at least has ‘something more in view’.

What Wollstonecraft's comments here serve to confirm is that by the 1790s economic considerations have taken priority in the characterization of corrupted femininity. The problem is not that absorption in self-adornment may encourage an insatiable sexual rapacity disturbing to the social confidence placed in the system of propertied inheritance, though that remains an important ingredient of the discursive construction at issue. In these years, when fortunes may be more likely to be acquired through commercial speculation than as a result of inherited landed estates, the dangers of social disruption that cluster and find focus in the familiar figure of feminine excess, at least in the context of the polemical genre of vindications, appeals and strictures, result from the vices of consumerism, rather than the more colourful sins of bad sexuality. The figure of corrupted femininity, I suggest, needs to be understood primarily as a set of gendered characteristics appropriated to the requirements of the discourse of commerce and its feared inverse, the anti-commercial horrors of profiteering, greed and consumerism run riot. In the late eighteenth century, the discourse of commerce projects out of itself the image of its own amoralism, producing the figure of insatiable feminine desire that shadows the morality of middle-class men and women, and that, in its confirmed and acknowledged immorality, works to consolidate the shaky moral values of commerce itself. The vices of commerce are embodied in the figure of immorally desirous femininity, which serves, as it were, to draw that poison off from the system of commerce itself. But in this context, of course, the poison is also the antidote—commerce needs the image of corrupt femininity to account for the consumption of its commodities, to represent the ceaseless stimulations to desire in the marketplace, and to figure, in its own shining form, the radiance of the commodity. It needs corrupt femininity to moralize and masculinize its own self-image.

Wollstonecraft's shoppers are caught up and implicated in the changing nature of the retail trade—they hunt for bargains in violation of the code of trust that was believed to have existed between tradesmen and their customers. They are implicitly promiscuous in awarding the favours of their custom, responding to the seduction of window displays and cut-price offers, undercutting traditional channels of supply with the industry of their busy fingers, rather than participating in those steady and trusting relationships of reciprocal recognition between consumer and supplier that are imagined to have characterized the more paternalist society of the past.15 In Hays' Appeal, in particular, these shoppers and stitchers are reprimanded for their failure to fulfil the obligations of their class and gender, their failure to provide poor women with steady employment.16 They are the counterpart of those men Wollstonecraft describes to Imlay in her Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). She writes that:

men entirely devoted to commerce never acquire, or [they] lose, all taste and greatness of mind. An ostentatious display of wealth without elegance, and a greedy enjoyment of pleasure without sentiment, embrutes them till they term all virtue, of an heroic cast, romantic attempts at something above our nature; and anxiety after others, a search after misery, in which we have no concern. But you will say that I am growing bitter, perhaps, personal. Ah! shall I whisper to you—that you—yourself, are strangely altered, since you have entered deeply into commerce … never allowing yourself to reflect, and keeping your mind, or rather passions, in a continual state of agitation.17

Imlay here is represented as partaking in those feminized qualities that the second Vindication attributes to corrupted femininity. What is personal, what strikes home to his self-image, she suggests, is the moralized and gendered discourse of anti-commerce, rather than the reflections produced by the discourses of sentiment, on the one hand, or civic humanism, on the other. Wollstonecraft's letter implies that Imlay the dealer in alum and soap will recognize and wish to reject the gendered and impassioned image of its own amoralism that commerce has produced.

Hannah More, it is no surprise to find, is prepared to locate value and virtue in the feminine image of the good consumer much more straightforwardly and explicitly than are Wollstonecraft and Hays—both of whom might be seen as more concerned to define middle-class women as something other than consumers. More's prose seems to register no flicker of doubt, none of the hesitancy that might point to a sense of incongruity, as she invests the figure of the good housewife with many of the virtues necessary to public spirit. She writes that:

ladies whose natural vanity has been aggravated by a false education, may look down on oeconomy as a vulgar attainment, unworthy of the attention of a highly cultivated intellect; but this is the false estimate of a shallow mind. OEconomy … is not merely … the shabby curtailments and stinted parsimony of a little mind, operating on little concerns; but it is the exercise of a sound judgement exerted in the comprehensive outline of order, of arrangement, of distribution; of regulations by which alone well-governed societies, great and small, subsist. … A sound oeconomy is a sound understanding brought into action; it is calculation realized; it is the doctrine of proportion reduced to practice; it is foreseeing consequences, and guarding against them; it is expecting contingencies, and being prepared for them. The difference is, that to a narrow-minded vulgar oeconomist, the details are continually present. … Little events and trivial operations engross her whole soul.

(VIII, 5-7)

The argument that the practice of the good consumer indicates that More identifies as ‘real genius and extensive knowledge’ (VIII, 8) can clearly only be supported in juxtaposition to the representation of the ‘vulgar oeconomist’, endowed with the narrow-minded absorption and capacity for engrossment in the physical that characterize corrupted femininity.

More writes of properly domesticated women that:

Both in composition and action they excel in details; but they do not so much generalize their ideas as men, nor do their minds seize a great subject with so large a grasp. They are acute observers, and accurate judges of life and manners, as far as their own sphere of observation extends; but they describe a smaller circle. A woman sees the world, as it were, from a little elevation in her own garden, whence she makes an exact survey of home scenes, but takes not in that wider range of distant prospects which he who stands on loftier eminence commands.

(VIII, 29-30)

The good domestic economist seems, on the one hand, to perceive with the kind of commanding and comprehensive grasp that distinguishes the vision of public men, from their loftier eminences. But on the other hand, within her ‘smaller circle’, she excels in her attention to detail. Her ‘survey of home scenes’, in other words, seems ambiguously ‘exact’—it seems to be true and right, in the sense that the perceptions of great men are imagined to be true, disinterested and unbiased, and it seems to be exact in the sense that it is precise, and preoccupied with detail. Those qualities, I think, can only be represented as though they were compatible, and the notion that women do not generalize their ideas ‘so much’ as men can only be represented as though it made sense, as a result of the introduction of the contrasting figure of the vulgar economist, who as it were neutralizes the problem, by absorbing into herself what are seen as the more degrading implications of engrossment in the physical detail and menial drudgery of housekeeping.


The appropriation of the image of corrupted femininity to an anticommercial discourse is thoroughly problematic, as both More's Strictures and Wollstonecraft's Vindication demonstrate. The very currency, the power and resonance of the image in so many eighteenth-century texts serve to indicate the extent to which it has hoovered up the available languages of desire. It acts as a magnet for gendered characteristics in excess of those necessary to its function as a guarantee of the moral discourses from which it is projected and excluded. It can seem to have assumed the power to characterize not only what is excessive, corrupted, and feminized, but those qualities which seem in terms of the discourses of the period to be necessary to the distinction of gender, to be those essential to femininity itself. In the particular, anti-commercial form which I have suggested is specific to the 1790s, the image of corrupted femininity can seem to embrace and to represent all femininity, and thus to identify anti-commercial discourse as misogynistic. This can be seen in many of the polemical texts of the period, but is perhaps most unmistakably marked in More's Strictures. Writing of women's fashionable publicity, she argues:

If, indeed, women were mere outside, form and face only … it would follow that a ball-room was quite as appropriate place for choosing a wife, as an exhibition room for choosing a picture. But, inasmuch as women are not mere portraits, their value not being determinable by a glance of the eye, if follows that a different mode of appreciating their value, and a different place for viewing them antecedent to their being individually selected, is desirable. The two cases differ also in this, that if a man select a picture for himself from among all its exhibited competitors, and bring it to his own house, the picture being passive, he is able to fix it there: while the wife, picked up at a public place, and accustomed to incessant display, will not, it is probable, when brought home, stick so quietly to the spot where he fixes her; but will escape to the exhibition-room again, and continue to be displayed at every subsequent exhibition, just as if she were not become private property, and had never been definitively disposed of.

(VIII, 178-9)

More's argument is remarkable because of the twist, the change of direction that registers the problematic instability of discourses of gender. In the first place it seems that women are more valuable than portraits because they are more enigmatic, because they conceal hidden depths that cannot be known at a glance. The association of corrupt femininity with surface display seems to be what is established by portraiture, which can only paint the superficial appearance suitable for the exhibition room. But as More develops the image, that very addiction to surface, that sense in which femininity is fully manifested in its exhibitable and commodified form, becomes the valued and apparently uncorrupted site. Women who fail to recognize that they have become private property, which has been definitively disposed of, women who continue to desire to be seen, but unlike commodities do not apparently desire to be possessed, become identified as corrupt. They seem corrupt, shop-soiled, because of their suspect motivation and mobility—because, unlike portraits, they are not all surface. The analogy between women and their portraits, in More's argument, makes it clear that the identification of femininity with surface and display which is central to the discourse on feminized corruption has become ambiguous. The stable but superficial image which respects its status as private property is here a marker of relative purity and value.

Mary Hays' argument, in her Appeal, runs into similar difficulties in employing the analogy between women and works of art. She writes of corrupt women as ‘mere automatans’ [sic] who ‘put on the semblance of every virtue’, and may appear ‘as captivating—perhaps even more so, than women of real sensibility’. She contrasts their ‘varnish of surface’ with ‘real, unaffected, unassuming goodness’, which is analogous to ‘marble of the most exquisite quality,—which, without flaw or blemish, admits of an equal polish through all its parts as on its surface; and on which the sculptor may lastingly impress the sublimest efforts of his art’ (255-6). What is curious about this contrast between automata and sculpture, what seems excessive to the familiar language of surface and depth, is the emphasis on the sculpted image of virtuous femininity as a production, lastingly impressed by the hand of its maker. Both the automaton and sculpture, that emphasis on production serves to point up, afford pleasure to the spectator because of their visible surfaces and polished finish. The fact that marble statuary has a more enduring polish does not call into question the characterization of both corrupt and virtuous femininity in the desire to excite desire, in qualities common to commodities. What seem to distinguish corrupt from virtuous femininity are the aesthetic criteria which articulate discrimination between different kinds of art, between the value of different kinds of private property. The analogy between women and painting or sculpture makes explicit the commodification of femininity, while veiling that commercial form in the decent and acceptable drapery of aesthetic value, but the analogy also elides the distinction between virtue and corruption that it is apparently called upon to support. In this context, all femininity is identified as spectacle, and caught up in those transactions of desire that characterize both consumers and commodities.

The perceived erosion of what was imagined to have been the clear distinction between virtuous and corrupt femininity is a matter of explicit concern and alarm for conservative writers of the later eighteenth century. John Bowles, for example, in his Remarks on Modern Female Manners of 1802, laments that women of unblemished character ‘No longer … pride themselves … on the distinction which separates them from the abandoned part of their sex’.18 He argues that virtuous women should not tolerate the society of known adultresses—a point of etiquette that Hannah More also stressed in her Strictures of 1799, although in her Essays for Young Ladies of 1777 she had argued for the exercise of Christian forgiveness and tolerance. Bowles advances his case with an excessive strength of feeling that borders on panic. He writes that:

Honour, especially in women, can admit of no compromise with dishonour; no approaches from one towards the other must be suffered; the boundary between them must be considered as impassable; the line by which they are divided is the RUBICON of female virtue.19

His insistence can be taken as an indication of the frailty of definition, the discursive instability, of the categories of feminine virtue and corruption—categories which cannot be kept distinct by the mere device of social manoeuvring that he advocates. The blurring of these categories, he argues, represents ‘a much more formidable enemy than Buonaparte himself, with all his power, perfidy, and malice’.20 It indicates a social change which, he writes:

would be more tremendous than even the suspension of those wonderful powers of nature, which confine the planets to their respective orbs, and maintain, from age to age, the harmony of the universe.21

Bowles believes that apocalyptic chaos will result from virtuous women adopting immodest fashions of dress. Confronting the discursive confusion this represents, he exclaims that:

compared with such a woman, the bold and abandoned profligate, who with dauntless effrontery, appears publicly in her true character, is less disgraceful to her sex, and less injurious to society.22

Like Wollstonecraft contemplating the horrors of shopping, he finds himself welcoming the unambiguously scandalous woman as a more socially acceptable and useful figure than the fashionable woman of indeterminate morality. For, as I suggested earlier, it is the feminine image of corrupt desire, of bad sexuality, that is necessary to inoculate the morality of commercial culture. The danger represented by the confusion of the signs of vice and virtue, or by the possibility that anti-commerce might be recognized as a feature of commerce itself, is greater than the danger represented by the bold and abandoned face of bad sexuality or Napoleonic perfidy.


The problem that I believe these texts of the late century respond to and articulate in their shared and apparently misogynistic discourse is clearly set out in Anna Laetitia Aikin or Barbauld's essay of 1773, ‘Against Inconsistency in our Expectations’. She explains that:

We should consider this world as a great mart of commerce, where fortune exposes to our view various commodities, riches, ease, tranquillity, fame, integrity, knowledge. Every thing is marked at a settled price. Our time, our labour, our ingenuity, is so much ready money which we are to lay out to the best advantage. Examine, compare, choose, reject; but stand to your own judgement; and do not, like children, when you have purchased one thing, repine that you do not possess another which you did not purchase.23

It is perhaps apparent from this initial image of society that Barbauld's essay attempts to wed a moral discourse on the use of talents, on those differences of character that may result in tranquillity, fame, or integrity, to a discourse on the division of labour concerned to explain the diverse specializations of commercial society in a way that seems also to justify its inequalities. Barbauld concludes that:

There is a cast of manners peculiar and becoming to each age, sex, and profession. … Each is perfect in its kind. A woman as a woman: a tradesman as a tradesman. We are often hurt by the brutality and sluggish conceptions of the vulgar; not considering that some there must be to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, and that cultivated genius, or even any great refinement and delicacy in their moral feelings, would be a real misfortune to them.24

The inclusion of women here, as though gender were a category immediately comparable to occupation or class, is thoroughly problematic. What women in their capacity as The Sex bring to the great mart of commerce is, most obviously, their sexuality. They may figure in the great mart as consumers or commodities, but as I have tried to show, those roles are at least morally ambiguous.

What women are more commonly valued for by the late century is precisely their exclusion from the marketplace—the marginal position from which, according to John Bowles:

they soften, they polish, the rougher sex, which, without their mild and genial influence, would never exhibit any thing better than a race of barbarians. … They constitute the very ties of those family connections, those domestic societies, which can alone foster in the human heart those tender sympathies, the social affections. … In short, they adorn, they harmonize the world.25

That image of women as social glue is common to many of the polemical texts of the 1790s, including Wollstonecraft's and More's. But in Barbauld's essay it's clear that even this vague notion of a social function for virtuous femininity is incompatible with the model of society that the division of labour articulates. Barbauld laments that in modern society:

Every one is expected to have such a tincture of general knowledge as is incompatible with going deep into any science; and such a conformity to fashionable manners as checks the free workings of the ruling passion, and gives an insipid sameness to the face of society, under the idea of polish and regularity.26

The qualities that Barbauld here regrets, because they militate against specialization and against the division of labour on which the great mart of commerce is perceived to depend, are precisely those of polish and regularity which it is the business of women to instil. Barbauld acknowledges that the idea of society which it is the function of women to harmonize and polish is made redundant by the more powerful and persuasive model of the great mart described by political economy. In the context of that commercial model, there is no moral or professional language available to articulate feminine virtue. It has no place and no value. By the 1790s, I think, that perception has become inadmissible. The problem of feminine virtue, the problem of what women are wanted for, has become an issue capable of producing that anxiety about policing the division between good and bad women that John Bowles articulated—an anxiety that animates the spate of conservative and radical texts on the education of women in the 1790s. The most obvious function of women in the 1790s is to fuel the discourse of anti-commerce—a discourse that I have suggested shows an alarming tendency to become fully misogynistic, and to become the only available, or at least the dominant discourse on femininity.


Wollstonecraft, Hays, and More might all be understood, in their polemical writing, to respond to the impossible demands placed on femininity in commercial culture, and they all look to the possibility of professionalization to reclaim respectability for the notion of virtuous femininity. Hays and Wollstonecraft both argue strongly that the exclusion of women from the division of labour as anything but consumers means that the terms in which they can be represented are restricted almost completely to those of corrupt feminine desire made available by what I have called the discourse of anti-commerce. Emphasizing the dominance of the model of society produced by political economy, Wollstonecraft writes:

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.


What women are perceived to be for, the character of femininity, is for Wollstonecraft produced by their allocated place and employment within the division of labour, which dictates that they will consume goods for their personal adornment, goods which the middle-class woman finds become ‘more than ever a part of herself’ (60), and constitute her social identity.27 Hays' Appeal is more explicitly concerned than is the Vindication with the issues raised by differences of class. She argues that what she identifies as the ‘misemployed talents’ that middle-class women expend on ‘ribbons, gauze, fringes, flounces and furbelows … might have placed thee on the woolsack, or have put a mitre on thy head, or a long robe on thy back, or a truncheon in thy hand’ (79). The vanity of corrupt femininity is ambition misemployed, she claims. She argues strongly for the reappropriation to women of trades and professions that had become masculinized in the course of the eighteenth century. Significantly, Hays emphasizes that the masculinization of women's work had left prostitution as the only available professional course open to poor women obliged to compete in the marketplace.

More, in contrast, employs the language of professionalization to characterize both corrupt and virtuous femininity. The life of fashionable women, she argues, ‘formerly, too much resembled the life of a confectioner’, but ‘it now too much resembles that of an actress; the morning is all rehearsal, and the evening is all performance’ (VII, 120-1). The passions women bring to their public performances resemble those that ‘might be supposed to stimulate professional candidates for fame and profit at public games and theatrical exhibitions’ (VII, 123). More argues that:

Most men are commonly destined to some profession, and their minds are commonly turned each to its respective object. Would it not be strange if they were called out to exercise their profession, or to set up their trade, with only a little general knowledge of the trades and professions of all other men, and without any previous definite application to their own particular calling. The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers and mistresses of families. They should therefore be trained with a view to these several conditions, and be furnished with a stock of ideas, and principles, and qualifications, and habits, ready to be applied and appropriated, as occasion may demand, to each of these respective situations.

(VII, 111-12)

More's suspicion of those who are equipped ‘with only a little general knowledge’ echoes Barbauld's distrust of the ‘tincture of general knowledge’ that is valued ‘under the idea of polish and regularity’. It is a suspicion of what has come to seem an anachronistic lack of specialization, appropriate to an idea of society innocent of commercial progress. In More's Strictures, women can only become properly modern and professional by subjecting themselves to an extraordinary degree of restraint—by accepting the confinement of their different presence within the ‘smaller circle’ of domesticity. More argues that fashionable men are peculiarly subject to the allure of the ambiguously public world of clubs, which ‘generate and cherish luxurious habits, from their perfect ease, undress, liberty, and inattention to the distinctions of rank’ (VIII, 184). Clubs, she argues, ‘promote … every temper and spirit which tends to undomesticate’ (VIII, 185). It is the duty of the wife to correct what More represents as the democratical spirit of club life by cultivating in her husband the ‘love of fireside enjoyments’ (VIII, 186). By confining her own circle of understanding and activity to the domestic, More suggests that the wife will be able to produce in herself and her husband the belief that ‘those attachments, which … are the cement which secure the union of the family as well as of the state’ (VIII, 187) are those which are nourished in the asocial world of the family, of domesticity. The kind of limited publicity and professionalism to which Wollstonecraft and Hays wish to secure women access is associated in More's argument with ‘inattention to the distinctions of rank’, with the blurring of the boundaries of public and political space—boundaries which are for More secured by the polarization of family and state, and confirmed by the antagonism that she and John Bowles wish to see between virtuous and immoral women. Whereas for Wollstonecraft and Hays, women seem left with the possibility of entering more fully into the political and economic marketplace. As Wollstonecraft observes: ‘The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng, and feel as men feel’ (112).

What is problematic about that statement is of course its apparent denial of the value of gendered difference. And that is a problem which, I hope to have shown, is produced by the specific historical moment in which the Vindication participates. The apparently misogynistic discourse that is common to both Wollstonecraft and More, and to a less marked extent to Hays, in their polemical texts if not in their writing in other genres, needs to be understood, I think, as peculiar to the late century. As I have mentioned, the general terms in which it characterizes corrupt femininity are common to writing about women throughout the eighteenth century. Mary Astell, for example, has some very similar things to say about fashionable women at the beginning of the century. But in Mary Astell's writing the image is not misogynistic, it is not a representation of all femininity. It is a set of terms appropriated, broadly speaking, to those women who are seen to be surplus to the marriage market, marriageable women who may be made redundant by the newly emerging relationship between the city and the landed gentry. By the late century, however, the requirements of anti-commercial discourse appropriate the image of corrupt femininity, and extend it into the nightmare of a language that represents all women, and all forms of feminine desire. It is important, I think, to recognize the specific uses to which the notion of feminine corruption is put, in the course of the eighteenth century. For if we accept its terms as common to all forms of femininity, then, in a sense, we accept their status as somehow essential to gender difference. We then tend to privilege from among the cluster of characteristics that make up the image those which we most nearly accept as essential to femininity ourselves—such as sexuality—and overlook the extent to which feminisms of the past have changed their nature to suit the specific historical circumstances in which they operate. We overlook the flexible self-image which is surely necessary to feminist polemical texts.


  1. Letters of Anna Seward: Written between the years 1784 and 1807. In six volumes (Edinburgh: G. Ramsay & Co., 1811), III, p. 117.

  2. To Lady Gresley, 29 August 1792, III. p. 160.

  3. To Mrs Jackson of Turville-Court, 13 February 1798, V, p. 47.

  4. 13 April 1798, V, p. 73.

  5. To Mr Whalley, 26 February 1792, III, p. 117.

  6. To Humphry Repton, 13 April 1798, V, p. 74.

  7. Some Account of the Life and Writings of Mrs Trimmer, with original letters, and meditations and prayers, selected from her journal. In two volumes (London: R. & R. Gilbert, 1814, this 2nd edn 1816), To Mrs M., 12 July 1792, II, pp. 60-1.

  8. The Letters of Horace Walpole Earl of Orford, 9 vols, ed. Peter Cunningham (London: Bohn, 1861), 21 August 1792, IX, p. 385. Walpole's remark about the absence of politics in the text implies the absence of direct or explicit comment on the political events of the day. In the preceding paragraph of the letter he describes. ‘The second massacre of Paris’ in some detail, and suggests that these events have confirmed his ‘abhorrence of politics’ (p. 384).

  9. Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. With a view of the principles and conduct prevalent among women of rank and fortune (1799), in The Works of Hannah More. In eight volumes: Including several pieces never before published (London: A. Strahan, 1801), VII, pp. 172-3.

  10. Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852, 3 vols., ed. Lady Theresa Lewis (London: Longmans, 1865), To Mrs Cholmeley, 2 April 1799, II, pp. 91-2. On perceptions of Wollstonecraft as an educational theorist see Regina M. Janes, ‘On the reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 39 (1978), pp. 293-302, and Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), p. 28.

  11. In Vivien Jones (ed.), Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 191.

  12. The relation between More's Strictures and Wollstonecraft's second Vindication has been explored most fully by Mitzi Myers, in her important article, ‘Reform or Ruin: “A revolution in female manners”’, in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, no. 11 (1982), pp. 199-216. Myers argues that Wollstonecraft and More are united, despite or across their political differences, in ‘perceiving a society infected with fashionable corruption, [to which] both preach a militantly moral middle-class reform grounded in women's potentiality’ (p. 211). As will I hope become apparent, my essay is concerned to unpack—to specify and complicate—what is involved in those rather generalized notions of fashionable corruption and middle-class morality. But I also question Myers's reading of the second Vindication as primarily concerned with reforming women's domestic role, as well as her assumption that middle-class and affluent women are, in some sense, really corrupted by fashionable amusements. My approach is more extensively (if indirectly) indebted to Cora Kaplan's reading of Wollstonecraft in her brilliant and influential essay, ‘Wild Nights: pleasure/sexuality/feminism’, in Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986). Kaplan's essay (which was first published in 1983) argues that Wollstonecraft's text is ‘interested in developing a class sexuality for a radical, reformed bourgeoisie’ (p. 35), through the reform of something resembling Myers's ‘fashionable corruption’, but Kaplan argues that this reforming drive ‘expresses a violent antagonism to the sexual’ (p. 41). Her essay questions this ‘negative construction of the sexual in the midst of a positive and progressive construction of the social and political’ (p. 36). My essay attempts to extend this questioning, and to reconsider the polemical uses of the figure of negative sexuality, in the context of concerns about feminine morality that are, I think, specific to the cultural politics of the 1790s.

  13. See Strictures, VII, pp. 78-9; and Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 10. The subtext here may be Burke's notorious use of Hamlet's speech. He writes that in ‘sensible objects’, ‘so far is perfection … from being the cause of beauty; that this quality, where it is highest in the female sex, almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness, and even sickness. In all this, they are guided by nature.’ A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 110.

  14. William Thompson attributed the Appeal to Mary Hays in the Introductory Letter to Mrs Wheeler, in their Appeal of one-half of the human race, Women, against the pretensions of the other half, Men (1825). The attribution may also be indirectly supported by the apology for writing in the first person that is appended to the Appeal. See Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in behalf of Women (London: J. Johnson, 1798), pp. 295-300. Wollstonecraft wrote to Mary Hays on 12 November 1792, commenting on a draft of her Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous, which was to be published in 1793. She argued that the text was ‘too full of yourself … true modesty should keep the author in the back ground’. Ralph M. Wardle (ed.), Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 220.

  15. On the changing nature of consumption see Neil McKendrik, ‘Introduction. The birth of a consumer society: the commercialization of eighteenth-century England’, and Chapter 1, ‘The consumer revolution in eighteenth-century England’, in Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europe, 1982); and E. P. Thompson's essay of 1971, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, reprinted in his Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1991).

  16. See, for example, Appeal, pp. 242-3.

  17. In Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (eds), The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (London: Pickering, 1989), 7 vols. VI, pp. 340-1.

  18. Remarks on Modern Female Manners, as distinguished by indifference to character, and indecency of dress; extracted chiefly from ‘Reflections political and moral at the conclusion of the war. By John Bowles, Esq.’ (London: Woodfall, 1802) p. 4.

  19. Bowles, p. 6.

  20. ibid., p. 16.

  21. ibid., p. 20.

  22. ibid., p. 15. Bowles's discussion may echo Hannah More's account of modern dress. She argues that as a result of excessive cultivation the arts have become ‘agents of voluptuousness’ (VII, p. 91), and comments: ‘May we not rank among the present corrupt consequences of this unbounded cultivation, the unchaste costume, the impure style of dress, and that indelicate statue-like exhibition of the female figure, which, by its artfully disposed folds, its seemingly wet and adhesive drapery, so defines the form as to prevent covering itself from becoming a veil? This licentious mode, as the acute Montesquieu observed on the dances of the Spartan virgins, has taught us “to strip chastity itself of modesty”’ (VII, p. 92).

  23. In The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, With a Memoir by Lucy Aikin (London: Longman, 1825), 2 vols, II, p. 185.

  24. Barbauld, II, p. 194.

  25. Bowles, p. 18.

  26. Barbauld, II, pp. 193-4.

  27. For a fuller discussion of Wollstonecraft's views on the employments appropriate to middle-class women, see Sapiro, pp. 158-61.

Cindy L. Griffin (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Griffin, Cindy L. “A Web of Reasons: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Re-weaving of Form.” Communication Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 1996): 272-88.

[In the following essay, Griffin proposes a nonlinear form of argument, based on the form of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she believes will assist readers in recognizing the complexity of the work and the need to reconsider notions of effective rhetorical form.]

Mary Wollstonecraft, recognized as one of the most influential feminists in history, strived to express her views in an age when the opinions and thoughts of women were seen as insignificant. At a time when the White, male, upper-class perspective was the dominant one and when women writers were scarce, Wollstonecraft emerged as a serious writer, philosopher, and advocate of the equality of women and men. Throughout her career in England in the late 18th century, Wollstonecraft challenged and ridiculed the common sentiment that women naturally were inferior to men, arguing that the prevailing system of reasoning and education, not women's “natural” subservience, kept them in positions of dependence and inferiority. In response to the common belief in women's lack of intelligence, their submissiveness, and their passivity, Wollstonecraft wrote and published her most influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792)—a powerful and complex argument for women's rights and equality.1

Wollstonecraft's bold and important claims for women's independence have not received as much acclaim as might be expected. Although women prior to the 20th century praised her work,2 only a few contemporary scholars speak in favor of Wollstonecraft. Todd suggests that Wollstonecraft's work is “so comprehensive that one may say that all feminists, radical and conservative, who followed Wollstonecraft are her philosophic descendants” (1976, p. xi); Sapiro argues that any “serious student of feminist theory or gender and political theory must have read [A] Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1992, p. 280); Taylor considers Wollstonecraft a “pioneer” (1969, p. 19); Stuart (1978) explores Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men; Griffin (1994) suggests that Wollstonecraft's arguments help explain the experience of alienation from a rhetorical rather than a strictly material perspective; and Huxman (1996) advocates that Wollstonecraft's work be considered a part of a symbolic convergence of early feminist discourse.

In contrast to this small group of supporters, however, the majority of responses to Wollstonecraft are grounded in a harsh rejection of her public image, her arguments, and her overall presentation of her ideas. Perhaps more than any other feminist on record, Wollstonecraft has been so harshly criticized, not only for what she said but for how she said it, that scholars would do well to consider the implications and foundations of this criticism.

Although both the content and form of Wollstonecraft's ideas have been scrutinized, shortly after her death in 1798, Wollstonecraft's character also came under attack. She was described as an “unsexed female” in Polwhele's poem, The Unsex'd Females (1800, pp. 23-35), and a “hyena in petticoats” by Walpole (1859, p. 452). Many years later, Lundberg and Farnham suggested that Wollstonecraft's theories came from a “tortured woman's soul”—they were “factually erroneous” and “socially mischievous” (1947, pp. 144-145). Wollstonecraft, Lundberg and Farnham suggested, wanted women to behave “as nearly as possible like men” (pp. 144-145). The content of her work also came under scrutiny shortly after her death, and her arguments were described as superficial (Anti-Jacobin Review, 1798) and as nothing more than “extravagant, absurd, and destructive theories” (Anti-Jacobin Review, 1801, p. 95).

In 1885, almost 100 years after her death, a reviewer for the Eclectic Magazine began the attack on the form of Wollstonecraft's arguments. This reviewer suggested that the work was “too long,” lacking in arrangement, repetitive, “rambling,” and disjointed (pp. 100-107). The intense attacks on her rhetorical form, however, did not take hold until the middle of this century. Beard argued that Wollstonecraft's style was “uninformed” and lacked the neatness and “athletic movement of Paine's English” (1946, p. 100). Kamm (1966, p. 19) criticized the manner in which Vindication was written, describing Wollstonecraft's work as “rambling” and a “book which shows every mark of having been hurriedly put together. … [A] Vindication, like its author, is flamboyant, passionate and sentimental.” Nixon (1971, p. 97) suggested that Wollstonecraft's book was “not well planned. She reiterates her arguments without strengthening them, suddenly returning on her steps to insist on some point which previously she had not sufficiently stressed.” Tomalin (1974, p. 136) suggested that the “book is without any logical structure”; Urbanski (1980, p. 55) described the book as “ill arranged,” repetitive, and too full of digressions; and Brownmiller (1975, p. 4) argued that Wollstonecraft was possessed by the “furies” who “both impelled and choked her, … clogging her prose with gulping anger, roadblocks of venom, perilous flights of mannered scorn.”3

The early rejections of Wollstonecraft's ideas seem to be grounded in questions of lifestyle and content, while later negative responses were based on the actual form of her arguments. This is not a new strategy for criticizing or even rejecting the arguments of feminist and minority rhetors; negative scrutiny regularly moves from what a rhetor says to how those ideas are presented (Spender, 1982, p. 28).4 These criticisms of the form of a feminist rhetor's argument suggest that when the opposition no longer can refute the content of that argument, a refutation of the form of that argument begins. Although certain argument forms might be so complex or confusing as to be incomprehensible, Wollstonecraft's work clearly does not fall into this category. In this instance, the attacks regarding the proper form or arrangement of an entire argument and the disposition of an entire piece of discourse still are open for discussion.

The question of the nature of rhetorical form or style is not a new one in the communication discipline and has been addressed by several scholars in recent decades. Nelson (1972) argues for a fugal form in the rhetoric of Charles James Fox; McGuire (1977) suggests that critics understand Hitler's Mein Kampf as an encyclopaedic myth; Black (1978, 1992) advances the idea of a sentimental style; and Campbell (1980), Dow and Tonn (1993), and Blankenship and Robson (1995) argue for a lyric or feminine style of rhetoric. Recent scholarly efforts also have been directed at envisioning and teaching the complexity of arrangement or disposition in public speaking courses. Jaffe (1995) and Kearney and Plax (1996) advocate an intercultural perspective on form, and S. K. Foss and K. A. Foss (1994) propose a nonconfrontative, transformational model for presentational speaking that revisions the ways in which ideas are linked together. Taken as a whole, these attempts to advocate and explain the myriad patterns of argument are significant in that they suggest the complexity and diversity of argument forms available to rhetors. They do not, however, explain satisfactorily Wollstonecraft's rhetorical form.

I suggest that in order to understand Wollstonecraft's arguments and her rhetorical contribution more fully, scholars must consider the distinctive form or pattern of argument she advanced. Wollstonecraft's treatise illustrates the highly organic nature of an argument suggested by Toulmin (1988), or what Perelman (1970, p. 290) identifies as “a web [of ideas] formed from all the arguments and all the reasons that combine to achieve the desired result.” Wollstonecraft's Vindication offers scholars an opportunity to scrutinize this web-like arrangement of ideas and to explore the implications of this arrangement for rhetors and rhetorical theory alike.

I propose that Wollstonecraft's arguments are understood best as a web of ideas, woven together through definition, redefinition, repetition, and a careful pattern of interconnection. Her pattern of arguing is web-like in form in that her overall argument begins with a central theme from which all other themes develop and to which all other themes connect. The web pattern continues as each theme is linked to the others by an intricate system of definition and redefinition and the interrelation of each of her ideas to the others. Wollstonecraft builds, in effect, a system in which all parts of her argument function symbiotically and in concert so that the taking apart of one strand of her argument requires addressing each of the other strands. The strength of this argument lies in the difficulty of refuting its entirety; its weakness, however, comes from its complexity and its web-like nature.

To assess Wollstonecraft's rhetorical form, I begin my analysis with a very brief discussion of Vindication and Wollstonecraft's perspective on women's rights. I then identify the web model of discourse by discussing her method of organization and illustrating the web pattern within the presentation of her arguments. I argue that Wollstonecraft's arguments create an interwoven pattern of ideas that ask the audience to participate in the argument process by building connection upon connection and relationship within relationship. This same pattern, however, can present difficulties for both the rhetor and the audience, and I address these as well. I conclude my analysis with a discussion of the ways in which Wollstonecraft's work illustrates the complex form an argument can assume when the issue under discussion is equally complex. I also address issues of the role of the audience and the process of argument construction itself, suggesting that the role of the rhetor, the form of an argument, and the task of the audience, at times, may be intimately interconnected.


In Vindication, Wollstonecraft attacked and challenged both male dominance and female acquiescence to that dominance. She offered a critique of and challenge to the prevailing system of education for women and proposed a reformed social order, particularly where women and men were concerned. Wollstonecraft argued against the influential theories and writings of Milton, Rousseau, Gregory, Fordyce, and Pope and challenged Biblical strictures, nobility, hereditary rule, and even common-sense notions regarding proper education and the natural social order. She turned arguments from each of these individuals and institutions against themselves, offering refutations of their claims and illustrating the harms done to women as a result. Her primary thesis was that were women to be properly educated, they would prove themselves to be morally and intellectually equal to men. To trivialize women and to keep them in a state of inferiority, according to Wollstonecraft, was antithetical to God's purpose. Wollstonecraft wanted women to have freedom to think rather than intellectual confinement, a chance for a stimulating education rather than lessons of obedience, and strength of mind and body rather than flattering airs and a child-like nature. Women's character, Wollstonecraft surmised, was a product of oppression rather than nature; were society to alter its views of women as well as the restrictions placed on them, benefits would be reaped by all. Throughout Vindication, Wollstonecraft argued that women's position in society ought to improve so that women could become better wives and mothers, live lives of dignity and respect, and make more positive contributions to society as a whole.5

As Wollstonecraft argued from her notion of the established truth to examples of the folly of that truth and to a new definition of truth, she addressed one subject or topic, raised issues from another topic, asked the reader to branch out to yet another topic, and to see the relationships among and between each of her ideas. Through this series of connections and threads of relationships, Wollstonecraft developed a complicated system of definition and redefinition, cause and effect, and reasoning and refutation that is, perhaps, more complicated than either Perelman (1970) or Toulmin (1988) suggest. To understand Wollstonecraft's pattern of argument, I argue that the reader must envision the pattern of a web. This web has a central theme or center from which all strands of organization and thought extend. Each strand, as it moves away from the center of the web, intersects with other strands, circling outward and developing or connecting with other themes or strands as the web increases in size. The result is that whether direct and confrontative or indirect and subtle, each idea in Vindication becomes an integral part of every other until a reader who might want to reject one of Wollstonecraft's theses can do so only by breaking apart the web and re-weaving a new one, leaving the web half-finished or rejecting the argument in its entirety.

Understanding how Wollstonecraft's pattern of arguments is constructed requires attention to three elements or components of this web pattern: (1) a central idea or theme, which Wollstonecraft identifies as happiness; (2) five strands or topics of argument that she develops throughout the book and that connect to her central idea—woman, man, virtue, nature, and love; and (3) a cross-strand theme of education that connects each of the five strands of argument together. What follows is a description of this web-like style of reasoning as it is developed in Vindication, also summarized in Figure 1.


At the center of the web of reasons in Vindication, Wollstonecraft placed what she called a first principle. This principle rested on the conviction that God had ordained that all of mankind be happy. She included women in the definition of mankind and defined happiness as independence, respect, education, and freedom to grow (p. 91). Wollstonecraft stated this first principle in her opening sentences of the book, and the right of happiness was the theme to which she returned again and again throughout her work. Man's tyranny prevented women from achieving happiness because women failed to receive a proper education and were kept in a state of ignorance and dependence as a result of this tyranny (p. 121). Societal biases as well as inadequate education prevented women from attaining the respect Wollstonecraft saw as integral to this state of happiness (p. 233). The blind obedience to authority that was expected of women led to tyranny, unconditional submission, and the rejection of anything “new” that might bring women closer to this God-ordained happiness (pp. 264-265).

The right to happiness, which women had been denied, lay at the center of Wollstonecraft's arguments and at the center of the web. Each idea she developed in Vindication either connected directly or indirectly to this center, and a discussion involving any point in the web would send vibrations toward this center and call to mind this organizing principle. In this way, the reader repeatedly was reminded of this first principle and the focus toward increasing women's happiness. Surrounding this center idea and extending out from all sides were the five topics of woman, man, nature, virtue, and love. The topics were equal in emphasis, and all were connected in numerous ways to one another. As she proceeded through her work, Wollstonecraft articulated the current definition of each topic or strand and the negative impact it had on women, the social order in general, and the possibility of happiness. In arguing in this way, she illustrated the common view of each one of these topics, the ways in which this view had been constructed, and its ultimate impact on the center of the web—happiness.


In constructing the strand of woman, Wollstonecraft analyzed woman's role in society, her relationship to man, her range of choices for economic independence, and her educational opportunities. Wollstonecraft began by identifying the myriad ways that woman had been defined by the society at large, illustrating how far these definitions kept women from the center of the web and from happiness. Woman was defined as obedient; a “gentle, domestic brute” (p. 101); the slave of man (p. 122); subservient to love or lust (pp. 110, 204); a plaything, men's fancy; a lover of power; and a “toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever … he chooses to be amused” (pp. 107, 111, 118). Women were seen as submissive, docile and “spaniellike” in affection (pp. 117, 118, 179), and “naturally attentive” to dress and appearance (p. 129). They were thought to be weak and frail (pp. 141, 153), by nature suited only for domestic duties, in a perpetual state of ignorance (pp. 131, 144-145, 154, 232), possessed of infantine airs (p. 154), and lacking in sensibility (pp. 173-175, 221).

Wollstonecraft argued that a woman, educated to be dependent on men, was to “endure injuries” silently, “smiling under the lash at which [she] dare not snarl” (pp. 117, 135, 180). She was to hide her good sense, should she be lucky enough to possess this quality, so that she did not appear superior to the men in her company (p. 198). Wollstonecraft suggested that because women never had received a useful education and because of the efforts of men to increase women's inferiority, “women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures” (p. 118). They were limited at every turn, “confined to the needle,” and shut out “from all political and civil employments” (p. 288). The result of this confinement was boredom and a narrowness of mind that led to “cunning” behaviors and “sly tricks” designed to obtain some “foolish” pleasure that had caught women's attentions (p. 288).

Wollstonecraft argued that, in order to secure a husband, the primary goal in a woman's life (p. 116), women were taught to “feign a sickly delicacy” (p. 112) and to attend continually to their charms, dress, and appearance (pp. 170-172). The practice of “coming out,” whereby a young girl was “taken from one public place to another, richly caparisoned,” was little more than a marketplace for a “marriagable miss” (p. 289). This practice reinforced women's subservient role to men, emphasizing gaiety, attention to appearance, and little in the way of restraint or morality. The result, Wollstonecraft suggested, was disastrous. Women became accustomed to the gaiety and frivolity of a dazzling night life and, once married, soon lost interest in the drudgery of housekeeping. They began to act “audaciously” and in an “indolent” manner, to neglect their domestic duties, and to squander “away all the money which should have been saved for their helpless younger children” (pp. 241-242). Women soon lost their virtue as well as their reputations and, unlike men, could not gain their honor back again (p. 244).

The image of women presented by Wollstonecraft was harsh, unflattering, and even alarming. Her arguments suggested that women were ill prepared for carrying out domestic duties, finding contentment in marriage, or leading virtuous lives. Woman, Wollstonecraft summarized, had acquired little in the way of intellectual abilities and skills and, instead, had acquired all the “follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit” (p. 151). Throughout her analysis and vindication of women's rights, Wollstonecraft emphasized the harm done to women and to society by the prevailing definition or view of women. This construction of women, Wollstonecraft continually reminded her readers, could not bring happiness to women or to men. Thus, the strand of argument representing woman consistently brought the reader back to the central theme, happiness, and to the myriad ways the prevailing definitions prevented women from achieving respect, independence, proper education, and freedom to grow.


In her attempt to vindicate the rights of women, Wollstonecraft offered a strand of argument that reflected her definition of man. The definition of man that Wollstonecraft offered was as negative as that of woman and was responsible for keeping men away from happiness as well. Wollstonecraft described men in general as arrogant, tyrants, rakes, sensualists, lovers of power, and dazzlers by riches (pp. 92, 106, 107, 113, 224). They were a mixture of “gallantry and despotism” (pp. 106-107) and took advantage of women, thinking only of conquest and sexual desire (p. 147). Men were disrespectful and, with an “impudent dross of gallantry thought so manly,” men would “stare insultingly at every female” they met (p. 231). Wollstonecraft argued that this “loose behaviour” illustrated “such habitual depravity, such weakness of mind, that it [was] vain to expect much public or private virtue” from men. Until men could curb their “sensual fondness for sex” and their “impudence,” neither women nor men could treat the other with respect (p. 231). Men might “boast of their triumphs over women,” Wollstonecraft explained, but boasting of the ability to lure a woman into sin and then to abandon her to “face a sneering, frowning world” was an empty triumph (p. 233). Men then moved on to pursue “new conquests” and had done little more than engage in acts of betrayal (p. 233). The remedy, Wollstonecraft argued, was that “men ought to maintain the women whom they have seduced.” This not only would “be one means of reforming female manners,” but it would put a stop to “an abuse that has an equally fatal effect on population and morals” (p. 250).

Not only did the male character come under attack, but Wollstonecraft challenged the clergy, the military, and the aristocracy. Although she did not attack the clergy to the degree that she had in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which constituted her response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), she did label the clergy as “indolent slugs,” “relics of Popery,” and “rapacious priests of superstitious memory” (1975, p. 276). The military also came under attack as it was full of “despots” and “idle superficial young men whose only occupation [was] gallantry”; soldiers, Wollstonecraft explained, were “dead-weights of vice and folly” (p. 97). The nobility received harsh scrutiny as well-they were a “pestilential vapour” that hovered over society (p. 96). Kings possessed “uncontrollable power,” yet this very power was an “insuperable bar to the attainment of either wisdom or virtue,” and no man could “acquire sufficient strength of mind” to carry out the duties of someone with such authority and control (p. 96). Kings were not educated to think or reason but were instructed in either “the invention of crimes, or the stupid routine of childish ceremonies.” The result was that neither wisdom nor virtue governed the nation (p. 96).

In attacking three of the major institutions of her day—the church, the military, and the aristocracy—Wollstonecraft continued her challenge of male superiority and her development of the theme of man. She not only offered a discussion of her definition and view of man in general in Vindication, but she also questioned institutions that were male dominated and male governed, illustrating the ways that each prevented people in general from attaining the happiness she placed at the center of the web. Like the topic of woman, the topic of man also suggested to the reader the difficulties that lay in moving back to the central idea of happiness. As Wollstonecraft illustrated the ways in which the tyranny of male superiority prevented individuals from achieving respect, independence, education, and the freedom to grow, she reminded her readers of the connections among male superiority, oppression, and immorality. The strand of her argument relating to man, then, became directly linked to the central idea of happiness and to the strand of woman. These two were not the only strands of argument to be interconnected throughout Vindication, however. Wollstonecraft also argued for a third connection: virtue.


The topic of virtue also extended out from the center of the web in Vindication, and references to virtue can be seen in the preceding two categories. Wollstonecraft developed this strand of argument carefully, constructing yet another strand of reasoning that moved away from the center of her web. Virtue was a necessary part of civilization and could lead to happiness, Wollstonecraft argued, but it had become confused with vice (p. 91). Again, working from definition to redefinition, Wollstonecraft argued for the harms of the current definition of virtue and offered an alternative vision of this characteristic. Men's privileged positions, she suggested, enabled them to use their reason to justify women's inferiority and to perpetuate their prejudices, assigning to women the very qualities they themselves did not want (p. 91). Virtue in men thus had become power, ambition, and wealth; virtue in women consisted of happy submission, dependence, and the need for protection (p. 117). Even more absurd, Wollstonecraft suggested, was the belief that men were supposed to be more than happy to instruct or assist these ignorant creatures when necessary. If a “virtuous” woman could not even take care of herself, Wollstonecraft asked, then how was she to fulfill her duties as a wife and mother (p. 137)?

The result of man's unrestrained privilege was that virtue all but had disappeared, while the vices related to expedience and momentary gratification prevented individuals from achieving any real measure of happiness (p. 92). Were women more rationally educated, “human virtue” and “improvement in knowledge” would grow and expand, and virtue would resume its rightful place (pp. 121-122, 126). Unless virtue of any kind, Wollstonecraft summarized, “be built on knowledge, it will only produce a kind of insipid decency” (p. 242). Society, she suggested, must be organized and based on greater equality for virtue to gain its proper influence on human activities. If “one-half of mankind be chained” to the other, morality will never gain ground, and both men and women will continually “undermine” virtue “through ignorance or pride” (p. 252).

As Wollstonecraft developed the strand of virtue in Vindication, she linked it to her arguments for the right to happiness as well as to the damage done by defining women as subservient to men. She illustrated the ways in which virtue, as it had been constructed by male reasoning over time, prevented love from developing between men and women, kept women in positions of ignorance and dependence, and even tied men to roles of tyranny and power. Wollstonecraft's fourth topic, nature, follows this same pattern of interconnection and assists in the building of a complicated and tightly woven pattern of argument.


“To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward” that attempted to prove the natural superiority of the male over the female, Wollstonecraft asserted. The previously uncontested argument for women's natural abilities, dispositions, and characteristics was one of the arguments Wollstonecraft criticized (p. 100). Women's “natural” abilities very frequently were those traits that men did not want-traits that kept women in a state of dependence, servitude, and ignorance. The irony of the argument for women's natural tendencies, Wollstonecraft repeatedly suggested, was that while women were thought to possess certain characteristics or traits by virtue of their anatomy, their entire upbringing was spent making sure these were the qualities they developed. Women had been defined as women, and Wollstonecraft set out to challenge this definition.

Girls were thought to be naturally inclined to “sit still, play with dolls and listen to foolish conversation”; yet, their education and upbringing afforded them little else in the way of activities (p. 177). They were said to be “from earliest infancy fond of dress,” perpetually focused on “personal charms,” and “hardly capable of understanding what is said to them” if it did not relate to their appearance; yet, they were discouraged from developing other traits (p. 176). As mothers, they were thought to be devoted to their children; as women, “they perceive themselves formed for obedience”; but without children and husbands, women would find themselves in the poor house for lack of employment and income (p. 179). Nature was supposed to have given women “fears and blushes,” timidity, and a seductive “weakness” that guaranteed their dependence on men (p. 192), but were they to be freed from the “leading-strings” that made them this way, would women “be cajoled into virtue by artful flattery and sexual compliments” (p. 193)? Hardly, Wollstonecraft responded.

Nature was supposed to have provided women with the desire toward “respectful observance” of their husbands; the ability to study “their humours,” overlook “their mistakes,” submit “to their opinions,” and pass by “little instances of unevenness, caprice or passion”; give “soft answers to hasty words”; and complain “as seldom as possible.” As the argument for women's natural traits accumulated, Wollstonecraft suggested, women's natural qualities sounded suspiciously like the “portrait of a house slave” and a “domestic drudge” (p. 195).

In identifying nature as a term that was used against women, rather than a term used to describe any inherent qualities held by women, Wollstonecraft challenged the belief in women's natural inferiority to men. What was seen as natural, she argued, was used to justify women's subservient role (p. 318). The prevailing definition of what was natural for women, Wollstonecraft's analysis suggested, kept women in positions of inferiority, denied them respect and self-determination, and assisted in perpetuating the prevailing definitions of man, woman, and virtue. This “natural” state prevented women from reaching the center of Wollstonecraft's web—happiness.


The final strand of argument Wollstonecraft developed in this portion of the web concerned the question of love. Here, Wollstonecraft addressed the prevailing opinion toward love, illustrated the ways in which love had been defined to oppress women, to meet the physical and emotional needs of men, and to transform vices into virtues. Wollstonecraft argued that love had been reduced to the state of perpetual passion rather than consistent affection. Love had become a woman's blind admiration for a man rather than women's and men's confidence in and respect for one another (p. 114). Love, which focused on pleasing the male only, had become more suited to the sensualist than to the long-term companion. In this state, love was but a fleeting shadow, unable to be maintained for any length of time and more akin to “chance and sensation” than to choice and reason (pp. 113, 115).

Love had been taken over by phrases of “pumped up passion” and by “artful flattery and sexual compliments” that led women astray as though they were nothing more than puppets (p. 193). Within marriage, Wollstonecraft added, love did not take the form of affection, admiration, and liking but, rather, resembled a relationship of dominance, deceit, and submission. In a marriage, love between a man and a woman had become the love of a master for his “trusty servant” rather than any real respect or friendship between individuals (p. 159). Love, in addition, was acquired through “affectation” rather than honesty, and it was guided by passion rather than genuine respect and admiration (pp. 112-113). The results were relationships and marriages between men and women founded on “momentary gratification” rather than on “compassionate tenderness” or long-lasting friendship (p. 115). Individuals, in this state of “love,” spent their lives bounding “from one pleasure to another” and acquired neither “wisdom nor respectability of character” (p. 115).

As Wollstonecraft developed her arguments on the hazards and faults of the prevailing views toward love, she illustrated the various ways this definition of love connected with and affected women and men and prevented them from reaching the center of her argument. Love continued to channel women's energies toward subservience, while it perpetuated men's superiority. The result was that neither men nor women could behave in virtuous ways, nor could they attain happiness successfully. Both sexes were prevented from achieving respect by the other, both were dependent on the other for passion and momentary gratification, and both were prevented from growing together as whole and healthy individuals. What society viewed as the “natural” relationship between women and men, Wollstonecraft implied, was, at best, a sure path to unhappiness.


Thus far, Wollstonecraft's rhetorical form suggests to the reader that the prevailing definitions of woman, man, virtue, nature, and love prevented individuals from achieving happiness. Her web, if the analysis were to stop at this point, would look like a wheel, with a central circle and five strands extending out from that center. The theme of education, however, indicates that her arguments are more fluid and complex and less rigid and mechanistic than the metaphor of a wheel suggests. Throughout her treatise on women's rights, Wollstonecraft repeatedly argued for the problematic nature of education as it then was conceived and for the benefits of an improved educational system. In doing so, she created what might be envisioned as circles or rings that link each of the five strands to one another and make reaching the center of the web, realizing happiness, a very real possibility.

As she addressed the themes of woman, man, virtue, nature, and love, Wollstonecraft regularly called attention to the ways in which current societal definitions and assumptions regarding education directed each of these themes away from the center of the web—she created one connecting strand that focused on the effects of an inappropriate education. She also developed a second cross strand with her discussions of education that illustrated how redefining or redesigning the educational system could bring individuals and their behaviors closer to that center. The result is a sophisticated use of definition and redefinition, a fluid argument that depends on intricate connections among each of the five strands, and a move back to the center of her argument.


The cross strand that takes the reader farthest away from the center of the web is Wollstonecraft's recurring argument for the problems of the current system of education. Her focus as the book begins is on the effects of an inadequate education on her theme of woman. Wollstonecraft argued that the contemporary system of education left women in a useless state and only functioned to keep women in positions of dependence and servitude. “The great advantages which naturally result from storing the mind with knowledge,” she noted, are obvious (p. 219). Yet, women spent the first years of their lives “acquiring a smattering of accomplishments”—a little music, a little literature, and considerable instruction in methods of beauty—that directed them toward marriage rather than self-respect or independence (p. 83). The result was that women, prepared for marriage alone, could not support themselves or their children if an accident should befall their husbands (pp. 135-136, 289).

While she did address the issue of education for women as it related to women alone, Wollstonecraft consistently connected this theme to the effects of women's education on men and the relations between women and men. As noted above, men became tyrants and sensualists as a result of women's improper education. This happened, Wollstonecraft went on to explain, because, according to most writers of her generation, women's education should be “always relative” to the needs of men. So far did this notion go that, in the words of Rousseau, women were to be educated

to please, to be useful to us [men], to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable—these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.

(p. 175)

The discussion of improper education called attention to the link between the two themes of woman and man and to the ways in which it facilitated unhealthy individuals, unhealthy relationships, and unhappiness.

Wollstonecraft drew connections among an improper education, nature, and virtue. Education, as conceived in Wollstonecraft's era, was built on what she considered the ill-conceived principle that women lacked the ability to reason (p. 142). Wollstonecraft challenged those of her generation who insisted that knowledge was inconsistent with women's character (p. 144). Nature had not determined women to be incompetent, she argued, but an improper education had facilitated this tendency. The “narrowness of mind” so common to women, Wollstonecraft reasoned, was the result of “almost insuperable obstacles” placed in women's way “to prevent the cultivation of the female understanding”; nature had not done this—“the very constitution of civil governments” had (p. 144).

Faculty education, moreover, distorted conceptions of virtue. Education left women so “weakened by false refinement” that their “condition [was] much below what it would be were they left in a state nearer to nature” (p. 153). Education rendered women “innocent,” “alluring and indulgent.” Of what use, Wollstonecraft asked her readers, were these “virtues” beyond some foolish fancy designed by well-intentioned but misguided males (p. 187)?

Finally, an improper education did much to distort the relations between women and men. Love, as a result of women's lack of formal education, became the quest for marrying “advantageously,” resulting in nothing more than legal prostitution (p. 151). For a “short time,” Wollstonecraft reminded her audience, women became an “object of desire” (p. 189). All too soon, however, men lost interest because women, “kept from the tree of knowledge,” had nothing in the way of intellect to offer them (p. 189). An attraction that could have developed into “natural fondness” soon burned out, and women often were discarded as their husbands went in pursuit of other pleasures (p. 189).

Woven throughout Vindication were Wollstonecraft's strong sentiments on the harms done to women by an improper education. So prevalent are these arguments that the reader can begin at any section in the book and soon will come to her critique of this faulty system. But Wollstonecraft also argued for a system of education that had the potential to bring individuals closer to the state of happiness she advocated. Although she hinted at its content in the earlier pages of her document, she addressed it most fully in the latter half of her work. In this second cross strand, the strand that brings readers closer to the center of the web, Wollstonecraft continued to draw connections among her themes as she discussed the components and illustrated the benefits of an adequate education for women.


Again, from the opening pages of her work, the reader senses the centrality of a proper education for reaching the state of happiness Wollstonecraft advocated. She dedicated her work to M. Talleyrand-Perigord, an advocate of a national system of education in France, explaining that a national system of education that included women as well as men “would advance, instead of [retard], the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality” and virtue (p. 85). This national system would combine qualities of both private and boarding-school educations, and the effects of such an alternative form of education, Wollstonecraft argued, would be astounding: “It is plain from the history of all nations, that women cannot be confined to merely domestic pursuits, for they will not fulfill family duties, unless their minds take a wider range” (p. 294).

A proper education, Wollstonecraft reasoned, would redefine conceptions of woman, man, virtue, nature, and love. In this cross strand, however, Wollstonecraft began with the themes of man and virtue and then quickly incorporated the effects of a proper education for woman and love. A public education, she explained, would be “directed to form citizens; but if you wish to make good citizens, you must first exercise the affections of a son and brother” (p. 279). Wollstonecraft saw this attention to males as the only way to improve society; “public affections, as well as public virtue, must ever grow out of the private character” (p. 279). Children of both sexes must have room to move about and to “walk in a superb garden” in order that their minds and bodies might grow (pp. 281-292). They must learn “chastity” and “modesty”; personal habits, she reasoned, had “more effect on the moral character” than generally supposed, and a proper education could ensure that these habits were acquired (p. 282).

Education could improve the relations between women and men because, were they allowed to study together, “those graceful decencies might early be inculcated which produce modesty” (p. 283). Young people would learn lessons of “politeness” (p. 283), “friendship,” “respect and confidence,” (p. 284) and their minds would be “stored … with knowledge” (p. 285). Women's identity also would be strengthened by this system. Allowed to interact with others—to “mix with a number of equals”—young girls would be able to “form a just opinion” of themselves (p. 293). They would be taught to occupy their minds with a wide range of subjects beyond appearance and marriage and to “found their virtue on knowledge” (p. 294). Men's identity also would be enhanced because, as women develop their intellect and attain greater virtues, men also would become more virtuous, for the “improvement and emancipation” of both women and men “must be mutual” (p. 296).

More implicitly than explicitly, Wollstonecraft linked nature and education together. Nature, as it had been defined for both women and men, was the antithesis of a proper education in Wollstonecraft's web of argument because it defined women as everything that education would prevent. Wollstonecraft's arguments suggested that human nature actually was to be educated, to reason, and to participate fully in society. Human nature was to live in a state where equality existed between women and men, to honor and respect others, to pursue independence, and to live in a state of happiness. A proper education could alter this unnatural state quickly.

Education, whether positive or negative, affected the definition of woman, the relationships between men and women, and the images and ideals of virtue. The predominant notions of the qualities nature had given women, in addition, served as the foundation for their education. Healthy love and honest virtue could not exist without alterations in the prevailing views of education for women as well as men. Each topic of argument was linked to the organizing principle of happiness, and the topic of education moved the reader closer or further away from that center, depending on its framing. The result was that, throughout her analysis and discussion of woman, man, virtue, and nature, the reader must return time and again to the question of the right to happiness and the societal barriers that prevented individuals from attaining this right.


As Wollstonecraft argued for the vindication of the rights of women, she not only challenged women's position in society but she placed this challenge within a non-linear framework of argument. At the center of her claims lay her belief in a God-ordained right to respect, education, independence, and freedom to grow, which she labeled happiness. Individuals of both sexes had a right to this happiness, but numerous barriers lay in the way of reaching this state. In articulating these barriers, Wollstonecraft constructed five strands of arguments that extended out from her central idea of the right to happiness. Each strand represented a different topic-woman, man, love, virtue, and nature—and as she developed each one, she offered an analysis of the prevailing view of that topic and the implications of those views on men, women, and society at large. Her circular and interconnecting theme of education created cross strands of arguments that assisted her in highlighting the interrelationships among her ideas. In doing so, she illustrated the cause-and-effect relationships within each of the strands and the need for increasing connections to be made within the prevailing system of reasoning.

A web model of reasoning necessitates a belief in and recognition of connectedness. Wollstonecraft's web reminds the reader of the connections among the prevailing system of reason and power, social structures and happiness, men and women, and even among seemingly disconnected ideas. Wollstonecraft's critics interpreted her work as rambling and disorganized, but this analysis of form suggests that her work was highly organized around patterns of connections that earlier critics overlooked. Organized as an intricate pattern of interconnections, Vindication presents not only a sophisticated rhetoric but an alternative framework for argument.

Several areas of interest worth pursuing are suggested for rhetorical scholars by a model of reasoning as a web. The web model itself, of course, needs further exploration and analysis. In order to refine and extend the model, it must be studied in other contexts and through other cases. A preliminary examination of the discourse of other rhetors—Douglass (1950), Nightingale (1992), Noggle (1983), and Le Guin (1989)—suggests that the web model is not unique to Wollstonecraft and that the traditional linear model of reasoning frequently can be inadequate or inappropriate in explaining the argumentative patterns employed by some rhetors.

This analysis also suggests the possibility of the existence of yet other ways of arguing.6 Linear theories of arguing suggest that arguments require a distinct major premise, minor premise, and conclusion, or even, as Toulmin (1988) suggests concerning the field-invariant nature of arguments, that arguments proceed from a claim to grounds to warrant (incorporating the backing, modal qualifier, and rebuttal as well). Wollstonecraft's arguments, however, challenge this assumption.7 The arguments in Vindication indeed may incorporate each of these components, but they do not always follow this linear pattern and frequently upset the order to which scholars have become accustomed. The web model used by Wollstonecraft reveals that arguments may have a center thesis with supporting arguments spinning out from this center that simultaneously act as rebuttals, qualifiers, backing, warrants, and claims. Each of these strands, in addition, contains elements of Toulmin's schema, but their use indicates a highly complex and intensely interconnected process of argument development.

A web model of reasoning also calls attention to the role of the audience in the process of arguing. Wollstonecraft's arguments, while not difficult to follow, are a great deal more complicated than some other forms of presentation, and the role of listeners or audiences in a web-like style is quite different from their roles when responding to a more linear form of arguing. A web form, which is more involved and interconnected, might require more work from the audience in order to process the arguments. Yet, the repetition of topics and ideas throughout the web and the continual reminders of connections to previous topics seem to ease some of the tension that might exist between intricacy and detail of reasoning and the processing of the arguments. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) have argued for a form of knowing or listening that might help explain the epistemology or the stance of the audience in this process. These researchers identify a form of knowing, which they call “connected knowing,” that constitutes an epistemology that may be more consistent with Wollstonecraft's web pattern of argument. Connected knowing involves a process in which listeners store a variety of perspectives and ways of knowing in their minds—listeners hold all ideas as possibilities, assessing the implications of each. They then come to a decision that is highly contextual and interconnected, recognizing the power of each idea or possibility to influence others. Connected knowing encourages a view of the argument as a whole as opposed to a view of the isolated segments or parts of an argument, and Wollstonecraft's web suggests such a focus on the whole rather than the parts.

As a rhetor, Wollstonecraft seems to have made use of both connected and the more traditional form of separated knowing. In using the more familiar separate form of knowing, Wollstonecraft did challenge, doubt, refute, and argue against the views of the dominant framework. But she also asked her readers to keep in mind the whole of that dominant argument, suggesting a more connected stance or epistemology. Wollstonecraft located her argument against women's oppression within a larger interconnected framework of social codes and norms—something that had not been done as comprehensively before. She also wove a web of connections in support of women's emancipation for her audience. In this way, she relied more heavily on the connected stance and encouraged her listeners to follow in kind. Her work suggests that rhetors as well as audiences may use both of these stances productively.

Understanding an interconnected or web-patterned argument like Wollstonecraft's may be easier from a connected stance. From a connected stance, the listener can suspend judgment, store a series of arguments and connections, and then offer a response to or extension of the speaker's ideas or claims. From a position of separate knowing, listeners may experience a great deal more difficulty. With a focus on doubting the knowledge of another, a separate knower's task is disconnection as well as the isolation of ideas. Attempting to refute and challenge the myriad strands that a web pattern presents as they are being developed might be frustrating, time consuming, and even a bit overwhelming, not to mention disruptive of the listening process.

An epistemology of connection implies a reconceptualization of patterns of argument and suggests yet another area of interest to rhetorical scholars. From a connected stance, listeners not only store and process arguments more comprehensively, but they also may be able to assist in the construction of the web. A web pattern of argument challenges traditional assumptions regarding the oppositional nature of argument and suggests the possibility of cooperative argument.8 Traditional conceptualizations of argument focus on the process of convincing or persuading an individual or group to believe in a particular way, the attack of another's ideas, an adversarial or even “rapist/seducer/lover” stance, and the notion of participating in an argument as involving some kind of self-risk.9

A web model, however, suggests that participants might assume a more connected, cooperative, or collaborative stance. Participants in an argument might not challenge the claims of the other, hoping to prove the opponent wrong, but might instead engage in a process of contributing or adding their own connections and ideas in order to build an argument together. Participants in cooperative argument might adopt Gearhart's (1979) or S. K. Foss and Griffin's (1995) stance of a co-creator, working with another in order to construct a web. A cooperative argument, based on the web model, might involve a collaborative discovery of a perspective or plan of action, for example, and would emphasize the construction of the web and the various connections and themes that could be developed.

Finally, Wollstonecraft's method of reasoning in Vindication calls into question the issue of rhetorical form or style itself.10 Her work suggests that definitions and attitudes toward form be re-evaluated and that the perimeters around rhetorical form be expanded. Specifically, what do scholars mean when they speak of form or style, and how do scholars determine the appropriateness or even effectiveness of a rhetor's form? Wollstonecraft's form or style has received much criticism since she failed to achieve the standards of appropriateness identified by rhetorical scholarship thus far; her arguments have been ignored or denigrated as a result. Vindication raises questions regarding the nature, function, and criteria used to determine appropriateness of form and suggests that discussions regarding the elements of rhetorical form be reintroduced into the ongoing debate over the nature of rhetoric itself.

As important and clear as her arguments were at the time she made them, the style and organization of Wollstonecraft's essay assume an equally important role. Wollstonecraft's entire argument was based on questioning the “natural” order and improving the position of women. She spoke to the larger truths of morality, virtue, and reason as a way of freeing women from the tyranny of men. Like feminists after her, Wollstonecraft illustrated the effect a change in women's status would have on society at large: children would receive a better education, relationships between men and women would be healthier, and marriage would be grounded in the firm bonds of friendship rather than the subservient ties of lust. While her work was considered powerful and angry at the time she wrote it, the arguments in Vindication remain bold, confrontative, and challenging even today. In questioning the predominant order, Wollstonecraft not only challenged the content of that order, but she altered conceptualizations of appropriate form with her web-like reasoning process. Recognized as the “first feminist declaration of independence,” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman also might be seen as a first model for a feminist web of reasons.


  1. Several women made arguments for women's rights, particularly in the arena of improved education for women, before Wollstonecraft. These arguments are as significant as Wollstonecraft's but are not as comprehensive. See, for example: Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), both in Rogers (1979); Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Women Not Inferior to Man (1739), Woman's Superior Excellence over Man (1740), and Letters (1718), all in Ferguson (1985); and Catherine Macaulay, Letters on Education (1790) in Luria (1974).

  2. See, for example, Hays (1800), and Stanton and Anthony (in Spender, 1982).

  3. I am offering only a small sample of the criticisms against Wollstonecraft and her arguments here. For a more comprehensive discussion of these criticisms, see Griffin (1992).

  4. The phenomenon is not uncommon; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Florence Nightingale, and Simone de Beauvoir, to name but a few, all have undergone the same treatment. See Spender (1982) for an assessment of this practice.

  5. Wollstonecraft advocated a relational form of feminism (Offen, 1988) in which the family is taken as a primary organizing social structure and the necessary and appropriate starting point for a healthy social order. Women and men have clear and distinct roles in relational feminism, yet they are viewed as equals. For a critique of some of the pitfalls of Wollstonecraft's relational stance, see Gaten's (1991) discussion of the tensions between the public and the private and Wollstonecraft's construction of the “citizen/husband/father and the citizen/wife/mother” (p. 121).

  6. Gilligan (1982), for example, suggested a process for making ethical and moral decisions that relied on seeing the relationship among all parts of an issue and the various implications of each part as they related to one another. This relational process is much more complicated than reasoning in isolation—separating an issue into its parts and judging that issue or the basis of one of its parts alone. Dialectical reasoning, which entails the process of dividing a thing into its parts, offers a very different perspective from reasoning as a web. In the latter, connections, rather than divisions, are the focus, and truth grows out of the relationship among all connections rather than the synthesis of the many into one.

  7. Classical conceptualizations of arrangement argue for this same general pattern. This pattern is reflected in Aristotle's call for an exordium, statement of case, proof, and epilogue in an argument. The author of Ad Herennium differs only slightly from this schema, suggesting that a rhetor must offer an introduction, statement of facts, division, proof, refutation, and conclusion.

  8. The idea of cooperative argument is explicated by Makau (1990, 1991).

  9. These conceptualizations are derived from the following research on the nature or position of the individual in an argument: Brockriede (1972), Hamblin (1970), and Natanson (1959).

  10. S. K. Foss and K. A. Foss (1994) also suggest that scholars reconsider the nature of form in presenting ideas. In Inviting Transformation, they suggest that “the relationships among ideas” can take a number of nonlinear forms (p. 30).


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Ewa Badowska (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Badowska, Ewa. “The Anorexic Body of Liberal Feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 283-303.

[In the following essay, Badowska analyzes the image of the “appetitive body” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and explores how Wollstonecraft links the image with notions of femininity in her work.]

Every day [Wollstonecraft] made theories by which life should be lived. … Every day too—for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist—something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh. … She whose sense of her own existence was so intense … died at the age of thirty six. But she has her revenge. … [A]s we … listen to her arguments and consider her experiments … and realise the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.

Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader1

While we have always been willing to remember Mary Wollstonecraft as one who “made theories by which life should be lived,” while we have described her as a defender of “rights,” a producer of “arguments,” a subject of self-inflicted “experiments” in unconventional living, we have often failed to remember her as one who shaped her theories and arguments in language, whose political discourse is embodied in metaphors and texts. But A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—a political manifesto written against the discourse of sensibility as a model for gender relations—is thoroughly suffused with the kind of language that is ordinarily regarded as marginal, or even inimical, to political discourse. Specifically, the manifesto is pervaded with the image of an appetitive body: its hungers, its tastes, as well as its (uncertain) boundaries. It is not the argumentative dimension of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that produces the figural specter of bodies and appetites; rather, the drift of Wollstonecraft's metaphors and narrative digressions, their seemingly compulsive character, gives rise to this appetitive undercurrent: in Wollstonecraft's writing, women “eat the bitter bread of dependence” and become “standing dishes to which every glutton may have access.”2

I will argue that a focus on these not strictly polemical aspects of Wollstonecraft's manifesto allows us to discern a riveting dimension of her text—one that reveals half-realized aspects of her argument and betrays an almost sibylline foreknowledge of the complicated nexus of issues linking femininity both with the body and with a renunciation of its appetites.3 Wollstonecraft's theory of the Rational Woman—woman as subject of her own understanding—undergoes numerous crises in the course of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, crises spawned by moments in the text that are not, strictly speaking, argumentative. For instance, the often discussed boarding-school crisis—since having “a number of [women] pig together in the same bedchamber” (p. 288) throws the narrator into a rhetorical passion—stems as much from the polemical argument against women's sentimental education as from the rhetoric of the dissolution of “proper” body boundaries (“that gross degree of familiarity” that should be counteracted by a “decent personal reserve,” pp. 239-40). Wollstonecraft's argument discloses a narrative and rhetorical underside that bewilders her rational attempts at a rational theory of femininity.

With some reservations, I join a number of recent readers in arguing that “the female body which [Wollstonecraft] attempted to submerge surfaced in her text in spite of herself to disrupt and qualify her argument,”4 but I show that the unconscious, uncontrollable surfacing of the body in Wollstonecraft's text is not a simple eruption of the material or the sexual that cannot be repressed. The bodies that so hauntingly populate the text are embroiled in another problematic: they are bodies produced in and by complex permutations of metaphors of femininity and sexuality, and they cannot be regarded as a purely material opposite of Wollstonecraft's preference for matters rational and asexual. In other words, this is not simply the question of a much debated opposition between disembodied reason and embodied female self. Instead, embodiment and disembodiment themselves are revealed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as intricate tropes. I want to argue that Wollstonecraft's theory of female identity, despite its manifest intention to speak on behalf of women as concrete political subjects, is embroiled in narratives that compel the understanding of the body as figural. In my reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, I will consider the body as figure and examine the ways in which the body as figure complicates and disrupts Wollstonecraft's liberal feminism.

Even though in the minds of many readers Wollstonecraft's manifesto symbolically inaugurates political feminism, it is not, by virtue of this inaugural status, innocent of the kinds of conceptual rifts that we are used to diagnosing in contemporary articulations of political identity.5 Wollstonecraft's writing, while it undoubtedly belongs to the moment of inception of feminist discourse in the West, already reflects the workings of a logic—the logic I refer to as anorexic—that parodies the liberal feminist figure of a self-possessed, autonomous female individual, as well as the structures of bourgeois femininity at their inception. The liberal theory of the rational female subject is from the very beginning in tension with the stories the manifesto implicitly tells about the dissolution of body boundaries. Wollstonecraft's figure of the woman keeps on disappearing: she resists stable definition, a definition without overflow, without boundary crossings—the kind of feminine identity that a political manifesto written in the name of women would seem to command. But Wollstonecraft's woman disappears in other ways as well. She is a “standing dish” always in danger of being swallowed; while her physicality may at times immodestly obtrude on our senses (or so Wollstonecraft's narrator believes), its very lack of containment threatens to make the female subject elusively borderless.

The connection between the liberal ideal of the subject's self-possessed autonomy and the discourses of anorexia is made by Gillian Brown, in her excellent “Anorexia, Humanism, and Feminism,” where she argues that “the anorexic dynamic” is “paradigmatic of the liberal self”:

liberal humanist expansionism is exactly what anorexia nervosa resists when it repudiates the basic site of femininity, the female body. … While Anglo-American feminism since Wollstonecraft would extend the rights and real estate of men to women, the anorectic would repudiate liberal property relations in favor of a radicalized form of self-proprietorship: dispossession. The disappearance of her body is thus an anti-humanistic liberation movement, a severance of female subjectivity from all social formations of self and body, including feminism.6

For Brown, Wollstonecraft's treatise exemplifies the liberal feminist tradition, the tradition that the twentieth-century anorexic woman sets herself against and parodies by embodying it too perfectly. But in my reading, the sense in which A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be said to be exemplary is itself complicated, since anorexic figures that undermine the liberal ideal pervade the very text of liberal feminism from the start. What the anorexic woman will parody in the twentieth century is already present in the rhetoric of the liberal self as written by Wollstonecraft.

In addition to complicating the discourse of liberal feminism, the figure of the body also necessitates a rethinking of the category of “figure” as such. The metaphorical production of the body in Wollstonecraft's text instantiates a fascinating paradox: these textual bodies are products of a language that would erase its figurative status and pretend to pure literalness; but the bodies are as intensely signifying, as intensely encoded as what they purportedly negate—reason. The vicissitudes of Wollstonecraft's metaphors show a tantalizing tendency toward relentless concreteness, toward an “anorexic” translation of the metaphorical matters of taste and reason into matters of “digesting” and “swallowing,” in a manner that questions the figurative status of “taste.” In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the figurative language of “taste” is disarticulated: eating becomes the figure of no figure. The metaphor of “taste” cannot be carried off, and this deficiency reveals the alimentary troping that grounds—and performs—the fiction of “taste.”7 The body in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is not only figural, but also resists the possibility of a categorical distinction between the literal and the figural. I will begin my analysis by following the workings of the anorexic logic of intellect in Wollstonecraft's text, showing how she both denounces and longs for a femininity bound up with the retrenchment of appetite.


Considering the length of time that women have been dependent, is it surprising that some of them hunger in chains, and fawn like the spaniel?8

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (p. 181)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is pervaded with images of a phantasmal appetitive body: the languages of taste and ingestion. This saturation may on some level be motivated by a familiar cliché, the metaphorical equivalence between sexuality and appetite.9 Appetite in Wollstonecraft's text supervenes sexuality, almost threatening to supplant it: “Love, considered as an animal appetite, cannot long feed on itself without expiring” (p. 169). The ghostliness of appetite, its proclivity to appear uninvited—it sneaks into the text in sexuality's shadow—are the very reasons why impermeable barriers must be erected against it. Wollstonecraft's heavy investment in rationality for women drives her text's anorexic logic: reason seems to require a repudiation of sexuality, and thus also of appetite, sexuality's most prominent metaphorical double. Appetite's very correlation with the sexual exposes it to a threat of expulsion: like the sexual, appetite is in continual peril of being scapegoated, or even definitively abdicated.

Academic feminist readers of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman have been apt to emphasize, indeed censure, the opposition between feminine passion and masculine reason that they invariably detect in Wollstonecraft's oeuvre.10 When feminist critics replay such oppositions—mind and body, reason and imagination, liberty and confinement—they participate, as did Wollstonecraft, in the tradition of Western dualism, in which the valorization of reason often leads to a strategic, systemic withdrawal from the cumbersome corporeal, a systemic distancing from the appetitive body that would trap the soaring intellect.11 Many feminist philosophers and critics writing on representations of the female body—most importantly Susan Bordo and Leslie Heywood—have suggested that the Western emphasis on the primacy of rationality is structurally governed by the abjection of the body, of corporeality conceived as inherently feminine. Heywood, in her work on the anorexic logic of modernist textuality, describes

that process of cutting away, the mode of thought, the privilege given to rationality, the process of elimination that I have named “anorexic” for its similarity to the logic of the disease. Anorexics enact with their bodies the process that Western logic inscribes: they physically demonstrate its subtext, the horror of the female flesh that is often the unconscious of discourse.12

Such readings tend to presume that the female body survived in hiding, bruised but victorious, the two-thousand-plus years of Western philosophy. Despite the theoretical ingenuity of her work on modernism, Heywood succumbs to the utopian desire to “restore the starved female text/corps and return to her the emotion and validity of a personal, embodied life,” in which the perplexities of the body as well as of figuration could be resolved, and hopes for “a reconfiguration of the hierarchical relationship between the ideal, figurative body and the biological, literal body.”13 Though appealing, her reading shrinks from the body as figure. Even the “reconfiguration” Heywood postulates fails to address the troping inherent in the distinction between the literal and the figurative, between “body” and “discourse.” It is only when sexuality and corporeality are read as outside language, as lodged in a biological, real body, that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be construed to pitch the intransigent body as a deplorable encumbrance against the faculty of reason. But there is more to Wollstonecraft's treatise than the usual difficulty of giving expression to a feminine corporeality within the rigid bounds of eighteenth-century literary discourse; what is at stake in these critical debates is not just the status of a literary convention. The body in Wollstonecraft's feminist manifesto is produced as literal and metaphorized as an encumbrance, but it is nonetheless figural.

A woman's “sexual character” (the primary guarantee of gender differences for Wollstonecraft's contemporaries) inheres, according to Wollstonecraft, in a consummate submission to corporeality, a corporeality that subsumes the totality of a woman's being. This assumption of unmitigated physicalness is for upper-class women in Wollstonecraft's numerous narrative vignettes a source of “glory”: “genteel women are, literally speaking, slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection” (p. 131). Wollstonecraft describes an oxymoronic glorious enslavement, whose frisson proceeds from the illusion of achievement produced, perversely, at the very moment of subjugation. Genteel women are enslaved to their physical being, since such an enslavement is precipitated by the dictates of fashion and the demands of public opinion to which they submit. Yet, by a paradoxical turn of logic, they “glory in” these non-freedoms exacted by “opinion,” for this “glory” is the only profit they derive from their enslavement: a submission to public opinion generates a mirage of freedom, a blindness to the state of submission in which they are trapped. The perils of embodiment for women consist, for Wollstonecraft, precisely in this paradox: to gain the transient feeling of power and freedom, a (genteel) woman is reduced to sheer physicalness—an embodiment that is also an enslavement.14 The passage continues thus:

I once knew a weak woman of fashion, who was more than commonly proud of her delicacy and sensibility. She thought a distinguishing taste and puny appetite the height of all human perfection, and acted accordingly. I have seen this weak sophisticated being neglect all the duties of life, yet recline with self-complacency on a sofa, and boast of her want of appetite as a proof of delicacy that extended to, or, perhaps, arose from, her exquisite sensibility. …

Such a woman is not a more irrational monster than some of the Roman emperors, who were depraved by lawless power.

(pp. 131-32)15

The “weak woman of fashion” is a paradigmatic sap: prey to opinion, she deceives herself into picturing sophistication as restraint, as an “exquisite” withdrawal from what is available to her, as a member of the upper classes, in abundance: food. She practices, instead, a different kind of “exquisite” cuisine: the production of a classed female body. The irrational monstrosity of this icon—the “weak woman of fashion” is “not a more irrational monster than some of the Roman emperors”—consists, for Wollstonecraft, in the woman's performance of languor. Her reclining posture is more than physical weakness, a symptom of inanition; it is a spectacle signifying to the woman herself her ability to display sophistication. In this display—she “recline[s] with self-complacency on a sofa”—she confirms that a retrenchment of appetite is a small price to pay for a gain in “sophistication” and approval in the court of public opinion. For Wollstonecraft—“the first of a new genus,” a professional woman writer, always on the brink of poverty16—anorexia is a distinctly aristocratic gender pathology, one that insulates aristocracy against the incursions of devouring bourgeois materialism.17 Anorexia is aristocratic in that gestures of food refusal are meaningless in poverty: there is nothing there to refuse. The very spectacle of renunciation depends on the unquestioned existence of plenty, on the assumption that refusal will be read as meaningful. The reclining aristocrat stylizes herself as the inverted mirror image of a hungry materialist; she does not hunger after possessions, for she has risen beyond the need for acquisition.18 She performs a stylized version of self-imposed poverty, but the meaning of her histrionics crucially depends on her not being poor. The “weak woman of fashion” luxuriates in this renunciation: “like the Sybarites, dissolved in luxury,” she is “more than commonly proud of her delicacy and sensibility”; indeed, she enjoys renunciation as luxury. It is in passages such as this that disordered eating begins to signify disordered reason and thus locks the anorexic fashion addict back into the “sexual character”; the woman of fashion joins those women who are “standing dishes to which every glutton may have access” (p. 254).

Despite the sheer volume of scorn Wollstonecraft heaps on the fashion addict in her description of aristocratic anorexia, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is suffused with a longing to salvage a version of this askesis, to resurrect it in the form of a middle-class morality.19 We should not be taken in by the vehemence of Wollstonecraft's disparagements; indeed the excess of violent affect in the narrator's tone may alert us to the presence of a hidden, unsuspected identification. Paradoxically, Wollstonecraft wants to sustain what she can only conceive of as “monstrous” and preserve renunciation as a meaningful gesture—on a different level: to imagine renunciation as a natural, non-performative condition, and yet practice withdrawal as an aesthetic and ethical gesture of identity formation. Wollstonecraft wants her rational middle-class heroines to practice renunciation for different reasons, and without seeming to perform either for the sake of public opinion or for their own self-complacency. Indeed, a form of renunciation is necessary to the logic of Wollstonecraft's argument from the first pages of her discourse: the passions are given to human beings so that “man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes,” and about “appetites” she says that “they are only brutal when unchecked by reason” (pp. 91, 243, emphasis added).

The polarized class distinctions (“aristocratic” versus “middle-class”) that characterize the logic of my analysis are indeed a productive fiction generated in Wollstonecraft's text to sustain a possibility of imagining a “good” retrenchment. The logic of class constitutes, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the most ideologically transparent form of emotional appeal: in the 1790s, merely to refer to “genteel” women was, in essence, to perform ostentatious self-definition by negation. Having disposed of the “bad” aristocratic performance of opinion-following languor, one could proceed to posit the “good,” morally motivated and supposedly “natural,” retrenchment. Whereas in Wollstonecraft's text aristocratic anorexia seems to signify female subjugation (“genteel women are … slaves to their bodies”), middle-class askesis promises a transcendence of embodiment, and even individual liberation in the name of Reason. The aristocratic woman declines in the name of fashion; Wollstonecraft's ideal—a middle-class female ascetic, a born rationalist—would practice renunciation in order to transcend the slavery precipitated by the dictates of “sexual character.” Essentially, Wollstonecraft ventures to preserve the signifier—renunciation—but hopes to control its meaning, indeed to radically alter and channel its potential significations. Ida, an anorexic girl described by Hilde Bruch, would indeed qualify as Wollstonecraft's model woman; she proclaimed: “My body became the visual symbol of pure ascetic and aesthetics. … Everything became very intense and very intellectual, but absolutely untouchable.”20 Wollstonecraft embraces a version of this hyperintellectual transcendence of corporeality, the notion that bourgeois women should cultivate delicacy, understood as control of appetite and other bodily functions, while developing their capacity for reason.21 To preserve the notion and the aesthetic of bourgeois femininity as renunciation Wollstonecraft attempts to divest the prescriptive control of appetite of its aristocratic, luxurious connotations; instead of ridiculing anorectic practices she now repudiates binge cycles:

Luxury has introduced a refinement in eating, that destroys the constitution; and, a degree of gluttony which is so beastly, that a perception of seemliness of behaviour must be worn out before one being could eat immoderately in the presence of another, and afterwards complain of the oppression that his intemperance naturally produced. Some women, particularly French women, have also lost a sense of decency in this respect; for they will talk very calmly of an indigestion.

(p. 253)

The shift from heaping scorn on anorexic aristocrats to ridiculing convivial dinner parties is a motivated one: under the guise of critiquing culinary excesses Wollstonecraft manages to present her own version of ideal retrenchment, her own version of a new bourgeois ethic. To abstain for aesthetic reasons—to demonstrate and acquire sensibility—is disparaged as inherently dissipated; abstemiousness as a sign of one's ethical uprightness and commitment to reason might, however, be welcome, and not devoid of its own aesthetic appeal, as an antidote to “intemperance.” In the passage, the glutton “complain[s] of the oppression that his intemperance naturally produced” (emphasis added), suggesting that what is in accordance with nature is the ideal of temperance, of self-restraint and moderation. Wollstonecraft writes:

I allow that it is easier to touch the body of a saint, or to be magnetised, than to restrain our appetites or govern our passions; but health of body or mind can only be recovered by these means, or we make the Supreme Judge partial and revengeful.

(p. 311)

In Wollstonecraft's moral universe, gluttony is under negation, perhaps even under erasure. The potential of the self, especially the female self, for gluttony is perceived but immediately castigated; indiscriminate taking in—of substances, of accidental knowledges, of public opinions and gossip—is threatening to the purity of intellect, a purity guaranteed solely by the subject's self-restraint. The temperance of Wollstonecraft's projected “new women”—who “by reforming themselves … reform the world” (p. 133)—is a strategic measure, truly a revolutionary tactic. In Wollstonecraft's text, a teleological structure is at play: retrenchment seems to function as a catalyst, as what needs to exist in order for a revolution to occur; the future utopia of rational domesticity is predicated upon such a relentless temperance. And yet, retrenchment is often a defensive strategy: “a defense against the original fear—that of eating too much, of not having control, of giving in to … biological urges.”22 From this vantage point, the energetic tone of optimism, so often heard in Wollstonecraft's call for “a revolution in female manners,” may conceal a tremendous anxiety, perhaps the fear that appetite is gluttonous by nature, that there are no “natural” rules of temperance, of how much is “enough.”


Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.

Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste23

The rhetoric of appetite participates in, and is colored by, Wollstonecraft's attempt to work through the vexed question of sexual difference. The attribution of appetitiveness to men and of restraint to women is a rhetorical effect of the text's investment in the anorexic logic of reason rather than a simple “diagnosis” of a cultural configuration. The middle-class discipline of feminine restraint that Wollstonecraft projects arises in response to her conviction that “men are certainly more under the influence of their appetites than women; and their appetites are more depraved by unbridled indulgence and the fastidious contrivances of satiety” (pp. 252-53). Wollstonecraft repeatedly warns women not to be “intoxicated” by men's sexual advances; homage from men is described as “intoxicating” (p. 103), and so is indulgence in pleasure (“pleasure … mixes the intoxicating cup,” p. 170). The danger of male appetite to women is thus textually associated with inebriation and also with infection by ingestion; the threat is substantial, since “disease and even death lurk in the cup or dainty that elevates the spirit or tickles the palate” (p. 170). Rational women, unimpressed by “homage,” never “tickled” by vanity, and refusing to be “drunk” on men's praise, protect themselves against the threat posed by the predatory character of male passion. For Wollstonecraft's rational woman, renunciation becomes a protective, even preventive measure; it makes her stylize herself as the embodiment of a lack of appetite, as the very obverse of threatening male appetitiveness, all in an attempt to guard not only against the all too visible nature of male appetite but also against her own female self's potential, incipient gluttony. The more the text uses the rhetoric of appetite to characterize the threat of masculine power, the more women's defense against it assumes the character of appetitive restraint.

Wollstonecraft ascribes what she sees as men's twin vices—masturbation and homosexuality—to this association of men with unrestrained appetitiveness: men's attraction to “equivocal beings” results from an artificially produced fastidiousness that will not be satisfied with “bread, the common food of life” (p. 170)—good old femininity—and needs what Wollstonecraft calls “more than female languor” (p. 254) for its enjoyment. Claudia Johnson argues that, contrary to what is usually believed about Wollstonecraft's agenda in writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft actually “denounces the collapse of proper sexual distinction as the leading feature of her age.”24 What Johnson describes as Wollstonecraft's polemic against the “diffusion of unwholesome polymorphousness”25 participates in what I would like to see, by contrast, as Wollstonecraft's critique of excessive (and thus “unnatural”) appetitiveness, and her concomitant attempt to reinvent bourgeois femininity as a negation of gluttony and a new refinement of the body. Johnson's Wollstonecraft is obsessively preoccupied with the masculinity of men, and her feminist arguments are a mere aftereffect of her “real” interest in manhood. In Johnson's reading, Wollstonecraft blames the erosion of gender codes on the progressive sentimentalization of chivalric manhood (especially by Burke) and the resulting feminization of men. Johnson further detects in Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman the impulse to “hyperfeminize” women, maximizing sexual differences in order to preserve the masculinity of men; this impulse stems from the monstrosity—the enormity and perversion—of male tastes: “the taste of men is vitiated; and women, of all classes, naturally square their behavior to gratify the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power” (p. 254). The same “gross appetite, which satiety has rendered fastidious,” is responsible for male authors' insistence on imposing the exigencies of excessive sensibility on female bodies and minds (p. 157). In the face of this hyperfeminization, “Wollstonecraft seems to advocate a converse asymmetry, whereby men's hypermasculinity is required to guarantee and ensure the possibility of female rationality.”26

But Johnson's own agenda—to expose Wollstonecraft's terror of polymorphousness—makes her focus exclusively on the signified of Wollstonecraft's polemic, men's sexual predation, and to glide over the signifier, so often bound up with appetitiveness and debauched tastes. Johnson does not expose the logic—an economy of appetitive scarcity—upon which Wollstonecraft's metaphorics as well as her notion of “natural” temperance are founded. According to this logic of scarcity or temperance, there must be a correspondence between appetites and their satisfactions; hence, for men to appropriate more is for women to have less. In Wollstonecraft's gendered economy, there is only so much appetite to go around. Of course, such economic effects are presented in Wollstonecraft's text as “natural” and hence necessary. Indeed, Johnson's own argument operates according to a similar logic of scarcity: she seems to argue that there is only so much masculinity to go around, and it is this assumption of a net amount of available masculinity that makes her argue as she does. While Johnson is certainly right to observe that men's sentimentality makes Wollstonecraft rigidly desire women's rationality, it is essential in my reading to expose the logic of scarcity on which such arguments depend: Wollstonecraft's insistence on women's appetitive retrenchment is strategic; it is only in the context of the ostensible monstrosity of male appetite that female askesis can appear natural.

The same gendered economy enables the polarization of the rhetoric of appetite in Wollstonecraft's discourse: if men's appetites can be described as “projective” (in Wollstonecraft's analogies, appetite makes men seek satisfaction outside the self, as it were), women's response to this appetite is of an introjective, assimilative kind: women's “thirsty ears eagerly drink the insinuating nothings of politeness” (p. 227). Yet a man's appetites, when they emerge out of the self, do not threaten the integrity of his subject. On the contrary, not only are women figured as the food that is to satisfy men's hunger—women are “standing dishes to which every glutton may have access” (p. 254)—but also they are figured as essentially porous creatures, vulnerable in the face of men's appetites because of their very permeability. Whenever Wollstonecraft wishes to satirize women's credulity and poor education, she talks about “imbibing” all kinds of pernicious notions and opinions (e.g., pp. 92, 119, 127); this “drinking in” (from Latin “in-” and “bibere”) seems to account for the very possibility of thinking: in her account of “the effect which an early association of ideas has upon the character,” Wollstonecraft explains that ideas are “taken in” and “assimilat[ed]” (p. 223). She then hastens to add that this process has “a more baneful effect on the female than the male character. … But females … have not sufficient strength of mind to efface the superinductions of art that have smothered nature” (pp. 224-25). These metaphorical patterns mark two different conceptions of subjectivity. The male subject constitutes a solid origin of appetites, a self-contained cogito from which appetite can issue forth without threatening the integrity of its source. The female subject, however, is rhetorically produced as nothingness incarnate: it exists only by means of this imbibing or devouring of the external world.27 The female is imagined as a loose composite of imbibed opinions and the various “foods” of affection, vanity, and dependence. There is no essence to the female subject, only incorporation and excretion.

It is the threatened status of the boundaries of female subjectivity that makes Wollstonecraft anxious not to discern the physiology of the female body: “How can delicate women obtrude on notice that part of the animal economy, which is so very disgusting?” (p. 240). There is nothing there to discern except “disgusting” excretory processes and immodest bare skin. The heated passages concerning some “improprieties” prevalent in nurseries and boarding-schools testify to a similar fear: the free flow of introjection and ejection in enclosed spaces, characterized by a “gross degree of familiarity” (p. 239), threatens borders between men and women, as well as between women and women. The anxiousness of the narrator's tone may point to a species of homosexual panic, but it also testifies to what we might term “body” or “boundary” panic: a trepidation to reestablish safe body boundaries, boundaries that not only would guarantee the propriety of the relations between the sexes, but first of all, would contain the incorporative and excretory processes that threaten the integrity of the female person. Wollstonecraft's concept of “that decent personal reserve” that “must be kept between woman and woman” (p. 240) would not only act as a deterrent to those “nasty or immodest habits” and “very nasty tricks” that women acquire in boarding-schools (p. 239); it would also give the female person the solidity and boundaries that she lacks.

Wollstonecraft is particularly offended by “bodily wit” (p. 240), the kind of familiarity that breaks the boundaries between physicality and language, “almost on a par with the double meanings which shake the convivial table when the glass has circulated freely” (p. 240). “Bodily wit” becomes a paradigm for different kinds of critical boundary breakdowns: gluttony transgresses the rule of temperance (“the convivial table”), intoxication threatens reason (“the glass has circulated freely”), the boundaries between the literal and the figural are dangerously confounded in “double meanings,” and “bodily wit” itself conflates an intellectual phenomenon with (gross) corporeality. I will now turn to such relays between bodies and words in Wollstonecraft's own text.


In dealing with anorexia nervosa we are dealing with metaphor—sometimes a startlingly apt form of metaphor. It is for this reason … that I propose to treat my patient as a text.

Sheila MacLeod, The Art of Starvation28

Tracing the figures of taste and appetite enables a reconstruction of Wollstonecraft's conception of bourgeois femininity as renunciation. But we must also attend to the status of appetite itself as a problematic figure in the text of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and this figure's role in producing the logic of rationality as anorexic. The figure of appetite, introduced by virtue of its synonymous relation with sexuality, appears to lose its metaphoricity in the course of Wollstonecraft's polemic. Barbara Johnson writes that if the opposition between an inside and an outside is the received model of conceiving the nature of a rhetorical figure, then “the vehicle, or surface meaning, is seen as enclosing an inner tenor, or figurative meaning. This relation can be pictured somewhat facetiously as a gilded carriage—the vehicle—containing Luciano Pavarotti, the tenor.”29 In Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the vehicle breaks loose from the tenor, the gilded carriage ditches Pavarotti and runs amok. Appetite refuses to stand for sexuality, refuses to mean something other than itself: in the “weak woman of fashion” passage, it becomes a hero in its own right and displaces sexuality as the centerpiece of the drama of human difference. The rhetorical tendency of Wollstonecraft's text seems to support Maud Ellmann's passionate plea for the substitution of “a more encompassing poetics of starvation for the phallic poetics of desire.”30

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, multiform inflections of hunger and appetite undermine the unquestioned primacy of “sexual character.” But this literalization, the apparent breaking loose of appetite from its metaphorical ties, is nonetheless figurative. The process whereby feminine corporeality is written as literal—as pure, obdurate materiality, beyond the reach of rational discourse—is thematized by Wollstonecraft herself when she describes how “the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison” (p. 132); similarly, she describes how “false notions of beauty and delicacy stop the growth of their limbs and produce a sickly soreness, rather than delicacy of organs” (p. 225). Unwittingly, the text emphasizes the process of literalization that organizes its metaphorical structures: “genteel women are, literally speaking, slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection” (p. 131, emphasis added). “Literally speaking”: there is an insistence here, an ardent desire to see “enslavement” of the body not just as a figure; “literally speaking” means perhaps that to be embodied for a woman is to be enslaved. Such sentences reduce abstract entities (a person, the mind, delicacy) to phenomena assumed to be primary, to be resistant to further analysis or decomposition, phenomena such as the physical “frame”—the body's cage, or sores and wounds. Their rhetorical effect is to produce corporeality as literal, as the bottom line to which all uncertainties and abstractions can be reduced. It is as if what the text purports to be about—reason, morality—is too elusive, too immaterial to grasp. The discourse uses vivid images of the body, but these images soon take over, and the discourse comes to be about the body. In its rhetorical patterns it “encrusts”—materializes and literalizes—such entities while denouncing the very process of “encrustation”: Wollstonecraft can hardly contain her outrage at the prescriptive theory of a “grossly unnatural” femininity propounded by conduct book writers and sentimental authors, whose “specious poisons … encrusting morality eat away the substance” (p. 245, emphasis added). Wollstonecraft critiques the ostensible “sexual character” of women—their narcissistic interest in the accoutrements of their own persons and in the art of pleasing men—as a corrosive “crust” on the solid foundation of reason, an effect of their faulty, frivolous socialization. But her text itself rhetorically performs a continual “encrustation,” a calcification of reason and morality.

The figure that captures this anorectic drive toward “literalization” or “encrustation” is hypostasis: a tendency—a compulsion, perhaps—to ascribe material existence to abstract entities, to prefer figures of tangibility to airy abstractions.31 It is precisely through such a hypostatization that the anorexic “weak woman of fashion” comes to attach so much baleful importance to her body; she cannot imagine selfhood without making an immediate reference to “the body”—without hypostatizing her sense of identity. In “Interpreting Anorexia Nervosa,” Noelle Caskey writes:

It is the literal-mindedness of anorexia to take “the body” as a synonym for “the self” and to try to live in the world through a manipulation of “the body,” particularly as it is reflected to the anorexic by the perceived wishes of others. … This type of thinking creates the predisposition to view the abstract entity of “the self” concretely, as a body, but it also stimulates the anorexic's other impulse, the impulse to escape the body entirely as a way of escaping the funnel of alien desires.32

Deliberately to confuse “the body” with “subjectivity” is to graft the abstract sense of self onto what is most materially available to one: one's body. It is to forget that in order to transcend the incomprehensible, daunting metaphor of selfhood, one engages in yet another daunting rhetorical move: the process of literalizing, of encrusting one's sense of self and making it coincide with the body, the body's cage. The twin processes, metaphorization and literalization, are profoundly interconnected; the attempt to escape from one into the other is a prototypical vicious circle. In the words of D. A. Miller, “Metaphorizing the body begins and ends with literalizing the meanings the body is thus made to bear.”33 My attempt to encompass and name the anorexic process rhetorically is, in a sense, predetermined: many texts on anorexia show an uncanny compulsion to invoke rhetorical figures in order to subsume the anorexic logic they describe under a single, figurative denomination. Anorexia has been most notably theorized as “metaphor” (Sheila MacLeod, Susie Orbach) and “prosopopeia” (Albaraq Mahbobah);34 my own terms—“hypostasis,” “literalization,” or “encrustation”—are attempts to refine this list. “Anorexic figures”—both the women and the metaphors—are tantalizing precisely because they pose questions of figuration, of being a figure: a corporeal and rhetorical self.

Wollstonecraft's narrator declares herself averse to “words”—“I shall be employed about things, not words” (p. 83)—but cannot keep herself from digressing. Paradoxically, the narrator of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman keeps producing excessive discourse about the need to retrench, in terms of both words and the body. Wollstonecraft's narrator may be read as a parodical embodiment of Bonnie Friedman's “Silence”: in her moving meditation on writer's block, “Anorexia of Language: Why We Can't Write,” Friedman asks us to imagine the allegorical figure of Silence, a personification of anorexia, with her teeth clamped against the world in a gesture of ultimate negativity. Silence is

slim to the point of vanishing, with not a hair out of place as it gazes at me with lucid blue eyes. …

Silence swallows. She stares at me in pain as if to say she cannot help herself. If she could—oh, the volumes she'd say! There'd be no stopping her. …

Her restraint is perfect, virginal, absolute.35

Friedman's portrayal of Silence brings out the essential linkage between language and ingestion, as well as between restraint and excess, the linkage visible in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Like Friedman's Silence, Wollstonecraft's narrator suggests that there is a “strange affinity between askesis and excess,”36 between renunciation and overabundance, in terms of both corporeality and language.

Characteristically for a text governed by the logic of anorexic literalization, Wollstonecraft's languid figures with a “puny appetite” are joined by a narrator vehemently set against “pretty feminine phrases” (p. 82). The text of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman associates the anorexic syndrome with a repudiation of figurative language; it is in Wollstonecraft's narrator's arguments concerning literary language that the tendency toward hypostasis is best discerned. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that the twin oral phenomena—eating and language—exhibit disorders whose mechanisms appear essentially the same: the abandonment of everyday functionality in favor of an excess of signification. Already in the “Author's Introduction” Wollstonecraft's narrator announces her intention to “dismiss[] … those pretty feminine phrases,” to negate her imbrication in figural paradoxes and declare herself free of “words”:

I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style. I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart. I shall be employed about things, not words! and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversations.

These pretty superlatives, dropping glibly from the tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth; and a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart, render the domestic pleasures insipid, that ought to sweeten the exercise of those severe duties, which educate a rational and immortal being for a nobler field of action.

(pp. 82-83)

Commenting on this passage, Tom Furniss observes that

it is possible to see that figurative analogies are being developed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman between sexuality, political systems, and rhetorical language. All three domains are discussed in terms of the relationship between dress and body, and in all three Wollstonecraft's politics impel her to distrust the clothed and valorize the unadorned.37

While Furniss is correct to point out that the relation between rhetorical language and sexuality is mediated through yet another metaphor, our discussion of the anorexic logic that governs Wollstonecraft's representation of the female body allows us to discern a structure or a logic within what Furniss can only obliquely name “dress and body.” Wollstonecraft's extended attack on metaphoricity is embroiled in the problematic of “literalization”—literalization as a figure that wishes to resolve, to do away with, its own figurative status—which in turn invokes the rhetorical connections between taste and language, the twin oral phenomena.

The passage from “Author's Introduction,” built around a series of binarisms that seek to distinguish between the transparency of truth (“things”) and the mediation of language (“words”), evinces Wollstonecraft's effort to produce the opposition between the language of affect and the language of affectation. It leads, however, into an almost obsessive series of oral metaphors. The language of affectation (“pretty superlatives”) is characterized by its materiality and tangibility, and its production is represented as an easeful falling of drops from the tongue: “flowery diction” “drop[s] glibly from the tongue,” bringing to mind small quantities of liquid, such as saliva. “The tongue” seems to veer unsteadily between various significations: we are repeatedly led from the organ of the mouth to the abstract organ of linguistic production and back again. The “dripping” impairs the sense of taste and creates a nauseating effect of “sickly delicacy.” The danger of this linguistic proliferation is that the very prototype of pure affect—domestic affect—may be rendered “insipid.” The languages of affectation and affect do not seem to be able to keep to their apportioned spheres: they travel back and forth like their prototype, the tongue.

The “sickly delicac[ies]” the passage refers to consist in this indeterminate traffic; they point in two directions, toward exaggerated affect but also toward nauseating confectioneries. With this surplus of oral metaphors, it is no longer possible to disentangle the language of affect from the language of affectation. Initially, Wollstonecraft seems to be denouncing the feminine pretentious language in favor of a transparency, marked neither by linguistic mediation nor by gender. Further in the treatise, she thus comments on the writings of Catherine Macaulay: “Catherine Macaulay was an example of intellectual acquirements supposed to be incompatible with the weakness of her sex. In her style of writing, indeed, no sex appears, for it is like the sense it conveys, strong and clear” (p. 210). The opposition Wollstonecraft insists on, that between “feminine phrases” and writing unmarked by gender, is problematized by her verbal choices: pure truth and intellectual sense are marked by “strength” and “force,” and we know from other parts of the treatise that these characteristics are always associated with male bodies. The narrator's implicit agenda is to masculinize women's bodies (she often recommends that women should acquire more muscular strength), as though building muscle strength could guarantee women access to the language of truth, unlike the orality of “feminine phrases” that expressly bars access to truth. “The converse and antidote of these [feminine phrases],” writes Furniss, “is the ‘manly’—that which is an open display, which says what it means, and is genuinely representative without reserve or equivocation.”38

Wollstonecraft's violent attack on metaphors participates in the dynamic of hypostasis and literalization. Becoming “literal” and thus “reasonable” is part of the dynamic of temperance. In warning against “those phosphoric bursts which only mimic in the dark the flame of passion” (p. 317), Wollstonecraft is reacting against Rousseau's equation of women's language with “taste,”39 and criticizing literary language specifically in its supplemental, affective, appetitive qualities. It is an attempt to dismantle this equation that propels the text of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman toward the logic of anorexia: women's bodies and women's words become locked, in Wollstonecraft's text, in a struggle toward mutual elimination; they seem to stand, intransigent, in each other's way. As Ellmann shows, “Language and the body are locked in a struggle of attrition”: “The thinner the body, the fatter the book.”40 When Wollstonecraft complains of “some women … [who] will talk very calmly of an indigestion” (p. 253), it is because in the anorexic logic of reason bodies are set against words, and Wollstonecraft cannot allow the possibility of verbalizing bodily processes. Words, in the anorexic logic of reason, are excessive in and of themselves; words are excess—essentially, a luxury, an extra, a supplement—precisely because they come from the mouth, because to produce them the teeth must be unclamped and the female subject's ideal self-possession must be breached, threatened by language's flickering, veering significations.41 For women to talk about indigestion at all—and to talk about it calmly—is to transgress the boundary between bodies and words, to translate, too easily, a bodily state into a linguistic one. According to this logic, to talk about indigestion is actually to have or produce it: to speak is to have (eaten) too much. Wollstonecraft's attack on metaphors is an attack on such translations; and yet her text, as in the above sentence, often confuses eating with speaking: sentences seem to lose control over the difference between things and words about them. According to Wollstonecraft's argument, only a thorough separation of bodies from words—the very opposite of “bodily wit”—will allow us to gain access to writings supposedly unmarked by gender, writings that guarantee access to truth. Of course, hidden behind this is an assumption that women's bodies cannot help but infect their discourse, unlike men's bodies, which remain in hygienic isolation from men's words. The problematic relation between women's bodies and women's words is what disarticulates the text of liberal feminism from its very beginnings—and what disarticulates much feminist thought even now.


  1. Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, pp. 168-76, rpt. in Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: Norton, 1988), pp. 270, 272.

  2. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp. 160, 254. Hereafter page references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. Orrin N. C. Wang writes that Wollstonecraft's polemics “anticipate many of the theoretical aporias facing feminists and feminist Romanticists today. Recovering the legacy of those antinomies in Wollstonecraft reveals how she proleptically accomplishes what the theorization of Romanticism and gender together effects,” in Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 109. I would add that this “proleptic[] accomplish[ment]” is far from “rational” or conscious.

  4. Miriam Brody, Introduction, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Wollstonecraft, p. 69.

  5. I have in mind the so-called problem of agency, whereby political agency seems to require the (liberal) notion of the subject as possessed both of coherence and intention, whereas our theoretical convictions seem to lead in the opposite direction, dispossessing the subject of any self-coincidence.

  6. Gillian Brown, “Anorexia, Humanism, and Feminism,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, 5, No. 1 (1991), 211-13, 194, 196-97.

  7. See also Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Adam Phillips (1757; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). Although Burke defines “Taste” abstractly, as “those faculties of the mind which are affected with, or which form a judgment of the works of imagination and the elegant arts” (p. 13), he soon slides into examples that are not as abstract and that draw directly on the metaphorical potential of “taste”: “All men are agreed to call vinegar sour, honey sweet, and aloes bitter. … They all concur in calling sweetness pleasant, and sourness and bitterness unpleasant” (p. 14, emphasis added).

  8. Carol H. Poston's edition gives a variant reading: “Considering the length of time that women have been dependent, is it surprising that some of them hug their chains, and fawn like the spaniel?” in Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 82 (emphasis added).

  9. David Hume, for instance, attributes “love betwixt the sexes” to “the bodily appetite for generation,” in A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. P. H. Nidditch (1739-40; Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), pp. 394-96. But the pairing of sexuality and appetite may point to a latent structure: Maud Ellmann observes, “Since sexuality originates in eating, it is always haunted by the imagery of ingestion, having neither an object nor a territory proper to itself,” in The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 39.

  10. Mary Poovey writes: “So intent is Wollstonecraft to reject the prevalent stereotype of women as all sexuality that she comes close to arguing that women have no innate sexual desires at all,” in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 74. In Poovey's own argument, however, “appetite” remains a largely unexamined figure of sexuality, blinding the author to the workings of this metaphor in Wollstonecraft's text. Poovey is seconded by Cora Kaplan who, in her excellent study of feminism's imbrication in battles over women's sexuality, describes Wollstonecraft as imposing “heartbreaking conditions for women's liberation—a little death, the death of desire, the death of female pleasure,” in Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), p. 39. In fact, Wollstonecraft writes that “true voluptuousness” is possible, as long as it proceeds “from the mind” (p. 325).

  11. For an argument that connects the dualist tradition with the politics and pathologization of the female body, see Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 144-48.

  12. Leslie Heywood, Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 8.

  13. Heywood, Dedication to Hunger, pp. 12, 57.

  14. Wollstonecraft thus describes women's illusion of power: “Women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them” (p. 107).

  15. Wollstonecraft aims at disentangling some of the conundrums proposed by conduct books. Dr. Gregory writes that “luxury of eating” is “a despicable selfish vice in men, but in your sex it is beyond expression indelicate and disgusting. … We so naturally associate the idea of female softness and delicacy with a corresponding delicacy of constitution, that when a woman speaks of her great strength, her extraordinary appetite, her ability to bear excessive fatigue, we recoil at a description in a way she is little aware of,” in Dr. Gregory, A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, in The Young Lady's Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor, intro. and ed. Vivien Jones (1774; London: Thoemmes, 1996), pp. 16, 20-21.

  16. Wollstonecraft referred to herself as “the first of a new genus” in a letter to her sister Everina; see The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 164.

  17. Hilde Bruch writes: “Most anorexic girls come from upper-middle-class and upper-class homes; financial achievement and social position are often high,” in The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Random-Vintage, 1979), p. 25.

  18. In her analysis of the twentieth-century culture of anorexia, The Hunger Artists, Ellmann observes: “To have it but not to eat it is a sign of class superiority, betokening an independence of necessity” (p. 7).

  19. Self-starvation often has moral meanings in the anorectic's self-conception. Bruch writes: “These youngsters are frantically preoccupied with food and eating but consider self-denial and discipline the highest virtue and condemn satisfying their needs and desires as shameful self-indulgence” (p. x).

  20. Bruch, p. 18.

  21. Claudia Johnson notes that “wherever Wollstonecraft turns, she sees men and women both sinking into gross corporeality,” in Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen, Women in Culture and Society Series, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 41.

  22. Bruch, p. 4.

  23. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, trans. Anne Drayton (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 13.

  24. C. Johnson, p. 23.

  25. C. Johnson, p. 35.

  26. C. Johnson, p. 45.

  27. In essence, women have never grown up, and they still exhibit the characteristics of the Freudian pleasure-ego: “The original pleasure-ego wants to introject into itself everything that is good and to eject from itself everything that is bad”; see Sigmund Freud, “Negation,” The Standard Edition of the Selected Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth, 1961), XIX, 237, for the classic formulation of this incorporative/excorporative binarism. Wollstonecraft often disparagingly describes women as children: “the overgrown child, his wife”; innocence is a “state of childhood”; narcissistic women are admonished for their “infantile airs” (pp. 114, 154, 155).

  28. Sheila MacLeod, The Art of Starvation (London: Virago, 1981), p. 68.

  29. Barbara Johnson, “Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God,Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 211.

  30. Ellmann, p. 27.

  31. My usage of “hypostasis” is very close to what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok call “antimetaphor,” in “Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation,” in The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. Nicholas T. Rand (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 125-38. Antimetaphor is “the figure of the active destruction of representation,” “not simply a matter of reverting to the literal meaning of words, but of using them in such a way … that their very capacity for figurative representation is destroyed” (p. 132).

  32. Noelle Caskey, “Interpreting Anorexia Nervosa,” in The Female Body in Western Culture: The Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 184.

  33. D. A. Miller, “The Late Jane Austen,” Raritan, 10, No. 1 (1990), 57.

  34. MacLeod, p. 68; Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorectic's Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age (New York: Norton, 1986), p. 24; Albaraq Mahbobah, “Reading the Anorexic Maze,” Genders, 14 (1992), 91.

  35. Bonnie Friedman, “Anorexia of Language: Why We Can't Write,” in Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), pp. 105-06.

  36. Ellmann, p. 15.

  37. Tom Furniss, “Nasty Tricks and Tropes: Sexuality and Language in Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman,Studies in Romanticism, 32 (Summer 1993), 187. However, we have seen that Wollstonecraft indeed often distrusted the unclothed (the naked female body). “Unadorned,” in Furniss's argument, should be understood as “the natural.”

  38. Furniss, p. 189.

  39. Wollstonecraft quotes Rousseau's dictum: “A man speaks of what he knows, a woman of what pleases her; the one requires knowledge, the other taste” (p. 186).

  40. Ellmann, pp. 27, 22. For Ellmann, this claim seems to have a universal character. In my reading, the “struggle of attrition” is an effect of Wollstonecraft reacting against Rousseau.

  41. I am playing upon the Derridean logic of supplementation here. Wollstonecraft insists that “words” and “phrases” are a mere supplement, an unnecessary extra, in her project to “be employed about things.” Of course, they turn out, all too soon, to be a necessary complement without which “things” are not even conceivable. Interestingly, in a passage from Rousseau that Derrida quotes in his discussion of supplementation, it is a morsel of food swallowed in “Maman's” presence that shows supplementation to be a necessary complement. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 152.

Ruth Abbey (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Abbey, Ruth. “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 14, no. 3 (summer 1999): 78-95.

[In the following essay, Abbey analyzes Wollstonecraft's views on the political nature of the family and marriage in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her attitude toward sexuality in her unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman.]

According to the feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin, the challenge facing liberal thinkers is to incorporate fully issues of gender and the family into their thinking about justice. She insists that “We can have a liberalism that fully includes women only if we can devise a theoretical basis for public policies that, recognizing the family as a fundamental political institution, extends standards of justice to life within it” (Okin 1989, 53). Those who share Okin's belief that for liberal theory to move forward it must take the political nature of family relations seriously should return to Mary Wollstonecraft's work to find the beginnings of such a liberalism. Wollstonecraft not only depicts the family as a fundamentally political institution but also applies liberal notions of justice to it. It is argued here that she brings the values that liberals believe should govern the public realm to the private world of love, romance, and family life by promoting the ideal of marriage as friendship.

Wollstonecraft extends her argument that women should exercise equal rights with men in the public sphere into a critique of the structural inequalities of marriage. Although a stern critic of “actually existing” marriages, she does not reject marriage as an institution altogether. Instead, she envisages a form of marriage that incorporates the major features of the classical notion of higher friendship such as equality, free choice, reason, mutual esteem and profound concern for one another's moral character.1 The classical ideal of higher friendship provides a suitable model for her liberal approach to marriage because it represents the paradigmatic rational, equal, and free relationship. In such relationships, individuals exchange some of their independence for interdependence and are united by bonds of deep and lasting affection, as well as respect for and appreciation of one another's character and individuality. Wollstonecraft uses the idea that marriage should emulate many of the features of higher friendship to criticize the practices and values of romance and family life in eighteenth-century English society and to suggest a way in which marriage might be reconfigured to realize central liberal values.

To recast marriage in this way means that Wollstonecraft is applying liberal values to the world of romantic love and family life. That she thinks about marriage in political, and specifically liberal, terms and recommends a model of marriage that emulates many of friendship's salient features is an important feature of her work often overlooked in much of the secondary literature. Even those who note the idea's presence in her work do not attribute it the importance it assumes in this analysis. Diana Coole, for example, observes that Wollstonecraft favors the calmness of friendship over the passion of sexual love as a basis for marriage but does not link this to her later point about Wollstonecraft's belief in the relationship between domestic and public virtue (Coole 1988, 123). Karen Green refers to Wollstonecraft's idea that “marriage should be based on friendship between equals. A genuine regard of the genuine qualities of one's spouse should found a union between autonomous individuals united in their sense of duty towards their children” (Green 1995, 96). However, she does not make this idea central to Wollstonecraft's liberalism. Sylvana Tomaselli claims that Wollstonecraft's “ideal relationship between the sexes was one modelled on an idealized conception, which owed much to antiquity, of friendship between men” (Tomaselli 1995, xxvi). Yet the idea of marriage as friendship does not appear in her catalogue of Wollstonecraft's ideas that are relevant today (Tomaselli 1995, xxix). Finally, Virginia Sapiro says that Wollstonecraft had wanted friendship as “the ideal social relationship” to be extended into the family and the polity (Sapiro 1996, 36). I suggest, however, that friendship represents a different, albeit complementary, way of realizing liberal values in intimate relationships rather than providing the model for all social relationships.

In what follows, I briefly rehearse Wollstonecraft's critique of marriage and family life. Her alternative view of marriage, which draws on some of the features of the classical notion of higher friendship, is outlined. Her fear of arbitrary power provides the lynch pin for her analysis of power relations in both the public and the private realms. To minimize the exercise of arbitrary power, she promotes the extension of liberal values in both spheres. However, her model of marriage as friendship, which diminishes arbitrary power in the domestic sphere, seems unable to incorporate the possibility of robust and enduring sexual relations between the married partners. Before outlining Wollstonecraft's substantive position on these matters, I turn to the question of her place in the liberal canon.


In judging the putatively private realm of love, marriage, and family life by the values that liberals believe should inform the public realm, such as equality, freedom, reason, consent, and the diminution of arbitrary power, Wollstonecraft threatens the traditional liberal distinction between public and private. As Martha Nussbaum writes, “Liberal thinkers tended to segment the private from the public sphere, considering the public sphere one of individual rights and contractual arrangements, the family a private sphere in which the state should not meddle” (Nussbaum 1996, 17). Yet despite their articulation in Wollstonecraft's best-known work, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985), both these elements—the questioning of the public/private separation within liberalism and the idea of reforming marriage along the lines of higher friendship—are typically associated with John Stuart Mill. Even feminist scholars impute to Mill the belief that marriage should share the salient qualities of friendship and fail to recognize that Wollstonecraft advanced a similar position in the previous century.2 Mary Shanley, for example, claims that Mill “made a most significant break with the past in adopting the language of friendship in his discussion of marriage” (Shanley 1981, 239). Nadia Urbinati holds that “it was only Mill who transformed this notion [of an ideal marriage, of a soul mate] into an instrument with which to denounce the reality of family life” (Urbinati 1991, 638). Perhaps because of Mill's recognized concern with the dynamics of the private realm, Nussbaum nominates him as the exception to the liberal tendency to distinguish the public from the private realm. Marilyn Friedman also describes Mill as “a noteworthy exception” to the liberal tradition's tendency to confine its attack on unjustified hierarchy to the public realm (Friedman 1993, 293). While Nussbaum's observation that “most of the liberal tradition did not follow Mill's lead” (Nussbaum 1996, 17) is correct, it is imperative to recognize that Wollstonecraft had challenged this separation in the previous century and promoted the idea of marriage as friendship. Only then can the importance of her contribution to the liberal tradition be appreciated.

However, while Wollstonecraft advocates the extension of liberal values into the household, she does not simply expand the reach of social contract thinking into the private realm. She does not impose the image of individuals as rights-bearers onto the domestic sphere nor assume that the only way for liberal values to be realized is through the mechanism of individual rights. She implies instead that there can be different models for liberal relationships, depending upon whether these occur among strangers in the public realm or among intimates in the household. Hers is both a comprehensive and a complex liberalism, suggesting that it is possible to promote liberal values without making the social contract model of human relations hegemonic3 and without extending rights discourse to all areas of life. The nuanced character of her liberalism provides another reason why contemporary liberals should return to Wollstonecraft as a source for future thinking.4


Notwithstanding the forward-looking aspects of her liberalism, Wollstonecraft accepts the traditional idea, expressed most recently in her time by Jean Jacques Rousseau, that marriage and motherhood are duties for women. Like Rousseau, she attacks the way women are socialized because it renders them unfit to perform their duties as wives and mothers. However, her qualifications and criteria for being a good wife and mother differ markedly from his. In contrast to his evocation of the cloistered wife and mother,5 she insists that women engage with the wider world and its questions of politics and morality. Moreover, she claims that “this is the only way to make them properly attentive to their domestic duties. An active mind embraces the whole circle of its duties, and finds time enough for all” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 288, 253, 257). Her critique of women's socialization is two-pronged, for she claims that the feminine qualities promoted by her society and characterized in Rousseau's portrait of Sophie create women who are poor wives and dangerous mothers.6 Conversely, she suggests that were marriage to emulate many of the features of friendship, marriage and parenthood would be vastly improved, as would the wider society, for marriage is “the foundation of almost every social virtue” (1985, 165).

Wollstonecraft points out that in her society, marriage alone brings women prestige and power. “[T]he only way women can rise in the world [is] by marriage” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 83, 151, 157), while men have more options open to them: “marriage is not the grand feature in their lives” (1985, 150). This immediately put an imbalance between the partners—one enters the relationship out of necessity while the other exercises greater choice. This asymmetry is a function of the vast differences between men's and women's legal, social, political, and economic power: as Wollstonecraft says, “the laws respecting women … make an absurd unit of a man and his wife” (1985, 257).7 To acquire a husband, women are encouraged to be coquettes, to flirt, and to conceal their true feelings from the men who court them (Wollstonecraft 1985, 169-70). Wollstonecraft summarizes women's preparation for marriage: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety will obtain for them the protection of a man; and should they be beautiful, all else is needless; for at least twenty years of their life” (1985, 100).

In Wollstonecraft's society, part of becoming a woman is, therefore, a training in the art of pleasing (1985, 106, 147, 311), which is a training in deception. However, women trained in this modus operandi from a young age are unlikely to shed it as soon as they marry. Instead, to win male attention would remain their goal; they would go on flirting even after marriage, for “[a] husband cannot long pay those attentions with the passion necessary to excite lively emotions, and the heart, accustomed to lively emotions, turns to a new lover, or pines in secret, the prey of virtue or prudence” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 157, 111). As Wollstonecraft depicts it, the socialization of girls is inherently contradictory; it is geared toward finding a husband, yet the sort of woman so formed will be compelled to go on seeking attention from men other than her husband “for a lover the husband … cannot long remain” (1985, 224, 147, 167, 315). As such, girls are reared to be disloyal wives—in ambition, inclination, or imagination if not in practice.

Wollstonecraft castigates men who, like Rousseau, have designed an education for women that will make them “alluring mistresses rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers” (1985, 79). But women are not the only ones to suffer from this dispensation. Rational and virtuous men are also disadvantaged, for women are not educated to value their minds and merits. “[T]he modest merit of reasonable men has, of course, less effect on their [women's] feelings, and they cannot reach the heart by way of the understanding, because they have few sentiments in common” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 222). Thus, worthy men of moral substance would lose out to less worthy but more superficially attractive gallants (1985, 222-23). Wollstonecraft makes a similar point in her chapter on matrimony in “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” (1989b), where one of the dangers of women marrying when they are young is that “should they be so fortunate as to get a good husband, they will not set a proper value on him; he will be found much inferior to the lovers described in novels, and their want of knowledge will make them frequently disgusted with the man” (1989b, 31).

The second prong of Wollstonecraft's critique of marriage was that feminine women make poor mothers: “the mother will be lost in the coquette” (1985, 137). Because women are not allowed to discover, let alone to develop, their rational potential and because their major aim in life is to make themselves pleasing to men, in Wollstonecraft's world, they become trivial creatures obsessed with appearances, games, and frivolity. Little more than children themselves, they are not fit to raise children, having nothing of value to pass on to them. Wollstonecraft asks rhetorically, “Can [these weak beings] be expected to govern a family with judgement, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?” (1985, 83, 119, 298, 313, 315). Socialization effectively incapacitates women for their important role as the child's first educator. This model of femininity particularly threatens the mother-daughter relationship because women trained as coquettes feel rivalry with, rather than friendship for, their maturing daughters (Wollstonecraft 1985, 137). Wollstonecraft thus shares Rousseau's premise about the central role women play as first educators of their children but develops vastly different recommendations for women's education from this starting point. She states that if society were to take this role seriously, it should produce women equal to this task (1985, 138-39).

Just as marriage and motherhood are duties for women, so Wollstonecraft believes that marriage and fatherhood are men's duties (1985, 249, 254).8 Yet the influence of rational husbands alone would be minimal, “for unless a mother concur, the father who restrains will ever be considered a tyrant” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 315). If women are more broadly educated, they would be better placed to carry out their educative duties as parents and to cooperate with men in this role. Part of Wollstonecraft's defense of female emancipation, therefore, consists of arguing that freedom, equality, and education would make women better mothers. As Coole says, Wollstonecraft “supplements her rights argument with an appeal to social utility” (Coole 1988, 124).


Wollstonecraft's twin arguments about making women better wives and better mothers are mutually reinforcing, for she believes that if men and women marry by choice and for companionship, the husband is more likely to be at home and to be a better father to his children. Conversely, if women marry for friendship, coquetry and flirtation would not become a way of life. Not compelled to seek male approval and adoration, they could become dedicated wives and mothers. Wollstonecraft draws this portrait of friendly, rational family life when she writes, “The father of a family will not then weaken his constitution and debase his sentiments by visiting the harlot, nor forget, in obeying the call of appetite, the purpose for which it was implanted. And the mother will not neglect her children to practise the arts of coquetry, when sense and modesty secure her the friendship of her husband” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 89, 159, 254). Under current arrangements, however, women “do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their [men's] hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow-creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 80). The way women are socialized “prevent[s] love from subsiding into friendship” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 115), yet “the noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected” by a husband will never accept “[f]ondness [a]s a poor substitute for friendship” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 112). As these passages suggest, Wollstonecraft believes that if women are educated, allowed to expand their capacity for reason, and given greater freedom, independence, and choice, then marriage could become more like the classical notion of higher friendship: “When women are once sufficiently enlightened to discover their real interest, on a grand scale, they will, I am persuaded, be very ready to resign all the prerogatives of love, that are not mutual … for the calm satisfaction of friendship, and the tender confidence of habitual esteem” (1985, 205, 288).

A marriage suffused with “calm satisfaction” would liberate its partners from petty jealousies and allow them to channel their energies outward to the fulfillment of their duties (Wollstonecraft 1985, 288). Although such a relationship might not offer romantic love's grand passion and high excitement, the type of care it offers is precious: Wollstonecraft claims that when the passion of romance subsides into friendship there develops a “tender intimacy, which is the best refuge from care; yet is built on such pure, still affections” (1985, 224). Thus young people contemplating marriage should “look beyond the present moment, and try to render the whole of life respectable, by forming a plan to regulate friendship which only death ought to dissolve” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 167). A freer, more rational approach to marriage would produce stronger marriages because the people in them would be partners, indeed friends, who would value one another for their virtues of character rather than their physical beauty, status, wealth, or femininity or masculinity. “A man, or a woman, of any feeling, must always wish to convince a beloved object that it is the caresses of the individual, not the sex, that are received and returned with pleasure; and, that the heart, rather than the senses, is moved” (1985, 199).

Wollstonecraft concedes that if women had a proper education and could develop their reason and attain independence, they might not marry at all, but could still live happy, fulfilled lives (1985, 117). This signals that her aim is not simply to make women capable of more informed choices about who and why to marry but to give them the freedom to choose whether to marry at all. She observes that while the duty of motherhood calls most women by virtue of religion and reason, “women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence” (1985, 259). Nonetheless, she believes that the development of reason brings a clearer appreciation of, and capacity to carry out, one's duties: “the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty—comprehending it” (1985, 88, 91, 101, 103, 156, 160-61). This conviction, combined with her belief that motherhood is a natural duty for most women,9 makes it unlikely that she envisages the majority of women remaining single.

It is important to underline what it means to impute to Wollstonecraft the belief, so typically associated with John Stuart Mill, that marriage should be modeled along the lines of higher friendship. It does not amount to claiming simply that Wollstonecraft recommends married partners to be fond of one another or to choose one another on the basis of character rather than status or wealth. Such recommendations had been made before Wollstonecraft; indeed, Rousseau thought love should be the foundation of marriage and family life. Earlier women writers, such as Mary Astell and Christine de Pisan had also pointed to the value of mutual affection in marriage. What distinguishes Wollstonecraft's position from these and brings it into line with the classical notion of friendship is her emphasis on equality between the marriage partners. By contrast, de Pisan10 and Astell11 accept that obedience is part of women's role in marriage while Rousseau, notwithstanding his claims about gender equality, urges women to submit to their husbands, even when they act unjustly (Rousseau 1966, 333). Wollstonecraft does not counsel wifely obedience just as Aristotle would not have talked about one partner in a higher friendship obeying another. When parties relate to one another as equals in a friendship, the language of obedience becomes obsolete.


It seems surprising that in dedicating her Vindication of the Rights of Woman to the French statesman Talleyrand, Wollstonecraft expresses the hope that “marriage may become more sacred; your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity” (1985, 88). What unites the grand event of the French Revolution with the question of marriage and romance is the phenomenon of arbitrary power. Wollstonecraft, as a liberal, despises this form of power (1985, 99fn5, 107, 127, 143). As a liberal, she believes that if one human is to exercise power legitimately over another, such power must be based on rational consent. With the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft thinks that arbitrary power had begun to be expunged in the public sphere.12 She insists, however, that before reason could spread and foster social progress, arbitrary power has to be eradicated in the household, too. “[T]yrants of every denomination, from the weak king to the weak father of a family … are all eager to crush reason. … Do you not act a similar part when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark?” (1985, 87).

As both genders are capable of reason, husbands' immense social power over their wives has no substantive basis. Hence Wollstonecraft's question: “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason?” (1985, 87). However, she does not conclude from this that men possess a monopoly on arbitrary power in the household. While women's socialization renders them weak and dependent, it does not render them helpless. Wollstonecraft exposes the dark side of women's enforced weakness by showing how it encourages them to abuse whatever power they can. Denied power through official, open avenues, they pursue it in clandestine ways, becoming sinister, calculating, and deceptive. In contrast to Rousseau's claim that “[c]unning is the natural gift of woman” (Rousseau 1966, 334), Wollstonecraft believes that women's inferiority to men—legally, economically, socially, physically, and psychologically—creates creatures who resent and resist their helplessness and who will resort to whatever means available to exercise power over others. “[T]his exertion of cunning is only an instinct of nature to enable them to obtain indirectly a little of that power of which they are unjustly denied a share; for, if women are not permitted to enjoy legitimate rights, they will render both men and themselves vicious to obtain illicit privileges” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 89, 83-84, 111, 125-26, 257, 282, 288, 318).13 Hence her clarification that “[w]hen therefore I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for indirectly they obtain too much power, and are debased by their exertions to obtain illicit sway” (1985, 286).14

When refused power in any larger sense, women become tyrants in small matters. As they are forced to obey without being given any reason for their subjection, so they will compel others to conform to their will. “Powerless” wives tyrannize over children and servants (Wollstonecraft 1985, 135, 159).15 Women who are forced to resort to arbitrary power are dangerous models for their children, for future citizens grow up in households witnessing the very power that liberals seek to expel from the public realm. Under the current conditions of marriage then, arbitrary power circulates between men and women and throughout the household, and the scourge of arbitrary rule is passed from generation to generation via household dynamics that form personalities unaccustomed to the possibility of free, rational and equal exchange among individuals.

Wollstonecraft's ideal of marriage as friendship would bring this situation to an end. If marriage united individuals as one another's equals and whose choice to live together is based on respect for one another's characters, children would grow up in quite a different domestic world. This would be an environment more conducive to the development of the virtues citizens need. Wollstonecraft suggests that the generation of good citizens begins at home, through children witnessing equal, rational relations between their parents and then having a good education to formalize these principles.16 As she says, “If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot” (1985, 86). The political virtues of respect and affection for one's fellow citizens begin in the household: “if you wish to make good citizens, you must first exercise the affections of a son and brother … for public affections as well as public virtues, must ever grow out of private character. … Few, I believe, have had much affection for mankind, who did not first love their parents, their brothers, sisters and even the domestic brutes, whom they first played with. The exercise of youthful sympathies forms the moral temperature; and it is the recollection of these first affections and pursuits that gives life to those that are afterward more under the direction of reason” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 279).17 In contrast then to Plato's famous suggestion in The Republic that particular family affection competes with the general love of the whole, Wollstonecraft believes that the love which begins in the family can expand to encompass one's fellow citizens and then humankind.

These claims about the connection between household and citizenry suggest that Wollstonecraft challenges any strong separation between the public and the private. Instead, she advocates ethical continuity between them, contending that the norms that govern the public realm should govern the private one, too. She seems to conceptualize the relationship between these two spheres as a series of concentric circles, beginning with the family and widening out to the public realm.18 Challenging any rigid public/private separation, Wollstonecraft thinks of the family as political in four related ways: she is keenly aware that power relations circulate among household members; she is convinced that these relationships shape the sort of citizens that individuals become; she believes that relationships within the household should be reconfigured according to the same ethical ideals as govern public relations among citizens; and she believes that the quality of public life can only improve when this sort of change has occurred. As this section has shown, Wollstonecraft both recognizes the family as a fundamental political institution and extends standards of justice to life within it. As such, the challenge Okin poses requires liberals to go back to Wollstonecraft's work in thinking about future directions for liberalism.


The higher form of friendship that inspires Wollstonecraft's vision of reformed marriage has traditionally been thought of as existing between men only,19 and its pleasures were not supposed to include sexual intimacy. This could help to explain why Wollstonecraft has trouble integrating corporeal love into the ideal of marriage modeled along the lines of friendship. This is not to suggest that she denies the sexual dimension of personality; on the contrary, her discussions of modesty and its role in directing and controlling sexual desire testify to its presence.20 Nor does she underestimate the role sexual desire might play in a love relationship: rather, she admires the Danish practice of giving engaged couples considerable liberty in their courtship. Because young women are under the rule of neither father nor husband during this interregnum, she describes it as “the only period of freedom and pleasure that the women enjoy” (1987, 172). Such pleasure is often sexual: “the intimacy often becomes very tender: and if the lover obtain the privilege of a husband, it can only be termed half by stealth, because the family is wilfully blind. It happens very rarely that these honorary engagements are dissolved or disregarded …” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 172).21 So while it would be misleading to say that Wollstonecraft has a prudish or negative view of sexuality, it is the case that her model of marriage as friendship seems unable to accommodate any robust and enduring sexual relationship between married partners.22

One illustration of Wollstonecraft's failure to incorporate ongoing sexual love into her model of marriage as friendship comes in her recommendation that, to fulfill their familial duties, mothers and fathers “ought not to continue to love one another with a passion” (1985, 114).23 This belief seems to derive from a fear that sexual passion becomes all-consuming, distracting parents from their familial responsibilities. It also explains her conclusion that a neglected or widowed wife will always make the best mother (1985, 114, 138-39), because passionate love for her husband will not distract her from her parental duties.24

However, the advice that marriage partners not indulge their sexual appetites too frequently seems somewhat redundant given Wollstonecraft's many indications that sexual attraction is destined to diminish between marrieds. As she says, “Love, considered as an animal appetite, cannot long feed on itself without expiring. And this extinction in its own flame may be termed the violent death of love” (1985, 167). This echoes the imagery of an earlier vignette of a good marriage. In this scenario, the woman “secures her husband's respect before it is necessary to exert mean arts to please him and feed a dying flame, which nature doomed to expire when the object became familiar, when friendship and forbearance take place of a more ardent affection” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 138). If marriages were built on friendship or united people who can become friends, when the flames of sexual passion inevitably dwindle, something substantive would take their place (1985, 266).25 Without the affection of friendship, marrieds eventually become bored with one another, mutually indifferent and perhaps even hostile (Wollstonecraft 1985, 114). Thus it seems that in the sort of companionate marriage she encourages, friendship and sexual desire are not ultimately compatible, let alone mutually strengthening.26 As she writes, “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle and cemented by time. The very reverse can be said of love. In a great degree, love and friendship cannot subsist in the same bosom; even when inspired by different objects they weaken or destroy each other, and for the same objects can only be felt in succession. The vain fears and fond jealousies, the winds which fan the flame of love / … are both incompatible with the tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship” (1985, 167-68).

Had Wollstonecraft lived longer, and had her marriage to William Godwin flourished, she might have offered further and perhaps different reflections on the place of sexuality in friendly marriages.27 However, her untimely death challenges those who wish to take Wollstonecraft's thinking forward to incorporate robust and enduring sexual love into the model of marriage as friendship.

Such speculation about the direction of Wollstonecraft's thought raises the question of whether she adhered to the ideal of marriage as friendship outlined here throughout her career. It could be argued that the bleak depiction of marriage and heterosexual relations in general in her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1975) suggests that she had been in the process of abandoning this ideal as naive and untenable. In that work, Maria Venables tries valiantly to become friends with her husband George, but her efforts founder on his cold indifference.28 Discussing Maria's later relationship with Darnforth, Claudia Johnson argues that these “episodes finally judge male culture to be so corrupt as to make affective reciprocity between the sexes impossible” (Johnson 1995, 65). She concludes that “the emancipated, sturdy, purposive, mutually respecting, and rationally loving couple Wollstonecraft spent her career imagining is, finally, a female couple” (1995, 69). One response to the challenge Johnson's