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Mary Wollstonecraft and the Tensions in Feminist Philosophy

Mary Wollstonecraft and
the Tensions in
Feminist Philosophy
Jean Grimshaw

The history of the reception and interpretation of Mary
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a
complex and fascinating one. 1 It was praised by many of her
radical contemporaries, including Tom Paine and Mary’s
husband, the radical anarchist philosopher and social theorist,
William Godwin. It was condemned, sometimes vitriolically,
by other contemporaries, including, notoriously, Horace
Walpole, who called Mary a ‘hyene in petticoats’ and refused
to have her book in his library. The Historical Magazine
declared, in 1799, that her work should be read ‘with disgust
by any female who has any pretensions to delicacy; with
detestation by everyone attached to the interests of religion
and morality … ‘ . It was not only men who condemned it. Many
women disliked it intensely, including Hannah More, who felt
justified in condemning it without even having read it.

The fate of the Vindication cannot be separated from
views of Mary’ s personal life, nor from the fate of radical
political ideas in the wave of repression and political reaction
that dominated English politics in the years after the 1790s.

Mary’s name and her work were tarred with the brush of
French-style liberty, free thought, free love, irreligion, the
undermining of family life, and all those things that were
anathema both to conservative political orientations and to
19th-century evangelicalism. Apart from the memoir published after her death by her husband William Godwin,2 obituaries were mostly ambivalent or condemnatory, and no biography was published until 1884, nearly 100 years after her
death. One gets the impression that few people in the 19th
century can actually have read the Vindication, and that
Wollstonecraft’s reputation was an embarrassment to the
bourgeois, evangelical and philanthropic modes in which
much Victorian feminism was cast. Some contemporary
judgements are hardly less damning. Lundberg and Farnham,
in their book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1959) wrote:

Mary Wollstonecraft was an extreme neurotic of a
compulsive type. Out of her illness arose the ideology
of feminism, which was to express the feelings of so
many women in years to come. Unconsciously … Mary
and the feminists … wanted to turn on men and injure
them …. Underneath her aggressive writings, Mary was
a masochist … as indeed all the leading feminist theorists were in fact. By behaving as she did Mary indicated … that she was unconsciously seeking to deprive
the male of his power, to castrate him.3

In the Pelican History of England, the historian J. H. Plumb
writes about what he calls the ‘self-conscious intellectual
bohemianism’ which deliberately set out to live in defiance of
accepted moral codes.

Men and women had lived in sin frequently enough in
the 18th century, but they had felt no compulsion to
justify their acts on the highest ethical principles. The
intellectual bohemians, Godwin, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and their circle, sinned for the sake of revolt
rather than for enjoyment and then justified themselves
by the principles of liberal philosophy. Squalid as their
lives were, they had important consequences for English literary tradition.4
This is perhaps one of the most egregiously ignorant and
prejudiced judgements on Wollstonecraft that I have come

Most 19th-century critics, then, and some 20th-century
ones, seem scarcely to have read the Vindication, and thus
failed to notice that not even on the most casual reading could
one find in it an apology or justification for loose living or
sexual libertinism. It was Wollstonecraft’s life and reputation
which largely determined how she was perceived. Ironically,
however, if Wollstonecraft was often perceived by earlier
critics as a radical and libertine, contemporary perceptions of
her, often by feminist writers, have been very different. One
of the most interesting recent essays on Wollstonecraft is by
Cora Kaplan. S Kaplan’ s critique concentrates on the text of
the Vindication, and from its pages emerges a very different
Wollstonecraft. Kaplan argues that a central theme of the
book is a deep ambivalence about sexuality, even a violent
antagonism to the sexual; an exaggeration of the role of the
sensual in the lives of women which recapitulates that of
Rousseau, and a fear of the disruptive power of female sensuality. In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft turned against feeling and sensibility, and they are seen as reactionary and
regressive. As Kaplan puts it:

Sexuality and pleasure are narcotic inducements to a
life of lubricious slavery. Reason is the only human
attribute appropriate to the revolutionary character,
and women are impeded by their early and corrupt
initiation into the sensual from using theirs. 6
Wollstonecraft’s programme for women, far from being that
of ‘free love’ or sexual libertinism, is that of a strenuous
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 11

programme of renouncing the sensual; her ideal is that of a
life in which Reason is triumphant, but at the cost of the death
of female pleasure and sexuality.

Rather similarly, Diana Coole’ S7 discussion of the Vindication stresses the way in which the book seems at times to
require of women an almost ascetic dedication to duty, and a
rejection of passion or self-indulgence. And both Kaplan,
Coole, and other commentators suggest that Wollstonecraft’s
feminism could really only apply to middle-class women; the
Vindication is, in essence, a liberal or bourgeois feminist tract
which, while indeed calling attention forcefully to many aspects of sexual injustice and inequality, failed to address the
lives of working class women or even to challenge in any
fundamental way the norms of bourgeois marriage and family
life. Coole suggests that Wollstonecraft basically shared
much of Rousseau’s idealised vision of the patriarchal bourgeois family, away from the corruption and ‘false manners’ of
the city. And Kaplan writes that in Wollstonecraft’s text, with
its stress on the potential virtues of those in the ‘middle’ class
and on the importance of Reason, idealised humanity appears
as a rational, plain-speaking bourgeois man.

In one sense, I do not think that these judgements are
wrong; they represent the ‘Wollstonecraft’ who appears in the
pages of the Vindication far more adequately than those
judgements which have seen Wollstonecraft as a libertine.

But if many earlier critiques of Wollstonecraft failed to pay
any attention to the text of the Vindication at all, I think that
some contemporary discussion, in focussing so closely and
sometimes exclusively on the text of the book, has failed fully
to see the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s work resists easy

The Vindication has often been criticised for being rushed,
hasty and repetitive. There is some substance in these criticisms; it was written in six weeks, in the heat of a political
situation. But it is not just that the text itself sometimes
appears rushed; it should, I think, be read as provisional. In
other words the ‘Wollstonecraft’ of the Vindication does not
adequately represent, all by itself, Mary WOllstonecraft’s
thinking about the situation of women and the response she
thought that they should make. Virginia Woolf wrote of

belief in the perfectibility of human nature and institutions if
only corruption and privilege could be swept away.

Mary was also heir to a steady stream of writing in the 18th
century about the nature and situation of women. She had
almost certainly read feminist writers such as Catherine
Macaulay; but there were men too, such as some radical
teachers in Dissenting Academies, who had written about the
social oppression of women. As Barbara Taylor points out, in
her history of Owenite socialist feminism, it was not too hard
to see an analogy between a critique of aristocratic government and a critique of the despotic power of men in families. 9
Wollstonecraft herself drew such analogies frequently; she
also compared the idle and corrupt state of the aristocracy to
the state of degradation into which she thought women had
fallen. Not all of the radical circle to which she belonged were
by any means fully committed to feminist analysis or goals,
but lip service at least was paid to questions about the oppression of women.

The 18th century saw, in fact, a growing interest in questions about femininity and female consciousness. This was
importantly related to changes in the social situation of
women. The precise nature of changes in 18th-century family
patterns remain a matter of historical dispute; but what is at
least clear is that, increasingly, for middle-class women, the
home was no longer also the workplace, and married women
were not generally seen as independent economic actors or
helpmates. The home of the nouveau-riche bourgeois was
often becoming a display case for affluence, and his wife’s
role was being reduced to that of a decorative accessory in this
display. The only route to security (of a sort) for a woman was
a marriage in which she was wholly dependent, and for the

Every day … something was born in her that thrust
aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh. 8
The Vindication needs understanding not only in the context
of Wollstonecraft’s life, but in the context of her other writings and the ways in which these wrestled with the dilemmas
thrown up by 18th-century politics, both radical and reactionary, and by contemporary views on literature and philosophy
and on the nature of femininity. These dilemmas were of
course cast in an 18th-century form, but they are ones which,
in altered shape, feminism still continues to encounter. Wollstonecraft never had an answer to any of these dilemmas that
could satisfy her for long; and it is perhaps the restless and
provisional quality of her work that often makes it speak most
strongly to those who, nearly 200 years later, often encounter
similar dilemmas.

Her struggle was formed around a number of features of
18th-century thought and politics. Central, of course, were the
radical political ideas of her time. Mary herself became part
of the circle of radical London intelligentsia, including Tom
Paine, Thomas Holcroft, her publisher Joseph Johnson and
her husband William Godwin, who believed passionately in
the cluster of political ideas which centred around the critique
of autocratic government and hereditary privilege, belief in
the natural right of individuals to self-determination, and
12 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

woman who was not married, the prospects were bleak indeed: the often humiliating and penurious ‘careers’ of governess or ladies companion (both of which Wollstonecraft experienced), or a dependence on the charity of some male relative.

This total dependence of women on and within marriage
was a central target of nearly all feminist critique in the
period. But the 18th century also saw the beginnings of an
idealisation of family life and the married state that remained
influential throughout the 19th century. The 18th century
moved away from the cynical and overtly sexually exploitative views of women which had tended to characterise the
Restoration period; but moved away, also, from those religious views which had seen woman simply as Eve the temptress, the occasion of man’s sin. Women became, as Janet
Todd puts it, ‘the fair sex’, the Protestant virgin.lo And there
are two related aspects of 18th-century thought about women
which are central to understanding Wollstonecraft: the idea

that virtue is gendered, that it is different for women and for
men, and that it is female ‘sensibilities’, women’s particular
psychological characteristics, which fit women for a specifically female type of virtue (but also disqualify them from that
type thought appropriate to the male, and render them weaker
and potentially easily corruptible). The overt disparagement
of women displayed, for example, by Lord Chesterfield in his
letters to his son, was displaced by the musings of writers
such as Addison and Steele, in new journals such as the Tatler
and the Spectator, on the virtues of the ‘fair sex’; a sentimental vision of the gentle, feeling, but subordinate wife and

But it is above all the philosophy and other writings of
Rousseau which form a backdrop to Wollstonecraft’s work;
and central to this is Rousseau’s account, in Emile, of female
nature, his prescriptions for female upbringing and female
virtue. Emile is Rousseau’ s account of the sort of upbringing
that would help to form the model citizen and enable him to
develop the qualities of autonomy and self-determination;
and the book portrays, too, Rousseau’ s vision of the rural
family and simplicity of life which alone would enable the
citizen to remain uncorrupted by the evil manners of the city.

Emile’s virtues are to be those of self-sufficiency, hardiness
and independence of mind. Above all, he is to learn to make
his own judgements based on his own experience, and to be
beholden to no-one else for his opinions; Rousseau even
suggests that Emile should not learn to read whilst still a boy.

But when we turn to the education of the girl Sophie, who
is to be Emile’s companion, it is a different story. Just as
Emile is to be truly a man, so Sophie is to be truly a woman.

‘But for her sex,’ Rousseau writes, ‘a woman is a man.’


Woman not only possesses a different nature from man;
she is also bound, by the constraints of her life, to different
principles of virtue from those which apply to men. Above all,
she has a responsibility to her husband, and to her children, to
ensure that her reputation is above reproach (Rousseau, like
many others, regarded doubt about the paternity of one’s
children as the ultimate indignity and shame for a man).

Hence, he writes:

You must follow Nature’s guidance if you would walk
aright. The native characters of sex should be respected
as nature’s handiwork. You are always saying,
‘Women have such and such faults, from which we are
free.’ You are misled by your vanity; what would be
faults in you are virtues in them; and things would go
worse if they were without these so-called faults. Take
care that they do not degenerate into evil, but beware of
destroying them. 13
Thus, for women, unlike men:

Worth alone will not suffice, a woman must be thought
worthy; nor beauty, she must be admired; nor virtue,
she must be respected. A woman’s honour does not
depend on her conduct alone, but on her reputation …

‘What will people think’ is the grave of a man’s virtue
and the throne of a woman’s.14
Women must therefore, above all, learn to be obedient, dutiful, modest and chaste; accustomed to pleasing men and
submitting to their will. But Rousseau does not wish women
just to be servile slaves of men, or dutiful drudges. He is

Yet where sex is concerned man and woman are unlike;
each is the complement of the other; the difficulty in
comparing them lies in our inability to decide, in either
case, what is a matter of sex, and what is not.l1
Rousseau’s own conclusions were that almost everything was
a matter of sex; and he paints a broad picture of female
psychology, female sensibility and female virtue which underly his prescriptions for Sophie’s education. Resemblances
and differences, he argues, must have an influence on the
moral nature. The female is a female always, the male only a
male from time to time, and the characteristics of woman will
always inflect- our conception of her virtue.

What then are her characteristics? Woman, Rousseau believes, has a powr over men, the power of charming and
captivating them and of inflaming their senses. Women ‘so
easily stir a man’s senses and fan the ashes of a dying passion’

that were they not to be carefully contained and controlled,
‘the men, tyrannised over by the women, would at last become their victims, and would be dragged to their death
without the least chance of escape’ p. It is in their beauty, their
wit and their wiles that women exercise their influence over
men; attempt equality with men, and they will simply lose that
power – they will become inferior.

Women have their own skills, characteristic of the sex.

Observe a woman, Rousseau says, and see how she exercises
her skills of sympathy and sensibility, see how acute her observations of other people are, see how she knows hoe to
charm and even get her own way by her wiles. She is not
capable of abstract reasoning or of general principles; but her
skills will complement those of men. Undermine these by the
wrong education, and she will not become equal with men,
she will simply become an inferior woman. Remove her from
male control and conceive of her as independent, and she will
lose those very qualities which make her estimable and desir-

wholly enamoured with a romantic vision of idyllic marriage
based on idealised complementarity of the sexes. And he is
afraid that women’s sensibility and’desire to please can easily
be corrupted and turn into infidelity, coquetry and false refinement of manners. His prescriptions for female education
are largely a response to these worries. Little girls, he writes,
should be allowed to romp and play; ‘Everything which
cramps and confines Nature is in bad taste.’ IS They should
develop what Rousseau really sees as ‘natural graces’, unspoilt by the artificialities~ ‘deceitful’ pleasures and corruption of fashionable city manners. But while they are developing this ‘natural’ grace and charm, they should also be closely
confined and taught from an early age to please, to be docile
and to obey, to submit to injustice without complaint. And, he
writes, ‘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. ’16 The charms of a (rural) family life are enough for
her; she may, under certain circumstances, be shown the
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 13

corrupt pleasures of the city, but only so that she will come to
despise them and that they will not have for her the fatal
attraction of the totally unknown.

In the Vindication, it was perhaps above all the idea that
virtue was gendered, that it should be different for women and
men, that Wollstonecraft attacked. ‘The first object of laudable ambition,’ she writes, ‘is to obtain a character as a human
being, regardless of the distinction of sex. ’17 Virtue should
mean the same thing in a woman as in a man. And it is Reason,
she argues, that is the foundation of virtue.

It is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do
not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was
Rousseau’s opinion respecting men. I extend it to
women, and confidently assert that they have been
drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not
by an endeavour to acquire masculine qualities. IS
Women have indeed been degraded, Wollstonecraft argues,
by the sort of femininity to which they have been required to
aspire. They have become ‘insignificant objects of desire’,
and their training in coquetry, sensuality and sensibility has
undermined both their strength and their usefulness. The
minds of women, she writes, are not in a healthy state, and she
compares the state of women to the state of false refinement,
vanity and immorality into which the aristocracy, especially
in France, had sunk. The list of pejorative words and phrases
she uses to describe women is long and striking; a few examples will convey the general impression. Women are enervated, their feelings are false and overstretched, they have
factitious and corrupt manners, a romantic and unnatural
delicacy of feeling; they are prone to sensuality, sentimentality, artificiality, coquetry, doting self-love, vapid tenderness,
and a deluge of false sentiments. They languish like exotics
and supinely dream life away.

Wollstonecraft’s response, in the Vindication, to her own
critique of the degradation of women does indeed at times
seem to fall into the ascetic denial of female pleasure and the
strenuous searching for virtue of which Cora Kaplan writes.

Thus the degraded female is contrasted with the chaste wife
and, above all, the serious and enlightened mother; ‘false’

sentiments are contrasted with things such as the ‘dignity of
conscious virtue’ and the qualities of perseverance and fortitude. Wollstonecraft argues that love and sensual passion are
usually incompatible with mutual respect and friendship. She
even at one point suggests that an unhappy marriage may be
advantageous for a woman, and that the neglected wife may
make the best mother. She argues that women often waste
their lives looking for a husband who will love them with
fervid affection, and that if a woman is not satisfied with her
husband, she is less likely to ‘model her soul to suit the
frailties of her companion’ , and more likely to devote herself
wholeheartedly to the acquisition of reason and virtue and the
exercise of these in bringing up her children.

If this were all that she had to say on the subject, her vision
of life for women would indeed be depressing. But these sorts
of statements in the Vindication represent only one ‘pole’ of
an unresolved dilemma to which Wollstonecraft constantly
returned and never solved to her satisfaction, which is that of
how women are to combine feeling and sensibility with the
life of reason, independence and virtue to which they should
also aspire.

Rousseau did not suppose that the strict confinement and
dependence of women which he recommended would lead to
the denial of women’s sensibility or sexuality. He thought,
rather, that only if women were confined could these things
flower in natural and uncorrupt ways. In his depiction of the
14 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

relationship between Emile and Sophie he ascribes great
importance to the maintenance of a sexual relationship between them, in which Sophie is to take as much pleasure as
Emile, and never to be coerced by him into sex against her
will. Nor, as I have said, did he want women to be just servile
drudges. He distinguishes between corrupt’ artificial’ charms
and ‘natural’ unspoiled graces, and sees the former as the
consequence of allowing freedom to women.

In the Vindication, WOllstonecraft does not in fact always
draw a simple opposition between a life of reason and one of
feeling and pleasure. Rather, like Rousseau, she often contrasts ‘natural’ emotions of the heart, or simple or ‘reasonable’ pleasures, with those which are degraded or corrupt. But
whereas Rousseau sees the dependence and confinement of
women as a remedy for this corruption, Wollstonecraft sees
these as its cause. And if at times in the Vindication she
appears to recommend what Cora Kaplan calls ‘a little death’

– the death of female pleasure and sexuality, this is somewhat
out of line with much of the rest of her work (as well as with
her own struggle with the sexual and emotional aspect of her
life, which is vividly portrayed in her letters).

Despite the strenuous assertion in the Vindication that
virtue in a female should be the same as in the male, Wollstonecraft remained attracted to the idea that women did have
special qualities, which, while not in themselves virtues,
could lead to virtue. In 1787, whilst a governess in Ireland,
she wrote a partly autobiographical novel, Mary. A Fiction. It
is written in the style of 18th-century ‘sentimental’ fiction,
with a repertoire of rhetorical devices which aim to convey
pathos and to arouse emotion in the reader, and a central
theme is that of ‘sensibility’, a capacity for exquisitely intense
and refined feeling, and for compassion with the sufferings of
others. Yet in the novel, Wollstonecraft is ambivalent about
sensibility. Her heroine writes about it as follows:

Sensibility is the most exquisite feeling of·which the
human soul is capable; when it pervades us, we feel
happy; and could it last unmixed, we might form some
conjecture of the bliss of those paradisiacal days, when
the obedient passions were under the domination of
reason, and the impulses of the heart did not need
correction. … Softened by tenderness, the soul is disposed to be virtuous …. Sensibility is indeed the foundation of all our happiness; but these raptures are
unknown to the depraved sensualist, who is only moved
by what strikes his gross senses. 19
Here, again, Wollstonecraft is drawing a distinction between
true sensibility, which leads to virtue, and depraved sensualism. ‘The passions are seldom properly managed,’ she writes;
‘they are either so languid as not to serve as a spur, or else so
violent as to overleap all bounds.’

Wollstonecraft wrestled throughout her work with the
problem of whether and how women could achieve sensual
and emotional happiness in a way that was compatible with
their independence and recognition as rational beings, and
with the problem of how they could express and use qualities
of feeling and sensibility, which she often implicitly sees as
particularly theirs, without becoming mere coquettes or creatures of sensual impulse alone. Her heroine, in Mary, cries

Every cause in nature produces an effect; and am I an
exception to the general rule? have I desires implanted
in me only to make me miserable? will they never be
gratified? shall I never be happy? My feelings do not
accord with the notion of solitary happiness. In a state

of bliss, it will be the society of beings we can love …

that will constitute great part of our happiness.20
In Mary, there is no resolution of this dilemma. ‘I cannot live
without loving,’ the heroine says, ‘but love leads to madness’ ;21 and the novel ends with a recommendation of resignation, fortitude and the suggestion that death would be a desired end. In common with other critics of her time, Mary
often sees the sentimental novel itself as helping to trap
women into illusive reveries of romance. In Mary, the heroine
‘read all the sentimental novels, dwelt on the love scenes, and
had she thought while she read, her mind would have been
contaminated’. In the Vindication, Mary is highly critical of
novel-reading. In her unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs
of Woman, it is the reading .of Ro~sseau’ s senti~~ntal (and
best-selling) novel Julie which enlIvens the captivity of the
heroine and gives her hope, yet also serves to trap her further
back in inertia and illusion.

In her own life, Mary seems to have achieved some measure of reconciliation between the need for love and happiness
and the need to be independent in her relationship with William Godwin. In her fiction, she may adhere at times to the
model of the chaste heroine, common in the 18th-century sentimental novel, and in the Vindication, she appears at times to
see sexuality as a dangerous and diversionary force, to be
overcome as quickly as possible by the power of reason. The
heroine in M ary, married young against her will to a husband

from whom she then lives apart, displays nothing but fear and
disgust at the idea of sexual relations with her husband. But
again, despite these strands in Wollstonecraft’s work, !he
picture of relationships between women and men which
emerges in her life and work is not one which excludes or
marginalises sexuality. Sexuality ~s a pr~blem for. women
because it is so often seen to deflOe theIr very belOg, and
because it is so often associated simply with pleasing men and
with the denial of female integrity or independence. Yet Mary
was not really happy with any ideal of a sexless, companionate marriage (like that of John Stuart Mill); there is certainly
evidence from her letters that in her own life sexual desire and
satisfaction were both known and welcomed, and there is not
a hint in the letters of anything like Mill’s relegation of
sexuality to a ‘lower’ or merely ‘animal’ pleasure. The problem Mary wrestled with and never found a solution to was
how to conceptualise and to satisfy female desire and pleasure
in a world in which women were indeed, to use her own
phrase, often regarded merely as ‘insignificant objects of
desire’ , and in which sexual pleasure could often only be had

at the expense of the sacrifice of independence or reputation.

Wollstonecraft’s dilemmas were of course cast in 18thcentury form. Her thoughts on the situation of women were
expressed in the language of 18th-century politi~~ theories
which stressed Reason and Autonomy. Her wnttngs were
shaped and coloured not only by her perceptions of the oppreSsion of women, but also by the sentimentalisation and
idealisation of women, and some of Mary’s own writings
were deeply influenced by the style and rhetoric of 18thcentury sentimental fiction. Yet the dilemmas she encountered continue to be important in feminist thinking and writing, albeit in a changed shape.

Mary, as I have said, developed a stringent and polemical
critique of female socialisation. Women, she argued, are
taught merely to please, to be flattered and to obey. This both
undermines thir capacity for leading useful or rational lives
and channels their desires and pleasures into vain and trivial
objects and modes such as fashion and fiction. She often
pictures women as sunk into a state of degradation for which
there is nothing good to be said.

A similar picture of women’s socialisation has been quite
common in feminist writing. An influential book by Elena
Belotti, for example, written in 1976, entitled Little Girls,
draws a depressing picture of female socialisation which is
strikingly similar to that of Wollstonecraft. 22 Belotti sees the
‘natural’ lively and active ‘self’ of the little girl as crushed by
the overwhelming weight of a training in dependence, passivity and triviality. And she, like Wollstonecraft, sees w~men as
trapped in passive and illusive dreams by such things as
romantic fiction, and as constrained in their very selves by the
importance laid on female appearance.

An even more striking picture of the ‘degradation’ to
which women have sunk is offered by Mary Daly. In Daly’s
work, almost everything that women learn to desire is ‘wrong’

in the sense that it undermines female creativit’Y and autonomy, and almost every facet of female socialisation helps to
channel female desire into these ‘wrong objects’. Women
often appear in her work simply as passively shaped or molde~
by the malign forces which conspire to trap them, and theIr
supposed passivity is emphasised by some of the language
Daly uses to describe ‘unregenerate’ women; words such as
‘puppet’ or even ‘fembot’.23
Yet other feminist critics have seen something skewed or
distorted about this sort of picture of women’s lives and of
female desire. What sense can we make, for one thing, of the
idea of a ‘natural’ or ‘regenerate’ female self if this is seen as
something wholly distinct from the real historical lives and
desires of women? Doesn’t the picture of women as simply
passive victims of a malign and misogynistic culture misrepresent the relationship women have to cultural forms such .as
fashion or fiction? Is it not the case that women have, despite
their frequent oppression and enfo~ed depen~e~~e, de~el­
oped particular strengths and capaCIties and pnontles which
might be built on rather than just rejected?

A central problem in fem~nist critique h~ been that of hw
to conceptualise the oppressIOn o! women 10 ~ays th~t do 10deed recognise how that oppressIOn may be IOternahsed and
may limit or constrain women’s.asp~ratio~s for the~sel~es,
whilst at the same time not lapslOg IOtO either a puntanlCal
critique of all female desire, r a ~erogato1)’ view of ~omen’ s
lives which sees them as haVing lIttle that IS of value 10 them.

At times, especially in the Vindication, Wollsto~ecraft can
seem to lapse into both. yet there are other strands 10 her work
which move in a different direction.

The picture of the ‘regenerate’ woman which dominates
the Vindication stresses above all the importance of in depend-

Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 15

ence. Rousseau argued that if women were independent they
would lose their power over men. That, writes Wollstonecraft,
is her very point. ‘I do not wish them to have power over men,
but over themselves.’ But the ‘independence’ of the Vindication often seems to be a matter of a lone and strenuous mental
struggle to cultivate Reason and fortitude and reject desire. In
Wollstonecraft’s fiction, however, embryonically and tentatively, other themes emerge. Central to both her novels was
the theme of female friendship. In M ary: A Fiction, the
friendship between the heroine and another woman ends in
death and disillusionment. In The Wrongs of Woman, how-

ever, the relationship between women is portrayed rather
differently. The heroine of the novel, Maria, has been incarcerated in an asylum by her husband, and a central theme of
the novel is the relationship between Maria and her jailor
Jemima. J emima has led a life of brutal poverty, squalor and

An insulated being … she loved not her fellow creatures, because she had never been loved…. Thus degraded, was she let loose on the world, and virtue,
never nurtured by affection, assumed the stem aspect
of selfish independence. 24
Jemima’ s energy has all been devoted to survival; her role in
the novel is often to temper the feverish excesses of sensibility to which Maria is prone. Yet ‘independence’, in conditions
of brutality and squalor, can only be achieved at the price of
the death of human love and affections. And if Jemima’s
reason tempers Maria’s sensibility, it is Maria’s female qualities of compassion, empathy and tenderness which allow
Jemima for the first time to experience joy in human intercourse and pleasure in a relationship with another human

Wollstonecraft’s work, then, taken as a whole, does not
simply imprison feminist thinking in a puritanical denial of
female pleasure, nor does it simply consign ideas of female
virtues and strength to the flames. It wrestles, rather, often in
uncomfortable and problematic ways, with the problem of
how women can achieve sexual and emotional happiness in
ways that do not require them to sacrifice their independence
or integrity; and with the problem of how female ‘sensibility’

can be detached from its destructive forms whilst still continuing to inform human relationships.

The other main strand of contemporary critique of Wollstonecraft is that which sees her, despite her impassioned plea
for the equality and independence of women, as speaking only
to middle-class women, and recommending only a form of
‘equality’ which accepts uncritically both class divisions, the
16 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

institution of marriage and norms of rationality which are
closely related to bourgeois ideals of masculinity.

Again, there are aspects of the Vindication which give
substance to these criticisms. In it, Wollstonecraft sees the urgency of her critique of femininity as lying largely in the fact
that it undermines the seriousness with which women undertake the task of motherhood. She does not question the responsibility of women for motherhood, nor, apparently, the
institution of marriage; and she makes few suggestions as to
what else might be needed to change the situation of women
other than strenuous efforts at achieving a mental independence.

Yet this sort of judgement on Wollstonecraft’s work as a
whole is inadequate. In The Wrongs of Woman, for example,
Maria is led, by her devastating experience of marriage, to
reflect on its nature, and, whilst claiming that, with proper
restrictions and safeguards for women, she would revere the
institution, she declares that, as presently constituted, it simply leads to immorality. Relationships between men and
women should be based on fidelity, and mutual affection, but
not on the arbitrary power and caprice of the man. The view of
marriage in The Wrongs of Woman begins to shade into that
characteristic of many Owenite socialist feminists, both men
and women, who commonly maintained that marriage was a
central site of female oppression and that relationships between women and men should be voluntary and based on love,
and on a simple and easily retractable agreement to live

Nor was Wollstonecraft unaware, of course, of the sufferings of poor women; she may have sometimes assumed that
the middle-class women would have servants, but, as in her
own life, this was often not much more than a pragmatic
response to necessity, and she was well aware of the destitution and poverty which afflicted many women. Jemima, in
The Wrongs of Woman, was one of her vehicles for vividly

depicting these.

Wollstonecraft’s work, whilst remaining in many ways
within a framework bounded by bourgeois liberal political
ideas and by conceptions of femininity and women’s nature
which were characteristic of her time, nevertheless constantly
tends to undermine or run up against the limits of these. She
lacked any profound or adequate analysis of the social and
economic situation of women; yet hers was not a narrow or
blinkered view which conceived of emancipation only for a
bourgeois female elite. Many of her aspirations were broad
and radical, and closer to Owenite socialist feminism than to
bourgeois reformism; the tensions and uncertainties in her
work often arise from what Barbara Taylor has called the
‘dialogue between reformist premises and utopian aspirations’ which characterised much of what she wrote. 25 She is
very critical of the oppression of women in marriage, yet
committed also to an ideal of emotional fulfilment in a sexual
relationship, and her writings experiment with views of this
relationship, none of which finally satisfy her. She is bitterly
critical of male behaviour, and of the power which enables
men to tyrannise over women, yet also, in the Vindication,
describes the virtues to which women should aspire as
‘manly’, and wishes that women could become more ‘masculine’. It is tensions and problems such as these which have
characterised a great deal of feminist philosophy. Feminist
perspectives both use and commonly at the same time challenge those moral and political perspectives which form the
background to their birth. Mary Wollstonecraft was neither
simply ‘reformist’ nor ‘radical’, she was both, and it is the
tension between these which makes her work still so poignant, readable and relevant.






Pelican, 1975 (referred to as The Vindication throughout).

Godwin’s memoir, and his motives for writing it, have been
the subject of considerable discussion. The memoir stressed
Mary’s personal life rather than the achievements of her
writing, and it is arguable that Godwin bears some responsibility for the ways in which Mary’s work has often been
denigrated, or eclipsed by discussion of such things as her
liaison with Imlay. See, for example, Alison Ravetz, ‘The
Trivialisation of Mary Wollstonecraft: A Personal and Professional Career Re-Vindicated’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 6, No. 5, 1983.

Quoted in Dale Spender, Women of Ideas, Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1982, p. 113.

J. H. Plumb, England in the 18th Century, Pelican, 1950, p.


Cora Kaplan, ‘Wild Nights’, in Cora Kaplan, Sea Changes;
Culture and Feminism, Verso, 1986.

Kaplan, op. cit., p. 35.

Diana Coole, Women in Political Theory, Wheatsheaf, 1988.

Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing, ed. Michelle Barrett,




Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem, Virago, 1983.

Janet Todd, Sensibility: an Introduction, Methuen, 1986.

Rousseau, Emile, Dent, Everyman’s Library, 1974, p. 321.

Rousseau, op. cit., p. 322.

Rousseau, op. cit., p. 326.

Rousseau, op. cit., p. 328.

Rousseau, op. cit., p. 330.

Rousseau, op. cit.

Mary Wollstonecraft, op. cit., p. 82.

Mary Wollstonecraft, op. cit., p. 103.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Fiction, Oxford University
Press, 1976, pp. 53-54.

Mary Wollstonecraft, ibid., p. 40.

Mary Wollstonecraft, ibid., p. 62.

Elena Belotti, Little Girls.

See, for example, Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, The Women’s
Press, 1978, and Pure Lust, The Women’s Press, 1984.

Mary Wollstonecraft, The Wrongs of Woman, Oxford University Press, p. 82.

Barbara Taylor, op. cit., p. 7.



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‘New bad future’: Robocop
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Story of a contact-lens wearer

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