Assertrix

Elizabeth Spelman

  • Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination by Barbara Taylor
    Cambridge, 331 pp, £45.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 521 66144 7

It’s a rare champion of justice who is not rather partial to the injustices that grease the gears of his or her everyday life. Feminists know this all too well: 19th-century white women opposed to being ‘treated like slaves’ remained unmoved by the enslavement of black women (and men); some women who insist on fair salaries at the office try to pay as little as they can to the people who look after their children and clean their houses.

One of the reasons Barbara Taylor thinks Mary Wollstonecraft rewards our attention two hundred years after her death is that Wollstonecraft’s fervid opposition to sexism was based on a ‘root and branch’ egalitarianism not easily compromised by ‘firm class and race loyalties’. Taking close notice of the lives of women not like herself, Wollstonecraft recognised, though she didn’t put it this way, that gender is always blended with class, race, ethnicity – that women, like shirts, come not only in different shapes and sizes but in different colours, stitched from different fabric.

At the same time, Taylor advises, contemporary feminists may find it rather more difficult to appreciate the religious roots of Wollstonecraft’s thoroughgoing egalitarianism. For even though much feminist thought over the centuries has been ‘deeply embedded in religious belief’, recent work on Wollstonecraft on the whole ignores this pervasive strand in her thinking. Perhaps, as Taylor thinks, scholars find it ‘archaic’. Or perhaps they can’t imagine that religious belief could be a very reliable source of politically promising views about the nature and place of women, given that religious texts and practices have been used to shore up notions of women’s subordination to men – indeed, as in the example of slavery, to justify ideas about the natural inferiority of some women to other women. Perhaps they wonder whether women have fared better by being subject to the rule of a male deity than of a male human. In any event, Taylor urges, Wollstonecraft was not alone in subscribing to a form of Protestant Christianity that provided her, as it had Catharine Macaulay earlier in the 18th century, considerable spiritual and logical leverage against sexism and the proud defences of it to be found in the writings of mighty misogynists such as Rousseau.

At the heart of Wollstonecraft’s Christianity was a view about why God would have created humans in the first place. Women’s relationships to men, and to each other, are to be shaped not in accordance with what men have proclaimed to be women’s nature and place but in accordance with what the being who created women expects of them in light of the capacities with which he (well, yes, there it is) endowed them. Against the legions of male blowhards who have been willing to grant women enough rationality to ground the belief that though sexual intercourse between men and women is not a crime against nature, social and political equality between them is, Wollstonecraft insisted that ‘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.’ To those who credit women with the ability to reason moderately well but would harness that ability to their labours as wives and mothers, Wollstonecraft would reply that women’s ‘first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother’. As Taylor emphasises, Wollstonecraft’s case for the liberation of women from their degraded and degrading condition was based not so much on a political notion of women’s rights as on a theological notion of their duty: God’s creatures are flawed and fallible, but nonetheless endowed with and obliged to develop the capacity to perfect themselves. Women cannot develop their human virtues – as citizens, wives, workers, mothers – if the tools they must call on to do so are left to rust and rot from lack of proper use.

Freedom on this view is not a matter of having the wherewithal to act on one’s desires, to have the leisure to do as one pleases, to have one’s fancies satisfied, to live a life of luxury. Wollstonecraft joined Rousseau in pillorying the vanity of aristocratic women and their middle-class emulators: as Taylor nicely puts it, ‘cramming her text with rich flirts and sluts, she offers them as stock emblems of aristocratic decadence.’ But unlike Rousseau, Wollstonecraft took the bearing and behaviour of such women to be ‘the debilitated products of male tyranny’, not the reflection of their basic nature. So she would not countenance any argument to the effect that women who take pleasure in their submissive condition need not seek freedom: on the contrary, Wollstonecraft argued, ‘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?’

Wollstonecraft’s point is not just that we all have a God-given capacity for reason; we’re supposed to do something with it. It is in this sense, according to Taylor, that Wollstonecraft’s political views about equality cannot be surgically removed from their theological substratum. But to what extent do her theological commitments explain the ‘root and branch’ egalitarianism which Taylor is eager to have us notice – the ways in which Wollstonecraft was not so blinded by her own ‘race and class loyalties’ as to ignore or not take seriously women with backgrounds quite different from her own? Feminist history is notoriously full of ways of affirming the equality of men and women that are compatible with affirmations of the inequality between one such lot of men and women and another, inferior lot. (After all, Plato’s argument in the Republic about the irrationality of excluding women from the class of philosopher-rulers emerges in the context of a drawn-out case for the naturalness, necessity and impermeability of distinctions between male and female rulers and the citizens meant to be ruled by them.) Did the theological grounds on which Wollstonecraft argued for equality make her more attentive to the position of women living in situations different from her own than she might otherwise have been?

Her attention to such women seems not to have stemmed from a recognition that if it is a theological and logical mistake to deny equality between men and women, it also is a theological and logical mistake to deny equality among women. And indeed, had she taken this unencumbered deductive route she might have been deflected from thinking about the significance of differences among women, focused as she would have had to be on their shared capacity for reason.

Her interest in the vastly different conditions under which women lived, worked and loved appears to have emerged in connection with her criticism of the excesses of the consumer society around her, especially of what a century later Thorstein Veblen derided as ‘conspicuous consumption’. She shared with Rousseau an abiding contempt for what she considered the specious refinement that passes for civilisation. An increasingly commercial society made it possible for some to live a life of ‘glossy gentility’ and enervating luxury. Much of the existing criticism of such lives featured women as exemplars of the follies and vices that luxury invites, and Wollstonecraft was not alone in finding cause for considerable alarm in the ‘artificial manners, corrupt morals and luxurious tastes’ of wealthy women and their less well-off imitators. But for her this did not show that women were incapable of living lives of virtue predicated on a robust exercise of reason, or that they were bound to ‘fritter away all strength of mind’. It simply exhibited what happens to women when possibilities of developing and exercising their reason – through proper education and appropriate employment – are foreclosed.

Such foreclosure does not happen in the same way to all women. Indeed, Wollstonecraft regularly identifies the women she has in mind in terms of their economic status. For example, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she describes the particular kinds of occupation that compromise the fruitful use of women’s reason, that ‘contract their faculties’:

It is not indeed the making of necessaries that weakens the mind; but the frippery of dress. For when a woman in the lower rank of life makes her husband’s and children’s clothes, she does her duty, this is her part of the family business; but when women work only to dress better than they could otherwise afford, it is worse than sheer loss of time . . .

With respect to virtue, to use the word in a comprehensive sense, I have seen most in low life. Many poor women maintain their children by the sweat of their brow, and keep together families that the vices of the fathers would have scattered abroad; but gentlewomen are too indolent to be actively virtuous, and are softened rather than refined by civilisation. Indeed, the good sense which I have met with, among the poor women who have had few advantages of education, and yet have acted heroically, strongly confirmed me in the opinion that trifling employments have rendered woman a trifler.

Wollstonecraft was not consistent in her admiration for poor women; she was confident, for instance, that the female workers of the French Revolution were thoughtless and puppet-like followers of demagogues. But Taylor tells us that such criticism is to be understood not as gratuitous carping but as ‘of a piece’ with Wollstonecraft’s ‘view of oppression as debilitating rather than radicalising’. If the trifling employments of wealthy women make them rational and moral triflers, and the hardships of indigence all too often undermine intelligence and virtue in poor women, it’s the women of ‘middle rank’ who come closest to being able to develop the virtues made possible by the capacity for reason: ‘As the golden mean between opulence and indigence, middling life was lauded as the repository of all those virtues – enterprise, independence, personal and public probity – so conspicuously absent among both the wealthy and the impoverished.’ Thus though Wollstonecraft sometimes speaks as if women fit into a ‘single sex-based category, undifferentiated by nation, race or class’, she in fact examines in some detail the variety of conditions under which they live and work.

In recommending Wollstonecraft’s views to us, in urging that there are features of her work that can be instructive for contemporary feminism, Taylor also invites us to be curious about the kind of life it was possible for Wollstonecraft to have, the conditions under which she thought and wrote. But Taylor is careful to emphasise that her book should be seen as belonging to the genre of intellectual history: it places Wollstonecraft’s views in the lively, indeed fiery, context of late 18th-century social and political thought in England and France. And though clearly not a biography, it charts the evolution of her fictional and non-fictional works against the vector of rough and smooth patches in her life. Though an author’s work cannot be reduced to or explained by her life, its reception can, alas, be affected by revelations about the details of that life. A Vindication enjoyed enormous success on its publication in 1792, but admiration for it and for Wollstonecraft soon began to evaporate, in part because William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s husband, took it on himself after her death to reveal details about her non-marital sexual history. It is a painful but not unfamiliar paradox that a woman who was willing publicly to take on the likes of Rousseau and Burke, a woman who had no doubt she was not just their spiritual but also their intellectual and political equal, was also subject to emotional abuse from men, in one case (Gilbert Imlay) so serious as to make her try – unsuccessfully but at least twice – to take her own life. No doubt Wollstonecraft’s circle of friends and political allies – including Godwin – helped to provide room for her to develop her ideas; in her political struggles she was not isolated. Yet Taylor makes it clear that the kind of equality Wollstonecraft imagined was not necessarily embodied in the actual relations between the men and women of her immediate circle. And there is not much to suggest that she was able to regard female servants, including her own, as equally endowed with the divine gift of reason, though in a late fictional work, Maria, she explores possible alliances and tensions between women of abundant and modest means.

Barbara Taylor does such a winning job of revitalising Mary Wollstonecraft that readers of this book may well find themselves wanting to turn or return to Wollstonecraft’s own writings. And they will relish her incisive, ironical, shrivellingly logical cast of mind. Here she is on the bouquet of virtues men prescribe for women: ‘Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues . . . one writer has declared that it is masculine for a woman to be melancholy. She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.’

And on the difference between the Divine Being and mere mortal males as beacons of reason and morality:

Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness. For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings, that stability of character which is the firmest ground to rest our future hopes upon, 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.

The twinkling satellites with whom Wollstonecraft sparked were themselves practised name-callers. Her near-paramour Henry Fuseli branded the author of A Vindication an ‘assertrix of female rights’; Wollstonecraft and her Revolution-loving ilk were ‘philosophising serpents’, hissed Horace Walpole; ‘virago’ and ‘harridan’ appear to have been reliable terms of abuse. Taylor herself gets into the swing of things, at one point referring to the early Wollstonecraft as a ‘prissy moralist’, and describing some of her rejoinders to Rousseau as showing that on occasion Wollstonecraft allowed herself to be reduced to a ‘vituperative heckler’.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Immanuel Kant don’t seem to have taken each other on in any significant way, but imagining a meeting between those two late 18th-century reason mavens is irresistible. In some respects their views appear to converge: there is much in Kant to bolster Wollstonecraft’s ideas about the significance of the fact that humans have the capacity to reason. (And just as it has sometimes been suggested that God is masquerading as Reason in Kant, so it sometimes seems that Reason is masquerading as God in Wollstonecraft.) Wollstonecraft would welcome Kant’s insistence that it is in virtue of humans’ status as rational beings that they are not to be used as the instruments of other people’s projects or desires; that it is in virtue of our reason that we can and should do what duty demands, not what passing inclination prompts. And not unlike Wollstonecraft, Kant had a strong antipathy to luxurious living that typically was articulated in terms of women’s excessive attention to appearance, their love of glitter and adornment.

But Kant would not have approved of our Mary. As much as he celebrated reason, he could not admire its exercise in women: ‘Laborious learning or painful pondering, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex . . . [she] might as well even have a beard; for perhaps that would express more obviously the mien of profundity for which she strives’ (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime). Bearded Lady meets Twinkling Satellite: it’s probably happening right now, in the corner of a bookstore recently opened near you.