Pioneer of liberation

Issue: 107

Hazel Croft

A review of Barbara Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge, 2003), £16.99 and Lyndall Gordon, Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (Virago, 2005), £25

Over 200 years after her death at the young age of 38 the life, writings and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft still provoke interest, fascination and debate. Successive generations of socialists, feminists and radical thinkers have turned to her writings – most famously A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) – and adopted them for their cause. But who was the real Mary Wollstonecraft? The latest biography to hit the bookshops and review columns is Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus by Lyndall Gordon. It’s a racy account of her life, love affairs and her involvement in radical causes. But Gordon has a very shallow understanding of how Wollstonecraft’s ideas developed in the context of the momentous revolutionary events of the late 18th century and their impact in Britain.

If you want a much greater insight I would recommend instead Barbara Taylor’s recent thorough and serious examination of Wollstonecraft’s thought. Taylor has produced some of the best writings on women’s history: some readers of this journal will have read her wonderful history of women’s involvement in the Owenite movement, Eve and the New Jerusalem. Taylor applies a similar rigorous historical approach to Mary Wollstonecraft, attempting to rescue her writings both from her opponents but also from those admirers who, in adopting her for their own causes, have mis-represented and distorted her thinking.

As Taylor puts it, ‘Perched on her pedestal, Wollstonecraft has acquired a mythic patina that blurs and distorts her historical contours. Every feminist generation reinvents her.’ But for Taylor, ‘ripping her from her own intellectual world to claim her for ours has had the paradoxical effect of reducing her real intellectual significance’. Taylor does Wollstonecraft the service of treating her array of writings – theory, philosophy and novels – as works to be held up to scrutiny as much as those of Rousseau, Tom Paine and other male figures of the Enlightenment and of the movement of radical dissent in Britain.

Wollstonecraft lived through a period when the American and then the French revolutions totally reshaped the world. Wollstonecraft hailed these revolutionary upheavals as harbingers of a ‘glorious future’. The French Revolution, in particular, had a momentous impact on her and she travelled to revolutionary France in 1793, ‘glad’ to be there during ‘the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded’. She was, as Taylor says, ‘a proponent of revolutionary democracy’. She visited Paris and defended the revolution during the height of the ‘Terror’ when other figures, such as the poet William Wordsworth, were turning their backs on the revolution. She took on the most vociferous British opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, and published a marvellous defence of the revolution in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790).

Taylor’s study examines in great detail Wollstonecraft’s debates with Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophers, looks at her relationship to the tradition of radical dissent in Britain, and puts her ideas alongside other women writers of the day. The central theme of Taylor’s book is that Wollstonecraft’s ideas were much more contradictory and complex than is often portrayed, and steeped in the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment, a movement following the Dutch and English revolutions which challenged the reactionary churches – and the very basis of societies that let them flourish.

There is a long and detailed examination of the contradictory role of religion in her thought: Taylor argues that Wollstonecraft never lost her belief in a personal god and was not the atheist some portray her as. She looks at how feeling, emotion and fantasy were seen to be as much a part of the 18th century ‘Enlightened Mind’ as reason. There is also a very interesting examination of the sexual imagery and eroticism which infused Wollstonecraft’s writings.

Although Taylor uses the label ‘feminist’ in the title of her book, she argues it should be applied only with extreme caution. It was not a word or concept used at the time Wollstonecraft lived, and it attaches to her the ideas and beliefs of her successors.

Wollstonecraft was motivated by her hatred of all injustice and hierarchy and regarded women’s liberation as part of a historic movement towards ‘a new age…of perfect harmony between the aspirations of the individual and the collective needs of humanity as a whole’. Wollstonecraft deliberately linked women’s freedom, argues Taylor, ‘to the elimination of all hierarchical divisions of rank, sex, age, race and wealth’ and so ‘stands well to the left of the feminist spectrum’.

She hated the barriers put upon women, especially the often miserable fate of women who had to struggle to survive without men – a struggle which Mary herself endured as a young woman, trying to survive as a teacher, a governess and a writer. She hated the Marriage Laws which treated women as the property of men. Above all she argued that women’s ‘neglected education’ was the ‘grand source’ of their oppression: ‘Let the practice of every duty be subordinate to the grand one of improving our minds.’

But, Taylor argues, Wollstonecraft’s writings are full of invective against idle rich women who played on and used their supposed ‘feminine’ attributes for their own gain. As Taylor writes, ‘The Rights of Woman castigates its female readers in the harshest terms for classic feminine follies: vanity, irrationalism, intolerance, frivolity, ignorance, cunning, fickleness, indolence, narcissism, infantilism, impiety and, above all, sexual ambition.’ Taylor seems to imply that this signifies a very ambivalent attitude towards women. But I feel that while so many subsequent feminist writers have lumped all women together in a mythical sisterhood, Wollstonecraft is simply not doing this. Wollstonecraft’s rage seems by and large directed against rich women, who idle away the hours reading sentimental trashy novels, and who do not have to struggle for a living. And Wollstonecraft herself pointed out, ‘Considering the length of time that women have been dependent, is it surprising that some of them hug their chains and fawn like a spaniel?’

This is an in-depth academic study, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first read for those who haven’t previously come across Wollstonecraft. But for anyone familiar with her work and the ideas of the Enlightenment, this is an interesting and thought-provoking read. And why does it matter? Well, says Barbara Taylor, as much as it would ‘be good to be able to bury Mary Wollstonecraft’, history won’t let us. It is the reality of women’s oppression that continues to breathe life into Mary Wollstonecraft. Her call for women’s liberation and for an end to sexual injustice speaks to us still across two centuries, and her life’s work deserves the kind of serious examination undertaken in this book.