Lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman


By Ian Johnston

[The following is the text of a lecture given, in part, in Liberal Studies in September 1998. It was revised slightly on September 12, 2000.  References to Wollstonecraft are to the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Carol Poston, Second Edition. This document is in the public domain, released August 1998]


Mary Wollstonecraft's classic book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the text under discussion this week, is, in a sense, a new form of publication for us in Liberal Studies--a popular polemic, addressed to a wide audience on a contemporary social issue. The author is concerned above all, not to put forward a detailed philosophical position from first principles in order to persuade a group of professional peers or eager students, but rather to appeal to contemporary public opinion in order to achieve some practical reforms in public policy and social thinking. Unlike most works of politics and morality we have read so far, it adopts a much more public language and argumentative style and relies upon the working assumptions of the audience to which it is addressed.

We need to bear this in mind, because in some ways this is an ambiguous document if we fail to appreciate its immediate purposes. And even if we do take those into account, there are still going to be some questions which we may not be able to resolve.

What I wish to address in this lecture is Wollstonecraft's purpose in the Vindication. I take it that most of us have no difficulty in seeing her overall general purpose: the title itself proclaims it. But we may want to consider at greater length just how her argument sees the rights of women in modern society being vindicated. I would like to suggest at least a couple of different possibilities.

A Comment on the Historical Context of the Work

Since we are dealing here with a public polemic, it might be useful to mention at least one vital contemporary fact which, it strikes me, shapes a good deal of Wollstonecraft's style. This book first appeared in 1792, at a time when public opinion and government action were profoundly different from the much more liberal atmosphere of the previous three decades.

The reason, of course, is the French Revolution. And if you have no head for historical dates and events, you should at least strive really hard to remember the date 1789, the moment when the French Revolution started. This is a crucial date for understanding the nature of politics, religion, science, and social thinking for the next seventy-five years (at least), because of the tremendous fear this event inspired throughout Europe. It launched a massive counter-revolutionary sentiment which stifled reform movements (which had been growing throughout the eighteenth century) and which made reform opinion unwelcome in circles which had previously tolerated it and dangerous to proclaim. It took two generations for public opinion to get over the shock of the events which started in 1789 in Paris.

Why was this? Had not the English had their revolution more than one hundred years earlier and executed their king? Had they not a few years later removed another king, forcing him to leave the country? Had not the Americans had their revolution and turned themselves into a republic? Surely the French Revolution was just one more example of such events?

That was hardly the case. The earlier revolutions were firmly in the hands of the business class, the gentry, and the issue was representation in government, an equitable system of taxation, a redistribution of power from the old order to the new money. Although there had been violence and some death (especially in the English Civil War), none of these events had represented a popular uprising of the lowest classes against all authority, mass executions of people just because they were perceived as members of the old aristocracy and priesthood, a violent reordering of society. What is remarkable about the American and English revolutions is that, once they were done, life went on much as before, except for the significant power shift in the corridors of government (which was, of course, a decisive change). At no point in either of those events did anyone have to confront the realities of an urban mob bent on having its own way against a repressive regime.

With the French Revolution, things were very different. This event presented the spectacle of something new: the mob turning its pent up violent hostility against king, noble, landowner, churchman and brutally overthrowing all the old ways. In all the increasingly large European cities, people could see all around them the potential for this to happen, radical opinion eagerly awaited it, but fear quickly overcame virtually all sympathy for long overdue reforms. In all forms of life, repression quickly became the order of the day, and those who linked themselves to ideas perceived to be arising from revolutionary France were immediately social pariahs. In 1789 it might be all very well for Wordsworth to proclaim "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" or for William Blake to put on a red hat and dance in the streets to celebrate the revolution. Once the reign of terror began, the earlier optimism was swallowed up in enormous anxiety. The government even sent out a spy to check up on Wordsworth (the report of the spy evidently revealed that he was genuinely puzzled by the young poet's behaviour, for the report to the government mentioned that Wordsworth wandered all over the place in the country accompanied by a woman who he claimed was his sister).

The difference between the earlier revolutions and the French Revolution manifested itself in the different leadership. Cromwell and George Washington were eminently admirable characters, with a stake in modern society (not that they were generally liked by everyone, of course). They both demonstrated that there was a very clear line to their revolutionary ideas, and that line put the potentially revolutionary classes as far away from effective power as possible. As educated men with experience in business and as landowners and public representatives, their priorities were widely shared. They made no effort to hide their orthodox Christian sympathies or their love of property. But who were the leaders of the French Revolution? Nobodies who appeared out of the blue to harangue the mob and urge on the executions. Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? An unknown person from an obscure family in Corsica, bent on shaping the map of Europe to fit his vision. He was an upstart, a nobody, and his example was not one to encourage.

As the Revolution transformed itself into the Napoleonic Wars, this fear intensified. The great danger of France was not so much that under Napoleon's genius she might extend her Empire (although that was certainly possible) but that under her influence republican ideas might catch hold among the increasingly restless and numerous agricultural and urban poor. Hence the domestic suppression of French ideas, which had been such a stimulus to intellectual life throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, became commonplace in politics, in science, in religion, in social thought, in reform agitation. During the Napoleonic Wars, the English governments kept more soldiers stationed at home and in Ireland than they sent to serve with Wellington in the campaigns against Napoleon. And the task of those soldiers who stayed at home was evident--to keep the lid on any local agitation among the workers.

It is important to remember that from 1789 on, for about the next fifty years, Europe was petrified by a repetition of the French Revolution. And that fear was very real. For the revolutionary impulse inspired reformers and gave them often an added militancy. And the conditions in the cities during the accelerating Industrial Revolution continued to get worse. If the French could overthrow those responsible for such oppression, why cannot we do it? The measures might be severe against union organizing, cries for political reforms, promoting evolutionary science--but the example was there, and the desire did not go away.

A Brief Digression

While we're on the subject of dates, it is useful to mention three others. The first is 1815--the date of the Congress of Vienna, which marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the apparent end of the French revolutionary threat. The old order was restored, along with the French monarchy, many of Napoleon's changes were repealed, and even the Spanish Inquisition was brought back. The great experiment with republican government, which had turned into an imperial government under an Emperor, seemed to have failed. In fact, of course, there was no turning back. The Congress of Vienna simply put a lid on pressures that continued to build up.

That brings me to the date 1832, the year in which the events in Middlemarch take place. That date marks the passage of the Great Reform Bill in England, when, for the first time in two generations, the ruling classes reluctantly but peacefully surrendered a great deal of their power to control the government. By this time the need to reform parliament had become so urgent in the face of rising civil unrest that the House of Lords, under the prompting of the Duke of Wellington, finally conceded that certain measures were inevitable if civil war was to be avoided. And from 1832 on the various reform measures taken helped to ease the social pressures and the fears of an uprising from below.

The final date to remember is 1848, the year of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the year of revolutions, when in city after city in Europe there were spontaneous uprisings of the working people against the old order. Most of these revolutions failed badly, but eventually they persuaded the authorities to admit more and more people to the electoral process, to education, and to professional classes and to ease up the hostility to free association among working people.

Remember throughout many of these years Darwin is developing his explosive theory of Natural Selection. He is clearly aware of its revolutionary implications, and it is not stretching things to surmise that one reason he delayed publishing it for almost twenty years had to do with the social situation he perceived all around him. He would probably have waited even longer, had he not been forced into going public when another scientist, Wallace, revealed that he had independently come up with the same theory. By 1859, however, the date of the publication of the Origin of Species, the political and social situation was considerably less tense than it had been for almost seventy years.]

Wollstonecraft and Rousseau

What has all this to do with Wollstonecraft's work? Well, I want to suggest that some of the features we notice in this text are a direct result of the social and political climate of the age. She comes from a very reform-minded, even radical, tradition, inheriting willingly the legacy of the philosophes and the Enlightenment, and is keen to push an agenda that had become mainstream in intellectual circles in the 1760's (the husband she married later, after the Vindication, was a celebrated rational reformer, William Godwin). But she's aware that the cultural climate has changed, and one cannot conduct a successful public argument in 1792 in the same language one could use in, say, 1785.

One obvious way to appreciate what had happened is to recognize the transformation in the reputation of Jean Jacques Rousseau. In the 1760's Rousseau had visited England, had been wined and dined by many eminent people, including cabinet ministers, had stayed at some very lavish country estates, and had even been offered an annual pension of one hundred pounds per year by the English king. In the 1790's Rousseau, now dead, had become the devil incarnate, the moving spirit of godless republicanism, responsible for the horrific things going on in France. To associate oneself with Rousseau, therefore, is to put oneself beyond the pale in England, to invite instant condemnation. And heartily to thump Rousseau and call him names and damn his ideas is almost essential for a public hearing if one is going to explore things which his works discuss.

It should be clear from a look at the footnotes in the Norton edition or even from the frequency with which his name appears that Wollstonecraft owes an enormous debt to her reading of Rousseau. Her moral position, to the extent that it has an intellectual grounding, is so similar to his that it would not be wrong to call them intellectual soul mates. They have one great disagreement, of course. But in making her case, Wollstonecraft is not basically breaking with Rousseau's central moral position; she is simply demanding that it be extended to women. In all other respects--in her extreme endorsement of independence over all other possible values of life, in her insistence that moral autonomy is the measure of one's humanity, in her passionate faith in education as a means of achieving such autonomy, and in many of her practical suggestions (e.g., the importance of exercise)--she is picking up explicitly from Rousseau.

Nevertheless, she goes out of her way to attack Rousseau in many places, particularly for something that is, in a sense, not really germane to her main argument, namely, for his impiety, for that section of Emile called "The Confession of the Savoyard Priest" (which scandalized Europe and got Rousseau into great difficulties). My own impression is that doing this is one way of proving her bona fides with her readership--she has to show that Rousseau is a dreadful person, even while she is, in fact, continuing the intellectual tradition he best represents. That, at least, is something I sense in the book.

And this raises for me an interesting question: How radical is Wollstonecraft's polemic? Is she, as she often seems to assert, just being reasonable and asking politely and in a reassuring tone for adjustments to existing society in order to make things more equitable, what amounts in modern terms to the "Let's have a level playing field" argument? Or is she, by contrast, putting on the table a much more radical agenda than we might at first think? Just how Rousseauian is Wollstonecraft? I want to offer today two different interpretations of this book. And these correspond to two different feminist traditions--or, rather, two different parts of the feminist tradition--which she is seen, quite correctly, as launching in modern times.

The Problem Restated

Both Rousseau's and Wollstonecraft's concern with the education of women stems from a new and increasingly problematic social phenomenon--the emergence of the middle-class daughter, often well educated and intelligent but with no clear value in society except as a marriage commodity. Unlike women of earlier ages (or the poorer classes) she had no real work to do, and the only meaningful role society could offer her was marriage to a middle-class man so that she could become a brood mare, producing, as the saying has it "an heir and a spare."  The only alternative Wollstonecraft describes is that, if she does not marry, she becomes an unwelcome lodger in her brother's family, a constant source of trouble for her sister-in-law.

This was a new problem because, in general, in earlier ages, the women in society, except in the very upper ranks, had a clear economic function. Even if there was a great disproportion in the treatment of men and women, women did have recognized social roles and therefore a social value. In a predominantly agricultural economy the farm wife and mother is essential (similarly in the small family home business). As Marx might put it, she had work to do, and therefore she had an identity; even if in many social matters she clearly ranked below the males of the household, no one questioned her value. The new middle-class daughters had many things that their ancestors might have envied--some education (they could read and write), often a good deal of leisure, a beckoning and tempting social world, many material benefits, and increased freedom--but they often lacked what their ancestors had possessed, some meaningful occupation which conferred upon them a sense of value.

And there is another problem taken up by Rousseau, allied to this one, a problem which grows directly out of Rousseau's obsession with freedom. One of his major concerns is to think through a way in which human beings can act as fully free individuals and yet also exist in a functioning society. This raises all sorts of questions, some of which I am sure you have already discussed in connection with the Social Contract. In his book Emile, to which Wollstonecraft is responding directly, Rousseau confronts a troubling question (one that has resurfaced as an urgent social issue in the last fifteen years): If a sense of freedom is the essential to the moral quality of the independent citizen, then how are we to preserve marriage? Why would any free man bother to stick around long enough to help raise the children and look after his wife if he didn't have to, since those are both large demands on one's free individuality--especially to his psychological freedom, his sense of being wholly independent (something at the centre of Rousseau's political thought).

Rousseau's answer in Emile (in Chapter V, the education of Sophy, that part of Rousseau's text to which Wollstonecraft is most immediately responding) is to make the wife responsible for keeping the man at home. She is to maintain in him a sense of his freedom and yet at the same time use all sorts of feminine charms and intelligent deceptions to make sure that he wants to stay at home, still free (because no sense of a loss of liberty registers if he is doing what he freely wants to do) but also fulfilling his parental duty. The wife's job, simply put, is to deceive the man into staying at home by sustaining for him the illusion of his freedom, by serving his need for such a psychological state.

Thus, Rousseau devotes some time to outlining how society is to educate Sophy to make the nuclear family functional. That means, above all, taking care of things, so that the husband will remain a loving parent and a good citizen, without ever sensing that his freedom is being restricted. Rousseau has a view of marriage apparently quite traditional in many respects, but he does not defend that arrangement traditionally (e.g., by scripture or by appeals to the interdependence of all society along traditional lines). Rather, Sophy's education must serve and her value must come from her ability to create and sustain the family as an independent, loving social unit, something that will be able to resist the dependency on the market place and on others and which will keep the husband happy and at home. Emile's independence paradoxically is going to depend upon Sophy (though he must never be aware of that).

It is important to stress that, although Rousseau's vision of the married couple may seem superficially rather like the traditional arrangements, with the man the head of the household and the wife subservient to him, his defense of this arrangement is not traditional. He bases his argument on the overwhelming importance of independence and moral autonomy, on the need to protect oneself from the market place and from other people, and upon his scientific understanding of the difference between the sexes.

It's also important to stress that Rousseau is throughout his social and political writings very pessimistic. Emile is a thought experiment. The chances for ever implementing such a scheme on a widespread scale are for him very problematic, just as the chances for reorganizing society so that it is made up of Emiles and Sophies are very slim. In his more optimistic moments, he thinks that in one or two places where conditions are just right (where, for example, there is a small, homogeneous population of people living off the land or the sea, some reforms along the lines he suggests might be practical--as perhaps they might be in Corsica). But he is under no illusions that the changes his thought experiment involves might serve as a practical measure in, say, France.

This point does not negate the importance of Rousseau. By now we should be familiar with the fact that works like Emile are important, not primarily because they offer something we can easily follow in our daily lives (although sometimes they do that), but rather because they frame the debate over important issues. As I mentioned in an earlier lecture on Rousseau's Second Discourse, they classify the problem, provide the vocabulary, and define the issues that must be addressed. Just as no serious thinker after Plato can afford to take the matter of virtue casually but must address that head on, particularly in its relationship to knowledge, or just as after Marx no serious thinker can consider social issues in detail without acknowledging the concept of class and class antagonism, so after Rousseau, no serious thinker can address the question of sexual equality without considering sexuality and its relationship to independence and the family.

Wollstonecraft as a Liberal Apologist

One of the first things one recognizes in reading Wollstonecraft is that she has a powerful reaction against Rousseau's program for the education of women. That, in fact, is one of the strongest energizing features of the argument. Wollstonecraft's strong reaction to Rousseau's program--her attempt to define herself as Rousseau's antagonist--might be interpreted and, in fact, often is interpreted as defining what was to become the orthodox mainstream feminist tradition. Such an interpretation, in summary, might go something like this:

Society is basically on the right track: Hobbes and especially Locke have told us how we should organize ourselves. Our shared faith in moral autonomy, obligation to the law in a spirit of rational self-interest, independence, and the importance of education as a means to liberate people, all this is correct. While we are far from arriving at equality, we have the means at our disposal to promote that goal. We simply have to foster those means properly. If we do that society will progress to an improved future. 

Thus, advancing the highest goals of society does not require a radical restructuring of things through some revolutionary upheaval. The key procedure must be increasing access to those means for improvement. This applies to middle-class women, from whose education society can really benefit materially. If they continue to be excluded, society will suffer; it will not progress. Women must have the same rights for three main reasons: first, under present arrangements women are denied the chance to develop as moral human beings and are reduced to vain fools, frustrated old maids, or incompetent mothers; second, it is illogical to deny women the same educational opportunities as men if reason and virtue are the same in both sexes, and, third, society will benefit in all sorts of ways if women are given the same rights as men.

Hence the major pitch of her appeal for the rights of women might be seen, to put it simply, as a call to extend to women the same educational opportunities as those extended to men. We don't need to alter the institutional arrangements of society; we simply need to admit women to some of them. If we do that, then we will take care of some of the problems we face, and we shall help our society improve.

This is, in some ways, a reassuring message, and Wollstonecraft makes it doubly reassuring by telling us early on that she is not talking about the poor (who are politically dangerous) or about the rich, who are beyond help. Her concern is the middle-class. She repeatedly stresses that she is a firm Christian, and to make the point clear she bashes Rousseau repeatedly for that part of his writings which aroused the most concern, his apparent abandonment of traditional Christianity, his refusal to appeal to scripture or traditional doctrine, and (in places) his dangerous suggestions that public religion should be a state concern--a manufactured civil religion different from the orthodox beliefs. In addition, she is constantly telling her readers about the importance of the family and of woman's primary role in rearing children. She evidently wants us to perceive that her agenda is concerned above all to strengthen that part of society where we feel particularly threatened by all talk of novelty.

She firmly endorses the notion of the public space in which people can compete--an important liberal principle. She says, in effect, give women access to this public space, and if we cannot hold our own, then let's concede that women are not the same as men and change things accordingly. But let us first give women a chance.

Further, should experience prove that they [women] cannot attain the same degree of strength of mind, perseverance, and fortitude, let their virtues be the same in kind, though they may vainly struggle for the same degree; and the superiority of man will be equally clear, if not clearer; and truth, as it is a simple principle, which admits of no modification, would be common to both. Nay, the order of society as it is at present regulated would not be inverted, for woman would then only have the rank that reason assigned her, and arts could not be practised to bring the balance even, much less to turn it. (36)

This quotation is worth lingering over for a moment. In it Wollstonecraft is announcing her firm adherence to one of the most basic liberal premises: competition in the public sphere. She is not challenging that fundamental characteristic (derived from Hobbes, Locke, and Kant). This point separates her firmly from Rousseau, for all her debts to him, because he, as we have seen, is concerned to limit competition between human beings as a threat to one's self esteem and an important source of evil in life. She even reassures her readers that she is not out to secure the vote for women (although one might wonder whether there's a secret purpose in her bringing the point up).

It might be worth noting that this stance is still very much under scrutiny, especially in the questions surrounding women's participation in the military. The principles Wollstonecraft establishes won them admission into combat roles, but the challenge she laid down about whether women could measure up or not is still being taken up. In the Gulf War, the destroyer Acadia was one of the first US Navy vessels to deploy women. When it left for the war, the ship contained three hundred and sixty women, about one quarter of the crew. By the time it returned, ten percent of the female crew were pregnant (which led to the ship's receiving the name The Love Boat). Then in October 1994 Kara Hultgreen, a Navy combat aviator, crashed and died trying to land her F-14. The cause of the crash has been determined to be pilot error, and the debate about the suitability of women to measure up in the world previously confined to men has revived (see the New Yorker, September 16, 1996, 72-73). The development of technology has greatly lessened the most obvious gap between men and women--physical strength--but in some areas the debate is still unresolved.

In this aspect of her polemic, Wollstonecraft is establishing, as I have mentioned above, the main guidelines for the future liberal feminist movement, which sees access, education, and the changes in the laws necessary to achieve those the key elements in the struggle for women's equality. Give us a level playing field, and see if we can measure up. The practical program involves letting women into the existing corridors (or some of them) occupied by men, but no radical restructuring of social and political institutions.

To make this case, she is exploiting the problem which Rousseau creates for himself by arguing that women have to be able to deal with the marketplace and the social pressures intelligently.  If Sophy is to carry out all that Rousseau wants her to do in maintaining Emile's sturdy sense of autonomy, she has to have a shrewd understanding of the society in which they live; in other words, she has to have an educated reasonable intelligence in order to carry out her main task of sustaining the family. This, of course, is the major problem in Rousseau's argument. If women are to have the more difficult role in society, if they are going to have to understand men and society sufficiently well to protect the family, and if they are going to have to be educated for these tasks, then the various things Rousseau wants them to be taught simply do not seem adequate. To deal with men in the way Rousseau demands, surely women require the chance to learn what men learn.

Rousseau anticipates this stance and argues against it, making the case that if women seek to compete with men by defining themselves in terms of male virtues, then they will foster a state of society in which they are even more than before the servants of men. Men are better at being men than women are, Rousseau claims. Wollstonecraft naturally rejects this possibility, but Rousseau's point is still being made by those who think that a good deal of mainstream liberal feminism, for all its impressive record of social and political achievements, is demanding that women live by a standard foreign to them, that they become like men rather than developing fully as women. Those who, like Wollstonecraft, deny the classification of men and women as different upon which this criticism rests, obviously deny that point.

I'm not going into this interpretation of Wollstonecraft any further because I think it's obvious enough. It might, however, be pertinent here to remark that this mainstream liberal feminist position, as briefly sketched out above, has developed into a major social force in the past century (at least) and that many of the most important changes in the relations between the sexes have been introduced largely by the efforts of women following such an agenda (often with an acknowledged debt to Wollstonecraft). Even today, in spite of the many different and contested positions within the Feminist movement, this liberal view tends to predominate.

Wollstonecraft as a Radical Socialist

When I read this book I see readily enough the liberal position being staked out, but I often wonder to what extent there's a much more radical purpose at work here. That is, to what extent is Wollstonecraft's agenda a reasonable sounding Trojan Horse containing within in something much more potentially revolutionary than questions of access, education, and minor political reforms?

Let me clarify this point by indicating first what is not particularly revolutionary about what Wollstonecraft says, although it might sound quite aggressive. Early in the essay, Wollstonecraft introduces what has become by the late eighteenth century almost a political and moral cliché, namely that human beings have natural rights and that those states which deny human beings natural rights "daily insult common sense." There is nothing particularly alarming or revolutionary about such language, any more than there is in her occasional attacks on the aristocracy. By the late eighteenth century, a good deal of the English upper class had become something of a joke, and taking large swipes at them in a pointed style is fair enough, no cause for major problems. Similarly, her attacks on the consumer market place for its corruption of people's manners, especially young women's, are, by this time, commonplace. Notice, for example, the following:

Thus, as wars, agriculture, commerce, and literature, expand the mind, despots are compelled, to make covert corruption hold fast the power which was formerly snatched by open force. And this baneful lurking gangrene is most quickly spread by luxury and superstition, the sure dregs of ambition. The indolent puppet of a court first becomes a luxurious monster, or fastidious sensualist, and then makes the contagion which his unnatural state spread, the instrument of tyranny. It is the pestiferous purple--which renders the progress of civilization a curse, and warps the understanding, till men of sensibility doubt whether the expansion of intellect produces a greater portion of happiness or misery. . . (18-19)

This is good fustian rhetoric attacking the aristocracy, but there's nothing particularly revolutionary about it in the 1790's. By this time, as I say, the hostility to and criticism of the nobility and the court were widespread. The madness of George III had just served to confirm what many leading people already believed.

The radical potential of what Wollstonecraft is proposing comes from something else: from the frequent indications she gives that her real concern might not be simply providing some more opportunities for middle-class women but rather something much bigger--extending her concepts of liberty and virtue much further than orthodox liberalism of the time would normally permit.

as sound politics diffuse liberty, mankind, including woman, will become more wise and virtuous. (38)

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. (53)

Remarks like this create in this work a subdued but clear theme that the progress of society requires the virtue of all the citizens. Since liberty is the essential precondition of such virtue, this work puts a certain pressure on the reader to recognize that there's a lot more a stake in this position than the middle-class women whom Wollstonecraft identifies as her sole concern. And the liberty of the poor, now that is something with much more radical implications.

. . . the very constitution of civil governments has put almost insuperable obstacles in the way to prevent the cultivation of the female understanding--yet virtue can be built on no other foundation! (54)

If the progress of society depends upon virtue in the citizens, and if the present constitution of civil society is an almost insuperable obstacle, then the implication here appears very clear: the present state of civil society must be changed, if we are to progress. The logic of her argument invites us to ask the politically explosive question:  Well, if we start granting middle-class women some measures of equality with middle-class men, then why stop there?  What about poor women, poor men?  Such questions are the prolegomenon to much more fundamental changes than Wollstonecraft is, in other places, prepared directly to admit.

Moreover, it's one thing to talk calmly about educating middle-class women differently, but to raise the issue of educating the poor (as she does on p. 62) is to bring into the argument something very different, something much more immediately threatening. In the same way, those occasions when she directs her attention to the pernicious effects of property, especially the laws of inheriting property, remind us that underlying the reassuring liberal agenda reverberates a much more radical potential:

But, till hereditary possessions are spread abroad, how can we expect men to be proud of virtue? And, till they are, women will govern them by the most direct means, neglecting their dull domestic duties to catch the pleasure that sits lightly on the wing of time. (64)

it is the multitude, with moderate abilities, who call for instruction, and catch the colour of the atmosphere they breathe. This respectable concourse, I contend, men and women, should not have their sensations heightened in the hot-bed of luxurious indolence, at the expense of their understanding; for, unless there be a ballast of understanding, they will never become either virtuous or free: an aristocracy, founded on property, or sterling talents, will every sweep before it, the alternately timid, and ferocious, slaves of feeling. (69)

Once Wollstonecraft begins to focus on the problems created by private property and the laws controlling the inheritance of property, she is moving far beyond the liberal agenda I discussed earlier. For such strong hints introduce the notion that the real problem is not just a matter of access, an issue we can address with some adjustments to a social and political structure which is basically sound, but rather something built into the very nature of present society, something right at the heart of the liberal faith--private property--and the rights of someone who has profited greatly from the competition for wealth to hoard and pass on his success. Her agenda, in other words, might amount to a significant rethinking of economic justice (along the lines that Rousseau establishes in the Second Discourse).

What these remarks do to challenge the liberal orthodoxy she seems in much of her polemic to defend, as Elissa Guralnick points out, is to indicate that the private and the public realm are not quite so easily separated as the liberal likes to maintain. To improve society we thus might have to do a great deal more than just attend to access to the public realm: we might also have to address seriously the sanctity of certain private matters, like property and inheritance.

It might be useful to suggest here that one's attitude to private property and the individual's rights to acquire it, keep it, and pass it on will help to define one's political position. And if you move across that line which says that private property will, in some ways, be drastically curtailed, and especially that the right to inherit wealth will be taken away, then you have moved beyond the main liberal position (in which private property is the keystone) to something much more disturbing.

[Parenthetically, we might note that in Canada we permit private property of all sorts and the transmission of property from parents to children.  But we do tax it heavily and use the money to support all the citizens]

I don't think this strain in Wollstonecraft is in any way dominant, so I don't object to the notion that her reaction to Rousseau can be characterized, on the whole, as setting a liberal agenda for the issue of woman's rights. Still, with an eye on Marx coming up in our reading, I do think it is worth calling attention to the fact that she is no uncritical fan of the liberal principles and that the logic of her position would seem to imply moving into areas where the issue is not just a level playing field but rather the thorny and revolutionary demands about who owns the field and the goal posts and the ball and who is allowed to play on the various teams.

And I would not put it beyond the realm of possibility that Wollstonecraft is a radical wolf in the guise of a liberal sheep. She is certainly more than sufficiently intelligent to realize that there is no way she can put her radical agenda directly on the table and secure a public hearing for her concerns.  So she might well be, in effect, smuggling a Rousseauian pill into an argument that sounds on the face of it much more immediately reassuring.

Wollstonecraft's Attitude to Sexuality

As I mentioned above, Rousseau's book, to which Wollstonecraft is responding, seeks to think through a way in which the modern middle-class marriage might be maintained in a culture of freedom. In giving this responsibility to the woman and insisting that she be educated properly for the responsibility, Rousseau is clearly of the view that a suitable emotional and sexual life must be maintained if the family is to function properly. Sexuality and the various emotional states that go along with it are essential for this to occur.

Rousseau sees clearly that if Emile is to be a happy, independent citizen and head of a household, he must have an active, satisfying sexual life.  Any problems there, and he is going to be psychologically upset and probably socially disruptive (i.e., unfaithful).  So a really important part of Sophy's education (a part of Rousseau's text most offensive to many modern feminists) concerns the need for her to be educated to please her husband sexually, if necessary subordinating her own needs (sexual and otherwise) to Emile's (her satisfaction comes from preserving the family).  It's easy to find much of what Rousseau says here disagreeable, but it's important to remember the premise from which he starts: the absolute need to keep the family intact, without alienating Emile.

Wollstonecraft's exploration of sexuality is more equivocal. Given her insistence that women must have a chance through education to develop their rational virtue, it is not surprising that she does not have much time for Rousseau's talk of special coquettish tricks, flirtation, and charming deceptions as important for Sophy. For Wollstonecraft, as for many modern liberal feminists in that tradition, this is quite unacceptable. How then does she feel women and men should deal with one of the single most important non-rational elements of human life, sexual passion? Where, in an educational system and a life ruled by reason, virtue, and equality, does sexual passion belong?  How do questions about equality and independence mesh with sexual relationships between married couples, and how will that affect the family?

Wollstonecraft's short answer is clear enough: sexual passion doesn't belong as a major priority. Sexual passion is unreliable, and love (in the passionate sense of the term) will not last; therefore, these should not take their place as the important priorities of life. In her definition of what matters most in the middle-class woman's life there is a repeated and explicit denial of the importance of sexuality. Rational friendship between equals makes the only sustainable basis for a marriage, simply because, with very very rare exceptions, romantic passion cannot be sustained for very long.  Thus, training women only to serve men's passions in pleasing ways is not going to serve them well in marriage, because there's nothing they can do about the impermanence of those feelings.

Why does Wollstonecraft treat sexual passion in this way?  Well, a couple of answers suggest themselves.  The first (which I mention here only to dismiss it) may be rooted in her personality.  We know enough about her life to recognize that she was capable of strong sexual passion but that she never experienced a passionate relationship which lasted a long time (although some of those experiences happened after the writing of the Vindication).  In this respect, one of the opening sentences (at the end of the first paragraph of the dedication) in the Vindication always strikes me as particularly revealing:

Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue--and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

That very powerful metaphor might well indicate someone with a personality simply unwilling or unable to make the sorts of compromises that the interdependency of lasting passion requires.  If she means what she says here about independence being the very highest priority, then it's easy to see why she can be so suspicious of sexual passions and why it's better to be "barren" than dependent.

However, as I say, I'm going to dismiss that reason, since I have a natural antipathy to interpretations which rely heavily upon psychological speculation about the writer.  For the treatment of sexuality in Wollstonecraft's argument is, in a sense, a logical outcome of the position she has staked out for herself.

At the risk of going on about this matter, I'd like to explore it a little further, mainly because we are still in the midst of this argument.  Basically, the issue centres on the key question: "To what extent is independence compatible with lasting sexual relationships, of the sort which sustain marriages and married families?"

Rousseau's answer is that sexuality is essential in sustaining the family, but that it must be carried out without threatening the man's (Emile's) sense of independence and freedom.  That is Sophy's main task.  Rousseau sacrifices the independence of the woman (Sophy) in order to preserve sexuality in marriage with no loss of independence in the man.  He does that, he says, because unless Sophy can carry out that task, Emile has no reason to stay in his marriage.  He will preserve his independence by leaving.

Wollstonecraft will have none of that.  So she is compelled to sacrifice sexual passion as the necessary basis for lasting marriage.  In her analysis, the best basis for lasting marriage is rational friendship between equals.  The most repetitive point she makes in her essay is that the present education of women focuses far too much on attempts to please and tease men (i.e., to stimulate them sexually), which, as far as she is concerned, is no good basis either for the development of a morally responsible personality in men or women or for a lasting marriage.

One might, therefore, want to ask about the adequacy of her treatment of sexuality.  After all, the irrationality of sexual life and desire is one of the most disruptive forces in human experience for anyone who seeks to insist that life must be organized with a clear sense of rational morality. Traditionally, sexual passion had been kept in control with powerful rituals, social and religious, and all sorts of legal, social, and financial fences around a married couple. These traditions had clearly depended upon recognizing that men and women are different biologically, socially, morally, and economically and that sexuality is personally and socially disruptive. 

By abandoning traditional rituals in favour of principles based on reason in the interests of justice, equality, and social progress, Wollstonecraft, like those who follow in her tradition, leave the question open: What then happens to the irrational desires of sexual passion and family love? Is that something that can be properly fostered and controlled in a climate of such rational equality? More briefly put, can people be educated to cope with their sexual lives rationally?

This debate between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft is still very much alive in modern arguments about about feminism. Should we, like Rousseau, base our understanding of gender questions on the basic assumption of difference and insist that women, because they are not like men and because they have a special social role to play, especially in marriage and family life, should be educated and treated differently from men--with a special emphasis on their lives as wives and mothers; or should we, with Wollstonecraft, base our understanding of gender questions on similarity and insist that men and women should, in all the most important social and personal roles, think of themselves as equal? And how does our decision on this thorny point affect or make room for a significant sexual and family life? Or should we push the logic of Wollstonecraft's argument even further and insist, with Marx, that we resolve such problems by eliminating the family as the basic unit of society?  It might be worth asking whether the elimination of the middle-class family based on marriage is or is not a logical outcome of Wollstonecraft's position (and whether she is clearly aware of that, for all her protestations about the sanctity of married life).

The present fierce arguments between and within various men's and women's groups indicate that the question is not yet off the table. These arguments manifest themselves, among other things, in modern concerns about the rising frequency of divorce and of men abandoning their families, of declining sperm counts in men, of super-moms, of teenage pregnancies, of the need for men to be in control of the family, and so on, all of which remind us that two hundred years after Wollstonecraft's important contribution this great debate, the conversations continue with no loss of urgency.


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