Care: For Wollstonecraft

Julie A. Carlson (University of California)

To call Mary Wollstonecraft the mother of Western liberal feminism is hardly a radical claim, but it pinpoints the question of Wollstonecraft’s feminist legacy. In specifying her pioneering role in articulating and promoting the rights of women, the claim is hardly unusual in applauding her radical achievements. After all, she was the first to define woman as a being with thinking powers, to expose the processes of socialization as designed to impede the progress of women, to protest the reduction of women’s virtue to chastity and feminine modesty, and to delineate the damage done to society as well as to individual men, women, and children by sustaining the culture’s irrational views on womanhood. On the other hand, a growing number of readers have come to construe the assumptions and philosophical traditions that undergird the claim as at best liberal—i.e., individualist, heteronormative, white, and bourgeois. In this view, what is hardly radical about claiming Wollstonecraft as the mother of Western liberal feminism is that her notions of “woman,” “mother,” “rights,” and “revolution in female manners” are impediments more than spurs to social justice work. Her writings have fallen off of most feminist syllabi unless they appear in the section that is historical, meaning also antiquated.

It is true that Wollstonecraft’s emphases on equality, autonomy, and the non-particularity of women’s bodies do not accord well with the intersectional and embodied tenets underlying contemporary feminist theories and movements like #blacklivesmatter and trans* advocacy and practices. The gender system that she inherited and revised remains binary; and while her vindications of woman are sensitive to class and, occasionally, to racial dynamics, by and large the sensibilities that they foreground are white and middle-class. And while there is validity in contextualizing her efforts and assessing her limits as largely reflective of the times in which she wrote, vindicators of Wollstonecraft should not rest satisfied with such qualifications. The revolutionary ethos with which she wrestled included massive agitations by enslaved persons in the West Indies that enlisted African concepts and practices in their freedom struggles (Robinson 9–29, 71–101). Though Wollstonecraft died before an independent Haiti was achieved, that revolutionary movement and set of conditions were part of her times, and it is simply true that her writings are not deeply informed by them or informative about them.

I wish to explore this dimension of her legacy in a somewhat indirect fashion by situating Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre within the branch of contemporary feminism that I deem closest to her enterprise: the care movement, especially its theoretical articulation in the ethics of care. Already I hear horselaughs over the validity of the comparison, not to mention its relevance to evaluating Wollstonecraft’s ongoing relevance to radical politics. For one thing, theorists of care, such as Fabienne Brugère, Virginia Held, Nel Noddings, and Joan Tronto, claim as their foremothers feminists who stress the differences between women and men, such as Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and Luce Irigaray, not egalitarian feminists such as Wollstonecraft, who sought to affirm women’s similarity to men because both are reasoning creatures. For another, many of Wollstonecraft’s most astute and admiring critics characterize her personality as uncaring, censorious, prone to sounding the depths of her own needs more than those of others. We get somewhere in addressing the first concern by invoking William Godwin’s distinction between the “moral,” or expressed position, of a work and its “tendency,” which evolves over time and in accordance with the changing circumstances and vocabularies of its readerships (Godwin 139). In fact, one could say that the history of Wollstonecraft scholarship epitomizes this tendency, since scholars often interpret her significance in relation to their own desires regarding feminism, making the history of scholarship on Wollstonecraft into a minihistorical survey of waves of feminist thought. Some decry the factual distortions that result from the impulse, but I view the interpenetration as faithful to her methodology and one of the chief registers of her impact (Ayers 1–14). Moreover, her practice of active revision models the tendency. The striking changes that mark her textual output, covering a period of less than ten years but featuring major cognitive and affective upheavals, suggest that she views revision as a literary as well as societal imperative and that she stays responsive to her changing experiences of both. In my view, no writer in her liberal-radical cohort is less defensive about exposing the errancy of her thought and examining the contradictions between what she writes and what she feels as is Wollstonecraft. Nor do any of them risk more than she in doing so.

The status of Wollstonecraft’s care as it affects evaluations of her personality is connected to the question of her legacy in more direct, though contradictory, ways. I will be arguing that her conceptions of care are deeply linked to her notions and experiences of mothering, a point that not only courts the accusation that her writings are bourgeois and heteronormative but also invites the strongest censure of her character as uncaring and self-absorbed. I venture into this minefield because to me it is part of what caring for her legacy entails. Because her “mothering” is never simply biological, is always connected to writing and to valuing literature as a means to entwine the psychological with the sociopolitical in its reformation of individuals, Wollstonecraft’s care is an early exemplum of what theorists and practitioners of care still are seeking to achieve: a fundamental restructuring of the values that undergird the organization, activities, and rewards of care. At the same time, taking seriously the depth of her ambivalence toward care as expressed in and made apparent by her writings exposes why care remains so difficult to give, take, or endorse as a radical sociopolitical endeavor.


Theorists of care foreground the radical interdependence of human life, not just at birth or as a condition of human neoteny. They thus perceive the autonomy of the individual as at best only partially achieved and, even when so, as never gained or maintained independently (Held, Ethics 9–29). They value the activities and customary givers of care and argue that extending this valuation necessitates a fundamental rethinking of what constitutes the “good life” and thus a fundamental reorganization of societal structures and priorities to gain it. Philosophically, an ethics of care rejects not only individualism but also the institutional organizations that support individualist premises. Theorists prioritize “care” over “justice” because they deem the abstractions of the latter insufficiently attentive to the local, embodied, relational, and preferential aspects of caregiving. This orientation makes theorists and practitioners feminist, whether or not they call themselves feminists, because another primary concern is to gain respect and compensation for the persons on whom care activities generally fall and long have fallen: poor, disenfranchised, non-white, and immigrant women (Boris and Klein 19–39, 123–48). Because the dominant view long has been that those who need care are “babies” and those who give it are second-class citizens (if that), care tends not to be taken seriously or viewed as of vital interest. Even today, for all our voiced concern over precarity, bare life, embodied mentation, and globalization, neither public policy discussions nor theoretical inquiries in the humanities tend to foreground care or perceive their humanitarian concerns as addressed productively by an ethics of care.

This relative lack of enthusiasm for care has a lot to do with ongoing antipathy to women and resistance to the fact that we all need care, at times desperately. Some proponents have offered other terms, such as “the ethics of love” or “relational ethics,” in hopes of diminishing the sentimentalism that many hear in “care.” Others find “ethics” too stuffy for the improvisational life practices that care inspires. This is why I find Aranye Fradenburg’s contention that care “is always, in some sense, care of the wild” such a productive disruption of customary aversions to care and of existing theories of care (Fradenburg 70). Her accounts of the evolution of care as well as of its usual activities—so many of which touch on the skin, the membrane that both demarcates and mediates a creature’s inner and outer worlds—highlight both the dangers of viewing care as domesticating and the denials of environmental, racial, and psychic realities that are required in order to espouse such a view. Her accounts also underscore the meaningful and meaning-making nature of care activities, their often artful expressivity. Step one in overcoming resistance to care, Fradenburg argues, is to recognize that “care is neither a safe topic nor a safe practice. Care is difficult, both to accept and to give” not only because it exhausts “our reserves of narcissism” but also because it is “one of the primary modes by which the bodies and minds of creatures shape and re-shape one another” (70). Step two is acknowledging the evolving histories of care as generating “various rhetorics (chemical, electrical, gestural, alphabetic)” through which organisms “cross boundaries and foster relationality” (72).

The life writings of Wollstonecraft exemplify the theoretical tenets of care and the wildness that care confronts, soothes, and provokes both consciously and unconsciously. Her coordination of the relations among woman, human, reason, justice, and care employs more of an Enlightenment ethos and vocabulary than contemporary care theorists use, but neither her conclusions nor her methodological processes are as far from theirs as her emphasis on “rights” and “woman” might suggest. The enlightened aspects of her tenets stem from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first Western philosopher to posit “human” as interdependent, not autonomous, and its rationality evoked by and in need of pity and care (Brugère, “Justice” ). Rousseau also is the first Western philosopher to conceive of confession and fiction as major vehicles of philosophy’s coming to consciousness about the complexity of human cognition. Both of these contributions explain why Wollstonecraft is “half in love” with Rousseau for admitting into philosophy the vulnerability and frequently pitiful nature of male rationality (Wardle 145). The remaining half mobilizes its outrage over Rousseau’s sanctioned mistreatments of “woman” into devising a new philosophy, narrative, and psychosocial history of female experiences, the deliberateness of which effort, it bears repeating, is unprecedented, including her new-philosophical project of displaying through “an artless tale, without episodes, the mind of a woman, who has thinking powers” (Advertisement to Mary 5). But Wollstonecraft’s care also anticipates Fradenburg’s attention to the wildness and antidomesticating impulses inherent in caring that showcases its significance as a “life-and-death matter” (Fradenburg 68).

Wollstonecraft’s efforts to foreground “woman” as having thinking powers underlie all of her works and employ several methodological tenets that are care-centric because they are interdependent. Her fictional writings verge upon philosophy in that they feature females in the process of thinking, characterize a Mary or a Maria in order to focalize the “wrongs of woman” and gain sympathy for them, and work to demonstrate that the social institutions that frame and allegedly support the affective lives of individuals actually repress whatever capacity for creativity they possess—intentionally so, in the case of women. This is why Wollstonecraft foregrounds marriage as the most despotic social institution affecting women, calls for a revolution in female manners, and prioritizes altering the mentality of middle-class women, since that group of women is being trained from birth to consider their prospects as identical with marriageability. But what is less often recognized is how Wollstonecraft’s antimarriage polemic, especially as depicted in her fictional and semiautobiographical writings, is situated in an explicit discussion of care, and not simply of the emancipated female protagonist. Texts link the melancholic sensibility of their love-thwarted, because married, protagonists to caregiving activities that in turn make visible the class-intersecting, though also class-benighted, aspects of Wollstonecraft’s evolving depictions of “woman.”

Both Mary: A Fiction (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798) embed their protagonists’ one-on-one caregiving activities within a broader survey of societal care organizations and the protagonists’ engagement with them. Both texts also circuit their observations on societal and domestic care through protagonists whose early development is described as significantly lacking, especially in care from their mothers, a lack that shapes each of their sensibilities and its dual orientation toward melancholy and care. Mary’s capacity and desire to care for her beloved Ann, weakened at a young age by consumption, which entails their traveling from England to the warmer climate of Portugal and Mary’s attending her there until she dies, literally is framed by her involvement in caring for various impoverished families. Melancholy rambles take a young Mary to the “huts of a few poor fishermen, who supported their numerous children by their precarious labour,” in whose company she “frequently rested, and denied herself every childish gratification, in order to relieve the necessities of the inhabitants” (Mary 15).

Those rambles occur “[w]hen her mother frowned, and her friend looked cool” (15).

After Ann dies and before she redirects her care-tending to a second husband substitute (Henry), Mary “relieved the poor” in the villages around London, procuring lodging and domestic necessities for a “poor woman” she had met on the voyage back to England and providing “every comfort” for a family of seven that included hiring a “poor neighbor” to “nurse the woman, and take care of the children” (Mary 56). Holding aside for now the class politics evinced in these depersonalizing and self-oriented acts of philanthropy, they are depicted as moving her beyond her constitutional melancholy and restoring her to life. “In these pursuits,” Mary “learned the luxury of doing good,” acquiring “a sparkle” in “eyes” which, without their moistening by “the sweet tears of benevolence,” lacked luster (Mary 15–16). “Is any sensual gratification to be compared to that of feeling the eyes moistened after having comforted the unfortunate?” (Mary 59).

More should be said of this “moistening” that rewards her philanthropic activities.

In The Wrongs of Woman, Maria’s ability to care-tend her infant daughter is thwarted by her confinement in a madhouse after she attempts to escape from a brutish marriage, where she is guarded by Jemima. But this failure of interpersonal care motivates the text’s sweeping analysis of the wrongs done to women by societal institutions designed to minimize their care, a class-inflected account occasioned by combining Jemima’s and Maria’s life stories, each of which enumerates differing psychic, relational, and societal consequences of treating females as bodies to be given in marriage or given out to domestic and sexual service, often an apt depiction of what bourgeois marriages entail.

On one level, this emphasis on the interplay between societal and interpersonal operations of care is how the antimarriage plot works to mitigate doubts regarding these women’s virtue. The independence of mind evidenced in the ability of all three female protagonists to brook social convention requires ongoing protection, which staying bastilled in a brutish marriage or occupation nullifies. Put a different way, the fellow-feeling of Mary and between Maria and Jemima—even granting Mary’s and Maria’s patronizing attitudes toward “the poor”—is shown to be invigorated through their ability to give care, a point intended to demonstrate the immorality of marriage bonds and the civic-mindedness of free-thinking women. On another level, emphasis on the interplay introduces Wollstonecraft’s two pioneering and still radical contributions to an ethics of care: highlighting literature as the arena that interweaves the social and psychological, and depicting women’s writing as a form and act of mothering. For the chief difference between these two works of fiction, positioned as they are on opposing sides and affective evaluations of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is that Mary’s caregiving activities are directed toward adults, whereas Maria’s are directed toward an infant whose fate is improved by Jemima’s taking care of Maria, a change that is activated by the narrations of each of their life stories.

Thwarted in physically nursing her daughter and “uncertain whether I shall ever have an opportunity of instructing you,” Maria “addresses” her life story to her baby daughter as a form of sustenance “meant rather to exercise than influence your mind” (Wrongs 123). This effort not only reverses one of the causes of the neglectful mothering that Mary and Maria experience. It also is penned by a mother both “labouring under a portion of the misery, which the constitution of society seems to have entailed on all her kind” and daring to “break through all restraint to provide for your happiness” by “voluntarily brav[ing] censure herself, to ward off sorrow from your bosom” (Wrongs 123). This means that good mothering for Wollstonecraft is a matter of narrative as much as of biology and is inseparable from women being willing to admit, value, reflect on, and convey their sometimes rapturous and oftentimes sorrowful experiences to current and future minds in the making. It also means that good mothering is a rarity and that working to make it less so necessitates appealing directly to the class of women whose consignment to domesticity is hampering their care and their desire to give or take care.

Connecting writing to mothering and to the futures bodied forth in each undergirds all of Wollstonecraft’s projects and falls roughly into two phases. The first phase (1787–1792) stages a staggered, more piecemeal relation among “woman,” motherhood, and female reader-writers, suggesting that informing women effectively is a precondition to better mothering and that both necessitate not only women reading but also finding or composing for themselves better reading material. The earliest texts portray books as better mothers than existing biological mothers (The Female Reader and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters), feature a surrogate mother who ultimately inscribes her wise counsel in a book (Original Stories from Real Life), and depict a woman literally coming to (not) know her mind through the activity of writing down, and thereby discovering, her feelings (Mary: A Fiction; Carlson 221–32). Though treating the two largely as separate topics, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman connects mothering to writing in a critical fashion, ascribing middle-class women’s lack of interest and competence in either arena to their preoccupation with men and male standards or values. In the second phase (1794–1797), the spheres are integrated in the case of middle-class white women. The female persona through whom the demand for women’s rights gets expressed is a biological mother and a writer, though not depicted as a published author (the I of A Short Residence, Maria in The Wrongs of Woman). In this, they conceive a future of better possibilities by working simultaneously on the prime agents of futurity—the rising generation, new ways of thinking—and by depicting reform of the one as interconnected with reform of the other. This interconnection, as she argues in A Vindication, is key to producing better home lives and a more informed citizenry. Infant minds stand a better chance of expanding if they are engaged by attentive, less self-absorbed and male-preoccupied mothers, who themselves will be more open to having their selves reformed when holding, and feeling held by, a text that regards them, and an infant that will come to regard them, as thoughtful persons and as deserving of care.

Wollstonecraft’s linkage of mothering and women writing was a brilliant strategy to defuse readers’ alarm by tying together the most conservative and forward-looking roles then being assigned to “woman.” By the second Vindication, the strategy is a more or less conscious approach to the paradox of decrying the power that its primary readership wields and must mobilize if legal and political change is to occur. The linkage also makes two useful interventions in contemporary discussions of care. It underscores the importance of the arts in fostering the curative and quotidian aspects of care and of finding adequate language to describe and defang the isolating nature of pain. While gaining ground, this branch of care practice and theory remains undercultivated. It also mediates an internal debate over whether serious care reform begins best on the homefront or with the social and economic institutions that foster indifference to care and its conventional agents at home. The latter proponents construe economic realities as trickling through, if not flooding, every other relational structure and perceive the familial realm as still awash in gender asymmetries (Sevenhuijsen, Tronto, and Williams). The former contend that the elimination of social impediments is necessary but insufficient because the capacity to care is acquired, not inborn, and acquired primarily through the dynamics of infant-(m)other attachment (Hollway). Wollstonecraft’s texts show that, for care to flourish, both societal institutions and psychic investments therein need to be restructured in tandem and that treating society and psyche or public and private as separate spheres exacerbates the problem; this is arguably why she does not confine social critique to nonfiction and psychological or interpersonal analysis to fiction. Her twinned and generically hybrid approach is also why Wollstonecraft’s concern with mothering is not as conservative or heteronormative as is sometimes alleged. For her, mothering is heterotextual, passional, chosen, and deployed “rather to exercise than influence” young minds (Wrongs 123).

Her mothering also is the most unsettling aspect of her biography and legacy. By way of context, it is fair to say that mothering was the first role assigned to her as a child and that the prematurity of her assumption of the role affected her priorities from then on, including her need to be assured of her priority in the minds of male lovers. The eldest daughter of differently neglectful parents, by age ten she had major responsibility for the care of her five younger siblings as her mother’s physical and mental health deteriorated and as her elder brother employed himself elsewise. Sisters Eliza and Everina affirmed repeatedly her responsibility for them, as they turned to Wollstonecraft, even as adults, for assistance in money, employment, and venting and as all three turned on each other over perceived inadequacies of care. One of the most sobering examples of Wollstonecraft’s sisterly mothering concerns her efforts to rescue Eliza from her husband Meredith Bishop’s household after Eliza had given birth to a daughter and fallen into a serious depression. Initiated out of alarm over Eliza’s derangement and vague hints that Bishop was abusive, Wollstonecraft’s plan succeeded in separating Eliza not only from Bishop, with whom she was never reconciled and whose plausibility as a husband seems not in particular doubt, but also from baby Mary, who died several months later. Then there is the dark history of Wollstonecraft’s mothering of Fanny, in which her attempts at suicide twice threatened to leave Fanny parentless while still a baby, so consumed was Wollstonecraft by her passion for Gilbert Imlay. Though rescued from both attempts, Wollstonecraft left no indication that rescue was a secret hope or design (Williams 222–23). A suicide note indicates that, in the event of an intervention, she wanted not to be resuscitated, even if death meant leaving Fanny motherless, though probably also in the able care of her nursemaid, Marguerite Fournée.

There is no getting around this limit in Wollstonecraftian care. Nor is my emphasis on her fusion of mothering and writing meant to be compensatory or exculpatory. The “mothering” effected by her writing has disagreeable elements too, including self-absorption, self-righteousness, a know-it-all spirit, and little patience with other people’s unwillingness to suffer patiently. All of this makes the tragic outcomes of her writing-mothering, especially in Fanny’s life, very hard to bear. My sense of the gains in taking Wollstonecraft’s care seriously result from acknowledging the risks that she took by detailing resistances to caregiving that women like her experience, especially after she had gone on record castigating patriarchal minimizations of it. The frankness with which she explores her antipathy to the sacrifices attendant in caring is inspiring, as is her willingness to revise her views on “woman” in light of accumulated experiences of the conflicts within and between her various roles as feminist single mother writer activist. Amidst recurrent bouts of passion and depression, she never stopped attempting to redesign her future and that of rising generations by registering the hazards and co-implications of those experiences.

Such redesigning affects how the female protagonists in later texts construe the special hazards of mothering. While the writing voices of A Short Residence and The Wrongs of Woman are more confident than in earlier texts—less strident or unsympathetic, more experimental—they now voice a “dread” over the future to which increased options for females consign their daughters. The narrator of A Short Residence dreads that, by cultivating her daughter’s “sensibility” and “delicacy of sentiment,” she is “sharpen[ing] the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard—I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit” (Short Residence 84). Similarly, Maria “lamented” that “her child” was “a daughter, and anticipated the aggravated ills of life that her sex rendered almost inevitable” (Wrongs 85). It is as if the acquisition of confidence in writing allows female protagonists to feel the full weight of male indifference to their flourishing and to find this indifference unbearable—whether the culprit is patriarchy or Imlay. As regards the “hapless fate” that this enjoins upon daughters, her protagonists question what constitutes maternal care if facilitating the aspirations of children almost certainly means heightening their suffering or shortening their lives. One thinks here of “the talk” that Black parents in the U.S. today are forced to have with their children.

“Dear Child—When Black Parents Have to Give ‘The Talk,’” (accessed 2 March 2018).

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the most nuanced treatment of a maternal love so fierce that the act of killing one’s child is preferable to delivering her over to a fate worse than death. Comparison to Morrison exposes Wollstonecraft’s narrative limitations as regards artistry, range of topics, knowledge of and expressed sympathy for certain types of characters, but it also highlights her willingness to confront moral complexity in her fiction. As relates to Fanny, the comparison embodies the opposite challenge of discerning maternal love in the act of killing oneself and thereby leaving parentless a one-year-old baby girl, especially considering Fanny’s eventual suicide on the anniversary of her mother’s death at the age of 22. I share Janet Todd’s impatience over the tendency to read Fanny as consigned to this fate, as if she was destined to commit suicide rather than worn down to it from being so used and disregarded by all of her variously overbearing family members (Todd, Death xiii–xiv). Still, it puzzles me why Todd expresses such skepticism over Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary character, even if Wollstonecraft’s heroines are preachy, her correspondence “prickly,” and her postures “alternately” needy and full of “lofty independence” (Todd, Life 15). Todd’s biography enumerates the range of mothering activities that Wollstonecraft assumed as sibling, schoolteacher, governess, and writer, but regards her career turn to writing as primarily an opportunistic rather than idealistic or even pragmatic attempt to use her observations of bad mothering across the classes in order to improve it. Since “she was always telling people what to do, how to read and respond, how to raise their children and improve themselves,” why not try writing? (Life 75). Todd’s tendency to depict the glass as half empty extends to Wollstonecraft’s expressions of emptiness. Stating that depression and other mental disturbances run deep in the Wollstonecraft family, Todd underscores a “cultural component in their malady,” the “high esteem in which the middle classes held melancholy” (Life 75). True enough. But Todd’s accounts construe the cultural dimension almost solely as a license for personal histrionics by characterizing Wollstonecraft’s expressions of anguish as postures, self-dramatizations, and appeals for male attention and attentiveness.

I raise this not to endorse reparative over paranoid readings, both approaches being fundamental to critical care, as Wollstonecraft’s writings attest (Sedgwick). My point is that her writings relate issues of care to social justice work by demonstrating how deeply one’s genetic and familial origins shape everything that follows, that such origins are shaped by socioeconomic and cultural factors, and that, if existence is to become bearable for subjects whose originating conditions are designed to keep them subordinated, then they generally have to assume the burden of changing these conditions because no one else will take up the project. Whatever else one says about her upbringing, Wollstonecraft was put upon from early on, witnessed forms of injustice from within the family, and viewed her writing career as the only means to an independence that could do something to change the dependence that informed and continued to deform the minds, brains, and bodies of women seeking to experience something like freedom. Plus, she knew that attaining financial independence was crucial to sharing her resources with those close at hand or far off in the future. Wollstonecraftian sensibilities can sound hopelessly bourgeois if we ascribe them to an isolated “self” rather than to experienced discordances between that self and the world, and if we deem despair over being isolated or a longing to captivate as distinctively middle-class. Starting with early letters to girlhood friends and continuing throughout her published writings and private correspondence, Wollstonecraft’s writings struggle to coordinate interconnection and isolation, attachment and detachment, independence and codependence, needing to be recognized and refusing to conform. She does not frame those struggles as an investigation or an ethics of care, but we could name them as such now.

If we did, several re-estimations of her life writings and legacy might follow. I have suggested that her efforts to twine writing and mothering join together what are generally differentiated disciplinary approaches—sociological versus psychological—to the reform, in this case, of care institutions, understood as primarily societal or familial. Hers unite the two realms through a new-philosophical enlistment of the intercourse between texts and lives and the conviction that her kinds of text function as surrogate mothers to the adult and infant persons whom they are in the process of remaking. Moreover, she casts the “heroine” of her texts as a representative, not an individual, in order to showcase how cultural recognition of women with thinking powers effects, and should affect, changing social policies on education, marriage, and property laws as well as better caretaking of infants, children, men, and themselves. In terms of their content and style, Wollstonecraft’s writings are more sociological than psychological in their renditions of female psychology. They thematize the difficulties of interpersonal dynamics more than they depict them as co-created or co-creative, whether between partnered adults or mothers and infants. The infant whose existence is portrayed as motivating Maria’s narration of her life story is wholly absent except to her mind; to a large degree so is Fanny in A Short Residence, whose embodied presence is most movingly described when Wollstonecraft is away from her on business, some say because she temporarily feels freed of that presence (Gordon 316).

In these later works Wollstonecraft’s depictions of mother-infant interactions are perhaps best described as co-created but not yet co-creative for either party.

My thinking on these dynamics are shaped by Mary Jane Davis Kennedy’s dissertation, New-born: Affect, Attachment, and the Infant Embodied Unconscious in Romantic Literature and Medicine, University of California, Santa Barbara, September 2018.

Radical for her times, the depiction is a still-valid point from which to conduct contemporary revisions of care. We have a much richer knowledge base and vocabulary than did Wollstonecraft for remarking the mutual interplay between infants and (m)others, the intensity of the gratifications on each side, and the necessity for each party to turn away from the other so as to avoid impingement by or upon the mother. But this has not taken us very far in reorienting policies or practices of care. Fradenburg suggests how hospital and hospice care might enlist the tactile and sound-soothing practices of infant care when treating all patients, recalling the emergence of language out of grooming activities and the self-soothing benefits of both (74–77). If we viewed Wollstonecraft’s life writings in the context of feminist care rather than of enlightenment justice, we might not need so many reminders that care is “neither a safe topic nor a safe practice” because it is “one of the primary modes by which the bodies and minds of creatures shape and reshape one another” (Fradenburg 70). Wollstonecraft’s writings fear more often than they celebrate this coinvolvement, but this seems largely because the asymmetries felt so stark to her and the upholders of them so unapologetic.

The wildness of Wollstonecraft’s care is epitomized by what is truly unprecedented in the composition of The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria: writing to a baby daughter who would have been abandoned if the author had succeeded at drowning and promulgating writing as the best means for preparing a daughter for eventualities for which she can never adequately be prepared. For all its limitations, The Wrongs of Woman is a stunningly brave text in addressing maternal abandonment, including Maria’s possible suicide attempt, and having that mother actually envision the consequences of it on her baby girl. “To think that [her infant] was blotted out of existence was agony, when the imagination had been long employed to expand her faculties; yet to suppose her turned adrift on an unknown sea, was scarcely less afflicting” (Wrongs 85–86). Yes, Wollstonecraft depicts the fictional mother as primarily the victim, not the agent, of the separation that so anguishes her. And yes, meanwhile she sends the memoirs to a male inmate whose marginal notations in Rousseau’s Heloïse have shown him to be a promising partner to her body and mind. But these limitations do not erase the complexity of the experiences that Maria records in order to exercise her daughter’s mind, and they show that extending female jouissance is a part of good mothering. Nor does she leave textual caretaking of Fanny at this. Composition of The Wrongs of Woman occurs alongside Lessons, a reading primer composed for Fanny at the imagined advent of the arrival of a new sibling. Lessons depicts reading as a relational act that helps a young creature interpret her environs by learning to name, adjust to, and readjust them.

To my mind, then, wanting to understand all that care signifies in Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre is what caring for her legacy enjoins. It accepts that her care generally is not congenial, even when it is sentimentalized, and is usually suffused with a metaphysical and psychological darkness that occasions destructiveness and anxiety. Hers is a wildness whose approach-avoid impulses are more polarized than proximal, more reactive than worked through. But, unlike her contemporary writing peers, her treatment of this is remarkably straightforward—in fact, her writing sounds desperate to get a better handle on the intensity of the pulls she experiences in both directions. Her writings also acknowledge that societal ambivalence toward caretaking and caregivers deepens personal ambivalences toward care in those charged with doing carework but also that redressing the former does not guarantee altering the latter. In fact, those resistances are generally the least susceptible to change.

One way that feminist pedagogues might take care of Wollstonecraft’s legacy is to devise syllabi that are less linear in their construal of waves and less delineated in their concepts of womanhood. Though Wollstonecraft’s writings are not intersectional in the contemporary sense, that aims to expose how the experiences of Black women, owing to their multiple marginalization, are invisible to systems grounded in a logic of discrete categories, their depiction of mothering as an interaction between biology and textuality models a still-vital method for disrupting categories of identity altogether (Crenshaw). Such a course might feature care units that are topically intersectional, such as grouping A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Patricia William’s An Alchemy of Race and Rights, and Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein’s Caring in America. Or Letters Written during a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark with Gayle Rubin’s “Traffic in Women,” Aranye Fradenburg’s “Care of the Wild,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Julia Roxanne Wallace’s “Something Else to Be: Generations of Black Queer Brilliance and the Mobile Homecoming Experiential Archive.” Or Wrongs of Woman; or Maria with Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood, Lee Edelman’s No Future, Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. It might pair her correspondence and Godwin’s Memoir of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman with contemporary memoirs such as Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Alice Walker’s The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories, Andrea Dworkin’s Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant, Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart. It might even put her thinking on care in conversation with university studies and its efforts to make higher education more equitable, less corporatized, more radically liberal, also by changing the material conditions of teaching and scholarship. As survey data guiding my university’s discussion of improving campus child care opportunities indicate, far fewer male than female faculty perceive the availability of child care to be a “very serious” problem affecting their work life, and most white female faculty view it as a faculty-first issue until or even after they are reminded about staff and graduate student needs. It is regrettable that the institution established to foster minds in their complex interactions with brains, bodies, and environs remains so myopic in its imaginings of interdependence, especially when push comes to shove under racial capital. I think too that, for all her identification with men, Wollstonecraft identified with their having resources and wished to extend that privilege to herself and others. She was not afraid to make waves or to speak truth, including nonsense, to powerful men, and she was used to the experience of not feeling supported or being supported. I would want her in faculty meetings.

For persons whose starting points are inauspicious, who perceive the arts as relational and potentially transformational, who are committed to learning from an experience not held to be singular, and who both entertain and suspend the question of whether it is texts or persons that make living more bearable or more insufferable, the life writings of Mary Wollstonecraft have a lot to say. My sense is that their greatest potential lies in the portrayal of the evolving relationship between Maria and Jemima that was cut short by her death. Taught to perceive and treat each other as enemies because of the hostilities that class hierarchy breeds in both parties, Maria and Jemima are able to come together through an evolving complex of circumstances that Wrongs of Woman seeks to generalize and propagate. They are shown first to be thrown together by circumstances that they do not control and that are outside of any individual’s control, whose alteration requires a joining of forces. They join forces through separate experiences of gender subordination and a shared concern for a future embodied in a baby and a memoir over whose fate they have differentiated investments. They come to discover this common ground in their shared “fondness of reading” and through narrating their life stories to each other (Wrongs 114).

Attention to Jemima’s cultivated sensibility marks significant progress from Mary: A Fiction, where Mary’s involvement with the nameless “poor” expresses her benevolence but is unconcerned with discerning theirs, except to note their ingratitude. But Maria’s “often-repeated question” why Jemima’s “sentiments and language were superior” to her “station’” prompts new objections in the implied exceptionalism of Jemima’s having a “refined” sensibility, its alignment of class position with particular kinds of sentiment, and the presumed desirability of bourgeois refinement (Wrongs 113). It would be unwise to dismiss the still-patronizing attitude evident in Wollstonecraft’s depictions of this developing relationship and, thereby, to resist asking why the heightening of imagination celebrated in British Romanticism so often becomes a classist and racialized affront. But neither should we disregard two caveats offered in this depiction. For what is arguably exceptional is not Jemima’s rich mind but the fact that her “master” noticed and entered into dialogue with it, even requesting her opinion and feedback on his writings before submitting them to print (admittedly, so that he could “profit by the criticism of unsophisticated feeling”) (Wrongs 114). Too, the relationship that Maria and Jemima begin to form, though lopsided, is co-created in the process of each opening her heart to the other.

My interest in having intersectional feminists find reason to care for Wollstonecraft clearly says more about my desires than theirs or even hers. The investment has everything to do with the complex of my relational, intellectual, and professional histories that have positioned me to read her works more carefully than I have read most other writers. This would not be the first time that I have been guilty of poor object choice. But I hope that the desire is Wollstonecraftian in its attempts to lay bare various challenges to her legacy and address them in ways that reveal to subsequent readers what else needs to be taken down or more fully taken up. Caring for Wollstonecraft involves seeking to move on from wherever one starts up. We could start by hearing some different things in the mother of Western liberal feminism.

Works Cited

Ayres, Brenda. Betwixt and Between: The Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft. Anthem, 2017.
Boris, Eileen, and Jennifer Klein. Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State. Oxford UP, 2012.
Brugère, Fabienne. “Justice et sentiments moraux: Lectures de Martha Nussbaum et Joan Tronto.” Lumières, Septembre 2010, pp. 181–98.
———. L’Ethique du Care: que sais-je? Presses Universitaires de France, 2014.
Carlson, Julie A. England’s First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Johns Hopkins UP, 2007.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-68.
Fradenburg, Aranye. “Care of the Wild: A Primer.” Ecosophical Aesthetics: Art, Ethics, and Ecology with Guattari, edited by Colin Gardner and Patricia MacCormack, Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 65–95.
Godwin, William. “Of Choice in Reading.” Educational and Literary Writings, edited by Pamela Clemit, William Pickering, 1993, pp. 135–43.
Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley. Random House, 2015.
Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, Global. Oxford UP, 2006.
———. Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. U of Chicago P, 1993.
Hollway, Wendy. The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity. Routledge, 2006.
Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. U of California P, 1986.
Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. 2nd ed, U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke UP, 2003, pp. 123–52.
Sevenhuijsen, Selma. Citizenship and the Ethics of Care. Routledge, 1998.
Todd, Janet. Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle. Counterpoint, 2007.
———. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. Columbia UP, 2000.
Tronto, Joan. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. Routledge, 1993.
Wardle, Ralph, editor. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Cornell UP, 1979.
Williams, Carolyn. “‘Inhumanly Brought Back to Life and Misery’: Mary Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein, and the Royal Humane Society.” Women’s Writing, vol. 8, no. 2, 2001, pp. 213–34.
Williams, Fiona. Rethinking Families. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. 1796. Edited by Ingrid Horrocks, Broadview, 2013.
———. Mary: A Fiction. 1788. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, vol 1., Posthumous Works, William Pickering, 1989, pp. 1–74.
———. The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria. 1798. Posthumous Works, pp. 75–184.


1. Those rambles occur “[w]hen her mother frowned, and her friend looked cool” (15). [back]
2. More should be said of this “moistening” that rewards her philanthropic activities. [back]
3. “Dear Child—When Black Parents Have to Give ‘The Talk,’” (accessed 2 March 2018). [back]
4. My thinking on these dynamics are shaped by Mary Jane Davis Kennedy’s dissertation, New-born: Affect, Attachment, and the Infant Embodied Unconscious in Romantic Literature and Medicine, University of California, Santa Barbara, September 2018. [back]