The Philosopher and Her Poor: Wollstonecraft, Rancière, and the Rights and Duties of Humanity

"The Philosopher and Her Poor: Wollstonecraft, Rancière, and the Rights and Duties of Humanity" argues that Wollstonecraft asserts rights not as the corrective of localized wrongs (and thus the mirror image of the dominant order), but as the necessary correlative of duties. By formulating women’s work as duty—a form of rational, voluntary obligation that entails reciprocal relations, including rights—Wollstonecraft recasts the ostensibly apolitical obligations of women as the actions of the political subjects they already are. By shifting focus from the entitlement to rights to the performance of duty,  Wollstonecraft ties rights to the realization of one’s human capacities rather than status (wealth, rank, sex, or even humanity as mere species membership). She thereby creates the basis for a revolutionary political order that does not simply extend the prerogatives of an unjust status quo to new claimants but overturns the very structures that disbar women from exercising their rights.

The Philosopher and Her Poor: Wollstonecraft, Rancière, and the Rights and Duties of Humanity

1.        I take my title from Jacques Rancière’s The Philosopher and his Poor, which asks how those systematically excluded from philosophy and from politics—the poor, the worker, the disenfranchised, the enslaved, what he calls the “non-part”—come to take their rightful part or share in the world. [1]  Drawing on the Platonic insistence that no man can have more than one occupation—a shoemaker must only be a shoemaker and nothing more—Rancière shows how the strict division of labor elaborated in Plato’s Republic institutes an unjust order that cancels out the place of the poor, not least by securing the philosopher’s monopoly on thought. By aligning individuals and their purported abilities with fixed roles, this division codifies an essential character—an inalterable identity—that naturalizes a hierarchical order. Indeed, the shoemaker’s labor involves less the production of shoes than the reproduction of that order, for in doing only one thing, “the thing that marks him off and serves to put him in his place,” the shoemaker “does nothing but accredit, even at the cost of lying, the declared lie that puts him in his place” (Philosopher 22, 29). [2]  On what terms, Rancière asks, can this declared lie—this fundamental wrong in the construction of the political order—be corrected, enabling those who do not have rights to become subjects able to assert or enact these rights? How “can those whose business is not thinking assume the authority to think and thereby constitute themselves as thinking subjects?” (Philosopher xxvi). How are those excluded from philosophy and from politics to claim a place within the world?

2.        Inasmuch as the exclusion of what Rancière calls the “non-part” from the whole is not a reflection of the political order, but constitutive of it, the question of the poor or the “non-part” is not a challenge to the status quo that arises from the margins; it is intrinsic to the very structure of politics. Setting aside for the moment the slippage between literal and metaphorical uses of poverty in Rancière’s discussion, I want to think about the way questions of right and of rights issue from the wrongful exclusion of certain parties. The unequal distribution of rights in Rancière’s account is “not just the class struggle, internal dissension to be overcome by giving the city its principle of unity”; it is rather “the constitutive wrong or torsion of politics as such” (Disagreement 13, 14). That is, politics is not simply the relations that emerge from an anterior distribution of right (or rights) in a given order; instead, it is the manifestation of a fundamental wrong that unleashes the insurgent efforts of the non-part to take (its) equal part. “The struggle between the rich and the poor is not social reality, which politics then has to deal with,” Rancière contends. “It is the actual institution of politics itself” (Disagreement 11). On these terms, a constitutive wrong is always already internal to our discourses of right.

3.        In what follows, I want to use Rancière to address the way the revolutionary philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft thought about her poor—a group that, in eighteenth-century Britain and its empire, included not only the economically impoverished and the politically disenfranchised, but also women of all ranks, classes, and degrees of power. Like Rancière, Wollstonecraft places wrongs anterior to rights, recognizing how the unequal constitution of the political order comes before and lies behind the injustices done to women. Patriarchal domination is not the unrecognized backdrop in debates over the rights of man, but integral to the political order; women are active participants both in the oppressive status quo and in the revolutionary struggle against it, not passive bystanders upon whom prerogatives may be arbitrarily conferred. The struggle between men and women is not a social reality, which politics then has to deal with, but the actual institution of politics itself. On these terms, the wrongs done to women cannot simply be righted by expanding the numbers included in the status quo (by extending the franchise or giving select women power, for example), because the extension of the prerogatives of an unjust order to new claimants (whether the poor or women) leaves the underlying distribution of power, of visibility, intact. The extension of rights to new claimants will not suffice; the very terms on which rights are understood to exist must change. [3] 

4.        In reading Wollstonecraft with (and against) Rancière, I want to consider how his understanding of wrongs can help us grasp the terms of her reclamation of rights. Although gender is not a privileged category of analysis for Rancière (he does not single out women’s oppression as a special case, but treats it as yet another instantiation of injustice), the nigh-universal exclusion of women—half of the human race—from early political theory exemplifies his contention that politics emerge from a fundamental exclusion from the recognized order: an anterior distribution that decides who has power and who does not, who can speak and who can be heard. Enlarging an unjust political order does not produce justice; rather, the very basis for the distribution of rights must be revolutionized. It is for this reason, I argue, that Wollstonecraft asserts rights not as the corrective of localized wrongs (and thus the obverse or mirror image of the dominant order), but as the necessary correlative of duties. [4]  By formulating women’s toil as duty—a form of rational, voluntary obligation that entails reciprocal relations, including rights—Wollstonecraft shows how the existing status of women already harbors within it the grounds for women’s title to rights.

5.        Since Wollstonecraft insists that only human beings can have duties, the description of women’s activities as duty also implies a species classification, one that draws women into the compass of the revolutionary rights of man. Indeed, inasmuch as duties as ongoing actions constitute the subject who performs them, they enable new individuals and groups to join the circle of beings who possess what Hannah Arendt calls the “right to have rights,” by making human capacities and actions rather than property or inherited status into the basis for political personhood (Origins 296). Because duty is an ongoing activity intrinsic to the realization of one’s human purpose, the rights with which it is coupled cannot be static possessions that some parties have and others lack. Duty creates what might be called rights-enacting rather than rights-bearing subjects, enabling Wollstonecraft to circumvent the sharp division between human and political rights that has bedeviled philosophers from Edmund Burke to Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière. In insisting that “rights and duties are inseparable,” Wollstonecraft not only creates a space for those excluded a priori from the rights-bearing community, she also uses duty to reveal that women are already a part of the political order (266). By recasting the ostensibly apolitical obligations of women as the actions of political subjects, Wollstonecraft leverages the performance of duty into a reclamation of rights.

6.        At first glance, rights play a strangely marginal role in Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre, notwithstanding their titular centrality to both Vindications. Many critics have observed that Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on duty, education, and virtue seems like a deflection from the incendiary question of rights (ask not what you can do for women, but what women can do for you). Eileen Botting points to the fact that the Vindication of the Rights of Woman features “the term ‘rights’ thirty-two times,” while the word “duties” appears “three times as often” (78); Virginia Sapiro notes that Wollstonecraft’s stress on “virtue” marks her commitment to a civic republican tradition rather than to a Lockean discourse of rights and contract. Barbara Taylor, Susan James, and Sandrine Bergès, among others, have given pride of place to Wollstonecraft’s interest in education, prioritizing interdependence over the autonomy that holds sway over proprietary models of rights. [5]  Inasmuch as duty, virtue, and education create rational, moral free agents, they enable women to realize the humanity that makes one a rights-bearing subject. Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on duty places not the bare necessities of life but the exercise of human capacities at the heart of women’s claim to rights.

7.        Wollstonecraft’s commitment to human capacities and obligations as the basis for rights famously pits her against her contemporary Edmund Burke, who derides the “rights of man” as an airy metaphysical abstraction in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Rights established through mere human being have no force for Burke. “In proportion as they are metaphysically true,” he asserts, “they are morally or politically false” (153). Custom, property, and reverence for authority—“the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature”—secure the political order in Burke’s account. Without these collectively held fictions, “a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order” (171). Humanity here is not the basis of a common title to rights, but a residue left when the trappings of rank and tradition have been stripped away.

8.        Wollstonecraft excoriates Burke’s worship of the “demon of property” and the “pestiferous purple” both in her response to the Reflections, the Vindication of the Rights of Men, and in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (VRM 9; VRW 87). Devoted to “the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated,” Burke fails to recognize the way inherited privilege and the interests (national and private) of the propertied deform human nature: “The Briton takes the place of the man, and the image of God is lost in the citizen!” (VRM 10, 15). Whereas classical theories of political rights derive the possibility of equality from the supplanting of (unequal, because differently endowed) men by the fictive equality of the person (the man, the citizen), Wollstonecraft argues that the unequal distribution of political personhood introduces inequality within a community of otherwise equally entitled human beings. [6]  In her account, the replacement of the man by the citizen is a self-serving alibi for the degradation of one’s fellows to the status of beasts, as unjust prerogatives blind the privileged to the anterior claims of their fellows: “The man [is] changed into an artificial monster by the station in which he was born” (VRM 10). Burke rates the poor as little better than beasts. “Your respect for rank,” Wollstonecraft rages, “has swallowed up the common feelings of humanity; you seem to consider the poor as only the livestock of an estate, the feather of hereditary nobility” (VRM 17). Lacking the institutions (the state, the law, property) that would enable them to assert rights, the poor are at best entitled to compassion “extorted from a mixed feeling of disgust and animal sympathy” (VRM 11). Like Burke’s denuded queen, that animal “not of the highest order,” the poor are instances of bare shivering humanity, whose defenseless plight substantiates Burke’s claim that the “abstract perfection” of natural rights “is their practical defect,” for such rights can be enforced only “by a power out of themselves” (151).

9.        Burke’s treatise anticipates elements of Hannah Arendt’s influential description of the impotence of human rights in her account of the plight of stateless populations in the wake of World War I (to which, importantly for my purposes, Rancière responds). Indeed, Arendt invokes Burke’s pragmatic insistence that “the rights which we enjoy spring ‘from within the nation’” (Origins 299). Although the inalienable “rights of man” ostensibly require “no special law . . . to protect them because all laws were supposed to rest upon them,” Arendt notes, they cannot uphold themselves (291). Once “human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them” (292). Nationless refugees thus found themselves reduced to what Arendt famously called “the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human” (300). Stripped of “the protecting mask of a legal personality,” the mere human being is “without rights and duties, . . . outside the range of the law and the body politic of the citizens, as for instance a slave—but certainly a politically irrelevant being” (Revolution 108, 107). On these terms, the human rights granted to refugees and others are, for Arendt, empty—rights in name only, bestowed upon subjects bereft of the powers to wield them.

10.        The stark division between human and political rights that resides at the heart of Wollstonecraft’s struggle with Burke is likewise central to Rancière’s critique of Arendt’s description of human rights. Both Burke and Arendt see political rights as belonging to specific designated parties (for Burke the king, the propertied, authorities sanctioned by time and tradition; for Arendt citizens, or politically recognized “persons”). Yet if the community of rights-bearers is always already designated, how are the rightless to attain the rights from which they are categorically barred? Both Burke’s and Arendt’s accounts create an impasse in which, as Rancière has contended, “either the rights of the citizen are the rights of man—but the rights of man are the rights of the unpoliticized person; they are the rights of those who have no rights” or “the rights of man are the rights of the citizen . . . [which] means that they are the rights of those who have rights, which amounts to a tautology” (“Who?” 302). To treat only of political rights (or to treat human rights as if they can only be addressed in terms of preexisting political rights) is to accept the terms of a rigged system. That is, by creating a sharp line between the political and the nonpolitical subject, Arendt misrecognizes that it is precisely the drawing of this line—the exclusions made in the very constitution of the political—that is the political question par excellence. How, Rancière asks, can this line be redrawn?

11.        Rancière uses the human to relitigate this division, leveraging the ability to exercise human capacities to open up an exclusionary order, blurring the thresholds between the political and the nonpolitical, citizen and human. Describing the rights of man in deliberately paradoxical terms as “the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and who have the rights that they have not,” Rancière argues that rights are not “predicates belonging to definite subjects”—nominal possessions that some humans “have” and others do not—but generative principles that entitle their claimants to “a sphere of implementation of these predicates” (302, 303, 303). Rights, that is, create the “opening of an interval for political subjectivization,” in which subjects use rights that they do not (yet) possess (304). This seemingly contradictory formulation creates a kind of no-man’s (no-woman’s) land (or a not-yet-someone’s land) that tests the borders of inclusion and exclusion. In this paradoxical space in which one has and doesn’t have rights at one and the same time, those excluded from the political order can convert themselves from a “non-part” to a part (302).

12.        Inasmuch as “political predicates are open predicates,” Rancière argues, “they open up a dispute about what they exactly entail and whom they concern in which cases” (303). It is apt for my purposes that the example Rancière uses to illustrate this “dispute” is a statement made by another female revolutionary: not Wollstonecraft, but Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, who insisted that “if women are entitled to go to the scaffold, they are entitled to go to the assembly” (303). That the revolutionary government executes women, Rancière points out, reveals that their bare ostensibly apolitical lives are in fact always already political, for if women may be killed by the state, then they are recognized as subjects within it. [7]  Gouges’s claim to a right is not, Rancière points out, asserted directly or positively; it is instead “enacted in the process of a wrong,” in the construction of what Rancière calls a dissensus, which reveals the intractable contradictions at the heart of the social and political order by “putting two worlds”—in this case, the political life of the assembly (bios) and the “bare life” of the scaffold (zoe)—“in one and the same world” (304).

13.        Wollstonecraft likewise sought to create a dispute or dissensus that would carve out a place for her poor (that is, for women), not by extracting the possibility of a right from a wrong, but through her insistence on the inseparability of rights and duties. [8]  By shifting focus from the entitlement to rights to the performance of duty, Wollstonecraft grounds political participation in capacities for action rather than status (wealth, rank, sex, or even humanity as mere species membership). If, in Wollstonecraft’s account, the duties of women already exist, so too must the rights—even if they are yet to be acknowledged. If Olympe de Gouges insists that women’s presence on the scaffold entitles them to a seat in the assembly, Wollstonecraft argues that the performance of female domestic duties creates women’s title to political rights—not least because maternal duty entails what might be deemed the most political act of all: the reproduction and education of individuals who are considered to be citizens. [9] 

14.        In advancing this line of argument, Wollstonecraft exposes the contradiction between the rightless female body that produces subjects and the rights-bearing subjects that women bear, thus revealing the relations that Burke and Arendt would characterize as not-political to reside at the heart of politics. Her claim for women’s rights rests not on political personhood, but on maternal duty and the relations it posits between human beings. [10]  By making duty the basis of the right to have rights, Wollstonecraft reconfigures the very terms on which the subject can claim them. That is, she produces a title to political being grounded not in the fact of belonging to a specific subset (the rich, the propertied, the autonomous self-possessed subject), but predicated on the performance of actions that realize one’s humanity—on Rancière’s implementation of a political predicate.

15.        Inasmuch as duty, virtue, and education create rational, moral free agents, they enable women to achieve the humanity that makes one a rights-bearing subject. It is for this reason that Alexandre Lefebvre has argued that Wollstonecraft is interested less in the role of human rights “in protecting people” than in their “potential . . . to transform people . . . [by] modify[ing] the relation we have to ourselves” (182). For Wollstonecraft, Lefebvre claims, human rights are an aspirational mirror, the instruments of rational self-actualization, “educational in and of themselves” in that they enable women “to view themselves in the image of human rights, for example, as self-determining agents free of spurious needs and passions, and as human rather than female beings” (184). [11]  Serving “as the very content and medium of instruction,” human rights spur on the actualization of one’s human being (184). While for Lefebvre, rights anticipate the human subjects who will come to exercise them, duty, I want to argue, offers the means and immediacy of a present enactment, materializing virtue in practice by revealing that the subject is already the being she strives to be. If Rancière’s subjects “have the rights they do not have,” Wollstonecraft’s subjects have the virtue they do not have, realized through the enactment of duty that performs and creates the subjectivity that does not (yet) have rights. Duty thus does not de facto reproduce an oppressive division of labor; it entails forms of self-transformation that alter the very constitution of the political order. On these terms, duty precedes the acknowledgment of rights claims (if not the rights themselves), as humans perform subject-constituting activities in anticipation of legal and philosophical recognition of the human prerogatives they already possess.

16.        Duty creates rights-enacting rather than rights-bearing subjects, enabling Wollstonecraft to get around the sharp division between human and political rights that (as we saw above) Rancière condemns in Arendt’s account. Because duty is an ongoing activity intrinsic to the realization of one’s human purpose, the rights with which it is coupled cannot be static possessions that some parties have and others lack. For Wollstonecraft, capacities and actions rather than property or inherited status thus become the basis for rights. Put another way, neither men nor women “have” rights, for to “have” a right is to operate precisely according to a logic of possession that treats the class of rights-bearers as an already established fact. Instead, women and men perform the duties that show them to be—and enable them to become—rights-enacting subjects. Wollstonecraft thus uses duty to transform rights from something one has or owns into active principles acquired and wielded through virtuous action. As a result, rights may both be gained—and forfeited. As Wollstonecraft points out, those who fail to perform their duty—the idle rich who neglect their moral and political obligations—relinquish their rights: “A right always includes a duty,” Wollstonecraft notes, “and I think it may, likewise, fairly be inferred, that they forfeit the right, who do not fulfill the duty” (VRW 227). Prerogatives exercised without the counterweight of duty, Wollstonecraft insists, are not rights but tyrannical powers.

17.        At first glance Wollstonecraft’s insistence on duty may seem to reinstate a sexual division of labor that reinforces separate and unequal spheres. Even as Rancière’s shoemaker must stick to his last, so too are Wollstonecraft’s women seemingly enjoined to perform the very duties that trap them in patriarchal structures. Indeed, Wollstonecraft is careful to avoid intimating that she wishes to annihilate women’s customary obligations: “When I treat of the peculiar duties of women, as I should treat of the peculiar duties of a citizen or father, it will be found that I do not mean to insinuate that they should be taken out of their families, speaking of the majority” (VRW 132). Yet by placing women’s duties alongside the obligations of men as citizens and fathers, Wollstonecraft reclassifies women’s domestic labors as themselves political, and throughout the text, she harnesses the performance of domestic duties to a grander trajectory of human self-realization: “Connected with man as daughters, wives, and mothers,” she writes, “their moral character may be estimated by their manner of fulfilling these simple duties: but the end, the grand end of their exertions should be to unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue” (VRW 95). The duties with which men and women are charged are not outwardly imposed, circumscribed tasks, but subject-constituting activities, driven by an active imperative for human self-realization. [12] 

18.        Although the tasks of individuals may diverge depending on occupation, sex, rank, bodily strength, and skill, the principles that govern duty apply equally to all human beings. “I allow,” Wollstonecraft notes, that women “may have different duties to fulfil; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them . . . must be the same” (VRW 120). Notably, Wollstonecraft does not lean on a common “humanity” to justify women’s claims; instead, she treats “the human” as a modifier, a qualifier of an action rather than a noun: these are “human duties”—things that those who are to be considered human do. The humanity that for Wollstonecraft grounds a claim to human rights is not on these terms a simple matter of species belonging (in her account, women are often degraded to the status of prattling creatures, pets, birds). Rather, it involves the acquisition and exercise of reason and virtue (both qualities that distinguish humans from animals) through education and the performance of duty. “Reason,” Wollstonecraft insists, “is absolutely necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly,” for “it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (VRW 133, 90). Duties are “not the blind impulse of unerring instinct” that drives beasts (VRM 31). It is the knowing performance of a moral obligation that distinguishes duty from slavish toil in obedience to a command.

19.        Indeed, so fundamental is duty to Wollstonecraft’s understanding of humanity that those who thwart women in performing duties prevent them from realizing their human being, magnifying “their inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures” and creating the “doubt whether she is a moral agent, or the link which unites men with brutes” (VRW 104). To prevent women from performing their duty is to strip them of the virtue that “can only be acquired by the discharge of relative duties,” reducing them to “mere animals” (VRW 211, 76). It is on these terms, as Lena Halldenius argues, that we can argue that Wollstonecraft’s Vindication “is primarily about rights: a right to the circumstances in which we can legitimately be expected to perform the duty of virtue” ("Primacy" 80).

20.        It is because Wollstonecraft wishes for women to have rights in a just order, rather than powers in an unjust one, that she focuses on the reciprocal relationship of rights and duties rather than grounding her arguments for rights solely on the wrongs suffered by women. Whereas Olympe de Gouges uses wrongs to claim rights, as we saw above, Wollstonecraft fears that a claim to rights based on wrongs will reproduce the structural principles that perpetuate injustice: a politics that is premised on wrongs rather than duty cannot escape or revise the structures that have produced an unjust status quo. The reversal of a wrong does not a priori yield a symmetrical right, nor does the negation of one term offer a clear portrait of what its opposite might entail. While correlative theories entail the reflexive relation of rights and duties, the seeming symmetry of rights and wrongs entails a reversal in which the injury defines the nature of the right and the subject called into being is defined through a harm. As Wendy Brown has argued, “ideals of freedom ordinarily emerge to vanquish their imagined immediate enemies, but in this move they frequently recycle and reinstate rather than transform the terms of domination that generated them . . . without addressing the subject constitution that domination effects” (7). Discussions of rights that focus on the adjudication of wrongs recognize only sensibility (a property shared by animals) rather than reason or virtue (human qualities), recapitulating the structural disenfranchisement that casts women as victims (and thus as unqualified to become subjects of rights).

21.        Alleviating suffering palliates the overt injury, while leaving intact the real wrong (the anterior injustice, the lack of right, the underlying exclusion that constructs the political order). Thus, for example, men’s kindness to women, like their “tenderness for their humble dumb domestics,” reflects men’s duty to treat women gently, not an acknowledgement of women’s rights, while charity to the impoverished, Wollstonecraft observes, is condescension, not justice: “If the poor are in distress,” she notes, the rich “will make some benevolent exertions to assist them; they will confer obligations, but not do justice” (VRW 243; VRM 52). Rather than recognizing rights, the empowered confer—indeed, create—obligations. The act of “righting wrongs” thus installs certain parties as “the dispenser[s] of these rights,” as Gayatri Spivak has argued, confirming the existing monopoly on power by upholding the subordination of the weak to the empowered protectors or defenders of rights (524). Women and the poor are invited to feast on the crumbs dropped from the table rather than being offered a spot at it. It is in order to avoid this slippage from justice to benevolence that Wollstonecraft so insistently turns from the disempowering binary of right and wrong to the empowering reciprocity of rights and duties—a slippage also apparent in the elision of human rights and humanitarianism in our own day. [13] 

22.        Yet Wollstonecraft also cannily exploits this reduction of women to suffering objects in order to vindicate her claims, ruthlessly compelling her reader to follow through on the logic of the present system in an all-or-nothing gambit. If rights and duties are the god-given birthright of all human beings (not concessions made by the dominant class to the poor), the only argument that justifies their denial is the categorical reclassification of the claimant as an animal: “Let women share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must [either] grow more perfect when emancipated, or justify the authority that chains such a weak being to her duty.—If the latter, it will be expedient to open a fresh trade with Russia for [the] whips . . . [used by a husband or father to] reign, wielding this scepter, sole master of his house, because he is the only being in it who has reason” (266). Either the work that constitutes women’s duty is the activity of a rational (human) creature, in which case it demands the recognition of rights—or it is not, in which case women should be classed as animals. [14]  “Allowing this position,” Wollstonecraft continues, “women have not any inherent rights to claim; and by the same rule, their duties vanish, for rights and duties are inseparable” (266). In daring readers to try to do without the duties women already perform, Wollstonecraft raises the stakes even higher, exposing the centrality of women’s work to the reproduction of the very order upon which all alike depend.

23.        Wollstonecraft’s implacable logic creates precisely the kind of dissensus that Rancière identifies at the heart of Olympe de Gouges’s claim to women’s rights, but she does so not through wrongs, but through duties. If women are not rights-bearing entities, they have no duties; if they have duties, they must be rights-bearing entities. [15]  Either women are not human and should be treated as animals, or they are human and must be treated as such—in which case, the rights that are the necessary correlative of duty must accompany its fulfillment. Wollstonecraft thus exposes the dependence of the rights of man upon the toil of woman. Indeed, the rights of men are enacted as and through the wrongs of women.

24.        Yet Wollstonecraft’s theory is not wholly exempt from the modes of exploitation she condemns. The line she seeks to draw between elective duty and the rightless toil that reduces women to beasts of burden presupposes an independence from necessity that allows tasks to be freely chosen—a version of work largely unavailable to the poor. Wollstonecraft’s celebration of the dignity of duty obscures the imperatives that constrain actual labor and the ways unremitting toil degrades the worker, male and female alike. Indeed, even as Wollstonecraft turns “impatiently to the poor, to look for man undebauched by riches or power,” she discovers that privation and a lack of education have left him “scarcely above the brutes, over which he tyrannized; a broken spirit, worn- out body, and all those gross vices which the example of the rich, rudely copied, could produce” (VRM 58). Hard labor proves to be a material impediment to reflection or to revolutionary critique: “The vulgar have not the power of emptying their mind of the only ideas they imbibed whilst their hands were employed” (VRM 16–17). Unable to attain the disinterested stance of the philosopher necessary to critique the system, the “vulgar” swallow ideas decanted into them from above. The theoretical tools required to dismantle the master’s house cannot be fashioned by the poor themselves. Wollstonecraft’s theory, like that of Rancière’s philosopher, confines the shoemaker to his—or her—place. [16] 

25.        If the title of my essay, “The Philosopher and Her Poor,” takes the woman philosopher as a fait accompli, it also thereby dodges the question of how she attains a prerogative over thought in the first place—and at whose expense. Even as Wollstonecraft shares in the wrongs of women, she is the beneficiary of a division of intellectual labor that secures her monopoly over thought. The form of the philosophical text does not redistribute the authority to speak and the right to be heard; it leaves Rancière’s “partition of the sensible” intact—which is perhaps why Wollstonecraft, in her late political writings, turns to the novel to express the nature of these wrongs. Even as Rancière’s titular philosopher arrogates the right to speak for and about his poor, so too does Wollstonecraft assume a proprietary position of exteriority vis-à-vis her poor: the disenfranchised women whose rights she asserts. [17]  The exclusions that secure philosophical freedom through the subordination of others haunt Wollstonecraft’s text, leaving the fate of “her” poor—and the prerogatives they might claim beyond the rights and duties Wollstonecraft stakes out—an open question.

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———. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. Rev. ed., Harcourt, 1968.

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Bergès, Sandrine, and Alan M.S.J. Coffee, editors. The Social and Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft. Oxford UP, 2016.

Botting, Eileen Hunt. "Mary Wollstonecraft, Children’s Human Rights, and Animal Ethics." Bergès and Coffee, pp. 92–116.

———. Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights. Yale UP, 2016.

Brace, Laura. "Wollstonecraft and the Properties of (Anti-)Slavery." Bergès and Coffee, pp. 117–34.

Brown, Wendy. "Suffering the Paradoxes of Rights." Left Legalism/Left Critique, edited by Wendy Brown and Janet Halley, Duke UP, 2002, pp. 420–34.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edited by Conor Cruise O’Brien, Penguin, 2004.

Halldenius, Lena. "Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminist Critique of Property: On Becoming a Thief from Principle." Hypatia, vol. 29, no. 4, 2014, pp. 942–57.

———. "The Primacy of Right: On the Triad of Liberty, Equality and Virtue in Wollstonecraft’s Political Thought." British Journal for the History of Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 1, 2007, pp. 75–99.

James, Susan. "Mary Wollstonecraft’s Conception of Rights." Bergès and Coffee, pp. 148–65.

Lefebvre, Alexandre. "Mary Wollstonecraft, Human Rights, and the Care of the Self." Humanity, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 179–200.

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———. The Philosopher and His Poor. Translated by John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker, edited by Andrew Parker, Duke UP, 2004.

———. The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, 2004.

———. "Ten Theses on Politics." Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, translated by Steven Corcoran, Bloomsbury Academic, 2010, pp. 35–52.

———. "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2/3, 2004, pp. 297–310.

Ruston, Sharon. Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science and Medicine of the 1790s. Palgrave, 2013.

Sapiro, Virginia. A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Seeber, Barbara. "‘I Sympathize in Their Pains and Pleasures’: Women and Animals in Mary Wollstonecraft." Animal Subjects: An Ethical Reader in a Posthuman World, edited by Jodey Castricano, Wilfred Laurier UP, 2008, pp. 223–40.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Righting Wrongs." South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2/3, 2004, pp. 523–81.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge UP, 2003.

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———. A Vindication of the Rights of Men. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, volume 5, New York UP, 1989.

———. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, volume 5, New York UP, 1989.


[1] For Rancière, “the poor” includes not just the “economically disadvantaged part of the population,” but also “the people who do not count, who have no entitlement to exercise the power of the archê, none for which they might be counted” (Rancière, “Ten Theses” 32). BACK

[2] If one’s place in the order of things exhausts one’s identity, then there is no surplus, no room to maneuver, no means to reallocate, power, resources, or speech within what Rancière calls the “distribution or partition of the sensible.” On the distribution, see The Politics of Aesthetics, especially pp. 9–45. BACK

[3] When we attribute rights to certain individuals, and then enlarge the sphere of rights-bearing persons one by one, as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, we are not really working with a universal; instead, we are reinscribing the initial division within an ever-growing class. That is, if human rights start with two individuals made equal and then expand outwards, then we must always grapple with the inequality between the initial two and the rest. See Balibar. BACK

[4] “In eighteenth-century British political thought, rights such as freedom of conscience were often paired with duties such as religious tolerance. In such moral pairings, rights were understood as correlative, or reflexive and relational. Such correlative rights served as a kind of practical shorthand for abstract moral principles that defined ethical human relationships and obligations to one another within political communities” (Botting, Wollstonecraft 31). BACK

[5] James notes that Wollstonecraft sees “our rights as powers that are created by the institutional and personal relations between many embodied individuals. . . . Locating our rights or powers to act in individuals is a sort of shorthand. . . . If we want to concentrate rights . . . in individual hands . . . we need to start, as Wollstonecraft does, from the recognition of our mutual dependence” (159–60). BACK

[6] For Arendt, “we are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights” (Arendt 301). BACK

[7] It is worth noting that Arendt registers this argument in Origins. Stateless people are deprived of legality in a way that leaves them worse off than criminals: “It seems to be easier to deprive a completely innocent person of legality than someone who has committed an offence. . . . The deprivation of legality, i.e., of all rights, no longer has a connection with specific crimes” (295). Wollstonecraft notes that women are “denied all political privileges, and [are] not allowed, as married women, excepting in criminal cases, a civil existence” (VRW 256). The law only acts to protect women when the violation is materialized as physical violence: “The laws of this country—if women have a country—afford her no protection or redress from the oppressor, unless she has the plea of bodily fear” (Maria 92). BACK

[8] Wollstonecraft recognizes the connection between sexual and economic oppression, even as she distinguishes between them. Lena Halldenius argues that what distinguishes the oppressed state of women from that of the poor for Wollstonecraft is not any intrinsic difference in their oppression, but the addition of “a ‘false morality’ identifying a woman’s virtue with subjugation and passivity” (Halldenius, "Primacy" 78). BACK

[9] On Wollstonecraft and maternal duty, see Sapiro, 154–61. Wollstonecraft states that women’s first duty is “to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother” (VRW 216). If duty is a form of subject-constituting labor that for women involves the reproduction of others, to what degree is that labor absorbed by the self? Wollstonecraft’s model of maternal duty intersects with questions of property and the rights understood to issue from such claims. In a 1794 letter, Wollstonecraft uses Locke’s model of labor to stake a claim to women’s propriety over children: “Considering the care and anxiety a woman must have about a child before it comes into the world, it seems to me, by a natural right, to belong to her” (qtd. in Sapiro 157). Yet Wollstonecraft elsewhere pits herself against Lockean models of ownership as the basis for rights, as Lena Halldenius has argued, questioning the assimilation of the fruits of workers’ labor into the masters’ property and—by extension—the notion that parental labor grants similar rights over children ("Feminist Critique"). BACK

[10] She thereby changes the basis for rights claims so as to circumvent what Wendy Brown describes as one of the key paradoxes of rights. Since masculinist rights discourse “presumes an ontologically autonomous, self-sufficient, unencumbered subject,” Brown argues, early feminists like Wollstonecraft “were arguing for something that could not be produced without simultaneously demanding a transformation in the nature of what they were arguing for, namely, the ‘rights of man’ for women. . . . Women both require access to the existence of this fictional subject and are systematically excluded from it by the gendered terms of liberalism” (431). BACK

[11] Lefebvre’s account affords a way out of the circular logic that haunts Wollstonecraft’s text, in which the realization of subjectivity can start to seem like a form of autopoeisis. Each component of Wollstonecraft’s virtue-duty-reason nexus appears to depend upon the others: if, as Wollstonecraft affirms, “every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason,” but virtue depends upon duty, and duty requires reason, what comes first (VRW 90)? In order to escape from this circular logic, Wollstonecraft construes politics not as a sphere but as a process by which subjects are constituted in an ongoing fashion. BACK

[12] Women are “human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed upon this earth to unfold their faculties” (VRW 74), and thus have, as Botting puts it, a “duty to develop their moral and intellectual potential as rational creatures of God.” Humanity furnishes a “naturalistic foundation” for rights claims prior to the institution of a social order able to assert normative standards (Wollstonecraft 51, 74). Her version of humanity is grounded in god-given capacities, a theological model that embraces perfectibility in a future orientation. BACK

[13] Indeed, the compassionate treatment of women or the poor is distressingly close to the treatment Wollstonecraft advocates for animals. For Wollstonecraft, kindness to animals is a human duty, not an animal right, for the correlative theory of duties and rights does not extend to beasts: “While humans had a duty to respect sentient life,” Botting notes, “animals did not have a corresponding right to be free from abuse by humans.” The claim that something should not be harmed (the recognition that it may be wronged) does not entail rights—nor does it acknowledge the humanity of the victims (Botting, "Mary Wollstonecraft" 94). On Wollstonecraft’s view of the human distinction from animals, see Ruston 28–62 and Seeber; on Wollstonecraft and slavery, see Brace. BACK

[14] “Should it appear,” Wollstonecraft observes, “that like the brutes, [women] were principally created for the use of man, he will let them patiently bite the bridle, or should their rationality be proved he will not impede their improvement merely to gratify his sexual appetites” (104). BACK

[15] “If you do not respect people’s rights,” as Halldenius puts it, “you are not entitled to expect them to perform duties, for the simple reason that they do not have any” ("Primacy" 90). By grounding rights not in property but human reason, she allows the excluded to accede to the title; her emphasis on education offers us a subject that doesn’t already exist but can come to be. BACK

[16] In a material sense, eighteenth-century Englishwomen of course could not readily become shoemakers, which is one of the reasons Wollstonecraft gives such centrality to women’s right to work, on the one hand, and to the right to keep the fruit of one’s labors as opposed to property, on the other. “A man with half my industry, and, I may say, abilities, could have procured a decent livelihood, and discharged some of the duties which knit mankind together,” the abused servant Jemima charges in Maria, “whilst I, who had acquired a taste for the rational, nay, in honest pride let me assert it, the virtuous enjoyments of life, was cast aside as the filth of society” (49). The capacity to support oneself here becomes the basis for belonging to the social and political community. Deprived of the ability to work, Jemima cannot gain the basic necessities required to perform her civic duty. BACK

[17] The uneasy relation Wollstonecraft takes to “the poor” on whose behalf she (intermittently) speaks is evident in her pronoun usage throughout the Vindication, where she shifts from the first person “I” to an inclusive “we” to a third-person characterization of women. If at times she identifies herself as a woman (“my own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures”), at others she separates herself from the disenfranchised category of “woman” she claims to represent (“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves”) (VRW 75, 131). The economically impoverished—the literal rather than the metaphorical poor—are described by Wollstonecraft in the third person, typically en masse as the collective poor. Wollstonecraft’s philosophical voice thus claims a monopoly on discourse, reinscribing the fundamental political wrong that excludes the non-part from its rightful place. BACK


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