Wollstonecraft, Mother of Feminist Memes

Eileen Hunt Botting (University of Notre Dame)

In 2016, Hillary Clinton—the first woman nominated by a major party to run for the office of the U.S. presidency—tried and failed to take control of the memes circulating around her political identity. Alt-right social media posts, tweets, and news articles literally pictured her as a devil, a zombie, or in prison. In this ultraconservative media stream, Hillary was hardly presidential material. She was, rather, an establishment politician from hell who was heading to jail for her supposed crimes—that is, if she didn’t die first from the health problems that her campaign was desperately hiding from the public.

In response, Clinton and her supporters tried to take “the high road.” They produced some signature memes of the campaign, which underscored her qualifications for the presidency (see Texts from Hillary), her solidarity with girls, women, and minorities (through the Pantsuit Nation secret Facebook group), and her hopeful, progressive vision of social justice for all (such as “I’m with Her” or “H→”) (Thrift). They also strove to subvert the misogynist language streaming forth from Trump and his followers (Martin). By appropriating a Trumpian term of hate like “Nasty Woman,” encircling the insult in a red heart, and wearing the new logo on T-shirts for social media selfies, they put a positive yet defiant spin on one of the opposition’s malicious memes, transforming it into a code word for the cause to elect the first American woman president (Petrarca; Hess).

We all know who won this “meme warfare” (Boyd; Haddow). Former U.S. senator and secretary of state Clinton’s typically upbeat, liberal, and cosmopolitan message was trumped by the consistently negative, nationalistic, overtly white-male-supremacist campaigning of her rival, a man without political experience. A few days before Donald J. Trump won the White House without a majority of the popular vote (and to the surprise of most of the media, the political establishment, and the profession of political science), the British journalist Douglas Haddow remarked: “memes are ruining democracy” and have “poisoned the U.S. election” through their “mass replication” (Haddow).

Haddow’s then ominous, now prescient remark about the spread of politically poisonous memes raises some theoretical questions. What is a meme? What does it mean for a meme to be poisonous? How and why do memes replicate on a mass scale? To address these and other questions provoked by the unexpected outcome of Clinton’s loss to Trump, this essay clarifies the meaning of the meme and its roles in representing women in politics since the time of Mary Wollstonecraft. As scholars of British Romantic and Victorian literature know well, Mary

I use Wollstonecraft’s first name occasionally to underscore the similarity of her public and political reception to Hillary’s. For women—especially those who are women’s rights advocates—first-name recognition can be good or bad, because it does not always connote respect, and can often reduce the woman to stereotypes associated with her gender.

—much like Hillary more than two centuries after her—has been the subject of many portraits in the public sphere. These portraits—good, bad, and ugly—have shaped the trajectory of feminist politics worldwide (Kaplan 246–70).

Elsewhere I have argued that Wollstonecraft was the first woman to become an international feminist meme—or a highly visible, malleable, and cross-national symbol of the women’s movement—due to the transatlantic marking of the major centennials of her life, work, and death in the 1890s (Botting, Carey, and Wilkerson 13–38; Botting, Wollstonecraft, Mill 204–48). Even from the 1790s onward, she has been a widely recognized and controversial symbol for women’s rights, wielded by both critics and adherents alike, across languages, cultures, and nations. Like Hillary, Mary has done better internationally than in her often-hostile homeland in terms of her public reception (Botting, “Making” 273–95; Botting, “Wollstonecraft in Europe” 503–27). The study of the evolution of the Wollstonecraft meme in several of its symbolic iterations—both negative and positive—yields some important lessons for future feminist interventions in the risky and virulent politics of meme warfare. As Clinton’s defeat indicates, there is an urgent need for twenty-first-century feminists of all stripes to strategize the successful manipulation of the meme for their political ends. Now that the internet meme has become one of the most vital and volatile conveyors of ideas in contemporary politics, feminists must learn from their past (including their past mistakes) to tap the full power of the meme as a strategic asset, not a liability, for their common causes.

What Is a (Feminist) Meme?

Before we understand the historical development of the meme and its relationship to feminism and other forms of politics, we need to define what a meme is (Botting, “Why Memes Matter”). Memes are a staple of contemporary popular culture, but most people would be hard-pressed to define what exactly they are. Simply put, memes are broadly identifiable yet variously replicated symbols of ideas. In the twenty-first century, most people associate the meme with social media, in which a photo or picture is posted, circulated, annotated with a brief quote or slogan, then recirculated and reedited into new iterations of the original meme.

Within contemporary feminism, one famous recent example of such an internet meme is “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” a series of images of the “sensitive” male actor emblazoned with woman-friendly invitations such as “Hey girl, keep your laws off my body, but keep your hands on it.” As this example suggests, internet memes can be vehicles for irony and wry discontent with the status quo. They can also be more straightforward means of conveying information, supporting causes, and spreading awareness. “Feminist Ryan Gosling” aims to achieve the latter goals by educating people about basic feminist ideas in a funny and memorable way. While directed at an imaginary female audience, these feminist memes are not only for women. A recent study has shown that men are more likely to support feminist ideas after viewing the original “Feminist Ryan Gosling” memes. Danielle Henderson, a graduate student in gender studies, began to create the memes in 2011 in order to make some of the fundamental points of feminist theory more accessible and understandable to broader audience (Henderson).

Richard Dawkins invented the term meme to describe the nonteleological, evolutionary cultural process by which social symbols are formed, cross-fertilized, and reproduced in new and diverse iterations of an original (or “genetic”) idea (Dawkins 192, 322). Richard Rorty argued in turn that “memes are things like turns of speech, terms of aesthetic or moral praise, political slogans, proverbs, musical phrases, stereotypical icons, and the like” (Rorty 22). Upholding the political relevance of Dawkins’s concept for a pragmatic conception of feminism, Rorty explained that “different batches of . . . memes are carried by different human social groups, and so the triumph of one such group amounts to the triumph of those . . . memes” (Rorty 22). In this light, feminist memes can be understood as dominant clusters of public symbols that influence and embody the political ideas of the movement for women’s liberation from conditions of patriarchal oppression.

At first glance, memes may look like irrational or nonrational replications of stereotypes, as Colin McGinn recently argued. On this reading, memes are merely a series of reductive symbols produced by a random network of people. As such, memes lack substance or the capability to convey any truth: as mere stereotypes, they can only perpetuate stereotypes and untruths, such as racist (or also, on McGinn’s reading, religious) ideas. McGinn contrasts memes with “themes,” such as well-known refrains from classical music or other products of what he (rather exclusively) defines as human rationality, such as scientific concepts or theories.

Contra McGinn, I contend that the history of feminism suggests precisely the opposite about the relevance of the meme for philosophy and politics. Despite their seemingly superficial treatment of ideas, memes have proven to be powerful means for the public exchange of and critical engagement with complex feminist theories. The global popularity of “Feminist Ryan Gosling” alone suggests that, even in their less academic and political forms, memes can play an important role in the public representation of challenging, rapidly changing, and often abstruse ideas about gender, sex, and sexuality. “Rosie the Riveter” is another example of a meme that has had incredible staying power and cross-cultural appeal for feminism despite its specific genesis in U.S. propaganda during the Second World War.

Contemporary artist Barbara Kruger’s work from the 1980s—especially a poster developed for a pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C.—is another watershed for the emergence of the modern feminist meme. In “Untitled” (1989), Kruger bisected a photo of a female model’s face, depicting one side as the negative image of the other. She sliced the bright-red slogan “Your body is a battleground” through the center of the picture. Through the cutting of the woman’s face into opposing halves, the striking reversals of color (black/white, red/monochrome), and the superimposition of text that can be read in different ways, Kruger created a multilayered political statement. “Untitled” at once exposes the divisiveness of abortion politics, the media’s harmful distortion of women’s self-images, the objectification of women’s bodies for men’s sexual and reproductive ends, and even the ironies of the feminist movement to “reclaim” or “defend” women’s bodily autonomy from domination under antiabortion policies. Kruger’s innovative combination of iconic imagery and ironic slogans in her artwork has since become a model for memes of all kinds, but perhaps especially the feminist memes shared on the pathways of the internet.

In his book Media Virus (1994), Douglas Rushkoff developed an interpretive framework for understanding the virulent spread of memes through modern media. He conceptualized memes as a kind of “ideological code” that spread, like a virus, through media networks (Rushkoff 9–10). Memes attached themselves to whichever hosts proved hospitable for the reproduction and spread of their views, whether in belief, action, voice, print, or art. Rushkoff concluded that memes “infiltrate the way we do business, educate ourselves, interact with each other—even the way we perceive ‘reality’” (9–10).

Ruskoff’s theory of meme replication as akin to viral transmission influenced activist Andrew Boyd, who coined the term meme warfare in 2002. Boyd argued that memes had become the most significant political weapons in “the matrix of hearts and minds and media” that was “a vast theatre of viral warfare” (Boyd). Like other political movements, feminism has found its way into this vast twenty-first-century theatre of art and war, a virtual and digital battleground of signs and symbols. In order to navigate its own path through that battleground, feminism must pay heed to its past—especially the global reception of one of its founders—as a guide for successful political action in the present and future.

Wollstonecraft as Mother of the Feminist Meme

Long before “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” “Your Body is a Battleground,” and “Rosie the Riveter,” feminists across eras and cultures have made use of the meme for thoughtful and deliberate political purposes. Mary Wollstonecraft was exceptional in this regard for two reasons. First, it is widely known that she became a kind of putty in the hands of her patriarchal critics, especially after her untimely death from a childbirth infection in 1797. Her husband William Godwin’s well-meaning posthumous tribute, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), shared too much information with the conservative British public about Wollstonecraft’s experiences with love outside of the institution of patriarchal marriage. English anti-Jacobin (anti–French Revolution) writers such as Richard Polwhele and John Corry seized the opportunity to recast Wollstonecraft in the image of their own critique of early feminist ideas, upholding her as the fallen woman in an oft-told morality tale detailing the inevitably tragic consequences of the permissive sexual behavior of the radicals of the Revolutionary era (Botting, “Wollstonecraft in Europe,” 503–27).

In 1798, John Chapman created a stipple engraving of “Mrs. Godwin” —preserved by the National Portrait Gallery, London—which built upon these anti-Jacobin stereotypes of Wollstonecraft. Chapman altered Wollstonecraft’s 1797 portrait by John Opie so that she looked masculine in her facial features, and donned a hat typically worn by male supporters of the French Revolution, thus signaling to the public that her feminist ideas were a threat to womanhood itself. While these antifeminist morality tales instigated a negative trend in the reception of Wollstonecraft, especially in Britain during the Napoleonic era, they also made her even more famous worldwide.

With the international spread of newspapers and other journalistic media in the nineteenth century, Wollstonecraft became the household name for what she stood for—women’s rights (Botting, “Making” 273–95). Whether loved or hated, she was a highly visible symbol of nascent feminist ideas of love, marriage, liberty, and citizenship, especially in continental Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Botting, “Making” 273–95; Botting, “Wollstonecraft in Europe” 503–27; Botting and Matthews, “Overthrowing” 64–83). By 1915, The New York Times could claim in a headline that the “Woman Suffrage Campaign” began with a book by “Mary Wollstonecraft More Than a Century Ago,” and append to the article an overtly feminized portrait-meme based upon the 1797 painting by John Opie.

Less discussed is a second political and literary trend that Wollstonecraft herself instigated with her first, quasi-autobiographical novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788). A decade before the British anti-Jacobin critics turned her into a symbol of the dangerous assertion of women’s rights, Wollstonecraft made herself into a feminist meme by sharing in the public sphere a series of powerful arguments and vivid stories about her experiences and observations of women’s oppression on the basis of their sex. Between the publication of Mary and her last, unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798), she self-reflectively fashioned (and refashioned) her public personae through the creation of literary personae who were composites of herself and other women in her life. She became we. Mary in her different incarnations was at once a woman philosopher who argued for equal rights for the sexes, a melancholic yet heroic survivor of a bad romance, and an “everywoman” who had suffered oppression due to sexual discrimination. From her autobiographically inflected novels to her published letters to her political treatises, Wollstonecraft’s various self-images led to countless public reimaginings of the meaning of her life and writings for the evolution of feminism itself.

One of the unsung, yet strikingly successful, political strategies of first-wave feminists was to reclaim and repurpose negative memes of Wollstonecraft for the sake of fostering the authority, public appeal, and internal solidarity of their women’s movements. A veritable pantheon of first-wave feminist writers—Hannah Mather Crocker, Flora Tristan, Lucretia Mott, Margaret Fuller, George Eliot, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Olive Schreiner, Bertha Pappenheim, Elvira López, Ruth Benedict, Emma Goldman, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Virginia Woolf—looked back to Wollstonecraft’s life and ideas as an inspiration for their own pathbreaking storytelling and argumentation concerning the political urgency of the growing cause of the rights of women worldwide. Immortalizing in literature Wollstonecraft’s staying power as a feminist meme, Woolf wrote in 1929: “She is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living” (176).

The Feminist Meme after Mary: Hillary, Malala, Emma, and Back Again

Back in the twenty-first century, Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, and Emma Watson are among the recent iconic counterparts to Wollstonecraft, the mother of modern feminist memes. Hillary has taken a long journey of public refashioning of herself. Her career has been a case study in cultivating political personae, beginning in the 1970s when the star graduate of Yale Law School chose to support her husband’s aspirations for the presidency rather than immediately pursue political office, and extending into the 2000s when she used her years as a U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state to define her global political identity as the first competitive female candidate for the U.S. presidency (Clinton i). While there have been many negative iterations of the Hillary meme—often making the lame suggestion she is actually a man in drag, much like Horace Walpole derided Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats”—these insults have in fact fueled her visibility as a significant political actor on the national and international stage (Walpole 337–38).

Critical responses to misogynistic Hillary memes have also trained two generations of feminists in the art of public defense of their favored political candidates. This is true on the national as well as international level. In 2015, Malala undercut the misogynistic meme of Hillary (or any woman) as unqualified to serve in the highest political offices of the world: “Even in America, even in America, people are waiting for a woman president” (qtd. in Porges). Malala’s own shifting self-narratives have likewise made her, arguably, among the most influential international feminist memes (and meme-makers) today. The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize—awarded for her death-defying advocacy of the education of girls against the wishes of the Taliban—Malala now owns the internet when it comes to one of Hillary’s signature slogans, “Women’s rights are human rights.” This political slogan is philosophically rooted in the watershed arguments of Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Botting, Wollstonecraft, Mill 1–17). Hillary’s signature meme and Malala’s iteration of it therefore reproduce a venerable tradition of feminist argumentation dating to the French Revolutionary period.

Interviewed in 2015 by Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, Malala helped to define feminism—a controversial word in her Islamic culture that she had carefully avoided in her previous speeches and writings—in a way that would appeal to the broadest possible audience. As she simply and clearly put it: “Feminism is another word for equality” (qtd. in Vagianos). This slogan has since appeared under the image of Yousafzai with Watson, and circulated in various mimetic forms on the internet—producing yet another testament to the power of memes (and their makers) to thoughtfully and rationally engage, and thereby advance, the ideas of feminism worldwide (Vagianos). The 2016 Hillary presidential campaign made a meme of this interview, with the text “I really think America needs a woman president” superimposed on the GIF of Emma and Malala conversing. Though on one level arguably parasitic, such a strategic appropriation of the Malala-Emma GIF demonstrates the ways that feminist memes—like memes more broadly—grow and spread through symbolic cross-pollination.

During her 2016 campaign for the presidency, Hillary embraced this tradition of making women (including herself) into positive memes for the sake of advancing women’s rights. In response to waves of misogynist attacks from the Trump campaign, Team Hillary—both her official and her grassroots campaigners—gave her public image a series of upbeat, appealing, good-humored makeovers. A working woman who once looked down on baking cookies became a maternal executive. The lying yet loyal First Lady became a strongly patriotic yet fiercely private world leader. She rose from the ashes of the scandals of Lewinsky, Benghazi, and “emailgate” to assume the pop-feminist incarnation of “Notorious HRC.” Even as many wished her to go to prison for her cache of top-secret emails, a growing number saw her “notorious” history as an asset in the dark and dangerous realms of presidential and international politics. Neither a devil nor a witch, she became in these memes a powerful stateswoman poised to do what it took to protect her nation from threats both domestic and international. Called a “progressive hawk,” she was represented as prepared to take down tyrants through special ops, beat a would-be dictator in a high-stakes presidential election, and make hard yet sober choices to defend her country’s security and other political interests on the global political stage (Cassidy). Almost every negative or mocking image of Hillary was turned upside down and transformed to advance her campaign for the presidency.

Was it all for naught? However creative, funny, and smart they may have been, the feminist memes made for Hillary’s 2016 campaign did not succeed in shattering that last glass ceiling for women in world politics: the U.S. presidency. In a conservative postmortem on the election results, Mark Lilla gleefully surmised that Hillary’s defeat marked the end of “identity politics,” including feminism: no longer could liberals assume that diffuse and abstract ideas such as “diversity” could successfully unite people around concrete and viable candidates, platforms, and policies (Lilla).

While nicely acerbic, Lilla’s critique of liberalism and feminism is (ironically, for an intellectual historian) conveniently shortsighted. If he took the long view—all the way back to the time of the French Revolution and its aftermath—he’d see that other feminists, such as Wollstonecraft and many of her followers, had suffered grave defeats and yet rose from the ashes, phoenix-like, in new, even more politically salient forms. Against this background, the 2016 U.S. presidential election marked not the end of feminism but the need for its rebirth in new political media.

Those new political forms include the ever-malleable, though still potent, feminist meme. If there is any lesson that Wollstonecraft and her many memes teach twenty-first-century feminisms, it’s the power of rebirthing and reshaping old ideas through new words, images, and media. Applying ourselves to this historic feminist task, especially in the wake of defeat, is the only path toward a new, hopefully successful, form of democratic politics that puts the protection of the rights of all people at its core. Sound familiar? It should. For readers of Wollstonecraft, the path forward for twenty-first-century feminisms will feel like an uncanny return to some of the guiding principles of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which have been reinvigorated by the many mimetic iterations of the book and author in the centuries since.

Works Cited

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———. “Wollstonecraft in Europe, 1792–1904: A Revisionist Reception History.” History of European Ideas, vol. 39, no. 4, 2013, pp. 503–27.
———. Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights. Yale UP, 2016.
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1. Portions of this essay appeared here in the Yale Press Blog in May 2016; I have substantially revised and expanded that argument in light of the unexpected results of the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. [back]
2. I use Wollstonecraft’s first name occasionally to underscore the similarity of her public and political reception to Hillary’s. For women—especially those who are women’s rights advocates—first-name recognition can be good or bad, because it does not always connote respect, and can often reduce the woman to stereotypes associated with her gender. [back]