Mary Wollstonecraft, Feminist Killjoy

This essay takes up the longstanding association between Wollstonecraft, feminism, and joylessness via feminist critic Sara Ahmed’s ironic appropriation of the term “feminist killjoy.” I argue that Wollstonecraft’s specific claim to being a killjoy can be traced to the mid-twentieth century, when two American ego psychologists, obsessed with what they called Wollstonecraft’s “twisted personality,” seized on her personal biography with a determined vengeance in their book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), and forged the still unbreakable link between Wollstonecraft and the annihilation of joy.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Feminist Killjoy

1.        Few would disagree that, by most standards, Mary Wollstonecraft is key to Western feminism’s scene of origin, with all the weighty burdens and responsibilities—and only some of the romance—that goes along with being the origin of anything. Some might also suggest that Wollstonecraft is the original “feminist killjoy,” a term recently popularized by feminist scholar and activist Sara Ahmed. Ahmed’s ongoing blog, feministkilljoys, is subtitled “killing joy as a world making project.” Her wry and ironic appropriation conjures the specter of Wollstonecraft, the world-making feminist who has long had the dubious privilege of being associated with an emotional register that swings from one form of joy-killing affect to another (anger, resentment, jealousy, suicidal despair, murderous rage). I would argue, furthermore, that Wollstonecraft’s specific claim to being a feminist killjoy can be traced to the mid-twentieth century, when two American ego psychologists seized on her personal biography with a determined vengeance and forged the still unbreakable link between Wollstonecraft, feminism, and joylessness. Marynia F. Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, published in 1947, was an instant bestseller. Written and published in the hothouse of American postwar anxieties about the need to redomesticate women, Modern Woman provided the pseudoscientific justification necessary for the argument that women must return to the home to fulfill their logical, natural role as mothers and domestic managers. Now remembered mainly for its central part in shaping postwar conceptions of normative family life, Modern Woman was crucial in popularizing the idea that feminism, in thrall to modernity, was world-destroying, and that Wollstonecraft, the “modern woman,” was largely responsible for this sad state of affairs. Modern Woman performs what Janet Todd has called, with great understatement, “an extraordinary retrospective psychoanalysis” of Wollstonecraft (728). With good reason, feminist commentators on Wollstonecraft have in the main refused to grant further authority to “a hostile team of Freudian epigones,” in the words of Margaret George, author of one of the earliest second-wave feminist biographies of Wollstonecraft (11). [1]  But the reluctance to engage with Modern Woman’s cartoonish depiction of Wollstonecraft has not, I would argue, been without its costs. A fuller reading of Modern Woman’s “analysis” goes a long way towards clarifying the source of some of the intensely negative affect that has long surrounded both Wollstonecraft and feminism. As seeming exemplars of the mid-twentieth-century social scientific establishment and its celebratory modernity—Farnham was a psychiatrist and Lundberg was a journalist and sociologist—the authors of Modern Woman were strangely passionate in their fierce defense of tradition. For Modern Woman, Wollstonecraft personifies the “killjoy” whose world-destroying modernity annihilates everything in its path and must be stopped.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Personality

2.        “Mary Wollstonecraft’s life reads like a psychiatric case history,” Farnham and Lundberg begin, speculating that had “psychoanalysis existed in 1792,”

and had a psychoanalyst (Freud, let us fancy) been reviewing A Vindication for one of the journals of the day, he would have been able to come at once to many certain conclusions about the unknown author. . . . As he read, our imaginary psychoanalyst of 1792 would not too slowly have come to the conclusion that the author was afflicted with a severe case of “penis-envy,” a term the founder of psychoanalysis coined to describe the attitude of those women who envy and constantly measure themselves against men, consciously or unconsciously. They can, so they fantasy, do anything a man can do. . . .The shadow of the phallus lay darkly, threateningly, over every move [Wollstonecraft] made, as it lay over the minds of the latter-day feminists. (149)
Analyzing Wollstonecraft according to the terms of an unrelenting Freudianism that saw “penis-envy” as the structuring force driving her neurotically fueled feminism, Farnham and Lundberg proceeded with breathtaking confidence to an extended interpretation of her early life that firmly located the constitutively perverse origins of modern feminism in the fact that Wollstonecraft’s
childhood had been fearfully tragic and had left her with a twisted personality. The reader must not lose sight of this fact, because it is to this book that feminism as an ideology is directly traceable. A Vindication was reprinted many times during the nineteenth century, and many eulogistic biographies and biographical sketches of the author appeared. There was hardly a feminist who did not, at some time, pay tribute to A Vindication, and credit it with being the source and fountainhead of feminist beliefs. The book and its author have been apostrophized again and again. (151)
One of the first things to note about the above passage is that the precise referent of “this book” is not immediately apparent. Upon rereading, it does in fact become clear that the authors are referring to Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but on an initial scan, it seems almost as though Wollstonecraft’s “twisted personality” is in fact the “book” to which “feminism as an ideology is traceable.” That sense is reinforced a few pages later, when the reader is told that “Mary Wollstonecraft was an extreme neurotic of a compulsive type,” and that apparently, “out of her illness arose the ideology of feminism” (159). The relationship between Wollstonecraft and feminism that emerges here is one of part to whole: feminism is not a widespread social movement born of the experiences of millions of women, but rather an illness that can be traced to the “twisted” mind of one woman.

3.        This referential ambiguity, the suggestion that Wollstonecraft’s “twisted personality” is the “book” to which feminism owes its very existence, is not without precedent. William Godwin’s 1798 biography of Wollstonecraft, written and published only months after she died, is entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Yoking the author and her work, and substituting, moreover, the text for which she is most famous for the woman herself, Godwin’s title stands as the first in a long line of conflations of Wollstonecraft’s life narrative with the quintessential example of her life’s work. When A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in a new edition in 1844—the first since the 1790s—it included large sections of Godwin’s Memoirs in the preface, beginning the tradition of reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman through the scandal-inflected lens of Wollstonecraft’s life, a lens through which the work was primarily read for generations. Modern Woman’s insistence on an equivalence between the “book and its author,” both of which purportedly “have been apostrophized again and again,” only added to the sense that Wollstonecraft and her best-known book were easily substituted, one for the other, and substituted, finally, in the mode of apostrophe. That is to say, the dead and absent author and the inanimate book were both addressed by the living, and both were made present or animate—anthropomorphized, even—by the apostrophic address. That Wollstonecraft was hardly apostrophized until at least the end of the nineteenth century proved to be no obstacle to the authors of Modern Woman, who hyperbolically (and counterfactually) declared that she was apostrophized “again and again,” and whose own voices were as a result thrown at times in the very manner of apostrophe. [2]  Ventriloquists after a fashion, Farnham and Lundberg occasionally put words in Wollstonecraft’s mouth, as we will see, or mocked her by speaking in her voice, thus unexpectedly producing the very effects of the apostrophic praise that they attributed to others.

4.        While Farnham and Lundberg seemed to be thin on the details of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, regularly misrepresenting its argument, they had amply absorbed, by contrast, its famously withering tone. Roundly criticized for her acerbic air, Wollstonecraft was no stranger to bombast, and was prone to an ostentatious style that the authors of Modern Woman themselves inadvertently flattered through mimicry, offering, for example, this declamatory summary of her central argument: “The all-powerful, all-evil male had contrived for long ages to enslave and degrade the delicate, weak, all-good female. Only now was she to be liberated—by Mary Wollstonecraft!” (145). The extravagance of this mock-heroic invocation of Wollstonecraft might seem merely to underscore Modern Woman’s unambiguous contempt for its subject, but I suggest that this figuration in fact revived rather than settled the ongoing question of Wollstonecraft and heroism. The figure of Wollstonecraft as feminist heroine and martyr framed the sympathetic treatments of her life starting in the late nineteenth century, with biographers such Elizabeth Robins Pennell arguing in 1885, for example, that “few women have worked so faithfully for the cause of humanity as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and few have been the object of such censure. She devoted herself to the relief of her suffering fellow-beings with the ardour of a Saint Vincent de Paul, and in return she was considered by them a moral scourge of God” (1). Modern Woman’s caricature of Wollstonecraft as chivalric protector, striving bravely to liberate women everywhere from male oppression, did less than its authors may have liked to undermine the stubborn association between Wollstonecraft and heroism: their mockery provoked second-wave feminists to defend her virtue and celebrate their feminist foremother as just the hero that the authors of Modern Woman accused her of considering herself. The problem that they inadvertently perpetuated becomes clear, however, when we remember the inconvenient fact that, as Barbara Taylor has quipped, Wollstonecraft was “never keen on heroines” (252). [3]  Aiming, we might surmise, to expose with their mock tribute any lingering or latent arrogance in Wollstonecraft, the authors of Modern Woman worked instead to reinforce in the minds of subsequent generations of readers an association of Wollstonecraft with heroism that Wollstonecraft herself would have readily critiqued, and that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman offered little ground to support.

5.        The authors of Modern Woman built their case against Wollstonecraft not only on an imprecise reading of A Vindication, but equally on a rather hyperbolic, not to say inaccurate, sense of Wollstonecraft’s reception in the nineteenth century. Most feminist literary historians agree that the publication of Godwin’s Memoirs inadvertently rendered his late wife’s name anathema in polite company for almost a century because of its candid discussion of details related to Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempts, illegitimate child, and torrid love affairs. As Barbara Caine observes, “Wollstonecraft was not so much unknown to mid-Victorian feminists,” as she was “carefully and consciously avoided, especially in their published and public work” (262). Describing Wollstonecraft as “one of the dark secrets of Victorian feminism, haunting it as a shadowy and disreputable presence,” Caine notes that it wasn’t until the 1880s that “Wollstonecraft was finally rehabilitated and acknowledged as the founding figure in modern feminism” (263). [4]  Whereas on Modern Woman’s account, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman “was reprinted many times during the nineteenth century,” and “many eulogistic biographies and biographical sketches of the author appeared,” in actual fact Wollstonecraft’s most famous book went almost fifty years before being published in a new edition in 1844. After this new printing, the book languished again until the 1890s, when new editions by Pennell and Millicent Garrett Fawcett were published. As for biographical treatments of its author, it wasn’t until Pennell’s 1885 publication of the Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin that Wollstonecraft’s life was again the subject of an individual biography, almost one hundred years after Godwin’s Memoir. [5]  Drawing heavily on Charles Kegan Paul’s biographical sketch in his edition of Wollstonecraft’s Letters to Imlay (1879), Pennell’s biography was, as we just saw, part of an earnest late-Victorian effort to restore Wollstonecraft’s sullied reputation, and to that end it trained its sights on the deeply sentimental image of Wollstonecraft as virtuous mother (Caine 269–72). All of which is to say, Modern Woman in some measure produced an impression that it otherwise claimed merely to record: namely, that a eulogistic aura surrounded Wollstonecraft through the nineteenth century. In the absence of any actual evidence that would substantiate that Wollstonecraft was continuously celebrated from the moment of her death, Modern Woman obfuscated with rhetoric what it was unable to confirm with fact. With its anxious repetitions, overstatements, and mock tributes—“reprinted many times,” “many eulogistic biographies,” “apostrophized again and again”—Modern Woman risked being mistaken at moments for the very praise it roundly censured (151).

6.        Compared to Wollstonecraft’s contemporary Hannah More, for instance, who was the subject of countless biographical treatments throughout the nineteenth century—and, as epitomized by Anne Stott’s biography, Hannah More: The First Victorian, was beatified by Victorian writers—discussions of Wollstonecraft’s life among the generations that followed her were scant and few. In contrast to Modern Woman’s assertion that during the nineteenth century there “was hardly a feminist who did not, at some time, pay tribute to A Vindication, and credit it with being the source and fountainhead of feminist beliefs,” the historical record would suggest that very few in fact even dared to acknowledge an influence (151). Harriet Martineau was famously no fan of Wollstonecraft’s, raising her predecessor as a topic of discussion in her Autobiography, as Caine argues, “only to dismiss her” (265). According to Caine, Martineau “took pains to deny that she had been influenced by Wollstonecraft,” and had no patience with Wollstonecraft’s unregulated emotional life. Martineau referred to Wollstonecraft in rather patronizing terms as “a poor victim of passion, with no control over her own peace, and no calmness or content except when the needs of her individual nature were satisfied” (400). [6]  For her part, George Eliot was more sympathetic than Martineau, but similarly distanced herself. Observing in an essay on Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller that there existed “in some quarters a vague prejudice against the Rights of Woman as in some way or other a reprehensible book,” Eliot asserted that “readers who go to it with this impression will be surprised to find it eminently serious, severely moral, and withal rather heavy,” and cited its weighty content as “the true reason, perhaps, that no edition has been published since 1796, and that it is rather now scarce” (201). [7]  Seemingly perplexed that readers conflated Wollstonecraft’s life with her work, Eliot raised the possibility that Wollstonecraft’s work went unread in the nineteenth century precisely because it was continually mistaken for her life. In the nineteenth century, few read the book because most conflated it with the supposed immorality of the life. The history of the reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman would thus have to include a history of its not having been read, or its having been overwritten by the life.

Homely Wollstonecraft

7.        By now it should be apparent that Modern Woman was marked by a pervasive sense of historical anachronism, one that was most noticeable and of greatest consequence when it came to the question of domesticity. If a primary goal of the book was to convince women to leave the workforce and to return to the home, then it is not surprising that the terrain of domesticity was a particularly charged one, and that this produced some intriguing distortions. Consider the following discussion from Modern Woman about men, women, work, and family:

Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Vindication, approvingly echoed Francis Bacon’s sentiments about wife and children being hostages to fortune. Commenting on Bacon’s wholly erroneous statement, “Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men,” Mary said, “I say the same of the women.” Women, said Mary, had allowed men to weaken their bodies and cramp their minds, and by such “sinister methods” had been persuaded “to stay at home, and fulfill the duties of a mother and mistress of a family.” (162)
Sounding more like a second-wave feminist on the horizon of things to come—someone such as Betty Friedan—than a late eighteenth-century critic of prevailing female manners and education, Wollstonecraft and her words are decontextualized here to a degree that borders on preposterous, and that raises once again the specter of the thrown voice. Her comments about Bacon actually occurred in the context of a much broader discussion of how male writers of conduct books had not prepared women effectively for the work of raising children and managing a family by proffering instead “arguments dictated by gross appetite” that “weaken [women’s] bodies and cramp their minds” (133). According to Wollstonecraft, feeble-minded and coquettish women did not make good mothers, and the advice literature addressed to women had for too long been dominated by male proponents of female servility in all things. Contra Modern Woman, Wollstonecraft’s argument was not that women had been duped into being mothers when they could or should instead have been unencumbered geniuses. Indeed, her primary concern throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was that women had been trained to focus less on being prudent mothers and more on being alluring wives. “To be a good mother,” Wollstonecraft argued,
a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. . . . I now only mean to insist, that unless the understanding of woman be enlarged, and her character rendered more firm, by being allowed to govern her own conduct, she will never have sufficient sense or command of temper to manage her children properly. (222)
Arguably the very architect of what would come to be one version of bourgeois motherhood in the Victorian era, Wollstonecraft, far from luring women away from the home and from their full and inevitable existence as mothers, was instead quite possibly the inventor of at least one version of the traditional domesticity that the authors of Modern Woman were so deeply anxious to recover.

8.        Such historical irony extends to Modern Woman’s discussion of the “program of feminism” supposedly laid out in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication:

In its main portions, A Vindication argued for an education for women the same as that which men were receiving in the many schools, particularly technical schools, now springing up. Along with equal education, Mary said, women would also enjoy an equal moral standard, equal political rights, equal laws, equal work opportunities, equal pay and equal participation in the trades and professions. A Vindication, in short, laid out the entire program of feminism, and unrealized parts of the program (such as equal pay for equal work) are still being sought by feminists. (146)
Most readers of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman would have been surprised to learn that there was anything resembling a “program” within its pages. The criticisms generally leveled at the book were that it was by turns digressive, disorganized, discontinuous, and full of perambulations. Not surprisingly, Wollstonecraft had nothing to say about equal pay for equal work, or even much to say about women and work, period. The misapprehension that Wollstonecraft’s feminism was one that yearned to emancipate women from the strictures of domesticity has been longstanding in feminist history and has produced peculiar anachronisms. Such an argument might seem to be supported by a text like Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman, which is devoted to the idea that domesticity oppresses women. In that novel, marriage is figured as that which has “bastilled” the central character, Maria, “for life,” a focus which has been taken as one more in a long line of feminist denunciations of domesticity as nothing more than an alibi for female incarceration by men. This seeming contradiction can be resolved, however, if we consider that Wollstonecraft is working with what we might call a stadial theory of domesticity, with a novel such as Wrongs figuring an earlier, “barbaric” stage of domestic life, and the later chapters of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sketching a hopeful future for women in the form of companionate marriage and bourgeois domesticity. Conferring upon women a quasi-professional status as mothers and household managers, modern bourgeois domesticity can thus be understood by Wollstonecraft as a space of liberation for women. That is, far from promoting women’s turn away from marriage, home, and motherhood, Wollstonecraft was arguably the architect of one version of the very “traditional” domesticity whose disavowal is constitutive of feminist historiography as such. This is a view that was lost, however, as Wollstonecraft’s vision of female influence in the home passed through a postwar feminism organized in large part by the drive to rescue women from domesticity, not launch them headlong towards it.

9.        The most powerful example of Modern Woman’s blinkered view is by far its discussion of Wollstonecraft and “equality,” a term that bears enormous freight for Farnham and Lundberg’s text, and one whose origin in feminist thought the authors attempted to lay at the foot of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. Seemingly unconcerned that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman invoked the term “equality” and its cognates a scant number of times over the course of hundreds of pages, the authors of Modern Woman forged ahead in their determination to hold Wollstonecraft responsible for what they perceived as the scourge of feminism. “The central and guiding idea of the book as a whole,” they argue, is “centered around the magic word ‘equality’—a fetish of the feminist movement ever since. The word is just as evocative emotionally to feminists today as it was to Mary Wollstonecraft” (147). The problem, however, is that the word “equality” had none of the talismanic force for Wollstonecraft that it did for the authors of Modern Woman. In a strange act of projection, the authors of Modern Woman attribute to Wollstonecraft the magical thinking about equality that they themselves embody. Modern Woman’s archaic fear of feminism is captured in the text’s anxiety about the potential for an abstract idea to come to life, and for Wollstonecraft, the personification of feminism, to speak from beyond the grave.

10.        Modern Woman reproduced the longstanding tendency to confuse Wollstonecraft and her book, the person and the thing. But Modern Woman’s “analysis” of Wollstonecraft is even more remarkable for, among other things, the degree to which the authors display a restless anxiety about the animating agency of their own writing about Wollstonecraft. The authors of Modern Woman give feminism a disfigured face, Wollstonecraft’s face, and then tremble at what they have created. This is all the more striking when we think about what is—inevitably—missing from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: a robust discussion of legal personhood and women’s political agency. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792, soon after which discussions of the rights of women all but disappeared until late in the nineteenth century. [8]  Nineteenth-century Britain was dominated not by debates about women’s legal personhood but, rather, in the wake of Godwin’s Memoirs, by furtive whisperings about Wollstonecraft’s personal life, culminating in Modern Woman’s triumphant revelation of her “twisted personality.” Heather Keenleyside has argued that across the “modern disciplines,” such as “sociology and ethnology” but also “political economy, law, and psychoanalysis,” “writers turn to personification to establish their own modernity, repeatedly defining this modernity against a primitive confusion of persons and things” (447). One would think that as representatives of the social scientific establishment in postwar America, with its burgeoning inquiry into the study of personality, the authors of Modern Woman would be firmly on the side of the moderns. But in an ironic reversal, it is the social scientists here who are premodern, producing the modernity of Wollstonecraft—and feminism—as an effect of their own “primitive” fear.

11.        In a further, awkward attempt to pathologize feminism, to insist on its very origin in one woman’s “twisted personality,” the authors of Modern Woman linked it to the violent dramas of the Wollstonecraft family:

Mary had a real grievance, but it was against her parents; the same was true of later feminists. These parents had been the agents of a vicious society (as exemplified by the childhood household) vis-à-vis the growing child. To Mary, all men were oppressors of women. All women were long-suffering, all the cards in the deck were stacked against them. . . . All men had always, without exception, beaten women black and blue, humiliated them, as her father had done to her and her mother. And all women had, like her mother, accepted such humiliation without a whimper. . . . In retaliation Mary wanted women to turn on men and injure them. The worst humiliation she could think of for them, however, the crowning ignominy, was to make them acknowledge the “equality” of women, their identity with men. (159–60)
The intensity of the psychic and affective drama in this passage is almost stupefying. In short order, we are presented with Wollstonecraft’s supposed resentment towards her parents, her resentment towards all men, and her subsequent desire to humiliate them by forcing them to acknowledge women’s equality with men. Superimposed on this Oedipal scene we also have a version of the revenge of the psychoanalysts: a potent brew of projection, ressentiment, and misogyny. If we throw into the mix what Susan Gubar calls Wollstonecraft’s own brand of “feminist misogyny,” then the analysts become ever more deeply entangled with their analysand (453). As Mari Jo Buhle observes, Modern Woman “appeared as the first popular application of selected—and bowdlerized—tenets of ego psychology to a refutation of feminism” (176). Modern Woman was an exemplary site in which the punitive ego psychology of postwar American Freudian psychoanalysis revealed most chillingly its fundamental hostility to feminism.

12.        It is clearly not difficult to find fault with Modern Woman. Since its initial publication it has been controversial, with opinions varying wildly even as it climbed the best-seller list. The anthropologist Margaret Mead was keenly alert to peculiarities of voice and tone, and observed in a 1947 review in the New York Times that Modern Woman was written “in assorted styles and moods, which suggest that the book had not two authors but four or five, or that it was written over a long period of time during which the mood of each changed markedly.” She went on to note that “perhaps most puzzling of all are the sixty pages devoted to a savage attack on the feminist movement,” with a good portion of those sixty pages devoted to a savage attack on Wollstonecraft (BR18). Mead’s comments are suggestive in indicating that, even at the moment of its publication, Modern Woman was understood as the product of a highly erratic—even “twisted”—voice, one that shifted, morphed, and was projected, or, in the idiom of apostrophe, thrown. Reading Modern Woman, one senses the instability of that voice, and the uncertainty about where it is coming from. At times patronizing, clinical, and detached, and at others possessed by an unrestrained contempt for its subject that feels impossibly personal, Modern Woman constitutes an attack on Wollstonecraft that is so total and complete, as if to suggest that without Wollstonecraft and her “twisted personality,” the world would have been spared the scourge of feminism entirely.

13.        What emerges from these inconsistencies is Modern Woman’s massive overinflation of Wollstonecraft’s power: it fetishizes her by turning her into a totemic figure far more dangerous than she in fact was. “Only deeply disturbed women,” they write, “disturbed by the nature of their childhood upbringing in the shattered home and the constricted circumstances they encountered in adult life,” could have “drawn what they supposed was pure wisdom from A Vindication” (161). The authors of Modern Woman feared the affective contagion that would spread if women read Wollstonecraft’s work, and wanted to ensure that no woman—let alone the “deeply disturbed”—derived “wisdom” from Wollstonecraft’s writing. As they put it: “Mary Wollstonecraft hated men. . . . Hers was hatred of creatures she greatly admired and feared” (145). One wonders, finally, about the degree to which the same sentiment is true of the authors of Modern Woman, with respect to the subject of their “analysis.”

Living Feminism, Killing Joy

14.        The sheer vitriol contained in Modern Woman’s screed about Wollstonecraft still has the power to shock, not only because of the bewildering intensity of its affect, but also because in the twenty-first century it is, quite simply, difficult to imagine Wollstonecraft as threatening. Far easier is to imagine her simply as irrelevant, or perhaps complicit with a blinkered view of progressive modernity, especially as second-wave celebrations of feminism’s founding mother gave way to third-wave critiques of Wollstonecraft’s proximity to imperialist logics, bourgeois sexual morality, even misogyny as such. [9]  In our own historical moment, Wollstonecraft’s name has little of the frisson it used to carry. The uttering of her name produces—as it did in the nineteenth century—neither fear, nor muted silence, nor secret desire. Long subsumed to a feminist historiography organized along generational lines of inheritance and succession, Wollstonecraft’s name conjures for many the feeling reserved for an aging and distant female relative. [10]  To cast an eye over the writing—popular, academic—of feminists in the twenty-first century is to find Wollstonecraft nowhere, and not because her name is only spoken in hushed tones and anxious whispers. It seems not to be spoken much at all.

15.        But it would be a mistake to conclude that because Wollstonecraft’s name isn’t on the tip of every feminist’s tongue today that she somehow doesn’t matter. The very title of Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life (2017), which she wrote while working on her blog, feministkilljoys, reveals close affinities—perhaps not immediately apparent—with Wollstonecraft. [11]  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a critique of male-authored conduct books for women even as it is itself a conduct book, after a fashion. The same might be said, in some measure, about Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed’s effort to distinguish her book from something like prescriptive feminism is apparent on the first page: “Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct,” Ahmed insists, “although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world” (1). Ahmed continues:

It is worth noting from the outset that the idea that feminism is about how to live, about a way of thinking how to live, has often been understood as part of feminist history, as dated, associated with the moralizing or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, cultural feminism. (1)
Ahmed clearly does not understand herself to be writing a feminist conduct book, yet an anxiety about prescriptive norms haunts the book, starting with the title. Given the “feminist history” to which she refers, it is difficult not to hear “How to Live a Feminist Life” even as one reads Living a Feminist Life. The effort to place prescriptive feminism safely in the past, as “part of feminist history, as dated,” is belied by the stuttering over tense that happens when Ahmed gets to “the moralizing or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, cultural feminism” (emphasis added). The charge of moralizing or policing is one that Ahmed herself has felt: “I have heard that judgment,” she writes; “it has fallen on my own shoulders” (2).

16.        This tripping or stumbling over tense is not surprising when we think about the persistence of the logic of progressive modernity that informs feminist historiography. Each successive wave of feminism understands itself as having absorbed the lessons, mistakes, and hard-won knowledge of the previous wave. But what Ahmed registers at the start of her book is the degree to which arguments about feminism and moral authority are alive and well: the feminist killjoy lives. Feminism in the twenty-first century is still in some measure about a right and a wrong way to live a feminist life. [12]  To be a killjoy, moreover, is in some sense to be an affect, to be the murderer of joy, to be joylessness. Ahmed writes about moving through the world as a feminist killjoy and about the way it feels to be the one to make others uncomfortable, to bring to a halt otherwise congenial conversation and sociability:

Sometimes we keep laughing out of fear of causing a breakage. We might, in other words, decide not to become a killjoy in certain moments, because the costs would be too high: we would break what we need to hold on to, a relationship that we care about, a person we love, a world we cannot let go of. (171)
Living a Feminist Life bears all the marks of the autobiographical, autoethnographic, and experiential writing that has come to characterize feminist writing of the third wave and beyond. But it also bears the marks of the writing of Wollstonecraft, whose Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) might well have been entitled Living a Feminist Life. Part travel narrative, part ethnographic record, part lover’s litany and personal memoir, A Short Residence constitutes an early example of feminist writing that seizes on the importance, for world-making, of a canny and shrewd sense of the affective culture that makes and unmakes our public lives and private pain. There is a cruel irony in the fact that the feminist historiography we have long credited Wollstonecraft with inventing has impoverished our very ability to read her. When we reduce her to a cartoonish worshipper of progress, we are no longer able to recognize the restless and affective ambivalence that she possessed not simply toward the past, but also the present and the future. [13]  Wollstonecraft’s work is perhaps the best evidence we have, finally, that we need a different tense and a different temporality—the future anterior, perhaps—even to begin to read it. Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life is not a sign that feminism has moved on from Wollstonecraft. It is a sign, rather, that we are only now approaching the limit beyond which we might begin.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

———. feministkilljoys. 30 Sept. 2017.

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———. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Edited by Janet Todd, Columbia UP, 2003.


[1] Janet Todd’s passing reference to Modern Woman in her essay “The Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft” first alerted me to the book. Mari Jo Buhle’s Feminism and Its Discontents treats Modern Woman’s analysis of Wollstonecraft in the context of twentieth-century American ego psychology. Otherwise, little has been written about Modern Woman’s bizarre attack on Wollstonecraft. BACK

[2] See Barbara Johnson’s “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion” for a discussion of the figure of apostrophe. “The absent, dead, or inanimate entity addressed,” Johnson writes, “is thereby made present, animate, and anthropomorphic. Apostrophe is a form of ventriloquism through which the speaker throws voice, life, and human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness” (30). BACK

[3] Wollstonecraft suggests in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman that she wants “to see women neither heroines nor brutes,” but rather as “reasonable creatures” (146). BACK

[4] On Wollstonecraft as ghost, see also the recent essay by Devoney Looser, "Mary Wollstonecraft’s Ithuriel, and the Rise of the Feminist Author-Ghost." BACK

[5] Wollstonecraft was in the main similarly left out of the otherwise ubiquitous Victorian publishing phenomenon of collective biographies of women, which were volumes of women’s lives organized according to an endless array of rubrics: women writers, pious women, royal women, elite and learned women, history’s “great women,” and so on. See Alison Booth’s How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present for a comprehensive study of the genre. Booth suggests that collective biographies of women constitute the “lost ancestors of late-twentieth-century women’s studies” (3). The ironic juxtaposition of Wollstonecraft’s dislike of the genre of “women worthies,” as they were called, with her “heroic” place in origin stories of women’s studies suggests that our literary histories of the discipline of women’s studies are still incomplete, and that a fuller treatment of the history of women’s studies, one that takes into account literary and generic studies such as Booth’s, is yet to come. BACK

[6] See also Barbara Taylor’s discussion of Martineau and Wollstonecraft in Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, pp. 246–53. BACK

[7] Caine notes that Eliot “appears not to know about the edition of Wollstonecraft published in the 1840s” (267). BACK

[8] I argue elsewhere that the “rights of woman” gave way in the nineteenth century to the lives of women. In the absence of a robust conversation about rights, collective biographies of women, or the genre of “women worthies,” as they were called, became the primary way of measuring the progress of women. See Murray, "Mary Wollstonecraft and Modernity." BACK

[9] See Susan Gubar’s "Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One," as well as Barbara Taylor’s response, Misogyny and Feminism: The Case of Mary Wollstonecraft. BACK

[10] See Jennifer Henderson’s “Can the Third Wave Speak?” for a discussion of the generational and maternal metaphor that organizes waves of feminism. BACK

[11] Living a Feminist Life is the first book that Ahmed has published since resigning from her position as a tenured professor at Goldsmiths in London, a post she left in 2016 in protest over that institution’s handling of sexual harassment cases brought by students against members of Goldsmiths’ academic staff. BACK

[12] See Roxane Gay’s bestselling 2014 book Bad Feminist. Gay takes as axiomatic that feminism is morally prescriptive, and thus her book perpetuates the logic by which younger women disavow the ostensibly prim, constraining morality of previous “waves” of feminism. BACK

[13] See Scott J. Juengel’s "Mary Wollstonecraft’s Perpetual Disaster." BACK


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