Introduction: Mary Wollstonecraft Even Now
This collection of essays attests to Virginia Woolf’s claim in The Common Reader (1932) that Mary Wollstonecraft remains a vital presence “even now,” even in this, our (so-called) postmodern, postfeminist, or posthuman time (163). Wollstonecraft considered herself among “those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow” (Letters 410), and she has often been described as “visionary” (Sapiro 33) or “way ahead of her time” (Rushton). We could say that as much as her work evolves out of and in urgent response to her own era, she also wrote for an era beyond her own, projecting into an uncertain future, sending up flares for the generations to come. From the opening sentences of her first published book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), where she castigates mothers whose “thoughtless disregard of every thing, except the present indulgence” leads them to neglect their children (7), to the last sentences of the posthumously published Lessons (1798), in which she anticipates “another day” for the girl to learn “how to think . . . herself” (474), she was always taking a prospective view, looking ahead, if not always hopefully, at least with an eye fixed on the need for change.
Given her orientation towards a future time, it should not be surprising that Wollstonecraft is still felt to be “alive and active” among us in the current moment, a moment in the still incomplete transformation of the world she sought to argue or experiment into existence. Claudia Johnson has noted “her remarkable afterlife” (5), and in surveying her mixed reception and “mutable legacies” through the twentieth century, Cora Kaplan has concluded that Wollstonecraft persists as “a living presence in an on-going struggle . . . more complicated and unfinished than ever” (268–69). Though it has been objected that regarding Wollstonecraft as “our contemporary” distorts the historical record,
recent readers continue to hear her voice in current debates on a range of social and political issues or to trace her influence in their own critical or creative projects. For example, Catherine Packham has recently heard echoes of Wollstonecraft’s arguments in Oxfam’s 2017 report on global economic disparity ( “Mary Wollstonecraft, our Contemporary” ), and photographer Moyra Davey invokes Wollstonecraft’s life story as a touchstone in her own meditation on family and memory in her films Les Goddesses (2011) and Hemlock Forest (2016).
An Oxfam report and an autobiographical video project may sound like unlikely manifestations of what Kaplan calls Wollstonecraft’s “almost material presence” among us (260), but their very unlikelihood signals that her words, her ideas, and her life experience still live on in disparate and sometimes unexpected guises, transfigured in ways that may indeed reach “beyond what she might personally have imagined” (Reuter et al. 907). Indeed, as she sat for her portrait in 1790 and again in 1797, she is unlikely to have imagined that one of those portraits would be gigantically projected onto the Houses of Parliament in 2011 (to launch the Mary on the Green campaign) or that in 2013 her image would be stenciled on the wall of the Newington Green Unitarian Chapel by the street artist Stewy (reproduced on the cover page of this volume); such recent remediations illustrate that Wollstonecraft continues to appear in surprising forms among us, even now.
These essays consider in particular some of the figurations and transfigurations of Mary Wollstonecraft as they appear in various arguments, theories, or practices among those which constitute the ongoing history of feminism, or, we should say, of feminisms. They think with as well as about Wollstonecraft by thinking with and about that history as it continues to be formulated and reformulated in the present. They do not attempt to provide a definitive or comprehensive portrait of Wollstonecraft or of the ongoing feminist movement for which her work offered an early impetus; such a moving picture could hardly be drawn once and for all in any essay or even in six. Instead, they comprise a sort of album of sketches or snapshots, each one approaching its subject in a different setting, from a different angle, or with a different lens and focus. They move in some of the directions her work points and explore some of the paths she marks out, though they do not always follow her blazes without doubling back (for instance to Antigone) or venturing into territory (such as cyberspace) that would not have appeared on any map Wollstonecraft might have used to plot her own revolutionary itinerary. These essays hear Wollstonecraft’s voice spoken with unexpected accents (for instance, in the misogyny of twentieth-century pop psychology or the poststructuralist philosophy of Jacques Rancière) and find traces of her influence in positions she apparently refuted (such as on exceptional women as a force for social change). In her essay in this volume, historian Arianne Chernock observes that feminism “never has been a linear development,” and the essays collected here demonstrate that Wollstonecraft’s impact on feminist thought and movement also registers in loops and swerves, indirectly, and in ways that are often contested. The volume takes up the question of Wollstonecraft’s continuing relevance to contemporary feminist thought and its wider cultural movements as unfinished business, not to finish it, but to open the question to new or revisionary modes of critical inquiry and new or newly resonant terms of critical engagement—for example, to Julie Carlson’s “passional” reading of Wollstonecraft, which engages contemporary debates about care work and itself involves a kind of giving (or taking) care. Criticism that is motivated by or responsive to the lived experience of the critic has long been deemed a crucial feature of feminism.
Whether openly acknowledged as a contextual element or embedded as subtext, such “intimate critique” is at issue in more than one essay among those gathered here;
that the personal and the political are engaged in deep and often difficult conversation in a number of these essays surely owes something to Mary Wollstonecraft’s example.
Making connections between Wollstonecraft’s efforts to think and live both within and beyond Enlightenment principles of liberal humanism and various ongoing issues and debates in contemporary culture, from the political efficacy of social media to the impasses in theories and practices of social justice (including the impasses in our own critical theories and pedagogical practices), these essays not only ask how Wollstonecraft’s pioneering arguments live on after her in feminist thought, theory, and practice now, but they also collectively raise questions about how feminist thought, theory, and practice live on; together, they query how, what, or for whom feminism argues now.
If today we can recognize the gender trouble A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) brews in Wollstonecraft’s rhetorical question, “Where is then the sexual difference, when the education has been the same?” or in her “wild wish . . . to see the distinction of sex confounded in society,” what might further consideration of her arguments about the condition of women based on their shared experience of oppression provide to current thinking about the social construction of sex or the fluidity of gender identity or the differences and complexities in the experience of oppression which are obfuscated in assertions of a universal womanhood (92, 126)? Wollstonecraft argued for the rights of “woman” as a specific social category of bodies for whom biology constituted an essential if not an absolutely delimiting circumstance. But as her earlier A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) also shows, that argument was pitched as part of a much larger set of concerns: the “revolution in female manners” for which she calls in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was integral to a wider call “to reform the world,” and she saw the liberation of women from the conventions that kept them physically and intellectually weak and dependent as a necessary step in the effort to dismantle the “despotism” that more broadly constrained the lives of humans in the material realm of the social, the political, and the economic (114). The vocabulary with which she took up these issues has changed in current discourse—we are less likely to employ the language of reason or virtue to talk about the fundamental principles of human rights or social justice—but this volume revisits and revitalizes in modern terms some aspects of what Wollstonecraft herself called “my old argument,” which was, simply put, that women, however constituted as such, are people with minds as well as bodies, that women’s rights are human rights (Vindication of the Rights of Woman 132). As Lynn Festa’s rigorous scrutiny of this claim in her essay demonstrates, the different ways old arguments inform or impel new ones is part of what this collection seeks to explore.
The contributors gathered here work in three different disciplines—literature, history, and political science—though each of their essays crosses disciplinary borders strictly construed; each brings a multivalent perspective to the topic of how Wollstonecraft’s arguments and experiments continue to inflect feminist theories and practices today. Their essays are layered and adventurous; a few of them extend the dimensions of the essay form, taking advantage of the opportunities technology affords to incorporate other media, as Eileen Hunt Botting does, or to suggest other lines of thought in the margins, as Mary Favret does. The writer they are addressing—at once political philosopher and author of tales for children—may indeed demand such a hybrid and genre-stretching critical methodology, but we can also say that as a collection these essays themselves exemplify Wollstonecraft’s lively presence among us, taking up her challenge of writing as a form of political praxis, a mode of doing one’s work that tests conventional boundaries with the aim of pushing for systemic change going forward.
That all the contributors to this volume are white, cis-women may be one among many indications that even here, even now, the radical change to which Wollstonecraft looked forward is yet to be realized. The challenge is still on.
Julie Carlson explicitly confronts that challenge by considering the ascription of Wollstonecraft’s feminism as straight, white, and middle class. Framing her reading within current debates about the ethics of care, Carlson explores the possibilities of a less normative, more intersectional feminism emerging in Wollstonecraft’s work. Proposing that humans are interdependent rather than autonomous, the care movement redraws the boundaries between public and private, institutional structures and individuals, the social and the psychological, much as Wollstonecraft did in her political polemic, her attempts at philosophical fiction, and her struggle to live a life of the mind as a kind of activism or revisionary practice. Carlson sees Wollstonecraft elaborating an ethics of care especially in Mary: A Fiction and Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman, where stories of women’s disparate yet linked caregiving activities dramatize the risky process of establishing relationships through acknowledging and working across difference. Seeing this dynamic shifts Carlson’s critical focus from the much-discussed limitations of Wollstonecraft’s feminist legacy to the potential insight inadequacy or failure offers into complex systems of exploitation and injustice, including those operating at the ground of (inter)personal relations.
Approaching Wollstonecraft through Jacques Rancière’s ideas about the exclusions that structure the very logic of the political order, Lynn Festa addresses a contradiction that arises in Wollstonecraft’s argument that women’s rights are human rights. And not unlike Carlson, Festa ultimately reclaims the contradiction as the dispute or “dissensus” that creates space for reconstituting the political order at its foundation rather than merely expanding its boundaries. For the revolutionary philosopher of A Vindication of the Rights of Man and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Festa contends, the discourse of rights develops “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.” Proposing duties as the basis for rights allows Wollstonecraft to conceive political subjectivity as the capacity for action rather than a possession that some people have and others do not. Festa thus sees Wollstonecraft strategically turning “from the disempowering binary of right and wrong to the empowering reciprocity of rights and duties” in order to argue that fulfilling domestic duties in itself constitutes women’s political participation. Admitting that an exclusionary division of labor inevitably haunts this stance, Festa nonetheless finds that in compelling the reader to confront the stark choice between seeing women as humans or seeing them as brute beasts, the text performs the dissensus Rancière proposes as crucial to revolutionary change.
In her essay, Julie Murray discerns a shadowy figure of Wollstonecraft cast in Sara Ahmed’s recent characterization of the feminist killjoy, though she focuses on a text from the mid-twentieth century to examine the force of seeing Wollstonecraft in Ahmed’s terms. In its “cartoonish depiction of Wollstonecraft” as a penis-envying neurotic, the authors of the pop psychology best-seller, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), trace what they regard as the world-destroying ideology of feminism directly back to Wollstonecraft’s “twisted personality.” Yet, as Murray reveals, their scathing critique at times appears to speak in a voice not so unlike Wollstonecraft’s own, absorbing her “withering tone” or adopting the technique of ironic mimicry she uses in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. And the book written so passionately (or perhaps we could say, hysterically) against her inadvertently works to bolster her reputation, exaggerating her importance, at least relative to more recent accounts which dismiss her work for its complicity in liberal feminism’s normative prescriptions and progressive historiography. Murray returns to Ahmed at the end of her essay to suggest that in closely attending to the complicated and often conflicted affects involved in living a feminist life—especially negativity or ambivalence—we may discover not so much a particular path forward as a different mode of being in or of (re)making the world.
Eileen Hunt Botting’s contribution updates Murray’s interest in the caricature of Wollstonecraft’s arguments in twentieth-century popular discourse by considering the significant social and political reverberations of memes that get reproduced and disseminated through twenty-first-century social media as widely visible, as well as endlessly malleable, symbols of ideas. Looking at how Wollstonecraft herself was fashioned and also fashioned herself as a meme well before the invention of the World Wide Web, Hunt Botting advises that feminism needs to learn how to deploy these arguably superficial but nonetheless powerful symbols “for successful political action in the present and future.” For Hunt Botting, Hillary Clinton (or her campaign machine), along with Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson, represent those who have begun to realize the feminist potential within the global circulation of memes; they also represent how high the stakes are in “the risky and virulent politics” of meme warfare. In the currency of Hunt Botting’s discussion, as well as in how quickly current circumstances turn into past history in the age of the internet, we can appreciate in a particularly striking way that what Woolf called Wollstonecraft’s immortality is sustained more by transformation or adaptation than by mere reiteration in the ongoing present.
Arianne Chernock detects the tones of Wollstonecraft’s voice submerged in the history of opinion about the role that queens and other royal women could play in feminist critique. If Wollstonecraft’s reflections on this issue were indirect or “more muted” than those of her peers Mary Hays or Mary Robinson, it is nonetheless important to be more attuned to this aspect of her thinking “both for our understanding of Wollstonecraft herself and for the broader feminist conversation in which she was, and indeed remains, a central participant.” Even when narrowly construed, the broader conversations of Western feminism or liberal feminism or white, middle-class feminism should be seen as more nuanced and multifaceted, interwoven with more divergent strands of thought and building their claims on more varied foundations than has typically been recognized. In the present moment, Chernock proposes, feminist scholars might look with more careful attention at the continuing appeal of “princess culture” among little girls and others in the West, which, though apparently so invested in perpetuating gender and race stereotypes, could also provide opportunities for revising those stereotypes as well as reimagining the structures of power they subtend.
Reaching farthest into the past of the essays included here, Mary Favret addresses the question of how Wollstonecraft lives among us even now by approaching Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) through Antigone and recent revisionary accounts of Sophocles’ tragedy. In the resonant echoes produced by what we might call a form of strategic anachronism (whereby Wollstonecraft is seen to anticipate modern feminist readings of Antigone), Favret elicits the unvoiced or unheard affects which register in Wollstonecraft’s work, especially the rage which accompanies sorrow and which turns what can sound like melodramatic excess into “a vital and timely feminist poetics.” Timely, but also in Favret’s terms, crucially timeless—that is, unending, not yet or possibly ever over. In elaborating the ways Antigone’s cry of aei (always) reverberates in Letters Written During a Short Residence, Favret makes the force of feminist complaint audible as the “lyric potential” of Wollstonecraft’s prose. Lyric may be a particularly Romantic modality, like melancholy or the sentimental, but it also articulates more public feelings; amplifying in her own prose style what she calls the “sonic undercurrent” of Wollstonecraft’s writing, Favret makes us hear Wollstonecraft’s expressions of private grief as “her grievance against the state of the oppressed.”
As Wollstonecraft looked forward to a future time when the world will have disavowed its prejudices, so these essays contemplate the problems feminism has sought to address as still unresolved. If this album of sketches or snapshots presents six different views of how Wollstonecraft appears “even now among the living,” it necessarily remains an open book, with many pages still blank and ready to be filled with other perspectives and other outlooks on both the past and the future.