Vindicating Paradoxes: Mary Wollstonecraft's "Woman"

Article excerpt

AS MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT'S SIGNIFICANCE FOR INTELLECTUAL HISTORY has grown, her salience for contemporary feminism has receded. The burgeoning scholarship on Wollstonecraft has documented her importance for understanding the intellectual ferment of the 1790s, but it has paradoxically pushed the gender advocacy that kept her alive in the historical imagination ever farther from current feminist concerns. (1) Yet Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman offers more to present-day feminists than "a symbol of what remains to be achieved," (2) a tradition to be retrieved, (3) or symptoms of liberal individualism's constitutive contradictions. (4) If Wollstonecraft was initially vilified and subsequently remembered as a "hyena in petticoats," (5) rather than the tame advocate of "a woman nursing her children and discharging the duties of her station," (6) it is because the authorial voice that emanates from this book defines the "Woman" whose rights are vindicated very differently from the "women" who intermittently appear in it. In between those two instantiations of eighteenth-century femininity lies Wollstonecraft's prescient engagement with the problematic of much twentieth-century feminism: what is a woman? Recognizing the conceptual limitations of the category of "woman" that is available to her, Wollstonecraft invokes a female subject who can be understood independently of the oppressive contingencies of the later eighteenth century.

The speed with which this book was composed (estimates range from six weeks (7) to "a matter of months") (8) left gaps, questions, and inconsistencies that have made the book a vessel for each generation's reconsideration of gender oppression. (9) If readers across time have identified in the Rights of Woman different feminisms that have spoken to their particular needs in ways that the many other eighteenth-century treatises on gender have not, it is because the "Woman" whose rights Wollstonecraft sought to vindicate is not reducible to either the "middle-class" wife and mother who occasionally appears in the book or to the Amazonian virago who was believed to have penned it. (10) Instead, "Woman" is an enigma at the center of Wollstonecraft's argument, a dimly perceived but compelling field of possibility around which she organizes her controversial claims. Wollstonecraft's unrecognized prescience suggests that Romantic-era thought had room for a more supple conception of gender than has been perceived. Her volume has escaped the antiquarian repository into which many other like-minded texts of her time have fallen because she invokes an unprecedently fluid notion of female identity that could not be readily contained by the gender categories of her time.

I. Women As They Are

The singular "Woman" in the title of her book signals Wollstonecraft's determination to write into being a new kind of female subject. The plural "Women" would more exactly mirror the title of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men, In a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1790), one of the first published responses to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). A parallel title to this earlier book, which elevated Wollstonecraft to national prominence, would misrepresent Wollstonecraft's project in her second Vindication: to raise the issue of just who women are. The "Men" of her reply to Burke and what it is to be manly are ontologically sound concepts, so much so that Wollstonecraft can rely on these signifiers to frame her ad hominem attack on Burke's "unmanly sarcasms and puerile conceits." (11) No such certainty grounds the title of her second Vindication. The women at issue in the second Vindication are, she will argue, constituted by the inequities and prejudices that she decries. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman seeks to vanquish these insidious preconceptions and to emphasize the gross disparity between "women" as they are and the abstract "Woman" of her title, the form women would take in a more just world. …