'Seeing through a Glass Darkly': Wollstonecraft and the Confinements of Eighteenth-Century Femininity

Article excerpt

Abstract

This essay applies Luce Irigaray's theories of the speculum and subversive mimesis to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I argue that Wollstonecraft reveals the limitations of eighteenth-century femininity by using her text as a mirror that distorts and also reflects the image of womanhood at the men who have prescribed an idealised version of femininity. Anticipating Irigaray, Wollstonecraft exposes and undermines this male ideal through mimicry of the masculine position. I begin by assessing modern interpretations of Wollstonecraft's feminism, her characterisation as a masculine writer and how this can be viewed as a deliberate feminist tactic on her part. I analyse the way in which she deliberately mimics male writers such as Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau before focusing on her specific use of the word beauty. I argue that in the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft carefully chooses words that are closely connected to women in male discourse but also common in other topics of male interest such as botany and royalty. Through a process of associative organisation, surrounding the keyword 'beauty', Wollstonecraft repeatedly uses and mimics male discourse to subvert the logic and reveal the inconsistencies behind the insistence on a specific sort of femininity in the eighteenth century. I conclude that Wollstonecraft is seeking, through this technique, an eradication of sexual difference in the hope of re-invigorating an otherwise barren social system.

Key Words: Mary Wollstonecraft, Luce Irigaray, Mimesis

Introduction

In Mary Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, she paraphrases a Biblical quote: "we shall no longer see as through a glass darkly, but know, even as we are known", (1) echoing I Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly ... now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known." The image of the mirror has been frequently used in feminist theory to describe the female as a looking glass, as trapped inside a looking glass, or as situated in the realm beyond or through the glass like the infamous Alice. This essay explores Wollstonecraft's interest in women as confined objects of men's pleasure, reflecting an idealised male construction, and the ways in which this idealisation can be undermined by subversive mimesis.

Wollstonecraft's feminist tract, the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) reveals that the men of Wollstonecraft's eighteenth-century society ought to see, in the female mirror they have created, their own image reflected very darkly indeed. The "artificial, weak characters" of women that Wollstonecraft describes, are the handiwork of men and their ideals. (2) To illuminate the responsibility of men for what Wollstonecraft sees as women's degradation in the Rights of Woman I argue that she works from a stance that foreshadows that of Luce Irigaray's 'speculum'. Irigaray's speculum or mirror reflects the world back at itself revealing, in its necessary reversal and distortion of the image it receives, the limitations of accepted modes of living and interacting. While Wollstonecraft does not use her metaphorical mirror to revolutionise the social structure through a celebration of sexual difference as Irigaray does, in the Rights of Woman she does play on her gendered position as object as opposed to subject, by reflecting, revealing and finally undermining the male through mimicry of the masculine position. This essay will begin by examining the way in which the principles of Irigaray's speculum can be applied to an analysis of Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman, before moving on to an examination of the ways in which Wollstonecraft uses mimesis to reveal the inconsistencies of male prescription of eighteenth-century femininity.

Wollstonecraft, Irigaray and Mimetic Feminism

While a number of different theories have arisen concerning the nature of Wollstonecraft's feminism, critics return again and again to her 'masculine' approach and her adoption of 'manly' tendencies. …