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

By Garner, Naomi Jayne | Journal of International Women's Studies, November 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Garner, Naomi Jayne, Journal of International Women's Studies


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.