Mary Wollstonecraft and the Motherhood of Feminism

By Ford, Thomas H. | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Mary Wollstonecraft and the Motherhood of Feminism


Ford, Thomas H., Women's Studies Quarterly


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For modern feminism, maternity has often appeared to be a lure or a trap. As mothers, women risk being defined primarily in terms of sexual reproduction in a cultural dynamic that overwhelms the possibiUty of female autonomy and self-determination. And yet, at the same time, the language of motherhood has been central to the way modern feminism has understood its own history. Twentieth-century feminists set out to locate themselves within traditions inaugurated by "foremothers," while the relations between one feminist generation and the next have often been represented as those of mothers and daughters. So on the one hand, the rhetoric of motherhood has been a central target in the feminist project of exposing and repudiating the cultural logics that perpetuate the oppression of women. And on the other, feminists have turned to this same rhetoric when reflecting on the development of feminism itself.

The conflict between these two impulses has rarely been as sharp as in the reception of Mary Wollstonecraft. Although celebrated as the mother of English-language feminism, Wollstonecraft increasingly became subject to feminist criticism from the 1970s on. This second-wave reappraisal of Wollstonecraft culminated in 1994, when literary critic Susan Gubar charged Wollstonecraft with "feminist misogyny" (1994, 454). What gave this and similar criticisms of Wollstonecraft particular bite was their acceptance of Wollstonecraft as a vital source of inspiration for modern feminism. Gubar, for instance, writes that Wollstonecraft is "the aesthetic foremother of feminist expository prose" and that the latter's Vindication of the Rights of Woman is "quite rightly regarded as the founding feminist text in English" (454). It is precisely because of this foundational role that she warns Wollstonecraft 's philosophical daughters against their foremother's influence.

Gubar's account of Wollstonecraft effectively completes a critical consensus established through the 1980s and 1990s. Mary Jacobus, for instance, understood Wollstonecraft's two novels to be "fictions which, even as they anatomize the confines of 'sensibility' cannot escape its informing preoccupations and literary influence" (1986, 59). Mary Poovey similarly criticized Wollstonecraft for "remaining a prisoner of the category she most vehemendy tried to reject" (1984, 81), and Janet Todd likewise argued that Wollstonecraft and fellow radical writer Mary Hays often remained 'trapped in the ideology of femininity' (1989, 237). More recently, Angela Keane has argued that Wollstonecraft "could only reproduce the logic of the system she sought to eradicate" (2000, 109). The same phrases recur in Timothy Reiss's reading of Wollstonecraft: "She argued within Enlightenment rhetoric ... a matter of the right to participate in the system, not of the need to change it" (1989, 14). And, again like Gubar, Cora Kaplan understood Wollstonecraft to exemplify the fate of feminist thought more generally, for "all feminisms give some ideological hostage to femininities and are constructed through the gender sexuality of their day as well as standing in opposition to them" (Kaplan 1986, 49). It is this general pattern, in which the feminist text often unwittingly reinforces the patriarchy it sets out to combat, that Gubar dubs "feminist misogyny" - a paradoxical structure of self-animus, passed on from mother figures such as Wollstonecraft to her feminist daughters of today.

In these readings, the contradictions within Wollstonecraft's ideas are often ascribed to her allegiance to bourgeois ideology. This emerging set of ideas allowed a new women's world to be imagined in the late eighteenth century, but, as Mitzi Myers writes, it also ordered that world according to the values of "modesty for both sexes, serviceable work, education, and, above all, mothering" (1982, 206). In this way, the paradoxical limitations of Wollstonecraft's feminism tend to be traced back to her commitment to the middle-class family, and specifically to her belief that motherhood should form the vital center of female cultural identity, with motherhood usually understood in these arguments in opposition to embodied feminine sexuality.

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