Violence against difference:Mary Wollstonecraft,
Mary Robinson, and women's strength
Bodily strength from being the distinction of heroes is now sunk into such unmerited contempt that men, as well as women, seem to think it unnecessary.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Women's violence transgresses the boundaries that establish both sex and gender like no other act can–not only are such women not properly feminine, but they cease to be female. Women's violence was for many the most shocking of all the French revolution's bloody excesses, simply because the actors were women. Even Sade found Charlotte Corday's assassination of Marat disturbing: “Marat's barbarous assassin, like those mixed beings to which one cannot assign a sex, vomited up from Hell to the despair of both sexes, directly belongs to neither. ” 1 Images of Charlotte Corday and of the mobs of armed, enraged Parisian women are still with us today, a testament to their power to disturb our lingering concepts of women as inherently nonviolent. Because such violent women are typically described as bestialized or at least as unsexed, it is too often assumed that such descriptions serve only misogynist ends, and are found largely in the works of men. Yet, because the violent woman violates both the limitations and the virtues of natural womanhood so spectacularly, she is necessarily of interest to us today when feminism's identity, grounded in the problematic existence of “woman, ” is in crisis.
In exploring British women writers' representations of such violent women, we need to avoid two dangers of interpretation. The first is that these images of aggressive women represent and celebrate unbridled female agency and power. The second, equally dangerous position is that these images of aggressive women are simply products of male misogyny internalized by women. Each perspective is insufficient, but together they produce a constructive tension that I will focus on throughout this book. In an important sense, my project is in a similar double-bind, as were