Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives

By D. L. Macdonald; Anne McWhir et al. | Go to book overview

Mary Wollstonecraft
and Harriet Jacobs:
Self Possessions

Jeanne Perreault

As she looks at the bill of sale for the thirteen-year-old “slave, iL· female” who may have been her great-grandmother, law professor Patricia Williams wonders if or how one can be a self or have a self when one is the legal possession of another (16). Williams disconcerts notions of selfhood as abstract, psychological, or purely conceptual by claiming an “I” as material, as possession, even as property. She asserts the double authority of powerful possessor and valued possession, naming herself this way: “my most precious property, I” (Williams 128).1 “I,” usually the subject, is “I” the object here. Explicitly using the language of property in speaking of herself, Williams brings together the familiar if indeterminate notion of self-possession with the objectification implied in self (or any person) as property. The specific history of American slavery and her (unfixed) position as an African-American woman provide Williams with a way to examine “claims that make property of others beyond the self (11). Mary Wollstonecraft, in both A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and The Wrongs of Woman, and Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the Life of a Stove Girl (1861), also examine such claims critically. Grappling with the different but linked problems of the legal possession of women by

Notes are on pp. 110–12.

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