Mary Wollstonecraft lived by her pen and wrote trenchant critiques of the role of women and marriage in late 18th century British society. She died aged 38, a few days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley. She is often remembered for writing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but it was not in fact her best book, says Cambridge intellectual historian Sylvana Tomaselli. Here, she recommends books to read to get a good understanding of the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft, and the writers she was both influenced by and reacting against.
Before we get to the books, why is Mary Wollstonecraft an important figure? Why should I be paying attention to her in the 21st century?
For a start, because she’s said to be important and sometimes one just has to know about people who are said to be important, even if one is disappointed. Mary Wollstonecraft is often called the first English feminist—which she isn’t—but she continues to draw a lot of interest partly, I think, because readers find her both very interesting but, also, sometimes because they’re disappointed. For some feminists, she talks too much about motherhood, for others she doesn’t talk about sex in the right way. There’s always something to argue about her and that maintains a kind of interest and controversy about what she really wanted women to do and what the meaning of her work really is. So that’s one set of reasons.
For me, she’s important because she’s a very honest intellectual. She’s able to revise her own views. I mention in the book how whilst traveling in Scandinavia, and writing to Gilbert Imlay with their child, a little girl, Fanny, she says (these are not her exact words), ‘I don’t know whether to prepare her for the world as it is or for the world as it should be.’ For somebody who’s written The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, it’s an amazingly honest thing to say. We must all have thoughts about how to prepare our children for the world and whether we educate them in such a way as to ensure that they survive in the world as it is or as we think they ought to be. That kind of thing endears her to me, and makes her very, very special.
The other thing is the extent to which she was prepared to think about the authors that she criticized, and clearly absorbed some of the things that they had to say. She criticizes Burke relentlessly, mercilessly. But when she’s in France writing the history of the French Revolution, she’s able to say that whilst the English constitution is not perfect, a lot can be said for it. That kind of thing is certainly very rare today. But I think even in the 18th century it was quite rare. And for a woman to revise her views—it would be seen as a sign of weakness, of inconsistency, all the things that were often associated with women. I admire her.
In Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics, you write, “she should not be thought of as the famous author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Can you explain?
It’s not actually her best book. It reflects her views but, in many ways, these views, though not developed, are already in The Vindication of the Rights of Men. That book, [The Vindication of the Rights of Men] is a great rhetorical achievement, an insightful attack on Burke. She’s a very critical woman. Of course she’s not fair, but as a critique of an author, it is very, very sharp rhetorically and analytically, she really gets Burke.
The overemphasis on The Vindication of the Rights of Woman cuts her down, effectively. It narrows her. It trims her to a core which isn’t really a core because her views develop and, as I said, she became critical of some of her views or revised them. To label her in this way, which is what Godwin did, is to reduce her intellectual ambition. She thought of herself as a philosopher and a moralist and had she lived longer would have written on all manners of subjects well beyond vindicating the rights of women.
Let’s look at the books you’re recommending. The first few are forged in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, before Louis XVI is executed. I guess in discussing these books we have to start with Edmund Burke—we need to look at his views before we can discuss Mary Wollstonecraft and her response to them. Tell me about what’s probably the most famous argument for conservatism ever written, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Prior to The Reflections, Burke was thought of as a friend of liberty. He had been very sympathetic to the American cause and Wollstonecraft defended him, and others, in a review. Also, this would not have been known to her or to anyone else, but Burke wrote an unpublished critique of the laws pertaining to Ireland. They saw him as one of them. When the Reflections came out and he becomes the champion of private property, they think of him as a turncoat.
To begin with, a young man had written to Burke to invite him to congratulate the French on their newly acquired liberty, which Burke did not do. He knew the family of the young man, they had come and stayed with him.
In 1788, a society had been formed for the commemoration of the Glorious Revolution. In 1789, Richard Price, who was a dissenting minister, spoke to this society, “On the Love of our Country”, in which he says—and I’m paraphrasing—’what a time to be alive, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, now the French Revolution, this is clearly the forward march of Providence.’ Price is deeply anti-Papist and for him the French Revolution is nothing short of a victory against the Antichrist.
“She thought of herself as a philosopher and a moralist and had she lived longer would have written on all manners of subjects well beyond vindicating the rights of women”
Burke reacts to what he thinks is a very dangerous moment, when authors like Price are giving a false account of the Glorious Revolution and linking it to the French one. There is quite a lot of sympathy in this country for what is going on in the early moments of the French Revolution. To put a lid on that, Burke writes The Reflections.
The beginning of the Reflections is a critique of Price’s account of the Settlement of 1689, arguing that it was a ‘reason of state’ moment when there was a slight deviation in the succession to save the constitution, and that one couldn’t argue from deviations to a rule. In fact, it was the opposite and 1689 was in no way a statement about popular sovereignty and so forth.
He moves to a critique of France’s National Assembly, its composition, the mediocrity of its members, their inexperience, and so forth. Much of what he says takes the form of a ‘slippery slope’ argument, most notably in relation to the appropriation of Church lands: that once you violate private property, and the independence of its central institution, the whole will unravel, you begin to undermine society. What is the purpose of society? To secure life, liberty, and property. Burke sees what is taking place in France as something that will be unstoppable and that only a Napoleon-like figure will be able to stop. For him, it’s the beginning of the end of civilization. Effectively what’s being unraveled is something that very few people understand, that holds society together, that’s both very strong and very, very fragile.
The fact that The Reflections criticized Price in this way meant that the Dissenting community had a great interest in destroying The Reflections. Joseph Johnson, a friend and publisher of Wollstonecraft, who gave her work as she needed to work, encouraged her to write a reply, which she duly did. She lost heart halfway through, but he encouraged her and was very supportive and she finished it. The Vindication of the Rights of Men is a very strongly worded attack. It’s an ad hominem attack in many places.
She must have looked at Burke’s other works and most especially, his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1757, a work I absolutely love. There is a passage in which Burke explains why we admire the Greeks but love the Trojans and it is done beautifully. I can’t do justice to it. Anyway, in the book, there is an account of beauty in contrast to the sublime, linking it to weakness, to prettiness, to what is small. Burke says that women realize this, and they use it, pretending to weakness, to totter, to faint and what have you. You can imagine Wollstonecraft reading this!
So, The Vindication of the Rights of Men is a reaction to both the Reflections and this early work by Burke.
Yes. She writes what I think is an extraordinary work. It’s written in about two weeks. At first, it’s anonymous. The second edition bears her name. It’s a mix of all kinds of things but attacking Burke is her starting point. She attacks him for being disrespectful to a well-respected minister.
The most surprising thing happens in that text: because of Burke’s critique of the appropriation of Church property, she latches onto property. She focuses on marriage and how society’s obsession with property and its accumulation distorts the relationship between parents and children, and between men and women.
I haven’t read all the responses to Burke. But those that I have read, including that of Catherine Macaulay, more or less stick to the point. They will say that those in the National Assembly are not nobodies, they’re decent people or they will attack the ancien regime. They do what you would expect. They don’t start talking about marriage and all the other things Wollstonecraft does.
One of the things that Burke argues is that the Church needs property to be independent because it needs to be in a position to remind the rich and powerful of their duty. It’s a kind of variant on what will be Marx’s view. It’s not the opiate of the poor, it’s the rod against the rich because who else is going to tell them what their duties are? Then she says, ‘but how could this be?’ When you think of the relationship between the aristocracy and the clergy on the Grand Tour—where a young man is taken by a clergyman into Europe— look at the actual power dynamics, because the clergyman is beholden to the boy’s family for his living. She’s amazing.
As a philosopher, how do you rate A Vindication of the Rights of Men? Do you think she’s of a stature with Burke and Rousseau and the people who she’s sparring with in her books?
One shouldn’t compare her to Rousseau, I don’t think. Although Rousseau writes a lot and relatively quickly, it was in completely different circumstances. Yes, he had a tumultuous life, his life was not easy. But compared to Rousseau she is the precariat in the 18th century. That’s number one.
She’s a polemicist mostly. She’s not a theoretician in her Vindications, although there is the making of a philosopher in them and her other works, which is what I tried to bring out in my own work on her. Had she lived longer, she probably would have developed more of what we take to be a political or philosophical theory. We know this because of the notes that were meant for a second volume of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She doesn’t really talk about rights in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but she says she will in a subsequent volume. But what is now referred to as Hints in editions of her works doesn’t talk about rights either. It’s about the sublime, the beautiful, the imagination, she mentions Kant.
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In all likelihood, she would have developed as a philosopher and as an epistemologist. She would have written, possibly, works that are more like Burke’s essay on the sublime and the beautiful or Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, or David Hume’s essays.
In terms of her ability to see contradictions in other people’s arguments and rhetorical skills, as a pamphlet dashed out in a very short time, she is quite exceptional. Burke was a seasoned politician. He had studied law. We’re talking about a relatively young woman, more or less self-educated, versus a statesman who has had a formal education. It’s not comparing like with like.
But reading both of them, now, she comes across as more modern. What she’s arguing for is more what we’ve come to believe today than what he’s writing. As you mention in your book, she’s against slavery, for example. Whereas Burke sounds quite hierarchical, somewhat nationalistic, ‘we’ve got it all right in England, even when we had a civil war, we did it better’.
I don’t agree with that view of Burke. And Wollstonecraft did not sound modern at all to many in the 20th century. In the 70s and well into the 90s, one often had to defend her, one had to apologize for the fact that she mentions motherhood and family. Relatively few people mentioned what she said about slavery then, partly because very few people talked about slavery, so her abolitionism would go more or less unnoticed. The focus on The Vindication of the Rights of Woman made her sound very dated, because of what she says about modesty and early marriages. Now, because of our increasing awareness of slavery past and present, because we don’t think that motherhood or working in the home is nothing, we see her in a different light.
Likewise, arguments from Burke are much more contemporary, partly because of our concerns about the environment. The world we inherit is one we don’t have the authority to destroy. It’s not ours to wreck, we inherit it to maintain us and it, and we have to bequeath it if anything improved but certainly not damaged.
The other way in which Burke has become much more appreciated is that we understand that civil society is a very complex phenomenon which most of us don’t even begin to understand. You can’t just change government and think that somehow or other everything is going to be wonderful. All our exporting democracy without understanding the societies in which we tried to impose it, without allowing the groundwork to be laid, has made Burke much more understandable.
All I’m trying to say is that how authors such as Wollstonecraft and Burke are viewed very much depends on the nature of the times in which they are being considered, on the current intellectual agenda. In some ways Mary Wollstonecraft is more of the moment now than she was or would have appeared to be, certainly in the 60s. In some ways the readings now of Wollstonecraft are more sympathetic than they’ve ever been.
I’ve underlined a quote from Amartya Sen that you include towards the end of you book. He writes that Mary Wollstonecraft, “along with Thomas Paine, powerfully explored ‘the reach and range of ethical understanding of rights, based on the value of human freedom’ not least in relation to slavery, where he sees her contra-Burke as ‘arguing for universalist perspective that would overcome positional prejudice and sectional favouritism.’” Is that a good formulation of her importance?
Sen’s reading of Wollstonecraft is Sen’s reading of Wollstonecraft. He certainly has contributed, because of his fame, to making her more relevant and giving a broader understanding of her arguments about human rights. He very much underscores her anti-slavery campaign. That is most welcome.
Depending on which work of hers one considers, I’m not sure she comes across as that much of an advocate of human freedom. She can be. But, given her context, the 18th century, given her hopes for women and men, she appears to be most concerned with duties. If you expect women—or indeed anyone—to perform certain duties, they must know these duties in the first place, recognize them, and have the means to perform them. That was vital to her argument. You don’t sell to an 18th century audience—or indeed to any audience—what they’re not predisposed to adopt. So you don’t start by arguing for freedom.
Let’s focus specifically on The Vindication of the Rights of Woman now, because not everybody will have read it. Most people will know she wrote it, but perhaps not know exactly what’s in it.
It’s a mixture of things. On the one hand, it’s a critique of a number of famous pedagogical works for women. This includes a critique of Rousseau’s Emile and the way in which he conceives of Sophie, Emile’s eventual spouse’s, education so completely differently from that of Emile. Emile is meant to learn in a way that is free from conventions, from dogma. He’s meant to receive as unmediated a knowledge of the world as possible, so that he can be as independent a being as possible, while Sophie learns from her mother, taking on accepted beliefs in a non-critical manner.
There is also the argument about inconsistency that I’ve mentioned, which is that women are expected to be good wives, mothers, and neighbors, and are educated to be everything except that. They live in a world in which appearance is everything. They live to appear, which means that not only will they be undutiful as wives, mothers and so on, but on top of that it guarantees unhappiness because however good looking they may be, age catches up with women, and they end up competing with their daughters as they did with other women in their youth. They have no inner resources. They live a miserable life plus, because they have nothing to talk about, it makes for unhappy companionship. She also argues that women should never be in a position of dependence and never have to marry for financial reasons.
“She’s a very honest intellectual”
The long and short of it is that women should be given education and training such that should they not want to marry, they can support themselves and were they to marry and have children, they can be good mothers and wives, as well as neighbors. It’s framed within a Christian approach to life, a view that one’s duties to society as well as to one’s immediate kin are unquestionable. As I said earlier, what she does is show the contradictions within our society. This is a very important part of the way in which she seeks to convince her audience that we have a society which has self-contradictory beliefs. Given that we expect the performance of duties, we have to ensure that there is the right alignment but, in order for this to really happen, we need to revise our notions of the purpose of life. This is where the Christian element comes in, because where in the Bible does it say that you’re meant to spend your life in front of a mirror and go out to balls?
On one level The Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a repetitive, simplistic work. On the other it’s a very radical work. One is the boring thing—not that it would not require a great deal of change in the society—she just wants education for women. At another level, what she’s asking is for us to revise our entire notion of, ‘what is a woman? What is a man? What is beautiful, what is sublime? What is the purpose of life?’
Then there are bits thrown in. She very much wants boys and girls to be educated together. She wants early marriages because it’s a way of controlling sexuality, I suppose, and keeping a lid on lasciviousness. It’s a bit of mixed bag.
Her own life was quite unusual, though, wasn’t it? Have you got a favorite biography of Mary Wollstonecraft?
Oh, yes. It’s by Janet Todd. Claire Tomalin also wrote a biography of her in the 70s, which is beautifully written as everything that Claire Tomalin writes is. I would also recommend that. But Janet Todd’s was published around 20 years ago and is more detailed. She managed to reconstruct some of the life at Bath, for example, and more on Ireland. So I would recommend Janet Todd’s, but if one wishes a shorter and excellent one, Tomalin’s.
Basically, Wollstonecraft didn’t come from particularly a wealthy background. She made her money by writing. She didn’t get married to the father of her first child. How was she educated?
Her family started off in a much more comfortable position than they ended. Her father squandered the money he had inherited. He was not a good man, let alone a good father, and he certainly wasn’t a good husband, indeed he was violent and Wollstonecraft speaks of trying to protect her mother from his blows. It was downward mobility. There were a number of relationships to either people she lived with, that they lodged with, or even when she’s a governess to the Kingsboroughs, that contributes to her education. Lady Kingsborough takes her to concerts; they include her in their circle. She learns a great deal also by reviewing for the Analytical Review and that way has access to books. She’s largely self-taught, though there are individuals in her youth who will teach her some Latin, for example, or some Plato. She knows her Bible and her Shakespeare and Milton very well. She has the kind of knowledge of somebody who has not received a formal education and wants to show that she’s one of them. She’s certainly far better educated than most young men who would have gone to Eton, or Oxford or Cambridge, which were complete backwaters then.
But she doesn’t get married?
She does, she marries a few months before Mary Godwin—who becomes Mary Shelley—is born. She marries William Godwin. She was not married to the father of her first child, Gilbert Imlay. She passed as his wife in Paris during her time there because it was very dangerous to be English, and being the wife of an American gave a degree of protection. But he was a scoundrel and left her for another woman. She tried desperately to re-seduce him through her letters from Scandinavia, where she went to locate a ship carrying bullion in which he had a share. The captain of the ship had absconded, and the ship disappeared.
Yes, let’s turn to that episode and Mary Wollstonecraft’s book about being in Scandinavia, as you’ve recommended it as well worth reading. It’s called Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
It had many different effects. I once asked a friend who likes women what effect those letters would have on a man and he said they would make him run a mile. It did not work as a way of endearing herself to a scoundrel. But Godwin said the opposite, he said it made one fall in love with the reader.
In any event, it was influential on travel writing and on the Romantics, the German Romantics in particular. It influenced Coleridge. She writes about being in various places in Scandinavia and being astonished at the lack of curiosity of some people when the ship approaches. She talks about the theater. It’s a travel report. You were saying earlier that she’s quite modern. The way in which travel literature has taken off in the last 50 years is extraordinary. Every newspaper, apart from recipes, has to have a huge travel section. That’s what she did when she wrote these letters.
Just in terms of her relationship with Imlay, is she living up to a philosophy that doesn’t believe in marriage?
She never had a word against marriage as such and indeed was looking forward to domesticity with Godwin. She would have loved to have had the same with Imlay. If anything, as I was saying earlier, the 1960s feminists thought she was a bit too much for marriage and certainly not enough for sex, as they saw it. In fact, she was much more complicated and interesting on any subject than one might imagine.
The way the relationship with Imlay goes against the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman is because she writes that great romantic relations happen once every 100 years. We’re not all going to be Anna Karenina. By implication, what one needs to look for is somebody that one can be friends with and a companion to, not this great romance. But she fell passionately in love with Imlay. It’s a deep sexual and physical longing. He must have told her a lot of falsehoods. He certainly didn’t tell her, as has been discovered not too long ago, that he had a share in a slave transporting ship.
Lastly, let’s turn to Adam Smith, who was another important influence on Mary Wollstonecraft.
As I tried to say in the book, there is more than one Wollstonecraft. She is pragmatic, she’d like something done to improve the condition of women, and indeed men, and to end the slave trade and abolish slavery. What she thinks really needs doing is probably a step too far in our civilization. Insofar as one can reconstruct the world as she would have liked it—and that’s probably one of my small contributions to the literature—it would be a world in which the division of labor would not be as intensive as she saw it becoming. This is where Adam Smith comes in. In The Wealth of Nations, he argues for education for those who are involved in repetitive, menial work, because he says that this kind of work has a detrimental psychological effect, that it atrophies the mind (my words). A very important illustration or image he gives is of the blacksmith. He says the time that the blacksmith spends going from one part of his activity to the other—banging on the iron and then putting it in the fire, I don’t know—is the time he thinks, and his mind is active.
“How authors such as Wollstonecraft and Burke are viewed very much depends on the nature of the times in which they are being considered”
Wollstonecraft very much believed in this. She understands that we are in a world in which the division of labor is going to become more and more intensive, and this will have a psychologically atrophying effect on human beings. We know that she wants boys and girls to be educated together. We also know that she prefers men and women to work together, that she thinks single sex workshops make for lasciviousness, that she wants early marriages. That vision, oddly enough, is partly learned through Adam Smith. She is not suggesting that we can stop the clock but, in her view of the world, she implied it. What is more, it would be a decentralized world. She’s very eager, very curious and very interested in what’s happening in France and hoping that this will lead to a decentralized political world, a simpler, purer society. Of course, the very opposite happens.
But we can imagine maybe farms with extended families, where the young milkmaids help with the children, then go off and have their own farm or shops, with men and women working together in workshops. That world is not a world of high fashion and pretence and talking about books or poetry one has not read and everything is second or thirdhand.
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In the Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith wrote very insightfully about the mechanism that I keep referring to, which is this world of appearances, the way in which we seek to appear to be all of what society deems commendable. Then he also says, ‘But of course, fortunately some people don’t just want to appear to be, they actually want to think of themselves as genuinely virtuous.’ That’s an important influence on Wollstonecraft, though, of course, Smith is not the only source for this way of thinking about social beings.
Your book, Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics isn’t a biography, but is quite personal in that it looks at her response to poetry and nature as well as what she thought of the world and human nature, the human condition, society. What gap were you trying to fill in writing it?
The first was the gap that I had created myself. I’ve written quite a lot on Wollstonecraft, and as I started writing the book, I thought, ‘Here I go again, listing all the things she doesn’t like—the world of appearance, women who can, but don’t breastfeed etc.—I’m so bored of this!’ It occurred to me that I didn’t really know what she liked. I decided to start the book by going through what she liked. I happen to have her first work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, on my desk, in which there are short essays on a variety of topics. I thought, ‘Great, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to look at music and theatre and nature and that kind of thing. And that’s what I did.’ And then I thought, well, what’s her view of human nature? What did she think we were like? Some of these things have been written about, but they’ve not really been brought together.
Having started with the view that she thought of herself as a philosopher and a moralist, I also looked at her theory of the mind, and how we come to have the ideas that we have. This was important to me because she didn’t think of herself as a feminist. That’s not because she’s not a feminist, but it’s not helpful to think of her as one. If you write about a philosopher, you write about their epistemology, their ontology, their theory of the mind, and so forth. So this is what I did.
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In the course of that, it was evident that she thought we are naturally benevolent. So, if we are naturally benevolent, and believe in providence, and a creational world, what happened? That then led to chapter three, about how it went wrong. One of the things that has not been written about extensively is her view of the history of civilization, at what point we went off the rails. So that’s the aim.
Then I end with, ‘okay, if the world is wrong, how can it be made right?’
What I wanted was to show her in the main, that she wasn’t just a critic of everything that she cast her eye on. That she had views about a great number of topics, that she was, in her mind, a philosopher, and yes, she hasn’t written extensive treatises. She wasn’t a professor of philosophy, with a salary and tenure. She had a vision of what could be done relatively easily and of a realistic utopia, should one ever be in a position to approximate it.
I’d never thought of Wollstonecraft as being in conversation with not only with Burke, but also Rousseau with Adam Smith. That’s very interesting, being able to put her in the context of this intellectual history. Also, the French Revolution is so important. One of her books is addressed to Talleyrand, isn’t it?
Yes, the second edition of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to him because she’s disappointed that the French Revolution had not thought enough about education. She’s hoping that he’s going to make a real difference when he’s put in charge. Not only did he not do that, but the French Revolution was regressive in terms of women’s rights.
What I wanted to do was to give a sketch of her as an intellectual and keep her away, as much as possible, from any label. I used the word radical a few minutes ago, but I wouldn’t normally—or conservative, or liberal, or any -isms. Those terms are anachronistic. They mean that we don’t listen to her. And then we have to qualify, ‘Yes, while she was a feminist, she didn’t think this, she didn’t believe that’—this constant checklist, judging her by one set of standards, then moving the goalposts. That, to me, is deeply un-feminist because it refuses to listen to her for what she is, which is a perennial problem that women face.
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Sylvana Tomaselli is the Sir Harry Hinsley Lecturer in History at St John’s College, Cambridge. She is the editor of Mary Wollstonecraft:“A Vindication of the Rights of Men” and “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
Sylvana Tomaselli is the Sir Harry Hinsley Lecturer in History at St John’s College, Cambridge. She is the editor of Mary Wollstonecraft:“A Vindication of the Rights of Men” and “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
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