The Mixed Legacies of Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Jean Corbett is John W. Steube Professor of English and an Affiliate of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is the author of Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Cornell 2008); Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870: Politics, History and the Family from Edgeworth to Arnold (Cambridge 2000); and Representing Femininity: Middle-Class Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Autobiographies (Oxford 1992). She is currently at work on a study of Virginia Woolf and Victorian literary traditions. Today, Dr. Corbett shares with us her experience with Wollstonecraft.
Virginia Woolf concludes her essay on Mary Wollstonecraft in The Second Common Reader (1932) by asserting her subject’s continuing importance for feminism in Woolf’s own time: “Many millions have died and been forgotten … since she was buried; and yet as we read her letters and listen to her arguments and consider her experiments … and realize the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly; she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living” (Essays of Virginia Woolf 5, 477). The extent of Wollstonecraft’s direct “influence” on feminists of the long nineteenth century was, of course, much abridged by the publication of Godwin’s notorious Memoirs, with its scandalously candid discussion of his wife’s “experiments” in living. Not an easy figure for Victorian activists to reclaim as a foremother, Wollstonecraft yet proves for Woolf—keenly aware of the gendered connotations of women’s “influence” within a nineteenth-century context—an important precursor. Moving as she did in the 1930s into conscious and contentious engagement with the major political issues of her day, culminating in Three Guineas (1938), Woolf might be said to find in Wollstonecraft the very antithesis of the Angel in the House, attributing to her the guiding principle that “Independence was the first necessity for a woman; not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were her necessary qualities” (472).
In teaching Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman over the last two decades, usually in a survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, I have used Woolf’s words on Wollstonecraft as a touchstone in discussing works that meditate on the position of women, particularly middle-class white women, within an historical framework in which the question of rights—where they come from, who “has” them, and on what basis—is paramount. Distinguishing power from influence, like Mary Astell before her and Elizabeth Barrett Browning after her, Wollstonecraft occupies a key position in the discursive construction of women as rational creatures who would disdain the lesser arts of femininity as tools of the abject in favor of gaining access to higher goods. Across economic, educational, and affective registers, achieving “independence,” as students usually see right away, requires in the first place having a will to put into effect, as opposed to merely being the instrument of another’s. The question of what constitutes and conditions that “will,” its relations both to reason and desire, its ethical and political dimensions: these are the questions that guide my teaching of the fiction of the nineteenth century and beyond, from Emma to Jane Eyre to The Mill on the Floss on through To the Lighthouse. By framing the question of rights in this way, emphasizing its historical grounding in discourses of both reason and property, Wollstonecraft helps to shape the different meanings that “independence” would take for women writers after her. This strand of her thinking resonates not only with the fiction I teach, but also with the students who read it, whose individual and collective sense of their own will, reason, and independence are frequently under construction.
But in teaching the Vindication, we also glimpse the significant exclusions that have, for more than two centuries, constrained the value and promise of the Enlightenment project. It wasn’t until I began teaching the Vindication, in the wake of reading Gayatri Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts” and Cora Kaplan’s Sea Changes, that I began to see the intertwining of the class and race problematics within that text as posing a negative constraint on its liberatory critical potential—a constraint apparent most infamously in Brontë, but also in Eliot and Woolf. In the classroom, under careful scrutiny, the signifying systems of even the most “advanced” feminist thinkers of their time betray the limits of rights discourse, a sobering but salutary reminder of the need for intersectional analysis.
Wollstonecraft is “alive and active” in this way, too, in that her awareness of class/gender oppressions notwithstanding, she can illuminate our blindspots by showing us her own. Here, too, the Vindication provides a roadmap to women’s fiction in the nineteenth century, alerting readers to the persistent difficulties of articulating an egalitarian ethic within frameworks of domination that too often predicate the “independence” of some on the subordination of others.
It is because of this mixed legacy, I think, that Wollstonecraft continues to compel. For her part, Woolf singled out for notice not just her subject’s passion for ideas, but her willingness to modify those ideas under the influence of passion: “something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh” (474) in light of her experience of desire, maternity, and despair over Imlay and, subsequently, of her marriage to Godwin. That, too, “was an experiment, as Mary’s life had been an experiment from the start,” with Woolf defining the term from her own personal experience as “an attempt to make human conventions conform more closely to human needs” (476).
In Three Guineas, she uses that term again to describe the array of efforts undertaken by foremothers, to ask if “by considering the experiments that the dead have made with their lives in the past we may find some help in answering the very difficult question that is now forced upon us” (75), the question of how to end the everyday dominations that lead to war. While that question has not yet been answered, both Wollstonecraft’s and Woolf’s “experiments,” however flawed and partial, continue to underwrite some of our own.