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Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£16.95, xvi +331 pages, ISBN 0-521-00417-9 (paperback).
£45.00, xvi +331 pages, ISBN 0-521-66144-7 (hardback).
Université de Rouen
Barbara Taylor's Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination is
not a conventional biography of Wollstonecraft, but a reflection on her life,
behaviour as well as her political commitments, and an analysis of her fictional
and philosophical works. However, the reader finds a short but clear presentation
of Wollstonecraft's life in the first chapter. In a few pages, Taylor presents
the author's childhood, her first professional activities, the beginnings of
her literary career, her success as a writer and her personal affairs, in particular
her relationships with Fuseli, Imlay and Godwin.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I 'Imagining women,' whose first chapter
is entitled 'the female philosopher,' deals mostly with Wollstonecraft as a literary
professional and philosopher. In this part, Taylor studies at length Wollstonecraft's
religious beliefs and their influence on her sexual attitudes. The second part,
'Feminism and Revolution,' is mainly about her feminism in the context of her
utopian radicalism and of British Jacobinism.
The first chapter is about Wollstonecraft as a philosopher but deals also with
the place of women writers at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time,
as Taylor points out, there was a fairly large number of women writers, a phenomenon
that alarmed many men of letters who were under the impression that their dominant
position was threatened. Writing, they warned, had baneful effects on women,
an assertion a number of women endorsed. Wollstonecraft was also critical,
but for other reasonsshe found most of those female writers second rate.
She started writing for the publisher Joseph Johnson as early as 1786, an activity
which was lucrative for both of them, since, on her side, she was able to support
herself. At the beginning of her writing career, she was very much like other
minor women writers, but this changed with the publication of A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was an immediate success. Within a year,
a second edition was published and a French translation came out. The book, which
was perceived as a philosophical text, was by and large read with approbation
at first, but towards the end of the century, partly because of some consequences
of the French Revolution and the violence and horrors of the Terror, readers
became critical and The European Magazine even called her a 'philosophical
In the second chapter, Taylor studies the place of imagination and reason in
Wollstonecraft's thought. Taylor's presentation of what imagination was in the
eighteenth century is particularly interesting. In a nutshell, it was 'a psychic
pathway between humanity and the divine,' to use her own words (60). This leads
her to analyse the relations between Wollstonecraft and Burke, whom she attacked
in her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), and then to the complex
relations between Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, whose views on women are to be
found in most of her writings.
The chapter on religion is one of the most successful in the book partly because
it is a subject that is not frequently associated with Wollstonecraft. For the
first 28 years of her life she was a regular churchgoer, but afterwards her religious
views became less orthodox although she did not become an atheist, like Godwin.
She was strongly influenced by Richard Price, the Rational Dissent minister famous
for his defence of the French Revolution. Of course, she could not but see the
analogy between women, who were oppressed, and Dissenters, who were penalized
in many respects. However, she did not adhere altogether to the Dissenters' culture,
partly because of the cold instrumental reason through which they had access
to God. This study of religion is followed by an analysis of the influence her
religious beliefs had on her, in particular her views on sexuality, and, as Taylor
remarks, sex pervades The Rights of Woman. In her book, Wollstonecraft
castigates mostly rich idle women, in other words, aristocrats, whose sexuality
was too lax, and advocates chastity on the part of both men and women. Taylor
aptly points out that, when Wollstonecraft wrote about sexuality in the Rights
of Woman she had very little experience on which to base her views, since
her frustrating romance with Fuseli was certainly unconsummated and it was not
until she met Imlay in 1793 that she discovered her sensualism.
The second part of Taylor's work is devoted to Wollstonecraft's vision of the
emancipation of women, which is studied in the context of the French Revolution
and of British Jacobinism. In the eighteenth century, it was widely believed
that the advance of society ran parallel to the improvement of the situation
of women, and, Wollstonecraft, who thought that hierarchy had degrading effects,
was in favour of absolute egalitarianism, a position that was certainly reinforced
by her stay in Norway, where she saw democracy at work. This was essential,
because for her, to take up Taylor's words, "to live as a free woman in an unfree
world was impossible" (202). In fact, she was no doubt much more in favour
of democracy than many of her Jacobin compatriots at a time when there was
a clear misogynist feeling among radicals, even in France, where people like
de Gouges and Condorcet were almost exceptions. It is clear that Wollstonecraft
wanted women to be citizens in their own right.
She was also convinced that family life narrowed women's horizons and curtailed
their sense of public responsibility. As a consequence, she condemned the subordination
of women to men, which encouraged females to be cunning and selfish. She wanted
the independence of women, for, as Taylor puts it, "only a liberated woman
can become a good citizen" (227), and this enthusiasm for independence,
Taylor contends, is the evidence of her republicanism. In fact, female independence
is at the core of Wollstonecraft's thought, especially economic independence.
Not only does financial dependence underpin men's arbitrary rule, it also prevents
women from being truly generous, as they do not own anything, or virtuous, as
they are not free. Therefore women's economic self-reliance is an absolute necessity
if they are to become good and happily united to men. In short, women should
not regard men as their natural protectors because of the baneful consequences
such an attitude can have, as husbands can die or become unable to provide for
their wives, who, then, find themselves in dire straits. One should remember
that for Wollstonecraft "in a man's world, all women are prostituted," a
point Taylor underscores.
The epilogue of this biography presents how Wollstonecraft was perceived in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the hostility frequently expressed in
the first half of the nineteenth century, as a disappointed Flora Tristan noticed
in the late 1830s, (hostility that was to be found even among some mid-century
feminists) to her rehabilitation towards the end of the century, marked by Millicent
Garrett Fawcett's introduction to the anniversary edition of the Rights of
Woman in 1891. Although in the second half of the twentieth century, some
feminists found fault with her bourgeois social attitudes and prim sexual prescriptions
which made her look more like a 'grundyish schoolmistress' than a real feminist,
the mere fact that, nowadays, she is the subject of innumerable university courses
shows that her life and work still arouse much interest.
In many ways, Taylor's book is a new approach to Wollstonecraft's work and thought,
in particular the emphasis she has put on the role of religion. The precise chronology
and the detailed index is no doubt useful. Anyone interested in Wollstonecraft
or in the beginnings of feminism ought to read this study, which, might, however,
occasionally irritate those readers who are hostile to a feminist approach to
history or literature.
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