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The Mother of Feminism: A Contemporary Wollstonecraft?Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindications: The Rights of Men, The Rights of Woman. Eds. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1997. ISBN: 1-55111-088-1. Price: US$12.95.

  • Graham Allen

…plus d’informations

  • Graham Allen
    University College Cork

Corps de l’article

D. L. Macdonald's and Kathleen Scherf's edition of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (both texts based on the second editions) is a welcome addition to Broadview Presss developing list of Romantic and Victorian texts. Broadview, in their Literary Texts series, seek, as they put it in their publicity material, to contribute to the "ever-changing canon of English literature from new angles". What this translates into, of course, is a particular committment to publishing canonical and non-canonical work by women authors. Although Wollstonecraft's major political works are available in a number of editions and formats, the editors have taken the opportunity provided by the Broadview Literary Texts series to present those works alongside a number of their most significant contexts. Along with the editors' introduction and extensive footnotes, Macdonald and Scherf include useful appendices and bibliographies. Appendix A, which covers "The Revolutionary Moment", places Price's A Discourse on the Love of our Country , extracts from Burke's Reflections , and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and Women alongside Olympe de Gouges' The Rights of Woman (1791) and the slave narrative which Wollstonecraft herself reviewed in The Analytical Review,  [1]The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself. Appendix B gives the reader the chance to read Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman alongside texts which influenced her discussion of education in that work; extracts from Talleyrand's Rapport sur linstruction publique and Catherine Graham Macaulay's Letters on Education make up this section. Appendix C follows Todd and Butler's Pickering edition by republishing the "Hints" to the projected second part of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman first published by William Godwin in the fourth volume of Wollstonecraft's Posthumous Works.  [2] Finally, Appendix D usefully collects up a series of contemporary reviews of the two texts, including the lengthy critique of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from the Critical Review nos. 4 and 5, 1792. The contextual materials collected in here should make this edition at least as popular in student booklists as the best of the previously available paperback editions. [3]

One can, of course, always quibble about exclusions and inclusions in such an edition, and it is not always clear upon what basis notes on the texts are provided or not provided; however, Broadview's and the editors' commitment to producing scholarly editions which are also truly useful to and adaptable within a teaching environment is very welcome. Indeed, the editors go out of their way in their introduction to stress the need to make Wollstonecraft's work "more accessible", to recognize that "Wollstonecraft is an author whose life and work still speak to women and men today" (p.7), and to present editions which "make the essentially dialogical quality of her work accessible to modern readers" (p.26).

Macdonald and Scherf make some suggestions as to the kinds of issues to which Wollstonecrafts work still speaks. At one point they discuss contemporary charges that Wollstonecrafts second Vindication had "unwittingly subjected the radical cause to a reductio ad absurdum" (p.14) thus moving from the "rights of man" to the rights of children and even of "brutes". One of the contemporary parodies of Wollstonecraft's position (attributed to Thomas Taylor) was entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes , and Macdonald and Scherf employ these attacks to establish Wollstonecraft and Gouges as founding contributors to modern day "well-organized movements for the rights of children and animals". (p.15) The foregrounding of the importance of children within Wollstonecrafts work is, of course, extremely valid, and the second Vindication makes very plain that the rights of women and of men are inextricably tied to respect for the rights of children. Whether Wollstonecraft can be as easily established as a source for modern ecological movements seems to me much less obvious, and the concluding sentence of this section strikes me as somewhat forced: "If we do survive, Wollstonecraft will be partly responsible." (p.15)

A more important point about our current understanding of Wollstonecraft's work and its relevance lies partly hidden behind these editorial suggestions. Macdonald and Scherfs argument is that "the insistence of feminists like Wollstonecraft and Gouges that the revolutionaries take seriously their own universalist claims is partly responsible for the rise of these modern movements" (i.e. for the rights of children and of animals). In a note to this sentence, the editors add the rather tentative aside: "Wollstonecraft's own universalism has its limits, of course, as her disparaging references to Islam, for example, suggest". (p.27) Further comments by the editors, concerning Wollstonecraft's utilization of religious ideas as grounds for an argument concerning rights and justice, attest to their recognition (despite the sentence quoted above) that a hagiographic approach to Wollstonecraft as author and woman will not serve to reassert her works relevance in the modern world. However, understandably, given the limited space they have at their disposal, their portrait of Wollstonecraft as thinker and author finally evades the full force of the question about "universalism" by moving to a kind of personal or individualistic focus, as in the following paragraph:

A certain ambivalence is among Wollstonecrafts most striking characteristics as a political thinker. As Sapiro points out, she belongs to both the Lockean and the republican tradition; she recognizes the claims of both reason and passion; and she argues on grounds both of rights and of utility.


Whilst these remarks might be indisputable, they avoid vitally important issues by limiting the focus to that of Wollstonecraft's peculiarities as an individual thinker. The project of thinking about "universalist claims", and thus about the concept of "rights", however, plunges us into a dialogue, perhaps it would be better to say an aporia, between situational difference and the language of universal right which is unresolvable, precisely aporetic. It is this aporetic tension which is the principle question confronted by a great deal of twentieth-century philosophy, political theory and, more significantly here, feminist theory and practice. [4] This tension, I would argue, is the key to Wollstonecraft's contemporary relevance and the key to the most productive ways in which we might read her works.

Such a reading and teaching strategy would encourage concentration on the tensions and contradictions which make up important parts of Wollstonecraft's arguments in the two Vindications and elsewhere. The less frequently studied A Vindication of the Rights of Men , for example, is far more obviously a testament to the "limits" of the radical universalist rhetoric of the 1790s than Macdonald and Scherf can perhaps allow. Many of the reviewers of A Vindication of the Rights of Men refer, as Macdonald and Scherfs edition demonstrates, to Wollstonecraft's claim that Burke had "secured himself a pension of fifteen hundred pounds per annum on the Irish establishment". (p.42) Wollstonecraft follows this charge, near the beginning of her text, with what the editors style as an exploitation of "the suspicion that Burke was a crypto-Catholic, educated by Jesuits". (p.43) Reading Wollstonecraft, as I do, in the Republic of Ireland, in the (in many ways) historically significant year of 1998, the rhetoric which prompts that brief editorial note presents what I can only describe as a disturbing form of proto-sectarianism:

on what principle you, Sir, can justify the reformation, which tore up by the roots an old establishment, I cannot guess - but, I beg your pardon, perhaps you do not wish to justify it - and have some mental reservation to excuse you, to yourself, for not openly avowing your reverence. Or, to go further back: - had you been a Jew - you would have joined in the cry, crucify him! - crucify him! The promulgator of a new doctrine, and the violator of old laws and customs, that not melting, like ours, into darkness and ignorance, rested on Divine authority, must have been a dangerous innovator, in your eyes, particularly if you had not been informed that the Carpenters Son was of the stock and lineage of David.


Moments like these are not marginal or atavistic, but rather expose the fundamentally situated nature of Wollstonecraft's argument for "first principles" and "universal" rights. For Wollstonecraft, Burkes arguments concerning tradition and historical precedent are erroneous not simply because they value tradition over intellectual enquiry and the rational search for foundational truths, but more specifically because they can be linked (rhetorically at least) to a Catholicism which to her deeply Protestant eyes is synonymous with superstition and social hierarchism. Which is as much as to say that Wollstonecraft's universal principles are, in A Vindication of the Rights of Men , grounded on a particular Protestant world-view which constantly threatens to (and often does) deconstruct the discourse of universal first principles she so valiantly seeks to promote.

Such a tension is hardly unique to Wollstonecraft, of course, and what I am suggesting here is hardly original in itself, although the importance of Burkes "Irishness" for Wollstonecraft's critique is not always sufficiently recognized and explored. Remembering the significance to Wollstonecraft and others of that polysemous thing we call Burke's Irishness reminds us also, as I say, of the profound and indeed foundational tensions in Wollstonecraft's and her fellow English radicals' own discourse. The recognition and exploration of such tensions leads us to hermeneutic potentials otherwise lost to a less critical, less historically-oriented reading. Passages, that is to say, suddenly become loaded with connotative meaning which a less critical, more "universalized" reading will unsuspectingly let pass. The passage on pp.78-9 in which Wollstonecraft imagines how Burke would have responded to the French Revolution if he in fact had been a Frenchman is a good example: precisely what is at stake here in the transformation of Wollstonecraft's "crypto-Catholic" "Irish" Burke into an imaginary Frenchman?

It is certainly not sufficient to read and teach the English Jacobin tradition of the 1790s without registering the manner in which its often fierce anti-Catholicism stands in uneasy alliance with its championing of first principles and universal rights. And as I have suggested, attempting to develop the editors' call for a more relevant Wollstonecraft, exploring the blindness within Wollstonecraft's central insights can take us to the very essence of her texts modernity. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , in fact, remains a fascinating and profound example of philosophical, ethical, and political modernism. Founded on the "necessity to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudices every inch of ground", the second Vindication constantly discovers that such a heroic project must ultimately rest on the projection of aims rather than the tracing of origins , on a logic of becoming rather than a secure and authoritative possession of such "first principles". Both Vindications , in fact, attack theories of origination (Burke's traditionalism, Rousseau's rhetoric of priority). As Wollstonecraft puts it: "Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally: a crowd of authors that all is now right: and I, that all will be right". (p.121) And yet this assertion of what Foucault calls a "limit-attitude"  [5] and what Lyotard has styled as the project of "thinking the inhuman"  [6] (a thinking of the possibility of thought outside of the system which constructs the thinker, thus a thinking that is squarely placed within that system) can occur in Wollstonecraft, as in any radical theorist, only as a momentary discovery which threatens to rupture the systematic (ideologically situated) thinking it is supposed to support.

In their introduction Macdonald and Scherf gesture to one of the most critical examples of such a structure when they allude to Wollstonecraft's argument concerning the indisputable and necessary thought of immortality as the foundation of virtue and of justice (see p.19). Wollstonecraft's second Vindication went as far as any text of the 1790s in thinking beyond the inequalities and prejudices of the system within which it was generated; and yet in struggling to think this beyond Wollstonecraft based her notions of transcendence on the very terms and foundations (the essential "first principles") of the ideologies she was attempting to escape. Yet, what is still so remarkable and wonderful about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is how often Wollstonecraft's text breaks through into, and manages to speak of, a beyond it cannot ground or authorize. These moments still too frequently are stylized in terms of a temperamental "romanticism" standing in forms of tension to a committed "rationalism": they are often, in fact, as in the example I give here (which comes soon after a reassertion of the necessity of positing human virtue and knowledge on human immortality), examples of what we might call a Romantic Modernism which still has a vital importance to current attempts to think a logic of rights, of justice, and of universal freedom:

When we hear of some daring crime - it comes full on us in the deepest shade of turpitude, and raises indignation; but the eye that gradually saw the darkness thicken, must observe it with more compassionate forbearance. The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must fix in the throng, and feel as men feel before we can judge of their feelings. If we mean, in short, to live in the world to grow wiser and better, and not merely to enjoy the good things of life, we must attain a knowledge of others at the same time that we become acquainted with ourselves - knowledge acquired any other way only hardens the heart and perplexes the understanding.

I may be told, that the knowledge thus acquired, is sometimes purchased at too dear a rate. I can only answer that I very much doubt whether any knowledge can be attained without labour and sorrow . . .

pp. 239-40

The relevant Wollstonecraft, the figure who is something more than the "dead mother"  [7] of a supposedly incremental tradition of feminist thought, is, as this edition of the Vindications gives us the occasion to recollect, an author who was, paradoxically, entombed within and yet liberated by the confines of her turbulent, revolutionary period of history; a moved, and yet because of that a situated, spectator. This edition helps us to recognize a Wollstonecraft who is the rebellious "daughter" of her times; a perspective which is as important as that more commonplace figuration: "mother of feminism".

Parties annexes