College Quarterly
Winter 2007 - Volume 10 Number 1
Reviews Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
Lyndall Gordon
New York: HarperCollins, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In September 1986, the Canadian “women’s” magazine Chatelaine brazenly announced that we had entered the “post-feminist era.” Chatelaine had long been a typical periodical of its sort, replete with recipes, fashion tips, advice about how to get and keep a man, minister to children and achieve happiness within the domain of suburban domesticity. It was published and edited exclusively by men. Then, for a time, it flourished under the calm, deliberate and distinctively feminist guidance of Doris Anderson. Subtly and artfully, articles about politics, women’s rights and social change insinuated themselves between its covers. Sometimes, these articles displayed a radical temperament. Anderson did wonderful work. The recipes and the fashion tips remained, of course, but advice about the calculated use of “feminine wiles,” and the presumption of ultimate female obedience to male domination in the public world temporarily vanished.

After Anderson’s retirement, however, Chatelaine seemed to backslide. Young women were once again encouraged to retreat into femininity. The assertive female agenda for the 1990s was no longer persuade women to change the system, but merely to make the system work for them. Seduced by images of (a few) women performing prominently in cabinet meetings and corporate board rooms, reassured by affirmative action policies that dutifully committed public and private corporations to employment equity and harassment-free work environments, permitted to indulge in the “slut” look, “empowered” by everyone from “Charlie’s Angels” to “The Spice Girls,” and urged to resist all those tiresome people who mumbled dull statistics about the fate of glamourless women in poverty, single mothers, elderly women warehoused in nursing homes, and the enduring structural disparity of income in the modern workforce, women were being pointed toward changes in “lifestyle” and away from political economy. Even Jane Fonda moved from peace activism to jazzercise promotion.

Everywhere women were indulgently told: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and were unforgiven if they remained frustrated by the ongoing reality of gendered existence: better “Sex in the City” than systematic anti-sexism. Meanwhile, behind their backs, even most emerging “metrosexual” men harboured the suspicion that what aggravated and alienated women in the last quarter of the 20th century really needed was a good racquet ball game.

Meantime, violence against women was still being marginalized in public debate – at about the same time that Marc Lépine, in 1991, opened fire and killed fourteen female students at the École Polytechnic of the Université de Montréal for the presumptive offence of studying engineering. Despite occasional marches intended to “take back the night,” the larger tendency was to write the epitaph for a successful sexual revolution, and to get on with business.

After all, it was said, feminist ambitions had been fulfilled. The US Supreme Court had issued its judgment in Roe v. Wade (though the Equal Rights Amendment was simultaneously being aborted). In Canada, the Morgentaler case led to a studied parliamentary silence on women’s reproductive rights (thus implicitly granting unlimited abortion rights to anyone willing to pay the fee). And more and more women were being admitted to law schools and medical schools. Pant-suits were in fashion. Women could go to bars alone without necessarily being assumed to be “working girls.” And day-care centres were increasingly available for women who sought (or could not avoid) seeking a place in the labour market. What more could women want?

The answer, of course, was available to anyone who cared to notice. Optimally, feminists hoped that the women’s movement not be derailed or side-tracked, but extended and accelerated. Minimally, it was crucial to win protection against what Susan Faludi called the “Backlash.” In her pivotal 1991 book on the “undeclared war against American women,” and on feminism in Western popular culture, politics, psychology, economics and the world of work, Faludi demonstrated the success of gender reactionaries – especially among the new right, family values traditionalists and the grotesque alliance of corporate wealth and old time religion – in halting and often pushing back the modest successes of what would soon fashionably be called the “first wave” of modern feminism.

Being called “Ms” was an improvement and having gendered words such as “stewardess” and “policeman” removed from official documents was certainly an achievement; but, enhancement of the material conditions of women’s lives has not lived up to the claim that women’s exclusion from professional work and political life had been overcome. Moreover, the growing gap between rich and poor, particularly in North America, has harmed already poor and elderly women the worst. In the Western world, the right to vote, to a measure of personal autonomy and to certain legal rights with respect to property, marriage and divorce have been secured, but it is uncertain, especially in light of the composition of the current United States Supreme Court, that women’s control over their own bodies has been guaranteed. Leaving aside the presecular worlds of Latin America, Africa and much of Asia, it is plain that the claim that further challenges to the structures of power in liberal society are no long necessary have proven false.

Nevertheless, the women’s movement has been invited to take a postmodern turn. Holed up in postsecondary Women’s Studies programs, insistently aggressive feminists have largely undertaken to surf the “second wave” of modern feminism. Focusing on unofficial discrimination, importing the language of poststructuralism, deconstruction and other subtle vocabularies and forms of literary or, at best, ethological academic discourse, many contemporary feminists have embraced an amalgam of queer theory, postcolonialism and aesthetic variations on the theme of socially constructed identities to build a serviceable basis for a coalition of opponents of oppression rooted in gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Unfortunately, much of this feminist work opens itself up to criticism for its often opaque language, its elitist preoccupation with personal autonomy and its practical indifference to the real-life conditions of poor and working women (to say nothing of women in the so-called Third World). The coalitions are therefore fragile and often exist in name only.

It would be presumptive of me to frame further, much less to attempt to participate in the debate among feminists about whether shifting from political economy to personal autonomy is a logical next step or a self-indulgent retreat for feminism. Instead, I will simply risk accusations of insolence and suggest that it would be a good idea to review some basics, if only to put current feminist dilemmas into historical perspective.

An excellent starting point is the life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), and an excellent place to begin that historical inquiry is Lyndall Gordon’s biography of the woman who is frequently touted as the first feminist, at least since Sappho.

Born into a world that denied women not merely equal social power but even equal human status, she was appalled by the manner in which the education of (middle and upper class) women was restricted to training in proper manners, obsequiousness and the necessary skills of pleasing a man. She particularly bridled at the assumption that women were natural slaves to passion and incapable of independent reason.

Wollstonecraft’s personal saga borders on the tragic-romantic, if not the melodramatic. Her early life in a home dominated by an abusive father and a rapidly declining financial fortune may have set her against trust in enduring human relationships, but it in no way prevented her from involvement in wretchedly unfulfilling liaisons until she finally (and heartbreakingly briefly) found a workable union (they sensibly lived next door to one another) with William Godwin, also a fiercely independent visionary who, if Wollstonecraft was the “mother of feminism,” could equally claim the title of the “father of anarchism.”

Wollstonecraft pursued radical political fulfillment as a close observer of the French Revolution and authored, in 1790, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, which was a response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France, and which antedated such similarly seminal books as her friend Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. It also contained the seeds of her subsequent and more famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In it, for example, she took Burke to task for his earlier treatise on aesthetics, the Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which was published in 1757 and which privileged the robust masculine esxperience of sublimity over the formal feminine quality of beauty.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s premature death was the result of the failure to expel her placenta following the birth of her second daughter and an infection that gained hold after a horrendously painful surgery. She died eleven days later.

During her life, Mary Wollstonecraft flaunted social convention, spoke passionately and wrote courageously in support of what might best be called reason and liberty. She extended the better principles of the Enlightenment to the 50% and more of humanity who were ignored by the liberal philosophers of the day. She was particularly incensed by condescending treatment by democratic defenders of patriarchy such as Rousseau, whose notable book on education, Émile, articulated an early pedagogy of freedom in education for boys, while sternly maintaining that women should be educated exclusively for the pleasure of men.

Aspects of her attitude toward liberty, modernity and socierty were passed on through the work of her daughter Mary, later to be the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the friend of Lord Byron, and most famously the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which she wrote in 1818, at the age of twenty-one.

Though it might be unwise to set Mary Wollstonecraft into a marbled pantheon of protofeminists (the term itself not being put in common usage until a century after her death), it would certainly be salutary for contemporary feminists of all sorts to revisit her life and times.

Lyndall Gordon’s meticulously researched and splendidly written biography is a fine portal to such a project. It is not recommended for mere antiquarian interest, though this is not disdained. It is not even suggested as a means to loose revolutionary juices by means of heroic inspiration, though that might also not be a bad thing. Rather, the most important consequence of (re)acquainting ourselves with the extraordinary life and thought of Mary Wollstonecraft might be to simulate a reexamination of first principles.

As indicated at the outset, the myth of postfeminism that was begun in the 1980s and remains lurking in the passages of power was and is factually false, but this does not mean it has been ineffective. At worst, it is principally to blame for that sad preamble to many sensible statements, “I’m not a feminist, but …”. Feminism, like Marxism and other coherent theories and strategies for overcoming oppression, cannot be dead, for the quest for human freedom and dignity cannot die; but, such notions and sets of notions can be transformed, corrupted and enfeebled from within and from without.

The job of the so-called first wave of feminism has not yet been completed, and its achievements are not guaranteed. The tasks of the so-called second wave of feminism have not yet been formulated in a way that is directly relevant (or even accessible) to those women who are most cruelly damaged by contemporary social structures. Added associations of oppressed people – whether by factors of class, race or gender – have not yet been sufficiently considered by many to whom the torch of women’s liberation has been handed.

Of critical importance is the responsibility to link theoretically and pragmatically the current women’s movement to a general concept of what it means to be oppressed. This is no hollow academic exercise, for it is foundational to the building, for example, of alliances with aboriginal, Muslim and “Third World” women, and to recognizing when the dream of universal coalitions cannot be achieved because the experiences of potential allies are differently constructed.

I say this ineluctably (and therefore unapologetically, but self-consciously) as a male who wants feminism to succeed in all its forms, but who worries some that it may have taken itself into curious and self-marginalizing philosophical or, worse, ideological cul-de-sacs. I also say it as a human being who recognizes the inherent ambiguity of all (and the manifest incompatibility of some) emancipatory movements. Whether rooted in differences of class, race, gender, religion, age, geography and culture, efforts to bring about social justice for some ultimately means struggle to achieve social justice for all; or, in the resounding words of Sylvia Woods, the American black, feminist and communist organizer of the previous century: “We ain’t goin’ nowhere unless we go together!”

Sorting out where we are going, how we can get there, and why we want to go there in the first place requires an examination of first principles. This does not mean retirement from political action while we take time out for incessant discourse about speculative niceties of theory about theory; but, it does mean than action in the absence of coherent argument is apt to be ineffective, fractious and self-defeating.

Mary Wollstonecraft gathered some insights from her own experience, her own mind and her close friends and associates. She is a model of how to think through action and act through thought. Learning how and why she formulated the analysis and took the actions that she did is an essential element in moving forward the agenda that was the result of the confluence of people like herself, Godwin, Paine and others over two hundred years ago. At the moment, it seems appropriate to move back a step or two in history, so that we can gain perspective and not move a step or two back or perhaps just sideways in the present. And, come to think of it, a re-reading of her daughter’s meditation on science and technology at the outset of the promethean industrial revolution might not be a bad ideas either.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology