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Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft

October 22, 2013

Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)Re-reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman for a class, I’m struck with the sheer quality of the prose.

This book offers regulated passion.  Anger, sadness, disappointment and excitement are all accommodated in this book and then ruthlessly sublimated into a statement of political consistency.

Again and again, she attacks hereditary privilege.  For Wollstonecraft, there can be no feminist revolution without a social revolution and no social revolution without a feminist revolution:

There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.

The ongoing French Revolution will be thwarted in its end if the infantilizing effects of patriarchy deprive the nation of one half of its virtuous patriots – and since the subjugation of women is demeaning to men also, the insidious doctrines of sexual apartheid will continue to naturalise habits of servility and tyranny.

The specific rights to be claimed by women are less important to Wollstonecraft – in Wollstonecraft’s time and place – than is the essential attack on the idea that men and women are separate animals with separate and incompatible moral constitutions.  Her most focused campaign is to let Rousseau’s Sophie have the same education as Emile.  Her greatest work is born of an agonising frustration with the fact that Rousseau – who has undermined the philosophical basis for all “natural” human inequality, has gone on to “naturalise” a completely artificial schism between the senses.

Do women have souls?  Once women have souls then they have moral obligations and a moral understanding – and a moral understanding is to be  cultivated and strengthened rather than squeezed and warped and straightened.  The squeezing of women in to absurd clothing is, for Wollstonecraft, a metaphor and more than a metaphor for the impious smothering of the human soul.  Sexism is an offence against God – a God who is conceived of as the very essence of light and reason.

I became a father while teaching Mary Wollstonecraft.  My partner was on the other side of the ocean.  Her pregnancy had been detected very late.  We were making quite urgent flight plans.   I had received word earlier that morning that she was feeling unwell, had checked herself into a hospital, and that it was possible that the very premature child might have to be delivered.  I made an announcement to my class that I was keeping my phone on while teaching – contrary to every professional precept.  I had just finished (somehow) describing Godwin’s account of Wollstonecraft’s death when the phone rang.

Having remembered to print out a sign for my office door which read “Dr Brunstrom will be unavailable for consultation next week as he has suddenly fathered a child in Canada”, I quickly phoned myself onto the next available transatlantic flight.  The events that followed cannot be blogged.  Or rather, they’re for a different and much longer blog.

Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft today, I wonder how much the personal informs the political and how much it infects it.  Godwin’s hopelessly frank biography of Wollstonecraft destroyed her viability as a political theorist for a generation or more.  Her “personal” circumstances were used to diagnose political madness.  Her plans to reform humanity were dismissed as the product of emotional disorders.  The chasm between her political rationalism and romantic extravagances was prised open to the discredit of Wollstonecraft  the writer and woman alike.

And yet the personal is and must be political.  The personal defines where we’re coming from but mustn’t discredit where we’re going.  I can’t teach Mary Wollstonecraft without replaying the events of eight years ago and these events must to  some extent define how I approach the class – though of course I don’t utter a syllable about them.  Philosophers seek to explain the world and some seek to change them (to quote a prominent Highgate inscription), but the extent to which one doesn’t really belong in the world as it is currently constituted needs to be explored – not as discreditable diagnostic biography – but as a critical point of intellectual vision.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    On the anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death…

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