The Writing and Editing of The Wollstonecraftian Mind

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By Sandrine Bergès, Eileen Hunt Botting, and Alan Coffee.

Putting together a volume with the title The Wollstonecraftian Mind is an exciting but challenging task. The ultimate goal is to give readers an insight into the range, depth, complexity, and subtlety of Mary Wollstonecraft as a philosophical thinker in just the same way as we would with any other major historical writer. This is a long overdue task. While there has been a considerable interest in her work in this century beyond the traditional confines of feminist and literary studies, this follows two centuries of relative neglect (relative to the attention that others, especially male authors, have received). Accordingly, our hope as editors and contributors has been to do some justice to the range and breadth of her thought, paying heed to her social and historical context while also showing something of her originality as well as her continuing relevance to philosophical discourse today.

As we put together The Wollstonecraftian Mind, we learned a great deal about Wollstonecraft’s intellectual development. These discoveries were brought about by the sheer size of the book, and also by its interdisciplinary nature – we have contributors who are philosophers, political scientists, literature scholars, historians, etc. Each brought something to the book that helped us discover a new aspect of the context of Wollstonecraft’s work. Of course this has been done to some extent in other works – but the effect of having thirty-eight pieces all together in one volume, many of which had been the subject of dialogue among the authors at a series of American Political Science Association conferences (Wollapalooza! I and II), was simply staggering. Here are just a couple of points worth noting here about what looking at Wollstonecraft’s context can teach us:

First, Wollstonecraft was not the only philosopher, or even the only woman philosopher working to better women’s condition and status. There is an enduring myth of the woman philosopher as being always alone, in a sea of men, who take no notice of her works. To some extent, this myth was forged by the women philosophers themselves, often because they had little access to other women’s works. But in the case of Wollstonecraft, despite the fact that she describes herself as a ‘new genus’, she was not alone. In particular, if we look at her Vindication of the Rights of Woman as at least in part a book about the reform of education for women – which is how it was received in its time – it was part of a popular publishing trend. As she herself notes in Chapter 5 of the Vindication, men and women had a lot to say about reforming the way young girls were brought up, some proposals more sensible than others. Even in her political views she was not unique in her sex: in fact, she modelled her republicanism on that of Catharine Macaulay, who like her, wrote a response to Burke’s Reflections. Wollstonecraft’s response, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, was the first published. Eventually the most famous one at the time was Thomas Paine’s 1791-92 The Rights of Man.

A second thing that became very obvious as the drafts came in is that the French Revolution, its principles, and its historical development mattered a great deal to Wollstonecraft. This has consequences for how we should read her. In the past she was often described as a liberal feminist. And to some extent, that’s still the most useful way of talking about her. But republicanism – or neo-republicanism – now occupies a larger place in political theorizing, some feminists have expressed skepticism as to whether it is woman-friendly. It’s reliance on the public space often means that what goes on inside the home, what women do, is regarded as politically irrelevant. So if one of the most important figures in the history of feminism turns out to be a republican, that has a lot of potential for revising what republicanism can do for women, and in particular, how it succeeds in incorporating experiences that are typically women’s. Wollstonecraft does through her discussion of the parenting duties of citizens. Citizens, men or women, are expected to be good parents, and to use their experience of parenting to design the best educational system for all. So if we pay attention to what Wollstonecraft says about parenting, we have the tools to rethink the historical development of republicanism, and emphasize aspects of it that make it into a more universal, less sexist theory.

A long-standing—and still maddeningly repeated—misconception about Wollstonecraft is that no one of any significance engaged her work in any serious way for a century after her death, due to the scandal caused (unwittingly) by her husband William Godwin’s well-meaning yet all-too-transparent posthumous biography of her, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). The central chapters of The Wollstonecraftian Mind finally set the historical record straight by correcting this misunderstanding of the complex intellectual reception history of Wollstonecraft.  Our contributors show how Wollstonecraft’s major moral and political ideas were received in English literature (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf); in the women’s rights movement and feminist philosophy (Lucretia Mott, Simone de Beauvoir); and in political philosophy, especially theories of human rights and social justice (Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill).

As the historian Karen M. Offen has shown, the French word féminisme was not widely used to describe the emergent movement for the liberation of women from conditions of social and political servitude until the 1870s and beyond. Thus we use the term “protofeminist” as well as “feminist” to describe Wollstonecraft’s momentous contributions to philosophy, for while she predated the movement and the term’s widespread use, she generated many of the core ideas that came to undergird what later self-described feminists such as her devoted reader Carrie Chapman Catt—the political architect of the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage in the U.S.—called “The Great Cause” of women’s rights. 

The “Interlocutors” section of the volume traces the roots of Wollstonecraft’s distinctive style of doing philosophy in critical, “feminist” dialogue with others, especially men, but also women like Catherine Macaulay who dared to challenge the patriarchal social and political norms of their time. Here we look at how her sustained philosophical engagements with the leading lights of eighteenth-century political thought and philosophy— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, Macaulay, and Godwin—shaped her ethics and political theory, and in the case of her husband, his evolving views on women, friendship, and gender roles during the 1790s. In the “Wollstonecraftian Philosophy” section, we chronicle how Wollstonecraft’s dialogical mode of doing philosophy with or against leading contemporary schools of thought allowed her to make a number of distinctive (proto)feminist contributions to epistemology; philosophy of religion; theories of virtue, reason, imagination, and passion; conceptions of gender, including masculinity; and theories of patriarchy and social power.

Another part of our project has been to look past Wollstonecraft’s reputation only as a feminist. She is, of course and rightly, known and celebrated as an inspiring early pioneer of women’s rights. After all, it’s right there in the title of the one book of hers that everybody can name, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. For this reason, philosophical interest in her work until comparatively recently has been overwhelmingly on her influence as a feminist. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that feminism is not a single or discrete issue. The question of women’s rights, for example, entails a theory of rights. A theory of rights is predicated on an idea of citizenship, and on principles of justice, equality, liberty, independence. Taken together, these notions are part of an overall conception of the state, which in turn invokes issues of legitimacy, authority, representation and inclusion. To talk of women’s rights one must have an idea of gender, of masculinity as well as femininity, and have a position on social ideas of the respective spheres, virtues, roles, and responsibilities of the sexes. So, even if we to focus just on Wollstonecraft’s feminism, then, we can see the range and depth of the philosophical ideas with which she engaged. But, of course, Wollstonecraft was not only concerned with issues that were directly related to the situation of women. As we have already noted, her first foray into prominent public political debate – A Vindication of the Rights of Men – for example, was a reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, initiating broad political ideas she developed at length in her later book on An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. And as a prolific writer for the monthly journal, the Analytical Review – authoring several hundred articles – Wollstonecraft engaged widely with the intellectual debates and issues of her time.

It was not so long ago that Wollstonecraft was widely regarded as a passionate but unsophisticated and unstructured thinker, as someone who may have had bold intentions but who lacked the intellectual resources to break free from the conceptual frameworks of her time. What the contributors to the Wollstonecraftian Mind show is that, by taking Wollstonecraft seriously as a philosopher who engaged with her intellectual context, and by identifying the right keys to her thought, we find a robust, insightful, and innovative thinker whose work continues to resonate in several sub-disciplines of moral and political theorising, including democracy, human rights, freedom, capabilities ,and citizenship, as well as in subjects that are today often considered as more female concerns – friendship, family, education – but which were in Wollstonecraft’s day mainstream matters of discussion in political discourse, as perhaps they should become once again. One area where her insights are particularly valuable is that of social epistemology and the socially constructed nature of many of our fundamental moral and political concepts.

It is our hope that this book will finally establish Wollstonecraft where she deserves to be in the history of philosophy: solidly in the canon between Rousseau and Kant, yet with boundless legacies for feminist philosophy.

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