“Chaos, hyperbole, and repetition”

style as political and social critique in A Vindication of the rights of Woman

Elisabeth GIBBELS
Humboldt-Universität Berlin


On a souvent reproché à Mary Wollstonecraft le style hétéroclite et le manque d’organisation de son texte A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Virginia Woolf avance au contraire que ses éléments stylistiques sont à la source de son empreinte indélébile : « she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living ». Cet article analyse le lien entre la variété stylistique employée par Wollstonecraft et sa visée d’émancipation. Je soutiens que Wollstonecraft utilise des stratégies telles que le positionnement et l’interpellation du lecteur, des glissements thématiques et stylistiques, le choix du vocabulaire et des exemples, des références intertextuelles et interdiscursives pour atteindre ce pour quoi elle est reconnue — la création d’un lieu d’énonciation féminin. En d’autres mots, cette nouvelle position se révèle aussi importante que le contenu de A Vindication of the Rights of Woman en tant que texte fondateur du discours féministe.


Mary Wollstoncecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has repeatedly and consistently been reproached for being stylistically flawed and poorly organized. Virginia Woolf, by contrast, suggests that it is her stylistic features that make up her lasting impact : « she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living. » This paper analyses the relation between the varieties of style Wollstonecraft employs and her emancipatory agenda. I argue that Wollstonecraft uses strategies, such as forms of positioning and reader address, thematic and stylistic shifts, choice of words and examples, intertextual and interdiscursive references, to achieve what she has become famous for — creating a new speaking position for women. This new discourse position is shown to be as vital for her book as one of the founding texts of feminist

“To read the Rights of Woman is a stimulating and an exasperating experience. Here are chaos, hyperbole, and repetition. Here are fifty-seven varieties of style”, writes Pamela Frankau (Wollstonecraft 1977 : vii), and many readers of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman seem to feel the same way. Surprisingly, Mary Wollstonecraft herself was quite sure about the style she wants to employ in the book. She writes in the Introduction :

Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence … I wish to show …— I aim at being useful, … I shall be employed about things, not words ! — and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation. (Wollstonecraft 1989a, vol 5 : 75)

So, why is it that the book has drawn such criticism from friends and critics, from the first day of its publication to now ? “[A] very unequal performance and eminently deficient in method and arrangement”, says William Godwin in 1798 (Godwin 1990 : 81), and in the 20th century, the Times Literary Supplement printed this verdict on Wollstonecraft : “what she did finish was mediocre and ill-written, or appallingly gushing, polemical, and hysterical” (Cobb 1974). Few are the voices that praise Wollstonecraft’s style. Virginia Woolf is indeed a very lonely caller in the wilderness when she says about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman : “[S]he is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living” (Woolf 1948 : 163). In general, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman always has an invisible “in spite of” stamped on its cover, along the lines of the entry in the Encyclopedia of the Essay, which says “despite its undeniable flaws and limitations, it remains a work of major significance as the first feminist manifesto” (Encyclopedia of the Essay 1997 : 904f). This paper tries to investigate whether the quality Woolf senses in Wollstonecraft’s writing may not be rather because of, instead of “in spite of”, its “flaws”. May it not be that it is precisely the “fifty-seven varieties of style” that make A Vindication of the Rights of Woman such a powerful contribution to feminist social and political critique ?

Actually, feminist writing has been subject to reproaches for heterogeneous or otherwise difficult style ever since Wollstonecraft. Judith Butler had to struggle with similar accusations when she published Gender Trouble. Her response was :

[S]tyle is a complicated terrain, and not one that we unilaterally choose or control with the purposes we consciously intend […] Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral […] It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself. (Butler 1999 : xviiif)

Butler maintains that to express radical, unthinkable thoughts language may have to violate the norms of received style. The problem is that not conforming to conventional language means to frustrate readers’ expectations as to tone, register, word choice and structure. Such writing will often be inconsistent and hybrid, drawing on a variety of elements and mixing unlike parts. This causes problems in communication where people value continuity and coherence and are prone to experience incoherent and fragmentary speech as irrelevant or badly written. This way, the unthinkable becomes the unspeakable. Radical, unthinkable views require the lines of speakability to be redrawn. Such speech, which writes against normalised language use, moves on the border of intelligibility. “Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself”, says Butler (ibid : xviii).

In order to decide whether Wollstonecraft was just writing bad style or trying to redraw the lines of speakability, it is necessary to look at the concrete historical situation she was writing in. England experienced an explosion in female text production in the middle of the 18th century. In 1774, one could read in The Female Advocate : “women appeared with honour, in almost every walk of literature” (in Jones 1990:181). One may want to compare this with a statement from 1762 : “We may all remember the time, when a woman who could spell was looked on as an extraordinary phenomenon, and a reading and writing wife was considered as a miracle” (Critical Review, in Jones 2000 : 1). In the times when Wollstonecraft wrote, the number of women in writing quadrupled, but this increase was mainly due to the writers of novels, plays and letters (Turner 1992 : 108ff). There was no discursive platform for women who wanted to write on political issues, and the “walks of literature” were well demarcated and guarded. The discursive gate-keepers acted out their rule through style and genre regulations, mostly in the very popular conduct books and the new lady’s magazines. One of the most influential conduct-book writers was James Fordyce. In his Sermons to Young Women he staked out the genre territory : “But you […] will allow that war, commerce, politics, exercises of strength and dexterity, abstract philosophy, and all the abstruser sciences, are most properly the province of men”. Fordyce adds a warning to the women trying to trespass the lines : “I am sure those masculine women, that would plead for your sharing any part of this province equally with us, do not understand your true interests” (Fordyce 1996 : 272). The discursive “province of men” was guarded against female forays by the threat of casting them out from femininity : transgressing the genre boundaries meant transgressing the gender boundaries.

Wollstonecraft was well aware of the risk of being cast out from her gender and embarked on her writing career in the relatively safe genres of the novel, the translation and the conduct book. She only began her life as “the first of a new genus”, as she styled herself in a letter to her sister Everina (Wardle 1979:164), when she moved to London to live in the house of her employer and write reviews for his Analytical Review. Her first ventures into the discursive “province of men” were either published anonymously (A Vindication of the Rights of Men), or with her initials (Analytical Review), or under a male pseudonym (The Female Reader).

Her first insurrection to the discursive constraints was A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which appeared in 1790 as one of the first responses to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In it, Wollstonecraft not only writes on political issues but also attacks Burke directly and sharply. The book was a success and created a lot of speculation about the identity of the author. For the second edition, Wollstonecraft agreed to have her name on the cover, which provoked the following comment in the Gentleman’s Magazine : “Mrs. W., if she be a real and not a fictitious lady, is engaged in a service wherein the great leaders have run themselves aground” (in Gunther-Canada 1996 : 70). This doubt about the gender identity of a woman wandering in the “province of men” is mirrored in the confusion about the genre identity of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In spite of its title, it was often categorised as another treatise on female education (cf Janes 1988). So, a woman could not really write anything but a book on education, whereas a book on political issues could not really have been written by a woman.

Wollstonecraft had to overcome these obstacles when she set out to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. First, she had to create a new speaking position for herself to write on issues that women were barred from discussing ; secondly, she had to find ways of addressing a very heterogeneous audience that was either hostile, or uneducated or unaccustomed to accepting a woman writing on these things ; and thirdly, she had to avoid being cast out into the unspeakable. Therefore, Wollstonecraft had to meet the requirements of an academic treatise and avoid easy categorisation of the book as a heretic text. She had to address the discourse leaders in the area of philosophical thought, but also make her ideas accessible to the middle-class women.

In her reviews in the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft had explored the available discourse positions for women. The feminine style of the novel writers found no mercy with her. She called their products “scribblings”, “trash”, “tales of woe rehearsed in an affected, half-prose, half-poetical style” (cf Myers 1990 : 126f). She was also very sensitive to the effects this style had in terms of the discursive construction of female identity. In a review of a novel by (her friend) Elizabeth Inchbald she asks :

Why do all female writers, even when they display their abilities, always give a sanction to the libertine reveries of men ? Why do they poison the minds of their own sex, by strengthening a male prejudice that makes women systematically weak ? » (Wollstonecraft 1989a, vol 7 : 369f)

In her own Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft aimed at constructing a new identity for women as speaking subjects. The approved feminine style, recommended by the conduct-book writers, was no option as it cemented women’s subordinate position, and the “manly”, philosophical style in the Quintilian tradition was unsuitable for her intended audience, the women of the middle-class. The new discursive position is that of the “exceptional woman”. It is a discourse position outside the established gender and genre prescriptions and required a style outside the established modes of writing (cf Brody 1996).

The “exceptional woman” is evoked repeatedly in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She speaks “with the firm voice of humanity”, “in a disinterested spirit”. She does not “plead for herself, but for her sex”. She hopes her “own sex will excuse her, if she treats them like rational creatures”, “addressing them in a firmer tone”, etc. She speaks about women as “they”, “women”, “females”, “weak beings”, etc. It is not a male voice but a voice that tries to adopt the disinterested view of stoic philosophy, from a distance and from above. In order to make her readers accept the speaking position of the “exceptional woman”, Wollstonecraft employed diverse reading positions and forms of address. For example, she often solves the dilemma of addressing both her educated male audience and the women of the middle-class with their educational background in novels, magazines and the Bible, by switching the dominant voice within one paragraph or even within one sentence. This may be illustrated with the following passage from Chapter 2 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Though, to reason on Rousseau’s ground, if man did attain a degree of perfection of mind when his body arrived at maturity, it might be proper, in order to make a man and his wife one, that she should rely entirely on his understanding ; and the graceful ivy, clasping the oak that supported it, would form a whole in which strength and beauty would be equally conspicuous. But, alas ! husbands, as well as their helpmates, are often only overgrown children, — nay, thanks to early debauchery, scarcely men in their outward form, — and if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence. (Wollstonecraft 1989a, vol 5 : 91)

Wollstonecraft begins on male — Rousseau’s — ground : the dominant reading position is male and in its word choice (“to reason”) and structure (“if man did attain”) not really inviting for women. However, the masculine speaking position, and with it the ivy-oak metaphor, is eroded by the flood of modals (“if”, “might”, “should”, “would”). This ironic subversion of a pervasive cliché allows a female reading position because of the invocation of the familiar genres of the novel or magazine (“graceful ivy”, “strength and beauty”) and of the “female” theme of male adolescence. However, it also serves to prepare the transition to more massive social critique. “But, alas ! […]” marks the intrusion of everyday language and the real world, the language women speak and the world they know about. Rousseau as well as the ivy-oak metaphor thus are dismissed from their world. The switch in register is underlined by the syntactic change, or “chaos” as Frankau would have it, where sentences become fragmentary, speech patterns aural, punctuation wild and sentence links unconventional. The stylistic violation of clear, logical writing conventions turns out to be functional in Wollstonecraft’s criticism of Rousseau’s position. By using more colloquial language and a syntactic structure typical of spoken language, Wollstonecraft makes the reading position more accessible to women and invites her female readers to join her in her criticism. The “us” in the last sentence is clearly an instance of serious female bonding, where sisters point fingers at the physical appearance of males. This female gaze erases all presumptions as to oaks and who is to « rely entirely” on whose understanding. The last part of the passage is more neutral in style and contains a Bible reference that softens the insult and makes it easier for women to join Wollstonecraft in her speculation (“nobody needs to tell us the consequence”).

The marked stylistic switch from clear continuous, coherent syntax to exclamation and muddled sentence structure as well as the thematic itinerary from philosophical discourse to familiar myth to quotidian experience to the Bible contribute to achieving the effect of, firstly, addressing female readers, secondly, getting away with a remark that runs counter to all recommended forms of female behaviour, and thirdly, tearing apart a famous gender-constructing myth of marital bliss fostered by illustrious philosophers like Rousseau. Stylistic discontinuity here is in effect a positioning strategy and an instrument of social critique. Elliptic syntax is also a device in the following passage.

How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle domestic brutes ! For instance, the winning softness so warmly and frequently recommended, that governs by obeying. What childish expressions, and how insignificant is the being — can it be an immortal one ? — who will condescend to govern by such sinister methods ? (ibid : 88f)

On the surface level, the criticism is open and direct. Phrases like “gross insult”, “gentle domestic brutes”, “childish expressions” and “sinister methods” speak a clear language. But who is actually criticised ? And for which readers is it easiest to adopt the dominant reading position ? The reference is to the absent “they” who advise “us”. “They” refers to the eminent John Milton, who is quoted in the previous paragraph with his conviction that women were created for “softness and sweet attractive grace” (ibid : 88). It is one of the very rare cases where Wollstonecraft criticises Milton in the text, and not in a footnote. To use “gross insult”, “childish expressions” and “sinister methods” in connection with Milton, one of the icons of 18th century England, is no easy matter. Thus the elliptic syntax and the aural quality of the following two sentences function as downtoners that make the unspeakable statement more acceptable. The conduct-book style (“winning softness”) and the passive voice (“recommended”) also steer the text away from Milton. The evocation of religion (“immortal being”), motherhood (“childish”) and female world views (“govern men”) serves to make the statement go down with women. At the same time, Wollstonecraft does not only criticise the male discourse leaders but also the women (which makes the text somewhat more acceptable for male readers again) : only insignificant beings will condescend to govern by such methods. If Wollstonecraft had used more explicit person references and a more academic syntax, the passage would hardly have been possible in her times. To say of Milton that his concept of female identity makes women docile animals, bereaves them of their immortal soul and makes them lose their dignity seems to have been stretching the lines of speakability. But the way Wollstonecraft puts it, this criticism of Milton, Rousseau and the others, could pass. As the words are straightforward enough, it is Wollstonecraft’s obfuscating rhetorical strategy that does the trick.

A special case is the contested term “masculine”. As shown above, it was the label that would prevent women from entering male discursive territory. Wollstonecraft deals with it assertively, employing a multitude of strategies. One of these is to proffer reading positions that would allow her readers to accept women in male discursive territory. In one passage, for example, she says that the “few extraordinary women who have rushed in eccentrical directions out of the orbit prescribed to their sex, were male spirits, confined by mistake in female frames” (ibid:103), or a footnote says that she has “conversed, as man with man” (ibid:193).

Another strategy is to discuss the term openly. Thus a review of Catharine Macaulay’s Letters on Education begins with the words : “This masculine and fervid writer has turned the very superior powers of her mind” (Wollstonecraft 1989a, vol. 7:309). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, too, the term “masculine” appears frequently, in the first part no less than seven times. The following example is again from the Introduction :

I am aware of an obvious inference : — from every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women ; but where are they to be found ? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry ; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind ; — all those who view them with a philosophical eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine. (Wollstonecraft 1989a, vol 5 : 74)

Wollstonecraft creates a lexical field around masculinity : “masculine”, “manly”, “men”, “mankind”. She also speaks about “women”, “animal beings”, “females”, “human beings”, and she has implicit person references : “from every quarter”, “when they are comprehensively termed”, “all those who view them with a philosophical eye”. And then there is the very strong and assertive speaking voice : “I”.

The revaluation process from “exclamations against masculine women from every quarter” to “all must wish that they may every day grow more masculine” is played out through the zigzagging course of person references. Wollstonecraft begins with a pre-emptive move : “I am aware” and “from every quarter have I heard”. From “every quarter” is a phrase that allows a very broad address, so that the speaking position is open to both women and men. The next sentence mainly addresses educated male readers because of the specific reference to men (“if men inveigh”), but also because of the tone, structure and word choice. Furthermore, women are the object of study (“females”) and thus they are excluded from the dominant reading position. But, the selective address “all those who view them with a philosophical eye” allows them to identify with the dominant position again. This selective address is crucial in the revaluation. It excludes those who view women with other than philosophical, i.e. sensualist, eyes. This address is actually an invitation to those who do not (yet) wish that women become more masculine and an encouragement for women to feel comfortable about being called masculine.

Wollstonecraft here most definitely tries to redraw the line of speakability by revaluating a term that was one of the most effective devices to silence women. In her strategy, writers like Fordyce are told that they are sensualists and that they have not thought well enough about the semantics of “masculine”. Again, it is no option for Wollstonecraft to speak openly and directly on these issues. The debate on the extension of human rights to women is coupled with the discussion of the use of a loaded term in the relation of the sexes.

How instrumental these strategies are for transporting Wollstonecraft’s critical positions becomes obvious when translators of her texts eliminate stylistic “flaws” and produce more conventional and correct texts. This frequently happens in the German translations of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I would like to illustrate this with the help of one of the most famous passages in the English Wollstonecraft literature, the “wild-wish” :

A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it though it may excite a horse-laugh. — I do earnestly wish to see the distinctions of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour. (ibid : 126)

Wollstonecraft has two sentences that are linked with a dash. This dash does not only connect the two parts of the passage but also lends a certain breathlessness and urgency to the statement, as if she had uttered it quickly before she had time to take it back. The style and punctuation underline that, in the concrete historical situation, this was an unspeakable demand. Indeed, it did get a lot of attention, which seems to justify the speech acts surrounding it (“I will not stifle it”, “I do earnestly wish”). What is interesting in the German translations is that while the choice for “wild wish” may have an effect, it is the treatment of the syntactic structure that decides upon how the passage fares. The third German translation, Schotte 1989, for example, has a decent translation for “wild wish” (“wilder Wunsch”) but the division into short clear sentences and the deletion of the link between the rhetorical self- reflexive announcement of the wish and the actual wish damages Wollstonecraft’s strategy.

Im Moment drängt sich mir ein wilder Wunsch aus dem Herzen in den Kopf. Ich will ihn auch nicht unterdrücken, obwohl er lautes Lachen hervorrufen wird. Ich möchte ernsthaft die Auszeichnungen des weiblichen Geschlechts in der Gesellschaft aufgehoben sehen, es sei denn, dieses Verhalten wird durch die Liebe diktiert. (Wollstonecraft 1989b : 106)

The divided sentence turns “I will not stifle it” into a separate statement of equal weight, so that the “wild wish” now comes third in a row of actually quite banal statements. This makes the preceding strategies, the pre-emptive speech acts and the word choice “wild”, seem exaggerated.

This effect is heightened in the German text by Schotte adding “im Moment” and choosing “drängt sich mir in den Kopf”. Schotte makes the “wild wish” erratic, undermining the earnestness of the statement. In addition, Schotte’s “ein Wunsch drängt sich mir in den Kopf” is stylistically weak because it mixes several metaphors : “drängt sich mir auf”, “kommt mir in den Sinn”, “geht mir nicht aus dem Kopf”). Further, her specification “weiblichen” and the nebulous “Auszeichnungen” evoke the scene of social etiquette. The syntactic cleansing is complemented by translation mistakes and weak style : the text loses its force and becomes plain and sapless.

This is a pattern that is to be found in all the translations : sentences are brought in line with the conventions, register switches are smoothed out, and word choices are moderated. In most of the cases I have looked at, the effect was to make Wollstonecraft sound more conventional and plainer (cf. Gibbels 2004).

Wollstonecraft had to pursue a very careful strategy when she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. While many women wrote books, Wollstonecraft was one of the first women to write pamphlets on political issues and join the contemporary political debates. Much of Wollstonecraft’s criticism in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman occurs on the level of the structure and the positioning strategies. Instead of direct confrontation, Wollstonecraft often has vague reference to persons, changes in register, alternating speaking positions for herself, thematic switches, etc. These strategies do not merely make the text alive but are inherent to her social and political critique. If the text is made consistent, continuous and conventional, as often happens in translation, it cannot fulfil this function anymore. Maybe, Wollstonecraft was not a brilliant stylist, and maybe, “57 varieties of style” are a few too many, but she was aware of what she was doing and her strategies work. So, let her “live and argue” and respect her style.


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