Challenging the Philosophic Phallocracy

Wollstonecraft’s Feminine Reasoning in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria

Sarah E. MAIER
University of New Brunswick


Cet article se penche sur les écrits fictionnels et philosophiques de Wollstonecraft et tente de démystifier la construction de la femme en tant qu’esclave d’un corps domestiqué, glorifiant son propre assujettissement (VRW 130). De plus, Wollstonecraft vise à ébranler la socialisation des femmes aux rôles subordonnés, prescrits et cautionnés par l’éducation et la culture de la classe moyenne. Ces rôles sont également exprimés et maintenus par la tradition philosophique patriarcale. Dans son texte polémique A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft demande à ce qu’on la reconnaisse non seulement en tant que femme, mais aussi en tant que philosophe et sujet rationnel doté de droits. Sa stratégie d’écriture crée un lien entre l’argumentation et la fiction dans le but de définir un raisonnement et une subjectivité féminine potentiels. Maier explore comment Wollstonecraft développe la notion du droit des femmes et comment cette autonomie postulée perturbe le concept traditionnel du discours philosophique. Cet article explore donc l’inclusion d’un discours social et moral défini par les femmes, et leur traitement dans la fiction Maria, qui fait l’illustration du préjudice encouru par les femmes privées du droit d’autodétermination.


This article considers how Wollstonecrafts philosophical and fictional writing attempts to demystify the eighteenth-century construction of women as domesticated slaves to their bodies, [who] glory in their [own] subjection (VRW 130) and to disrupt the appropriation of women into the accepted, prescribed, subordinate roles of the middle-class through education, socialization and culture which are articulated and upheld by a patriarchal philosophical tradition. In her polemical text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft demands recognition for herself and for Woman as philosopher, speaking subject and woman possessing reason and right. Her writing strategy creates a nexus between argument and fiction in order to engage in and subvert the Enlightenments male-defined philosophic discourse in an attempt to define the possibility of feminine reasoning and subjectivity. Maier explores how Wollstonecrafts ideas of the female right to independence and desire disrupt the traditional idea of detached philosophical discourse, how such fluidity could result in inclusionary or female-defined philosophical, social and moral discourse, as well as how these ideas are further discussed in the fictional text, Maria, which demonstrates the great cost to women who are denied the right to such self-construction.

With the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft becomes one of the foremothers of social criticism and feminist philosophical discourse. In A Vindication, Wollstonecraft’s purpose is to call for a “revolution in female manners” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 132) which involves the more encompassing use of the term “man” to include the Other-ed half of mankind : Woman. The text arises from Wollstonecraft’s broad views on women which were brought into focus “after considering the historic page” (VRW 79) following M. Talleyrand Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly which advocated a national education system for boys, but only instruction in domestic duties for girls. This new work is literally the companion piece to her earlier work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Despite the historical moment of conception of Wollstonecraft’s text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is addressed more widely to the increasing agitation for women’s recognition as subject and citizen in Britain rather than to aftermath of the French Revolution. According to Gary Kelly in Revolutionary Feminism (1992), “Women, or rather ‘woman,’ had a central place in these major themes of the professional middle-class cultural revolution. ‘Woman’ was a figure or persuasive device in the rhetoric of cultural transformation” (14). In her writing, Wollstonecraft attempts to demystify the contemporary construction of women as domesticated “slaves to their bodies, [who] glory in their [own] subjection” (VRW 130) and to disrupt the appropriation of women into the accepted, prescribed, subordinate roles of the middle-class through education, socialization and culture.

Wollstonecraft admits that, in order to effect the desired “revolution in female manners,” “it will also require some time to convince women that they act contrary to their real interest on an enlarged scale” (VRW 134) and to make women aware of their complicity in their own servitude and oppression. In at least two of her texts, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798), her strategy is to attempt to create subversive structures in order to engage in the Enlightenment’s male-defined philosophic discourse in an attempt to define the possibility of “feminine” reasoning and subjectivity :

If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test ; though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman – prescription. […] Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason ? (VRW 87)

With the phrase, “As a philosopher, I” (my emphasis, VRW 118), Wollstonecraft demands recognition as philosopher, speaking subject and woman possessing reason and right. This identity which she claims for herself is “paradoxical in terms of her culture – a woman of ‘mind,’ ‘a woman who has thinking powers,’ a ‘female philosopher’” but “‘Mind’ is a key word in Wollstonecraft’s life and writings, and by it she meant the moral-intellectual being” including “reason and imagination, feeling and critical thought” (Kelly 21). This sense of “being” would fulfil many of the conditions ironically laid down by but never adhered to by male philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Demanding this state of being be extended to encompass woman, her polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft theorizes how a female right to education and to independence would result in inclusionary or female-defined philosophical, social and moral discourse because it is only that “women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind” (my emphasis, 100) rather than an innate lack of ability, which leaves women dependent and without a proper – not “appropriate” – education. Further, she attacks the vanity of men and the dependant, partial existence which she believes men’s vices impose on women and how “men in general seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices” (92) rather than to encourage equality. Wollstonecraft effectively traces the degraded image of woman as a sex object to the irrational fancy of men for a passive conquest, a weakness in the male character which women were willing to exploit ; therefore, her anger is not solely directed against men even at their phallocratic, androcentric or exclusionary worst. She points to the traditional gender roles which encourage female vanity and the subsequent corruption which continues to ensure the perpetuation of the myths of women’s moral weakness and intellectual inferiority such that “females should always be degraded by being made subservient to love or lust” (VRW 250) as if existing in a seraglio. Wollstonecraft admits that the sexes corrupt each other and their own human nature through this social battle of the sexes. While she neither envisions nor advocates a radical elimination of all distinctions of sex [1], she does see a liberation of women that will allow them the freedom and opportunity to develop their minds and sensibilities to the same extent – if not in the same ways – as men so “reason [may] teach passion to submit” and to “let the dignified pursuit of virtue and knowledge raise the mind” (VRW 115) to a universal standard for both sexes.

This call to revolution for women is based on the premise that if women are deprived of intellectual development and are taught to see themselves “rather as women than human creatures” (VRW 79), women will remain slaves to emotion and imagination, and will only learn to use “the coquettish arts” (VRW 115) in order to control the sexual passions of the male in order to gratify their own desires for power, pleasure and ambition. Wollstonecraft clearly states her intention in her dedication : “my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue ; for truth must be common to all” (VRW 86), and it is that truth and virtue which will allow the individual to become independent.

Wollstonecraft’s desire to discuss the need for women’s education and emancipation is clear in its conception and intent, but problematic in what form it should take. The difficulty becomes the mode of address within the philosophic framework Wollstonecraft has entered. The inability to create a narrative or text “outside”of the constraint of dominant modes of patriarchal discourse demands that

subordinate groups like women must shape their world views through the dominant models, transforming their own perceptions and needs as best they can in terms of received frameworks. If women’s alternative or counterpart models are not acceptably encoded in the prevailing male idiom, female concerns will not receive a proper hearing. Women’s ways of ordering , of making significant their situation, must thus be carefully disinterred from the dominant structures which muffle them. Even though female models of reality and desire mostly follow the ground rules, their unique deviations from the norms make a woman’s world of difference. (Myers 1982 : 202)

Wollstonecraft’s discursive methods emphasize just how a woman’s world is one of difference ; indeed, the advertisement and introduction declares A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to be a treatise that is to be “divided into three parts, supposing that one volume would contain a full discussion of the arguments which seemed to [her] to rise naturally from a few simple principles” (VRW 90). As Kelly points out, she hopes that her “style will validate her social critique” (32) as an exemplar of woman’s possibilities. If she were to write on a subject such as woman’s subjection in a conventionally feminine mode, such as letters, journal/diary, novel, or anecdotes, then she would be implicitly accepting the existing subordination of women in writing, culture and society. If she were to write in a man’s mode such as a purely philosophical tract, or a dialogue, then she would be discounted as a woman of masculine mind [2]. Accordingly, her text had to be an exemplar of her proposed revolution in order to represent her ideas and to show how a marginalized individual, specifically a woman, can resist –and possibly subvert– being written by and into patriarchal discourse.

At this point in literary history, all forms of writing were already strongly associated with either masculine or feminine culture ; theology, politics, theory and philosophy were the domain of men. Wollstonecraft would have feared that her polemic, in whatever textual form it might take, would be dismissed ; again, she chooses to acknowledge her unwanted intrusion when she claims that it “is wandering from my present subject, perhaps, to make a political remark ; but as it was produced naturally by the train of my reflections, I shall not pass it silently over” (VRW 106). Here, she does not use an objective or detached style that could be considered as masculine style, nor does she necessarily desire neutrality which would have the potential to undermine her rhetorical authority. Through this privileging of the “I” – as both woman and philosopher – Wollstonecraft constructs a textual persona who writes from experience and who exemplifies, in the way that she writes, the rights of woman to full moral, intellectual, social and civic being.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft recognizes several types of sub-literary women’s writing in order to demonstrate the intellectual and cultural subordinate status that is usually associated with and reproduced by such writing. For example, she incorporates elements of a traditional conduct book’s discussions on modesty and virtue [3], but her text is also a critique of such books as inadequate, misinforming instruments in the education of woman and as tools for their subjection and/or oppression because they institutionalize opinions of female weakness and encourage excess sensibility rather than reason. She states emphatically that “I should cautiously oppose opinions that led women to right conduct, by prevailing on them to make the discharge of such important duties the main business of life, though reason were insulted” and further, that “I may be allowed to infer that reason is absolutely necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly, and I must again repeat, that sensibility is not reason” (VRW 156). Women must not be seen to rely solely on their emotive capacity ; rather, intellectual engagement in philosophical discourse will allow for redefinition of woman’s ability to be good citizens. The notable exception to her dismissal are those texts of Catherine Macauley Graham who exemplifies Wollstonecraft’s idea of the mind of an emancipated woman :

Catherine Macauley was an example of intellectual acquirements supposed to be incompatible with the weakness of her sex. In her style of writing, indeed, no sex appears, for it is like the sense it conveys, strong and clear.

I will not call hers a masculine understanding, because I admit not of such an arrogant assumption of reason ; but I contend that it was a sound one, and that her judgement, the matured fruit of profound thinking, was a proof that a woman can acquire judgement, in the full extent of the word. Possessing more penetration than sagacity, more understanding than fancy, she writes with sober energy and argumentative closeness ; yet sympathy and benevolence give an interest to her sentiments, and that vital heat to arguments, which forces the reader to weigh them. (VRW 206-207)

In fact, this description of Macauley might be translated as the discursive project of Wollstonecraft’s own manifesto : to combine sympathetic understanding with objective thought to create an exemplar of feminine reasoning, and to show, instead, that “[w]riting and reading thus make the ‘mind’ independent of the ‘senses’” (Kelly 30) formerly denigrated as women’s excessive sensibility.

Wollstonecraft’s rhetorical strategy is to demonstrate, by example, woman’s ability to reason by arguing against a number of writers, such as Rousseau and Milton, who represent the prejudice against women in society and the systematization of that prejudice in social relations, as well as the gendering of cultural institutions. Wollstonecraft argues in her section on the degradation of women [4] that the oppression of women produces in them a felt sense of inferiority, an inferiority which is then used in a circular argument to justify women’s continued oppression [5]. Consequently, Wollstonecraft challenges the notion of innate moral and / or intellectual differences between the sexes and declares that the mind has no sex, for “to give a sex to mind [is] not very consistent with the principles of man” (VRW 128) ; indeed, she is clear that the need to remove the question of sex from the question of mind requires a new, non-restrictive possibility no longer controlled by the dominating phallogocentric discourse of Enlightenment philosophy. She states that

Reason is, consequentially, the simple power of improvement ; or more properly speaking, of discerning truth…considering woman as a whole, let it be what it will, instead of a part of man, the inquiry is whether she have reason or not. If she have, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man, and the sexual should not destroy the human character. (VRW 142)

Indeed, les philosophes (Condorcet, notoriously) saw “reason” as both the tool and the end of improvement from which women were excluded ; further, Wollstonecraft argues that the enemy of reason is prejudice that is based on partial experience. She believes that rather than using man’s sexual weakness to manipulate themselves into positions of power, women should be allowed to gain “the power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations” which “is the only acquirement […] that really deserves the name of knowledge” (VRW 143) because she sees that knowledge and education equal the power to “sharpen [the individual’s] faculties” in order to “be prepared for professions” (VRW 150).

Further examples of Wollstonecraft’s ability to revolutionize female forms of domestic education include her discussions of the maxim or parable that had been used to socialize and moralize. These forms were mostly for children or women, both classes of individuals who were supposed to be unfit, by nature or education, to find these conventional wisdoms out for themselves. Wollstonecraft argues vehemently against the constant conflation of woman and child. In fact, she argues that “men, indeed, appear to me to act in a very unphilosophical [6] manner, when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood” (VRW 101). Wollstonecraft challenges the male reasoning behind such traditional oppositions when she subverts this tradition and makes the maxim a characteristic of her female reasoning. For example, Wollstonecraft’s dedication of the text to Talleyrand takes the form of a traditional act of thanks and subverts it in a radical manner – remember, he had argued against a proper education for girls – to claim participation in what had so far been considered the sphere of men’s public discourse. Wollstonecraft’s text is grounded in several traits of a traditional philosophical work. As mentioned, the text is called a treatise of three parts, and is divided into chapters in an orderly sequence ; it refers to principles of argument and uses traditional diction from philosophic argument, in order to maintain the required elevation of male-dominated philosophic discourse. The text also contains footnotes to indicate a formalized structure.

Despite the confusing conventionalism of these traits, Wollstonecraft subverts each trait to undermine the assumption of the superior nature of male discourse ; even the text’s title suggests combative and personal work while the footnotes are of personal observation. Wollstonecraft uses first person singular pronouns within the text for immediacy, rather than a detached and formalized third person address to remind the reader of the specificity – the female “I am” – who writes. This palimpsestic layering of the text(s) allows for the bringing together of the personal and the political by a marginalized woman writer ; further, such a technique allows for elements of rational, general, abstract and philosophical method, but it is formulated in terms of woman’s often multi-perspectival private sphere and expressed in what would be recognized as a woman’s voice intruding upon the male-gendered public sphere. This subtle and creative overlapping of philosophy and the personal exhibits what could be seen as the only resources available to a woman in a society that systematically denies her intellectual equality, and seems designed to exemplify critical thought at work, but not precisely the same kind of critical thought of a learned, professionally-trained male mind. The critical thought or reasoning made manifest here is of a mind forced to rely upon a woman’s education but is still capable of rising above and/or protesting against such a minimal education, and is exemplary of a mind who also recognized “Reason – when her voice is distinctly heard” (my emphasis, VRW 201) where the voice of reason becomes, for the first time, her voice as well as his. The use of the very same discursive materials which certify that oppression allows Wollstonecraft to show precisely how such a phallogocentric arena of discourse can be disrupted and transfigured by feminine/feminized reasoning.

From the outset of her introduction, Wollstonecraft draws attention to the issue of gender and language when she expressly rejects “pretty feminine phrases, which men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence” (VRW 82). She believes that stylized language and discourse are, in part, responsible for the marginalization of women by reinforcing their moral inferiority and “weak elegancy of mind” (VRW 82). The remainder of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman systematically outlines and challenges the different social structures that are conventionally embodied in language and serve to reproduce this false ideal of woman that constructs women around sexuality. She points out that “Man, taking her body, the mind is left to rust ; so that while physical love enervates man, as being his favourite recreation, he will endeavour to enslave woman” (my italics, VRW 171), while “male beauty is allowed to have some connection with the mind” (VRW 162). Wollstonecraft argues that the very conceptualization of woman is based on binary oppositions, such as the weaker vessel vs the human being, or the head vs the heart. Any proposed change to language in order to create the possibility of equality must seek to restore the human and moral meaning rather than maintaining these opposing pairs which serve to exacerbate the problems between the sexes when they are consistently engendered as positive/active/male vs negative/passive/female, and through which certain groups are conditioned for inferiority by such oppositions. While acknowledging that a civil society demands a certain level of standardization in the performance of moral virtues, Wollstonecraft illustrates her point : “Soldiers, as well as women, practise the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. Where is then the sexual difference, when the education has been the same ?” (VRW 105). Replying to her own rhetorical question, Wollstonecraft answers that for “man and woman, truth…must be the same” and that in order to “become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, [because] there is no other foundation for independence of character” ; further, women “must only bow to the authority or reason, instead of being the modest slaves of [male] opinion” (VRW 139). Accordingly, only reason, not gender, should be the foundation for an education that searches for the elucidation such truths.

Wollstonecraft’s foray into educational and political criticism allows her to voice her intellectual insights, but does not necessarily fully articulate the problem of woman’s subjection. In a much more problematic and fragmentary text, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, Wollstonecraft turns to the female-gendered sentimental novel to identify certain aspects of the tyranny of social conventions which harshly regulate sexuality and marriage in favour of men. However, Maria also chronicles one woman’s struggle to disrupt the eighteenth-century understanding of female subjectivity. She attempts this project by having her female subject, Maria, attempt to describe her self as a woman who is enslaved by male masters in an asylum for reasons justified by patriarchal society. Indeed, treating one’s “self” as an object for analysis – hence “objectifying” oneself – is a standard feature of all secondary (i.e., reflexive) consciousness, and Maria’s fictional autobiography traces this quest for self-definition and serves as a novelized polemic for the feminist ideology of Wollstonecraft’s earlier text.

In this fiction, Wollstonecraft tries to provide an unified female subject and to express female subjectivity as a political representative for the emancipation of woman. Again, as in A Vindication, this task is problematic because neither the language nor the genre used to create her text is neutral ; rather, language is conventional and patriarchal while the genre may be seen as antithetical to reason. In spite of Wollstonecraft’s well-known ability to write quickly [7], she laboured over Maria for over a year and it was left an incomplete fragment at her death to be edited and published posthumously by William Godwin. His description demonstrates Wollstonecraft’s torturous inability to find words that are adequate to her intent :

She began it in several forms, which she successively rejected, after they were considerably advanced. She wrote many parts of the work again and again, and, when she had finished what she intended for the first part, she felt herself more urgently stimulated to revise and improve what she had written, than to proceed, with constancy of application, in the parts that were to follow. (Godwin 1927 : 111)

The parts that were to follow were also left unfinished without any clear indication of the fate of the heroine. Consequently, as Wollstonecraft attempts to inscribe her disenfranchised, semi-autobiographical, female characters in Maria, they are also written by the text through the act of reading, ordering and writing a life narrative. Initially, Maria is not a masterful subject, but an object who is already written and/or constructed by various cultural discourses of gender, class, poverty and law. The narrator, focalizing through the ward guard, Jemima, makes clear that Maria is one who “had felt the crushing hand of power, hardened by the exercise of injustice, and ceased to wonder at the perversions of the understanding, which systematize oppression” (Maria 64). A consideration of the preface to Maria and Wollstonecraft’s theories of self and writing [8] shows a theory of domination which is comparable to the Hegelian master/slave dialectic. Wollstonecraft believes that gender is constructed culturally and socially, and that women are constructed as inferior by terms such as “modesty” and “virtue” which she insists are subjective traits which should be based in self-discipline and reason rather than imposed. In her polemic, she admits that women “may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent” (VRW 88), and in her fiction, she endows Maria’s narrator with the insight that often, a “sense of right seems to result from the simplest act of reason, and to preside over the faculties of the mind, like the master-sense of feeling, to rectify the rest” (M 64) if only the dichotomies could be disrupted.

Hegelian theory suggests that a work of art is something made, produced by a man who has taken it into his imagination and issued something by his own activity and is a form through which the creator establishes unity, recognizes the self and creates permanence [9]. This conception of the self, like the self-consciousness and self-recognition which is produced by the slave’s practical activity, is in art originated in the creativity and thinking consciousness of writing. For Hegel and Wollstonecraft, self formation is created through solitude and marginalization. Self-formation is not developed naturally, but is constituted by becoming opposed to oneself and discovering oneself through separation ; that is, as Other than itself. Self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness ; it has come out of itself. In Maria, it is important that Maria writes her memoirs in the isolation of the asylum in order to examine herself in solitude as she attempts to escape the “other” Maria who is enslaved by patriarchy in the form of male abusers. To create the necessary distance to examine Maria’s situation, Wollstonecraft creates a contrast between Maria’s first person narration and the third person narrative discourse which criticizes and censors Maria’s actions and draws social and political conclusions about the unjust treatment of women in society. Writing is necessary to Maria for her self-conception because in the practical activity of producing her narrative MS, “thoughts [rouse] her sleeping spirit, and the self-possession returned, that seemed to have abandoned her in the infernal solitude into which she had been precipitated” (M 62) ; otherwise, she is left to indulge her “sorrow” which may either “blunt or sharpen the faculties to the two opposite extremes, producing stupidity, the moping melancholy of indolence ; or the restless activity of a disturbed imagination” (M 64). The absence of the “other” causes Maria to lose her sense of self and causes a “suffocation of voice” (M 63) ; she must, through writing, regain her self as subject of speech.

In both texts, Wollstonecraft asks the reader to have faith in her ideology and to see that woman’s enslavement is only a temporary position. To compensate for a lack of immediate presence in society, Wollstonecraft conceives of a self that may acquire presence through writing. The narrator of Maria comments that in order for Maria to gain presence of self in an age when women are not allowed to have a self due to “hereditary trappings” (71), she begins to write her memoirs in accordance with the books that she is given. Woman’s struggle to create herself as a subject constituted through writing is problematic but it is clear that she must continue to struggle to find her identity and be recognized through interaction with – rather than alienation from – other people just as the characters in Maria are constructed within a social framework. That reconstruction of the self through fiction is complicated through the narrator’s condemnation of literature as escapist fantasy ; perhaps Maria flees from her insubstantiality of self through her writing and reading, and by extension, Wollstonecraft’s project fails because her work dismantles when Maria slips into a desire for sensibility over sense. I would argue that it is more productive to see Wollstonecraft’s subject as an exploration of a fragmented subjective self. While Maria is “absorbed by the sublime instability which renders the consciousness [into] existence” (M 70), she still relies upon male models taken from books to “soothe, by reading, the anguish of her wounded mind” (M 65) and to “the fire of genius necessary to portray…the truth” (M 71) of the model of subjectivity that she seeks.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft characterizes the Rousseauian concept of the self as one that is defined by a natural opposition between the sexes which postulates that if

woman could recur to the first principles of things as well as man, […] always independent of each other, they would live in perpetual discord, and their union could not subsist. But in the present harmony which naturally subsists between them, their different faculties tend to one common end : it is difficult to say which of them conduces the most to it : each follows the impulse of the other ; each is obedient, and both are masters. (184)

Wollstonecraft rejects this notion as false because Rousseau ties it to religious dogma. She rightly points out that such dogmatization gives “Absolute, uncontroverted authority…the rights of humanity…to the male line from Adam downwards” (VRW 185) and asserts that the interruption of traditional social dialectics must be the “exclusive appropriation of reason” (VRW 185). In A Vindication, and by extension in Maria, Wollstonecraft demonstrates that arguments against education for women, in particular those based on the desire for a supposedly natural state of society, are the cause of women’s insubstantial selves, their enslavement, their overdeveloped sensualism and their romanticism. Woman’s self, like man’s, should be distinguished and constructed through systems of education and study ; for example, Maria has “a passion [for romantic novels], and they conspired to […] form an ideal picture of life” (M 97). It is this ideal garnered from sentimental fiction to which Maria problematically aspires, but Wollstonecraft is clear that is only through education and reason, combined with desire and productivity, that woman’s chains of servitude can be broken and female self-consciousness created.

Wollstonecraft’s texts presuppose the inadequacy of an existing eighteenth-century education for women that continues to support any theory of language that may be historically constituted. Therefore, since language is not an ahistorical, universal construct, truth becomes relative to historical forces such as social convention. Maria wishes to avoid the cultural assumption of woman’s lack of subjectivity and supports her newly-reasoned conception of her self through relations with others, and in writing her own narrative history for the girl-child who is taken from her ; for Maria, “Writing was then the only alternative, and she wrote some rhapsodies descriptive of the state of her mind ; but the events of her past life pressing on her, she resolved circumstantially to relate them, with the sentiments that experience, and more matured reason, would naturally suggest” (M 66). Maria still recognizes “the fragility, the instability, of reason” (M 67) she sees in books she is brought by Jemima which include marginalia – reason literally on the margins of accepted thought – by a fellow inmate, a “man who could write those observations [therefore] was not disordered in his intellects” (M 69), and whom she comes to believe has the “characteristic of a noble mind” (M 71). As “the idea of him” (M 71) grows in her mind, he encourages her to embrace sentiment and feeling until she is “[a]bsorbed by the sublime sensibility which renders the consciousness of existence felicity” (M 70) and begins to “sigh after ideal phantoms” (M 77).

The relationship Maria develops with Henry Darnford is complex ; she strives for rationality in a madhouse and is drawn to reach out to a fellow being similarly enslaved by the master of the institution but who is not necessarily her equal. It is significant that their interaction is initiated and sustained for the first three chapters through writing and literature ; in a situation where the body is absent, reason may still be invoked. Maria, now reconstituted as a subject through the writing of her own history, is able to see herself as differentiated from other inmates whom she sees as “wretches, who had not only lost all that endears life, but their very selves” (M 73) ; however, even as their correspondence leads to a first meeting, Darnford effects patriarchal authority when he writes “Whoever you are, who partake of my fate, accept my sincere commiseration – I would have said protection ; but the privilege of man is denied me” (my emphasis, M 72). In that meeting, Darnford’s story of a debauched life is privileged and is the first related to Maria and Jemima with the result that, as pointed to by the narrator, that “pity, sorrow, and solitude all conspired to soften her mind, and nourish romantic wishes, and, from a natural progress, romantic expectations” (M 77). Darnford’s invocation of the privileges of a man reinscribes their conventional social roles into which Maria then falls and ruins their subversive and reasoned discourse. Wollstonecraft tries to recuperate her heroine with the insistence that the “sensibility […] and the activity of her [Maria’s] well-proportioned, and even almost voluptuous figure, inspired the idea of strength of mind, rather than of body” (M 77) ; therefore, her heroine might still be seen as resistant to the binary oppositions which construct cultural positionings. It is at this point that one of Maria’s most articulate moments occurs with Darnford when they “were silent—yet discoursed, how eloquently” (M 79). Essentially, Maria has no voice because she has no alternative system to patriarchal language in which to construct the truth of her story [10].

Maria’s story is again deferred for what is perhaps the most emancipatory story in the text, that of Jemima, who overcomes rape, abortion, prostitution and incarceration to ultimately create an independent, although lowly, existence [11]. Jemima gains this life through the cultivation of “sentiments and language” which are superior to her station (M 86), and “by degrees” could acquire “what might be termed a moral sense” by “acquiring new principles” (M 86). Even when under duress, those new principles guide her to the realization that she “could not now cease to reason” (M 90) and Jemima finds that in “solitude [her] mind seemed to recover its force” (M 91). Content to be alone and independent, Jemima is then free to assist Maria in what could be seen as a female collective of conscious social action.

Finally, Wollstonecraft presents with the MS of Maria’s narrative which outlines a childhood wherein “what was called spirit and wit in [her brother], was cruelly repressed as forwardness” (M 96) in her. A lack of attention to her education makes her susceptible to the sentiments of men, and she reverences men as “a superior order of being” (M 97). Compounded with “books, for which [she] had a passion” and with her uncle’s “conversation,” she “form[s] an ideal picture of life” (M 97) and looks for a hero in George Venebles not realizing that the “mask he wore, was so complete a covering of his real visage” (M 98) that he would lead to her disgrace. But with the passage of time, and in her solitude away from men and the constructions of social conventions, Wollstonecraft develops Maria’s level of reasoning enough to see that her paradox is that of all women because by “allowing women but one way of rising in the world, [and] the fostering the libertinism of men, society makes monsters of them, and then their ignoble vices are brought forward as a proof of inferiority of intellect” (M 103), and that “Men who are inferior to their fellow men, are always most anxious to establish their superiority over women” (M 109), statements which echo the main principle of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [12]. Maria, in writing this narrative of her selfhood, is emphatic that it is unjust that a “woman […] is despised and shunned, for asserting the independence of mind distinct of a rational being, and spurning at slavery” (M 117). She declares that a woman “must be allowed to consult her conscience, and regulate her conduct, in some degree, by her own sense of right” and self respect (M 144). In her assertions, her previous actions, and her mode of discourse – writing – Maria acts as an unified, emancipated subject who has justification for all through “the sacred seal of reason” (M 123).

The paradox of Wollstonecraft’s intentions now enter the text ; from this position of unified selfhood, Maria then wishes to reinscribe her desire into the text with a marriage to Darnford even though she has the willing psychological, social and monetary support of her elderly uncle. It is, I think, highly significant, that it is at this stage of writing that Wollstonecraft is unable to move from the inertia of multiple possibilities. While she can create a sense of reason and intelligence in her central character, she cannot move Maria forward to develop that selfhood through desire because it involves self contradiction : she is unable to escape the patriarchal, ideal Other – Darnford – for which / whom she longs. Maria is brought to trial where her second attempt at self definition through a written document is not heard by a sympathetic audience ; in this instance, the judge is male and is not her peer, and he dismisses her indecipherable female claims as unwanted “French principles” (M 145) and judges her guilty by both patriarchal law and morality. The compassionate and empathetic hearing she had previously received from Jemima cannot be expected here because there is no lived experience to connect the subject of the text with the reader/listener.

While Wollstonecraft believes that an unified self which includes desire may, at this point, be complex, she sees that the eventual process of its definition is necessary for existence. In Maria, the narrator addresses the continuing necessity for woman’s self-development :

…what are we, when the mind has, from reflection, a certain kind of elevation, which exalts the contemplation above the little concerns of prudence ! We see what we wish, and make a world of our own—and though reality may sometimes open a door to misery, yet the moments of happiness procured by the imagination, may, without a paradox, be reckoned among the solid comforts of life. Maria now, imagining that she had found a being of celestial mould—was happy,—nor was she deceived. (M 138)

In the end, Wollstonecraft’s subject is of illusory and temporary unity. In the real world of the text, in spite of possibilities raised for a woman, Maria’s life is one of submission, domination and oppression while Wollstonecraft’s reality is similarly complicated by the uneasy alliance of her philosophy and her desires ; thus, both Wollstonecraft and her character are seduced back into the symbolic patriarchal order that temporarily confines each in the role of passive and silenced other until the fragmented narrative might have come to completion. Writing as the desire that creates self-consciousness is clearly Wollstonecraft’s project in both of her texts, but unfortunately there too, her condemnation of Maria as representative woman writer of her historical time paradoxically inscribes Wollstonecraft herself into the patriarchal discourse and it threatens to dismantle and unravel her project ; however, Wollstonecraft’s revolution in female manners, and her attempts to demystify gender relations, are successful in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman even if she does not successfully complete her projected escape [13].


  • GODWIN, W. Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. W. Durant. New York : Constable, 1927.
  • KELLY, G. Revolutionary Feminism. London : MacMillan, 1992.
  • MYERS, M. “Reform or Ruin : ‘A Revolution in Female Manners.’” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture. 11(1982) : 199-216.
  • POOVEY, M. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago : U of Chicago P, 1984.
  • WOLLSTONECRAFT, M. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Toronto : PBC, 1992.
  • WOLLSTONECRAFT, M. Mary and Maria : Or the Wrongs of Woman. Toronto : PBC, 1992.

[1] Some recent feminist critics, such as Sandra Gubar in “Feminist Misogyny : Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One’” (Feminist Studies. 20.3 Fall 1994, p 452) claim that the difficulty with Wollstonecraft is that she leaves behind an ambiguous legacy for future women writers ; however, Gubar does acknowledge that Wollstonecraft “Represent[s] the masculinist voice in order to controvert its messages.”

[2] Half a century later, one of the reasons that the Victorian author George Eliot, another woman writer with a defiant personal politic, is ironically accepted into the canon is because she is a woman who writes with a masculine mind and in the traditionally masculine mode of realism. In her text, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984), Mary Poovey cites Eliot’s recognition of the courage of Wollstonecraft as a foremother of women writers : “Remember, it has happened to many to be glad they did not commit suicide, though they once ran for the final leap, or as Mary Wollstonecraft did, wetted their garments well in the rain hoping to sink the better when they plunged. She tells how it occurred to her as she was walking in the damp shroud, that she might live to be glad that she has not put an end to herself and so it turned out. She lived to know some real joys, and death came in time to hinder the joys from being spoiled” (112).

[3] Wollstonecraft had, herself, participated in this tradition with her earliest work, Some Thoughts Concerning the Education of Daughters (1787).

[4] See section entitled, “Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Circumstances” (VRW 141-172).

[5] Wollstonecraft is not alone in her ideas. Many connections can be made between the articulation of her ideas in her writing and those of Elizabeth Hamilton. I would like to thank my colleague, Dr. Charles Stewart-Robertson, for his insightful and enthusiastic comments on this project which will culminate in a co-authored on both women.

[6] Read “unphilosophical” with the accompanying connotation of un“reason”able.

[7] A Vindication of the Rights of Men was written in approximately a month, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was finished in six weeks.

[8] Refer to »The Effect Which an Early Association of Ideas Has Upon the Character » (VRW 219-225).

[9] See Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics ; specifically, the section on “the Conception of Artistic Beauty” (New York : PBC, 27-62).

[10] This 18th century example in Wollstonecraft prefigures an ongoing debate regarding the constraints of language for woman and/or patriarchal language’s inability to express female fluidity which is still a site of contention in French feminist theory and philosophy.

[11] For a convincing argument that Jemima’s story is the successful moment in Maria ; or, the Wrongs of Woman, see The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984) in which Mary Poovey contends that Jemima’s story is “decidedly unsentimental” and that through her resilience, “Jemima’s story […] is a radical, indeed feminist, story” with “anarchy implicit in Jemima’s brief assertion of female sexuality” which “explode[s] the assumptions that tie female sexuality to romance” (103-104).

[12] In a sister art of the 18th century, Goya’s paintings create a parallel reminder of the closeness of monstrosity to both reason and libertinism.

[13] I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. J. Charles Stewart-Robertson for his insightful comments and for our engaging conversations during the completion of this piece.