Wollstonecraft by Sylvana Tomaselli review – trailblazing feminist

A fine portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft as an Enlightenment intellectual neglects the complexity of her views on the ‘oppression of my sex’

Reflecting on her career two years before her premature death, Mary Wollstonecraft described herself as one of those who serve as “sign-posts, which point out the road to others, while forced to stand still themselves amidst the mud and dust”. In fact she rarely stood still, but the self-description seems particularly apt now, when a statue of a nude woman commemorating her, unveiled recently on Newington Green in north London, is getting lots of critical mud chucked at it. Centuries after her death, Wollstonecraft still stirs controversy.

Wollstonecraft was a hardworking literary professional who in the late 1780s got caught up in the riptides of history and thereafter swam with them, earning her fame and notoriety. An unhappy girl from a dysfunctional family, she grew into a woman full of grievance, emotional need and intellectual appetite. A harsh critic, especially of herself, with the outbreak of the French Revolution she turned her critical fire on political and cultural conservatives, beginning with a fierce rejoinder to Edmund Burke’s 1790 attack on the revolution and proceeding through swingeing attacks on “despotic” thinkers of every stripe, especially defenders of male privilege. She was the daughter of a drunken wife-beater, and men’s “arbitrary”, “brutish” rule over women was the target of Wollstonecraft’s most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and the theme to which she returned repeatedly in subsequent writings until her death in childbirth, aged 38, in 1797.

Her short life was marked by bold nonconformity. She would never marry, she told a childhood friend, preferring to “struggle with any obstacles rather than go into a state of dependence”. Entering adulthood with minimal resources, she determined to live as freely as possible in England’s class-ridden patriarchal society. She worked tirelessly to educate herself. Schooled only in the rudiments of reading and writing, she eventually became proficient in four languages and conversant with all the major strands of Enlightenment thought.

From the age of 19 she earned her own living, often finding herself in very straitened circumstances. But when the philandering father of her first daughter offered her financial support after deserting her for an actress, she refused it: “I want not such vulgar comfort, nor will accept it,” she told Gilbert Imlay. Her next lover, the radical philosopher William Godwin, was likewise told of her resolution to “earn the money I want” with her pen, or “go to sleep forever”. Pregnant with the future Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, she married Godwin but insisted that they live apart. “I wish you from my soul to be riveted in my heart; but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow,” she wrote to him affectionately.

Yet this proud independence was offset by deep emotional insecurity and what Wollstonecraft described as the “melancholy views of life” induced in her by the “arduous struggles” of her youth. She had rarely known or expected simple affection, she told Imlay, as he displayed his own incapacity for it. But the hunger for love was fierce, and its loss insupportable. Imlay’s desertion led to two suicide attempts, and this despite the religious faith that underpinned her life and thought. The reading world learned about these agonies soon after Wollstonecraft’s death, when Godwin published a tell-all memoir of his wife that tarnished her reputation for decades. It was not until the 20th century, and especially with the rise of the women’s liberation movement, that she took on the heroic stature she enjoys today.

“We reason deeply, when we forcibly feel,” Wollstonecraft observed of herself in 1795. Sylvana Tomaselli’s book moves dexterously between he feelings and reasonings, producing a portrait that is both fresh and compelling. Beginning with an account of “What She Liked and Loved” (all the chapter titles are reminiscent of the novels of the period), the book takes some revealing new routes through her work . We learn about her love of theatre and music, her reading tastes, especially her love of poetry, and her passion for the beauties of nature.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, circa 1797.
‘A very good hater’ … Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, circa 1797. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Regularly portrayed (as feminists so often are) as a killjoy, here we see Wollstonecraft embracing life’s pleasures. (And a woman of uninhibited vitality: one of my favourite images, which does not appear here, is of her alone on a Swedish hillside, clambering over high rocks, enjoying every minute of it.) We also meet her as a friend and lover where again we witness strong feelings at play, although here pleasure is often overmatched by pain. But if Wollstonecraft was a woman of deep likes and loves she was also, as Godwin said of her, a “very good hater”, and most of Tomaselli’s book is devoted to what she hated about her society and how she aimed to change it.

The Rights of Woman made Wollstonecraft a celebrity. She was the “assertrix of female rights”, the “Amazonian philosophess” who put feminism on the political map. This is not how she appears in this book. While acknowledging her outrage at society’s treatment of her sex, Tomaselli wants to replace Wollstonecraft the pioneer feminist with Wollstonecraft the Enlightenment intellectual, whose views on women were only part of a wide-ranging “philosophy of humanity”. The Rights of Woman should be “dethroned” as the defining text of Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre in favour of A Vindication of the Rights of Men, her earlier reply to Burke, which rehearsed what Tomaselli regards as the foundational features of her thought: her damning critique of modern “civilisation” (an 18th-century coinage) alongside her revolutionary programme for a “true civilisation” of liberty, equality and social justice founded on a moral reformation of humanity.

This broad perspective on Wollstonecraft’s thought is not the radical break with existing scholarship that Tomaselli implies. Most recent studies do likewise, although many align her political ideas with one or other “ism”: liberalism, civic humanism, republicanism. Tomaselli rightly rejects such labelling as misleading and/or anachronistic. Instead she deftly weaves together material from Wollstonecraft’s minor works, such as her book reviews, with her major nonfiction texts to capture the “tone and spirit” of her philosophy while highlighting its strongly historical-prognostic slant, evident from A Vindication of the Rights of Men onward. How had the civilised world reached its current critical juncture, as “a new spirit [goes] forth, to organise the body-politic”, and what would come of this transformative moment? As Tomaselli says, all of Wollstonecraft’s thought is framed by these questions, along with the combined faith in human potential and divine intention that, even in the wake of the Terror in France, kept alive her belief in the eventual arrival of an age of “more equal freedom, and general happiness to mankind”.

Brave hopes from a courageous woman. So ought we to be commemorating this Wollstonecraft, the bold Enlightenment philosopher, rather than Wollstonecraft the trailblazing feminist? No. While “feminist” is certainly anachronistic (the term didn’t come into use until the late 19th century), from 1792 onward the “oppression of my sex” was Wollstonecraft’s overriding concern, the theme on which she dwelled constantly, reasoning deeply on it because she felt so strongly about it. Her writings on the theme can startle, especially The Rights of Woman with its fierce denunciations of women’s failings: their irrationalism, pettiness, frivolity, and – most off-putting perhaps for modern readers – women’s sensualism, their willing enslavement to “casual lust”. But this censoriousness was typical of proto-feminist writing in her day. And it changed. Tomaselli misses the changes: setting out to celebrate the major philosopher she diminishes the living thinker by not tracing the growth of her mind.

Wollstonecraft’s corpus is riddled with inconsistencies and paradoxes. Tomaselli acknowledges this but does not value it, seeking rather to reconcile competing positions whenever possible. But Wollstonecraft is often best understood through these tensions, which highlight both the novelty and complexity of the issues with which she was struggling, and the creative energy that she brought to them, shifting tack as she learned more, thought harder. She was not an academic but a revolutionary: what did mere consistency mean to her?

When Wollstonecraft died she left behind an unfinished novel, Maria or, The Wrongs of Woman, published posthumously in 1798. In this extraordinary book she openly defended illicit female sexual pleasure (a note not struck again within feminism for well over a century). She also, even more significantly perhaps, made a first attempt at intersectionality by exploring the connections between class and gender oppression. These major developments in Wollstonecraft’s thought do not appear in Tomaselli’s book because, as a political philosopher rather than a literary scholar, she eschews any discussion of the novels.

But Wollstonecraft the philosopher cannot be separated from the writer who used imaginative literature, as she said in the introduction to her first novel, Mary, A Fiction (1788), to conjure up “possibilities” – both for her sex and for humankind as a whole. Tomaselli has given us a fine portrait, rich in insights, but to fully appreciate the brave, freedom-loving woman so widely (and controversially) celebrated – and who, by the way, didn’t like brave freedom-loving women being depicted as heroines – we need a fuller, more dynamic, picture of a Wollstonecraft whose equalitarian ambitions for her sex are still far from realised today.

Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion and Politics by Sylvana Tomaselli is published by Princeton (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Barbara Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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