October 31, 2011

Female Passion: Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'

Mary Wollstonecraft’s complicated position on female passion is often also reflected in the novels we have been reading.

She thinks that not only the eye sees her virtuous efforts from whom all her comfort now must flow, and whose approbation is life; but her imagination, a little abstracted and exalted by grief, dwells on the fond hope that the eyes which her trembling hand closed, may still see how she subdues every wayward passion to fulfil the double duty of being the father as well as the mother of her children. Raised to heroism by misfortunes, she represses the first faint dawning of a natural inclination, before it ripens into love, and in the bloom of life forgets her sex – forgets the pleasure of awakening passion, which might again have been inspired and returned. (Rights of Woman, p.164)

In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft imagines an ideal widow, proudly turning her back on marital happiness and sexual pleasure in order to devote herself to her childrens' welfare. It is one of many passages that have troubled feminist scholars. Cora Kaplan, for example, has argued that the Rights of Woman ‘expresses a violent antagonism to the sexual’ and ‘exaggerates the importance of the sensual in the everyday life of women’, betraying ‘the most profound anxiety about the rupturing force of female sexuality'.[1] Scholars like Kaplan are often disappointed in the Rights of Woman, and consider this rejection of female passion to be the greatest failure in Wollstonecraft’s “feminism”.

Mary Poovey, however, understands the Rights of Woman (and the Rights of Man) as ‘the endless referral of sexual gratification […] to escape altogether sexuality’s cruel logic’.[2] She suggests that in discarding female desire, Wollstonecraft rejects the aesthetic paradigm developed by Edmund Burke which ‘takes the female boy as the paragon of beauty and the sexual “fit” between (heterosexual) bodies as the incarnation of providential proportion’.[3] Poovey clearly understands the significance of this paradigm as heterosexual, and ultimately regards the absence of female passion in the Rights of Woman as a rejection of the sexual. In my own research, I have argued that the Rights of Woman rejects the phallus, not female sexuality—leaving room for a third option: the lesbian.

To what extent, if at all, is this evident in the novels we have read thus far?


[1]Cora Kaplan, Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London; Verso, 1986), p. 41

[2] Mary Poovey, ‘Aesthetics and Political Economy in the Eighteenth Century: the Place of Gender in the Social Constitution of Knowledge’, Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. by George Levine (New Brunswick; Rutgers University Press, c.1994), p.97

[3] Poovey, p.97


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