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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Revolutionary Rebel: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

The Philosophy Club came together yesterday evening for our second session of wwp's Spring 2012 series, Rebel with a Cause. In keeping with the driving force of this week's rebel, Mary Wollstonecraft - that firebrand 18th Century campaigner for a good education for girls and women and with it, entry into the realm of "rational citizenship" - matters pedagogical created a unifying thread for the evening's discussions and exercises. Amongst our concerns: the various strategies we had employed to get the most out of our first set of assigned readings; those moments of exaltation and frustration accompanying our respective learning processes; what for each of us constituted a "good" educational experience in the context of wine women and philosophy; and what it did to us physically, emotionally, and mentally to "think deeply."

Building upon this thread we compared Wollstonecraft's ideas about education to those of Jean Jacques Rousseau - for indeed, the tract for which Wollstonecraft is best known, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was written in large part to challenge Rousseau's suggestion that girls, because of their possession of "unique traits" that differentiate them from boys and fit them well for their primary future roles of wife and mother, do not require the same education as boys. To add nuance to this debate between Wollstonecraft and Rousseau over whether women and men are innately different, as well as to help us in our ongoing collective task of shaping a working methodology that embraces rather than erases our own differences, we wove in another thread: Audre Lorde's (1984) suggestion that we have to develop tools for using the plurality of human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives, and in so doing work towards dismantling the kind of simplistic binary thinking (good/bad; superior/inferior; man/woman) that both underlies and feeds into those hierarchical power relations that produce, at the bottom of the heap, a "dehumanized" subject. This particular thread - somewhat incongruously! - led us back to Mary Wollstonecraft's central argument: that without a proper education, without the chance to develop their ability to reason, women were being deprived of their basic right to become fully human.

Yes, it was an evening of many threads and of these threads, a dense and sometimes complicated pattern was woven. But in the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft's creed that the "intellect will always govern," we were performing mental gymnastics in order to get to the heart of what made this "daughter of the Enlightenment" tick.

Virginia Woolf's (1929) moving portrayal of Mary Wollstonecraft's 'catching' of the revolutionary bug that swept through Europe, and specifically France, in the latter years of the 18th Century offered an important insight into how our rebel-of-the-week's democratic principles were transformed into decisive action...moving being the operative word here, as Woolf's prose positively gallops along at the same pace that one imagines Wollstonecraft tore through life. Not only did it lend an added visceral dimension to our understanding of Wollstonecraft; it also allowed us to experience vicariously the swirl of revolutionary talk and activity into which Wollstonecraft was drawn as she "dashed" over to Paris and, in the midst of all that turmoil, penned her indignant and no-nonsense Vindication.

Working Woolf's text alongside Wollstonecraft's own words, we were able to see how this early proponent of female education turned her personal experiences into a powerful rhetorical tract; her most heartfelt convictions into real-life experiments. Bringing into the discussion some definitions of 'Revolution' drawn from The Feminist Dictionary, we could see how the tendency of Revolutionary forces to dismiss women and their concerns once the main battle has been won had made a number of woman-centred philosophers and writers feel more than a little cynical about just how 'revolutionary' these man-led revolutions actually are.


If this latter observation echoed a comment made by Sheelah on week one - that perhaps the always-thorn-in-the-side rebel is to female as the soon-to-slide-into-power revolutionary is to male - the actual act of bringing these various texts into dialogue gave us a chance to practice the art of on-the-spot synthesis and analysis. Which was fitting on this particular evening, given that an exuberant interweaving of practice and theory was, in fact, a defining feature of Wollstonecraft's approach. Because for all that she celebrated reason over passion, the rational mind over the unruly body, she did not shy away from her own passions and she was not afraid to revisit and revise her theories when those passions shed new light upon them. Our revolutionary rebel, we realized, was a mass of contradictions and moreover, not afraid to embrace those contradictions. The world, however, was not so ready to embrace them...Which is probably why Wollstonecraft has been variously referred to as a "prim moralist" and an "immoral wanton," as a "hyena in petticoats" and a "pioneer," as a "high-priestess of loose-tongued liberty" and an "uncompromising idealist"...Which is probably why she has flowed in and out of favour over the past 200+ years.

At the end of the day, though - and her day ended abruptly and painfully after giving birth to her second daughter at the age of 37 - Wollstonecraft was an egalitarian feminist in that she felt that women should strive to be equal to men: enjoying the same opportunities; benefiting from the same rights and freedoms. And though she saw femininity as a "man-made" social construct, she was willing to work her ideas within a system that men had created, rather than strive to overthrow that system: challenging not the idea that women should remain in the private sphere fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers, but rather, insisting that they had to change the way they performed said roles. For Wollstonecraft, this meant performing them with the same reasoning mind, rational judgment, and set of virtues that men were expected to possess out there in the public sphere. For Wollstonecraft, it was education and education alone that would prepare women to be better mothers and wives in the private sphere, and expand women's choice and chance of occupation if they opted instead for the public sphere. To Audre Lorde's famous declaration,"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," Mary Wollstonecraft would have probably retorted, "The house is fine. Just give me those master's tools so I can get into it!"

Reflecting on how much a person and their beliefs are a product of their time, we considered whether rebels were necessarily of their time, ahead of their time, or timeless! In light of Mary Wollstonecraft's egalitarian agenda, we also considered just how much of a rebel she actually was. Our tentative conclusion was that the term "revolutionary rebel" probably fit her perfectly, combining as it does that mix of stepping up and standing out for your cause whilst simultaneously, staying within certain boundaries, certain limits - keeping that old revolving door turning, turning. What we all enjoyed about Mary Wollstonecraft was her willingness to treat life as an experiment, the "spontaneous enthusiasms" she expressed for people and ideas, and the "responsive vibrations" her quick mind and active spirit appeared to have provoked in and for others.

As we turn from the rational and reasoning Mary Wollstonecraft whose passions sometimes ran away with her, to the bodily and bawdy Colette who was one of France's most lively and provocative intellects, we will take these reflections forward with us.