Mary Wollstonecraft: Feminism and Radical Philosophy
The French Revolution proclaimed the Rights of Men. Mary Wollstonecraft replied to vindicate the rights of women. Partly a riposte to a sexist proposal for female education, partly a slashing critique of the conservative Edmund Burke, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women marshaled the empiricism of John Locke and David Hume to argue that the sexual inequality considered “natural” by most Western men, even the French revolutionaries, was in fact, like all social phenomena, a product of historical contingency. Anticipating Marxist-feminist arguments by nearly 200 years, Wollstonecraft identified the patriarchal family as the means for the reproduction of a society devoted, in her eyes, to the accumulation and display of property. For Wollstonecraft, women’s liberation—and, necessarily, men’s, too—calls for nothing less than a wholesale social revolution in human relations. Exceptional in their time, Wollstonecraft’s writings remain a radical challenge to liberal thinkers and feminists even today. How can we understand Wollstonecraft’s theory of society, human development, and the interrelation of sexual and social equality? How is human reason to be fostered, the family to be constituted, and social duties and labor to be distributed? What are to make of Wollstonecraft’s feminist theory of society today?
But Wollstonecraft was more than just a social theorist. She was also a novelist, short story writer, devoted lover of nature, educator, and, at times, amateur theologian. As we explore the elements of Wollstonecraft’s philosophizing—her ideas of reason, morality, sexuality, and property—we’ll read, in addition to A Vindication of the Rights of Women, her writings on education, her Vindication of the Rights of Men, her history of the origins of the French Revolution, and her travelogues. We’ll ask: what can her occasionally gruesome children’s stories reveal about her theories of moral formation and her time as a governess? Why did she think bodily experiences shaped our character and thought? How did her Vindication respond to the events of the French Revolution? What was her version of feminism? In what ways did her philosophical work respond to thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Edmund Burke? And finally, how can we understand Wollstonecraft’s later writings, particularly her travelogues, which did so much to initiate the English Romantic preoccupation with nature, feeling, and the limits of human knowledge—expressed no less than in the work of her daughter, Mary Shelley?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 17 — December 15, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 24th.