Mary Wollstonecraft: Interlocutor for Feminists Today?

Margaret D. Kamitsuka

Feminists want their poster women—and they want them to exemplify feminist virtues, without fault.  Yet, feminists, even the most intrepid and exemplary, can have their shadow sides, shortcomings, and failings. In Modern Virtue: Mary Wollstonecraft and a Tradition of Dissent, Emily Dumler-Winckler is intent on rehabilitating this late-18th-century English thinker as a feminist theologian and ethicist, so she does not dwell on her weaknesses. No book can do everything, of course, but it is important to note how feminists fall short, not for prurient reasons, but because expecting other feminists (or oneself) to be perfect is self-destructive and politically counterproductive.

Wollstonecraft fell in love—madly and blindly. Wollstonecraft’s posthumously published letters detail her disastrous and not-quite-clear-headed love affair with Gilbert Imlay, a disreputable American businessman whom she met in France in the midst of the revolution. Modern Virtue mentions this sad affair, but focuses on Wollstonecraft’s elevated philosophy of “enlightened love”—that is, love informed and ordered by a clear mind and cultivated virtues. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that same Wollstonecraft who published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman also regrets being hoodwinked into this one-sided love affair that left her a single mother. She eventually opted for what promised to be a stable marriage with a like-minded progressive thinker, William Godwin, when she was several months pregnant with his child. We cannot know if their experiment in egalitarian marriage (apparently with separate households) would have flourished, since she died from complications of the birth of their daughter, the future Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame.  If we concede that rigorous critical thinking stands the test of time—even if lexicons of feminist terminology change—and if we concede that the most committed feminists can succumb to the vicissitudes of love, then we have a Wollstonecraft we can still work with in the 21st century. 

Modern Virtue offers a hefty and hard-to-ignore argument for Wollstonecraft’s ongoing relevance for philosophy, gender studies, feminist theology, and the fight for women’s rights today.  Dumler-Winckler tutors her readers not to pigeonhole Wollstonecraft as an outdated thinker. Modern Virtue demands that Wollstonecraft be included in discussions relevant to feminist, womanist, postcolonial, queer, #MeToo, and other contemporary schools of thought and justice movements. That is, she deserves a place at the table not only out of respect for her stature as an early feminist but, in addition, her views—on virtue especially—could enhance today’s efforts to address the ills of society.  This book does what a good book should do: provoke further thinking about how to respond to the world’s moral and political conundrums.

Cover for 

Modern Virtue
Emily Dumler-Winckler. Modern Virtue
Mary Wollstonecraft and a Tradition of Dissent.
Oxford UP, 2022. Pp. 392.
$74 (hardback).

I knew that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had a significant impact in the late 18th century, with reverberations well into the 19th century, but I was surprised to learn that Wollstonecraft’s notion of rights was religiously as well as a philosophically grounded. Equality for Wollstonecraft is grounded in being created in the image of God, and her pedagogical philosophy and political thought hinged on Jesus as moral exemplar. (She was not a Deist.) Dumler-Winckler insists that a biblically based “theological imagination” lies at the heart of Wollstonecraft’s call to a political philosophy of virtue, and that the imitation of Christ, specifically, was central to what she might have said about the Kantian sapere aude, “dare to be wise.” Wollstonecraft stitches her theology and philosophy eclectically together toward the same message: that we need a moral example.

Still, Wollstonecraft’s writings are peppered with terms that strike the modern ear as quaint and outmoded—terms like “taste,” “manners,” and “modesty,” with Jesus’ modesty extolled as an example.  But before slouching away in disappointment at such a mild-mannered and unassertive Jesus, we need to let Dumler-Winckler do her interpretive magic. She insists on the radical potential of Wollstonecraftian modesty understood as individuals’ intention of “reforming themselves to reform the world.” Dumler-Winckler wants us to hear in Wollstonecraft’s words something like Gandhi’s motto: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  No one would call Gandhi mild-mannered and unassertive.

Wollstonecraft’s polemic about manners and virtue was meant to challenge women to think for themselves. Teachers especially are supposed to be Christ-like moral standards for their students, helping them “cultivate the ‘habits of virtue that render an individual independent.’”  Dumler-Winckler marshals some provocative textual and visual evidence to sketch the outlines of the christology (if that dogmatic term even applies) peeking through the pages of Wollstonecraft’s pedagogical book, Original Stories from Real Life.  Dumler-Winckler analyzes the extraordinary image (by William Blake) gracing the cover of Wollstonecraft’s volume, which shows a female teacher in a cruciform posture, flanked by her two pupils.  Feminists today might see a proto-Christa-like message at work here, with resonances to the famous sculpture of a female Christ on a cross by Edwina Sandys (today housed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC).  A radical feminist mentorship simmers just below the surface in Wollstonecraft’s christologically inflected pedagogy. That said, feminists today might push back on Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on individual independence of thought. 

Current feminist philosophy and theology trend more toward theories of relationality and the contextually embedded nature of human knowing and doing.  For example, in womanist theology, Jesus provides a particular kind of support for black communal survival in the wilderness of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Salvation is never individual. In some feminist theologies, Christ is seen as part of a community of wounded and healing believers. No one moral exemplar leads, even Jesus himself.  Ecofeminist approaches theorize societal and environmental justice in intersectional and interrelated ways. Postmodernity challenges any appeal to transcendent divine Truth, defining the true, the good, and the beautiful as intertextual and dialogical events whose meanings remain apophatically open.

But we cannot expect Wollstonecraft to have anticipated theologies and philosophies of our millennium.  She does value something akin to relationality, but it comes under the rubric of friendship.  Depicted especially in Wollstonecraft’s novel, Maria, women’s friendship, forged in the midst of shared suffering, creates “fitting sympathy.” The women in the story are not revolutionaries (and Wollstonecraft, having lived through the French Revolution, knew what such women looked like on the ramparts).  Rather, Wollstonecraft’s female characters grow in virtue as their mutual friendship and understanding grow. Dumler-Winckler makes the necessary translation and calls this type of Wollstonecraftian sympathetic friendship “feminist solidarity.” Or we might say, the political is personal. 

How does one inspire virtue-strengthening personal friendship in feminist political movements?  Wollstonecraft would answer that question pedagogically and theologically. She would have her students pray, “Lure us to the paths of virtue.” For Wollstonecraft, Christ as exemplar marks that virtuous path, but not in any traditional sense of a doctrine of reconciliation. She has little interest in appealing to forensic atonement or metaphors of being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Many feminist theologians today would also want to excise such penal concepts or violent imagery from the theological canon.  Ignoring atonement theories in lieu of the lure of Christ does not make Wollstonecraft a bad theologian, just perhaps a more process-oriented one. Feminist, womanist, and other progressive theologians today would be interested.

Wollstonecraft put much stock in how women’s and girls’ access to education would cultivate a taste for virtue, which, in turn, is a necessary condition for justice.  Dumler-Winckler thus makes the case, on behalf of Wollstonecraft, for a theological justification for feminist thought and activism.  That is, societal justice hinges on the idea that an individual created in God’s image can acquire “the dignity of conscious virtue”—Wollstonecraft’s phrase. Again, the political is personal.

Wollstonecraft’s life—her scholarly achievement, struggles, and setbacks—reminds us of two things: feminist theologians can be found in times and places where one least expects them; and there are no feminist saints, only thinkers speaking courageously to gender and other injustices while managing their particular context of the personal and the political. Wollstonecraft can be a serious feminist interlocutor without being a feminist saint. 

Margaret Kamitsuka is the Francis W. and Lydia L. Davis Professor Emeritus of Religion at Oberlin College, where she taught courses in gender and religion for over 20 years. She received her PhD in religious studies from Yale University and is the author of Feminist Theology and the Challenge of Difference; Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-choice Theological Ethic; and the soon-to-be published Unborn Bodies: Resurrection and Reproductive Agency. She also edited The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity and has published essays in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender and in a variety of scholarly journals including: Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Journal of Religious Ethics, and Theology Today.