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Yaeger 67 Patricia Yaeger Writing as Action: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a difficult book for the modern reader, a book feminist readers have had trouble applauding. First, the originalities of Wollstonecraft's work have become so commonplace that it belongs among those invisible works Woolf describes as "books so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them." A Vindication contains a remarkable variety of insights, ranging from Wollstonecraft 's anger at Chinese footbinding (reminiscent of Mary Daly's GynEcology ), to her concern that women be taught about their anatomies (reminiscent of Our Bodies, Our Selves). Since Wollstonecraft expounds ideas taken up in dozens of recent feminist texts, little of what she says strikes us as new—most of it has been spelled out at greater length and in more modern detail. By itself this familiarity might appease us if Wollstonecraft's prose held other felicities. But as a child of the Enlightenment Wollstonecraft practices her rational arts upon us without ceasing. Clear thinking is more important than feeling, reason than sensibility; passion is a trap for women, since constant use of "lower" modes of perception deprives women of reason and dignity. The second problem the modern reader encounters in Wollstonecraft is her lack of mischief and high-spiritedness; we miss a certain pleasure in her text. A Vindication focusses on three consecutive ideas. Women have been reduced to the status of slaves—they are trained to please men. However, as creatures made in God's image, women are also created as rational beings. It follows that women should be educated not for man's glory, but for their own. Wollstonecraft sifts through these arguments page after page; her prose is dogged and elegant in pursuit of its logic, but in our post-theological age the arguments lack suasive power. Although these arguments were timely for Wollstonecraft's contemporaries and inspired other feminists to write passionate responses well into the nineteenth century (Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century is the most stirring example), Wollstonecraft's excessive praise of rationality makes her well reasoned, "unbodily" text seem monologic and single-voiced, closed in on itself, a quintessential theoretical text. A Vindication is difficult to read because of its high degree of abstraction, its obsession with theory. Does Wollstonecraft belong, then, among those women writers accused by French feminists of capitulating to "phallogocentrism"? "Men...begin from a theoretical platform that is already in place, already elaborated," says Marguerite Duras. "The writing of women is 68 the minnesota review really translated from the unknown, like a new way of communicating rather than an already formed language."1 Wollstonecraft's writing is not "translated from the unknown"; she glories in the "already formed language" that Duras condemns. As Mary Poovey explains: Wollstonecraft seems very aware of two dangers: the danger of indulged feelings and the danger of inviting the charge of "feminine hysteria," which might subvert her debut in the form of masculine logic. She wants to express and harness emotion, for she knows the very real power of her own experience and longings. Yet, unsure of how to credit personal feeling, uncomfortable with the physical forms in which her imagination projects its gratifications, she retreats into the masculine literary conventions whose artifice she claims to despise. Reliance on rhetoric is for her a form of indirection that distances her from her own unreliable emotion without sacrificing its force. At the same time, it permits her to project the appearance of masculine assertiveness without taking responsibility for it.2 Such willing ventriloquism is tantamount to silence. "Throughout the course of history, [women] have been mute; and it is doubtless by virtue of this mutism that men have been able to speak and write." Xaviere Gauthier condemns women's aphasia, but she sees the same symptom mirrored in women who talk like men. For Gauthier the aphasie woman and the woman who mimics male speech are equally maimed. "As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 67-80
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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