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  • Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft*

If liberal theory is to move forward, it must take the political nature of family relations seriously. The beginnings of such a liberalism appear in Mary Wollstonecraft’s work. Wollstonecraft’s depiction of the family as a fundamentally political institution extends liberal values into the private sphere by promoting the ideal of marriage as friendship. However, while her model of marriage diminishes arbitrary power in family relations, she seems unable to incorporate enduring sexual relations between married partners.

According to the feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin, the challenge facing liberal thinkers is to incorporate fully issues of gender and the family into their thinking about justice. She insists that “We can have a liberalism that fully includes women only if we can devise a theoretical basis for public policies that, recognizing the family as a fundamental political institution, extends standards of justice to life within it” (Okin 1989, 53). Those who share Okin’s belief that for liberal theory to move forward it must take the political nature of family relations seriously should return to Mary Wollstonecraft’s work to find the beginnings of such a liberalism. Wollstonecraft not only depicts the family as a fundamentally political institution but also applies liberal notions of justice to it. It is argued here that she brings the values that liberals believe should govern the public realm to the private world of love, romance, and family life by promoting the ideal of marriage as friendship.

Wollstonecraft extends her argument that women should exercise equal rights with men in the public sphere into a critique of the structural inequalities of marriage. Although a stern critic of “actually existing” marriages, she [End Page 78] does not reject marriage as an institution altogether. Instead, she envisages a form of marriage that incorporates the major features of the classical notion of higher friendship such as equality, free choice, reason, mutual esteem and profound concern for one another’s moral character. 1 The classical ideal of higher friendship provides a suitable model for her liberal approach to marriage because it represents the paradigmatic rational, equal, and free relationship. In such relationships, individuals exchange some of their independence for interdependence and are united by bonds of deep and lasting affection, as well as respect for and appreciation of one another’s character and individuality. Wollstonecraft uses the idea that marriage should emulate many of the features of higher friendship to criticize the practices and values of romance and family life in eighteenth-century English society and to suggest a way in which marriage might be reconfigured to realize central liberal values.

To recast marriage in this way means that Wollstonecraft is applying liberal values to the world of romantic love and family life. That she thinks about marriage in political, and specifically liberal, terms and recommends a model of marriage that emulates many of friendship’s salient features is an important feature of her work often overlooked in much of the secondary literature. Even those who note the idea’s presence in her work do not attribute it the importance it assumes in this analysis. Diana Coole, for example, observes that Wollstonecraft favors the calmness of friendship over the passion of sexual love as a basis for marriage but does not link this to her later point about Wollstonecraft’s belief in the relationship between domestic and public virtue (Coole 1988, 123). Karen Green refers to Wollstonecraft’s idea that “marriage should be based on friendship between equals. A genuine regard of the genuine qualities of one’s spouse should found a union between autonomous individuals united in their sense of duty towards their children” (Green 1995, 96). However, she does not make this idea central to Wollstonecraft’s liberalism. Sylvana Tomaselli claims that Wollstonecraft’s “ideal relationship between the sexes was one modelled on an idealized conception, which owed much to antiquity, of friendship between men” (Tomaselli 1995, xxvi). Yet the idea of marriage as friendship does not appear in her catalogue of Wollstonecraft’s ideas that are relevant today (Tomaselli 1995, xxix). Finally, Virginia Sapiro says that Wollstonecraft had wanted friendship as “the ideal social relationship” to be extended into the family and the polity (Sapiro 1996, 36). I suggest, however, that friendship represents a different, albeit complementary, way of realizing liberal values in intimate relationships rather than providing the model for all social relationships.

In what follows, I briefly rehearse Wollstonecraft’s critique of marriage and family life. Her alternative view of marriage, which draws on some of the features of the classical notion of higher friendship, is outlined. Her fear of arbitrary power provides the lynch pin for her analysis of power relations in both the public and the private realms. To minimize the exercise of arbitrary power, [End Page 79] she promotes the extension of liberal values in both spheres. However, her model of marriage as friendship, which diminishes arbitrary power in the domestic sphere, seems unable to incorporate the possibility of robust and enduring sexual relations between the married partners. Before outlining Wollstonecraft’s substantive position on these matters, I turn to the question of her place in the liberal canon.

Legacies for Liberalism

In judging the putatively private realm of love, marriage, and family life by the values that liberals believe should inform the public realm, such as equality, freedom, reason, consent, and the diminution of arbitrary power, Wollstonecraft threatens the traditional liberal distinction between public and private. As Martha Nussbaum writes, “Liberal thinkers tended to segment the private from the public sphere, considering the public sphere one of individual rights and contractual arrangements, the family a private sphere in which the state should not meddle” (Nussbaum 1996, 17). Yet despite their articulation in Wollstonecraft’s best-known work, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985), both these elements—the questioning of the public/private separation within liberalism and the idea of reforming marriage along the lines of higher friendship—are typically associated with John Stuart Mill. Even feminist scholars impute to Mill the belief that marriage should share the salient qualities of friendship and fail to recognize that Wollstonecraft advanced a similar position in the previous century. 2 Mary Shanley, for example, claims that Mill “made a most significant break with the past in adopting the language of friendship in his discussion of marriage” (Shanley 1981, 239). Nadia Urbinati holds that “it was only Mill who transformed this notion [of an ideal marriage, of a soul mate] into an instrument with which to denounce the reality of family life” (Urbinati 1991, 638). Perhaps because of Mill’s recognized concern with the dynamics of the private realm, Nussbaum nominates him as the exception to the liberal tendency to distinguish the public from the private realm. Marilyn Friedman also describes Mill as “a noteworthy exception” to the liberal tradition’s tendency to confine its attack on unjustified hierarchy to the public realm (Friedman 1993, 293). While Nussbaum’s observation that “most of the liberal tradition did not follow Mill’s lead” (Nussbaum 1996, 17) is correct, it is imperative to recognize that Wollstonecraft had challenged this separation in the previous century and promoted the idea of marriage as friendship. Only then can the importance of her contribution to the liberal tradition be appreciated.

However, while Wollstonecraft advocates the extension of liberal values into the household, she does not simply expand the reach of social contract thinking into the private realm. She does not impose the image of individuals [End Page 80] as rights-bearers onto the domestic sphere nor assume that the only way for liberal values to be realized is through the mechanism of individual rights. She implies instead that there can be different models for liberal relationships, depending upon whether these occur among strangers in the public realm or among intimates in the household. Hers is both a comprehensive and a complex liberalism, suggesting that it is possible to promote liberal values without making the social contract model of human relations hegemonic 3 and without extending rights discourse to all areas of life. The nuanced character of her liberalism provides another reason why contemporary liberals should return to Wollstonecraft as a source for future thinking. 4

Wollstonecraft’s Critique of Marriage

Notwithstanding the forward-looking aspects of her liberalism, Wollstonecraft accepts the traditional idea, expressed most recently in her time by Jean Jacques Rousseau, that marriage and motherhood are duties for women. Like Rousseau, she attacks the way women are socialized because it renders them unfit to perform their duties as wives and mothers. However, her qualifications and criteria for being a good wife and mother differ markedly from his. In contrast to his evocation of the cloistered wife and mother, 5 she insists that women engage with the wider world and its questions of politics and morality. Moreover, she claims that “this is the only way to make them properly attentive to their domestic duties. An active mind embraces the whole circle of its duties, and finds time enough for all” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 288, 253, 257). Her critique of women’s socialization is two-pronged, for she claims that the feminine qualities promoted by her society and characterized in Rousseau’s portrait of Sophie create women who are poor wives and dangerous mothers. 6 Conversely, she suggests that were marriage to emulate many of the features of friendship, marriage and parenthood would be vastly improved, as would the wider society, for marriage is “the foundation of almost every social virtue” (1985, 165).

Wollstonecraft points out that in her society, marriage alone brings women prestige and power. “[T]he only way women can rise in the world [is] by marriage” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 83, 151, 157), while men have more options open to them: “marriage is not the grand feature in their lives” (1985, 150). This immediately put an imbalance between the partners—one enters the relationship out of necessity while the other exercises greater choice. This asymmetry is a function of the vast differences between men’s and women’s legal, social, political, and economic power: as Wollstonecraft says, “the laws respecting women . . . make an absurd unit of a man and his wife” (1985, 257). 7 To acquire a husband, women are encouraged to be coquettes, to flirt, and to conceal their true feelings from the men who court them (Wollstonecraft 1985, [End Page 81] 169–70). Wollstonecraft summarizes women’s preparation for marriage: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety will obtain for them the protection of a man; and should they be beautiful, all else is needless; for at least twenty years of their life” (1985, 100).

In Wollstonecraft’s society, part of becoming a woman is, therefore, a training in the art of pleasing (1985, 106, 147, 311), which is a training in deception. However, women trained in this modus operandi from a young age are unlikely to shed it as soon as they marry. Instead, to win male attention would remain their goal; they would go on flirting even after marriage, for “[a] husband cannot long pay those attentions with the passion necessary to excite lively emotions, and the heart, accustomed to lively emotions, turns to a new lover, or pines in secret, the prey of virtue or prudence” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 157, 111). As Wollstonecraft depicts it, the socialization of girls is inherently contradictory; it is geared toward finding a husband, yet the sort of woman so formed will be compelled to go on seeking attention from men other than her husband “for a lover the husband . . . cannot long remain” (1985, 224, 147, 167, 315). As such, girls are reared to be disloyal wives—in ambition, inclination, or imagination if not in practice.

Wollstonecraft castigates men who, like Rousseau, have designed an education for women that will make them “alluring mistresses rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers” (1985, 79). But women are not the only ones to suffer from this dispensation. Rational and virtuous men are also disadvantaged, for women are not educated to value their minds and merits. “[T]he modest merit of reasonable men has, of course, less effect on their [women’s] feelings, and they cannot reach the heart by way of the understanding, because they have few sentiments in common” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 222). Thus, worthy men of moral substance would lose out to less worthy but more superficially attractive gallants (1985, 222–23). Wollstonecraft makes a similar point in her chapter on matrimony in “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” (1989b), where one of the dangers of women marrying when they are young is that “should they be so fortunate as to get a good husband, they will not set a proper value on him; he will be found much inferior to the lovers described in novels, and their want of knowledge will make them frequently disgusted with the man” (1989b, 31).

The second prong of Wollstonecraft’s critique of marriage was that feminine women make poor mothers: “the mother will be lost in the coquette” (1985, 137). Because women are not allowed to discover, let alone to develop, their rational potential and because their major aim in life is to make themselves pleasing to men, in Wollstonecraft’s world, they become trivial creatures obsessed with appearances, games, and frivolity. Little more than children [End Page 82] themselves, they are not fit to raise children, having nothing of value to pass on to them. Wollstonecraft asks rhetorically, “Can [these weak beings] be expected to govern a family with judgement, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?” (1985, 83, 119, 298, 313, 315). Socialization effectively incapacitates women for their important role as the child’s first educator. This model of femininity particularly threatens the mother-daughter relationship because women trained as coquettes feel rivalry with, rather than friendship for, their maturing daughters (Wollstonecraft 1985, 137). Wollstonecraft thus shares Rousseau’s premise about the central role women play as first educators of their children but develops vastly different recommendations for women’s education from this starting point. She states that if society were to take this role seriously, it should produce women equal to this task (1985, 138–39).

Just as marriage and motherhood are duties for women, so Wollstonecraft believes that marriage and fatherhood are men’s duties (1985, 249, 254). 8 Yet the influence of rational husbands alone would be minimal, “for unless a mother concur, the father who restrains will ever be considered a tyrant” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 315). If women are more broadly educated, they would be better placed to carry out their educative duties as parents and to cooperate with men in this role. Part of Wollstonecraft’s defense of female emancipation, therefore, consists of arguing that freedom, equality, and education would make women better mothers. As Coole says, Wollstonecraft “supplements her rights argument with an appeal to social utility” (Coole 1988, 124).

Marriage as Friendship

Wollstonecraft’s twin arguments about making women better wives and better mothers are mutually reinforcing, for she believes that if men and women marry by choice and for companionship, the husband is more likely to be at home and to be a better father to his children. Conversely, if women marry for friendship, coquetry and flirtation would not become a way of life. Not compelled to seek male approval and adoration, they could become dedicated wives and mothers. Wollstonecraft draws this portrait of friendly, rational family life when she writes, “The father of a family will not then weaken his constitution and debase his sentiments by visiting the harlot, nor forget, in obeying the call of appetite, the purpose for which it was implanted. And the mother will not neglect her children to practise the arts of coquetry, when sense and modesty secure her the friendship of her husband” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 89, 159, 254). Under current arrangements, however, women “do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their [men’s] hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow-creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 80). The way women are socialized “prevent[s] love from subsiding into friendship” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 115), yet “the noble mind [End Page 83] that pants for and deserves to be respected” by a husband will never accept “[f]ondness [a]s a poor substitute for friendship” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 112). As these passages suggest, Wollstonecraft believes that if women are educated, allowed to expand their capacity for reason, and given greater freedom, independence, and choice, then marriage could become more like the classical notion of higher friendship: “When women are once sufficiently enlightened to discover their real interest, on a grand scale, they will, I am persuaded, be very ready to resign all the prerogatives of love, that are not mutual . . . for the calm satisfaction of friendship, and the tender confidence of habitual esteem” (1985, 205, 288).

A marriage suffused with “calm satisfaction” would liberate its partners from petty jealousies and allow them to channel their energies outward to the fulfillment of their duties (Wollstonecraft 1985, 288). Although such a relationship might not offer romantic love’s grand passion and high excitement, the type of care it offers is precious: Wollstonecraft claims that when the passion of romance subsides into friendship there develops a “tender intimacy, which is the best refuge from care; yet is built on such pure, still affections” (1985, 224). Thus young people contemplating marriage should “look beyond the present moment, and try to render the whole of life respectable, by forming a plan to regulate friendship which only death ought to dissolve” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 167). A freer, more rational approach to marriage would produce stronger marriages because the people in them would be partners, indeed friends, who would value one another for their virtues of character rather than their physical beauty, status, wealth, or femininity or masculinity. “A man, or a woman, of any feeling, must always wish to convince a beloved object that it is the caresses of the individual, not the sex, that are received and returned with pleasure; and, that the heart, rather than the senses, is moved” (1985, 199).

Wollstonecraft concedes that if women had a proper education and could develop their reason and attain independence, they might not marry at all, but could still live happy, fulfilled lives (1985, 117). This signals that her aim is not simply to make women capable of more informed choices about who and why to marry but to give them the freedom to choose whether to marry at all. She observes that while the duty of motherhood calls most women by virtue of religion and reason, “women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence” (1985, 259). Nonetheless, she believes that the development of reason brings a clearer appreciation of, and capacity to carry out, one’s duties: “the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty—comprehending it” (1985, 88, 91, 101, 103, 156, 160–61). This conviction, combined with her belief that motherhood is a natural duty for most women, 9 makes it unlikely that she envisages the majority of women remaining single. [End Page 84]

It is important to underline what it means to impute to Wollstonecraft the belief, so typically associated with John Stuart Mill, that marriage should be modeled along the lines of higher friendship. It does not amount to claiming simply that Wollstonecraft recommends married partners to be fond of one another or to choose one another on the basis of character rather than status or wealth. Such recommendations had been made before Wollstonecraft; indeed, Rousseau thought love should be the foundation of marriage and family life. Earlier women writers, such as Mary Astell and Christine de Pisan had also pointed to the value of mutual affection in marriage. What distinguishes Wollstonecraft’s position from these and brings it into line with the classical notion of friendship is her emphasis on equality between the marriage partners. By contrast, de Pisan 10 and Astell 11 accept that obedience is part of women’s role in marriage while Rousseau, notwithstanding his claims about gender equality, urges women to submit to their husbands, even when they act unjustly (Rousseau 1966, 333). Wollstonecraft does not counsel wifely obedience just as Aristotle would not have talked about one partner in a higher friendship obeying another. When parties relate to one another as equals in a friendship, the language of obedience becomes obsolete.

Arbitrary Power

It seems surprising that in dedicating her Vindication of the Rights of Woman to the French statesman Talleyrand, Wollstonecraft expresses the hope that “marriage may become more sacred; your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity” (1985, 88). What unites the grand event of the French Revolution with the question of marriage and romance is the phenomenon of arbitrary power. Wollstonecraft, as a liberal, despises this form of power (1985, 99fn5, 107, 127, 143). As a liberal, she believes that if one human is to exercise power legitimately over another, such power must be based on rational consent. With the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft thinks that arbitrary power had begun to be expunged in the public sphere. 12 She insists, however, that before reason could spread and foster social progress, arbitrary power has to be eradicated in the household, too. “[T]yrants of every denomination, from the weak king to the weak father of a family . . . are all eager to crush reason. . . . Do you not act a similar part when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark?” (1985, 87).

As both genders are capable of reason, husbands’ immense social power over their wives has no substantive basis. Hence Wollstonecraft’s question: “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason?” (1985, 87). However, she does not conclude from this that men possess a monopoly on arbitrary power in the household. While women’s socialization renders them weak and dependent, it does not render them helpless. [End Page 85] Wollstonecraft exposes the dark side of women’s enforced weakness by showing how it encourages them to abuse whatever power they can. Denied power through official, open avenues, they pursue it in clandestine ways, becoming sinister, calculating, and deceptive. In contrast to Rousseau’s claim that “[c]unning is the natural gift of woman” (Rousseau 1966, 334), Wollstonecraft believes that women’s inferiority to men—legally, economically, socially, physically, and psychologically—creates creatures who resent and resist their helplessness and who will resort to whatever means available to exercise power over others. “[T]his exertion of cunning is only an instinct of nature to enable them to obtain indirectly a little of that power of which they are unjustly denied a share; for, if women are not permitted to enjoy legitimate rights, they will render both men and themselves vicious to obtain illicit privileges” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 89, 83–84, 111, 125–26, 257, 282, 288, 318). 13 Hence her clarification that “[w]hen therefore I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for indirectly they obtain too much power, and are debased by their exertions to obtain illicit sway” (1985, 286). 14

When refused power in any larger sense, women become tyrants in small matters. As they are forced to obey without being given any reason for their subjection, so they will compel others to conform to their will. “Powerless” wives tyrannize over children and servants (Wollstonecraft 1985, 135, 159). 15 Women who are forced to resort to arbitrary power are dangerous models for their children, for future citizens grow up in households witnessing the very power that liberals seek to expel from the public realm. Under the current conditions of marriage then, arbitrary power circulates between men and women and throughout the household, and the scourge of arbitrary rule is passed from generation to generation via household dynamics that form personalities unaccustomed to the possibility of free, rational and equal exchange among individuals.

Wollstonecraft’s ideal of marriage as friendship would bring this situation to an end. If marriage united individuals as one another’s equals and whose choice to live together is based on respect for one another’s characters, children would grow up in quite a different domestic world. This would be an environment more conducive to the development of the virtues citizens need. Wollstonecraft suggests that the generation of good citizens begins at home, through children witnessing equal, rational relations between their parents and then having a good education to formalize these principles. 16 As she says, “If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot” (1985, 86). The political virtues of respect and affection for one’s fellow citizens begin in the household: “if you wish to make good citizens, you must first exercise the affections of a son and brother . . . for public affections as well as public virtues, must ever grow out of private character. . . . Few, I believe, have had much affection for mankind, who did not first love their parents, their brothers, sisters and even the domestic brutes, [End Page 86] whom they first played with. The exercise of youthful sympathies forms the moral temperature; and it is the recollection of these first affections and pursuits that gives life to those that are afterward more under the direction of reason” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 279). 17 In contrast then to Plato’s famous suggestion in The Republic that particular family affection competes with the general love of the whole, Wollstonecraft believes that the love which begins in the family can expand to encompass one’s fellow citizens and then humankind.

These claims about the connection between household and citizenry suggest that Wollstonecraft challenges any strong separation between the public and the private. Instead, she advocates ethical continuity between them, contending that the norms that govern the public realm should govern the private one, too. She seems to conceptualize the relationship between these two spheres as a series of concentric circles, beginning with the family and widening out to the public realm. 18 Challenging any rigid public/private separation, Wollstonecraft thinks of the family as political in four related ways: she is keenly aware that power relations circulate among household members; she is convinced that these relationships shape the sort of citizens that individuals become; she believes that relationships within the household should be reconfigured according to the same ethical ideals as govern public relations among citizens; and she believes that the quality of public life can only improve when this sort of change has occurred. As this section has shown, Wollstonecraft both recognizes the family as a fundamental political institution and extends standards of justice to life within it. As such, the challenge Okin poses requires liberals to go back to Wollstonecraft’s work in thinking about future directions for liberalism.


The higher form of friendship that inspires Wollstonecraft’s vision of reformed marriage has traditionally been thought of as existing between men only, 19 and its pleasures were not supposed to include sexual intimacy. This could help to explain why Wollstonecraft has trouble integrating corporeal love into the ideal of marriage modeled along the lines of friendship. This is not to suggest that she denies the sexual dimension of personality; on the contrary, her discussions of modesty and its role in directing and controlling sexual desire testify to its presence. 20 Nor does she underestimate the role sexual desire might play in a love relationship: rather, she admires the Danish practice of giving engaged couples considerable liberty in their courtship. Because young women are under the rule of neither father nor husband during this interregnum, she describes it as “the only period of freedom and pleasure that the women enjoy” (1987, 172). Such pleasure is often sexual: “the intimacy often becomes very tender: and if the lover obtain the privilege of a [End Page 87] husband, it can only be termed half by stealth, because the family is wilfully blind. It happens very rarely that these honorary engagements are dissolved or disregarded . . .” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 172). 21 So while it would be misleading to say that Wollstonecraft has a prudish or negative view of sexuality, it is the case that her model of marriage as friendship seems unable to accommodate any robust and enduring sexual relationship between married partners. 22

One illustration of Wollstonecraft’s failure to incorporate ongoing sexual love into her model of marriage as friendship comes in her recommendation that, to fulfill their familial duties, mothers and fathers “ought not to continue to love one another with a passion” (1985, 114). 23 This belief seems to derive from a fear that sexual passion becomes all-consuming, distracting parents from their familial responsibilities. It also explains her conclusion that a neglected or widowed wife will always make the best mother (1985, 114, 138–39), because passionate love for her husband will not distract her from her parental duties. 24

However, the advice that marriage partners not indulge their sexual appetites too frequently seems somewhat redundant given Wollstonecraft’s many indications that sexual attraction is destined to diminish between marrieds. As she says, “Love, considered as an animal appetite, cannot long feed on itself without expiring. And this extinction in its own flame may be termed the violent death of love” (1985, 167). This echoes the imagery of an earlier vignette of a good marriage. In this scenario, the woman “secures her husband’s respect before it is necessary to exert mean arts to please him and feed a dying flame, which nature doomed to expire when the object became familiar, when friendship and forebearance take place of a more ardent affection” (Wollstonecraft 1985, 138). If marriages were built on friendship or united people who can become friends, when the flames of sexual passion inevitably dwindle, something substantive would take their place (1985, 266). 25 Without the affection of friendship, marrieds eventually become bored with one another, mutually indifferent and perhaps even hostile (Wollstonecraft 1985, 114). Thus it seems that in the sort of companionate marriage she encourages, friendship and sexual desire are not ultimately compatible, let alone mutually strengthening. 26 As she writes, “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle and cemented by time. The very reverse can be said of love. In a great degree, love and friendship cannot subsist in the same bosom; even when inspired by different objects they weaken or destroy each other, and for the same objects can only be felt in succession. The vain fears and fond jealousies, the winds which fan the flame of love / . . . are both incompatible with the tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship” (1985, 167–68).

Had Wollstonecraft lived longer, and had her marriage to William Godwin flourished, she might have offered further and perhaps different reflections on [End Page 88] the place of sexuality in friendly marriages. 27 However, her untimely death challenges those who wish to take Wollstonecraft’s thinking forward to incorporate robust and enduring sexual love into the model of marriage as friendship.

Such speculation about the direction of Wollstonecraft’s thought raises the question of whether she adhered to the ideal of marriage as friendship outlined here throughout her career. It could be argued that the bleak depiction of marriage and heterosexual relations in general in her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1975) suggests that she had been in the process of abandoning this ideal as naive and untenable. In that work, Maria Venables tries valiantly to become friends with her husband George, but her efforts founder on his cold indifference. 28 Discussing Maria’s later relationship with Darnforth, Claudia Johnson argues that these “episodes finally judge male culture to be so corrupt as to make affective reciprocity between the sexes impossible” (Johnson 1995, 65). She concludes that “the emancipated, sturdy, purposive, mutually respecting, and rationally loving couple Wollstonecraft spent her career imagining is, finally, a female couple” (1995, 69). One response to the challenge Johnson’s reading poses would be to delimit the relevance of the ideal of marriage as friendship by attaching it only to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985). Periodizing the argument in this way does not threaten the claim that she preceded Mill in challenging the public/private separation and in adducing an ideal of marriage as friendship. However, if Wollstonecraft “outgrew” this ideal, how can it be relevant for contemporary liberals?

Several considerations are relevant here. Firstly there is the issue of sources; the ubiquitous difficulties of interpretation are multiplied when the writings being analyzed are unpublished, let alone unfinished. It is therefore difficult to identify the definitive logic of Maria, let alone to see it as superseding Wollstonecraft’s position in her published writings. Secondly, because the ideal of marriage as friendship is predicated on gender equality, it is problematic to use material from Maria to discredit it. The protagonist’s situation, incarcerated by her husband in an asylum and forcibly separated from her child, dramatizes women’s structural inequality, and it is hard not to interpret her encounter with Darnforth in that light. Theirs is hardly the equal, freely chosen, and rational relationship the ideal of marriage as friendship embraces. Finally, if Johnson is right to detect a lesbian theme emerging in this work, then Wollstonecraft is effectively reinstituting the public/private separation she has earlier deconstructed. Nothing in Maria retracts Wollstonecraft’s earlier insistence on the need for women to exercise the same rights as men in the public sphere; if anything, this work is more vociferous about the urgency of this. However, if free and equal private relations between the genders are as impossible as Johnson suggests, then different norms and dynamics must govern [End Page 89] the realms of the public and private. On this reading, Wollstonecraft would fall into line with the separation of the spheres that has dominated liberal thinking. 29

Past and Future

Although the idea of modeling marriage along the lines of the classical notion of higher friendship is typically associated with John Stuart Mill, this ideal is present in Mary Wollstonecraft’s best-known work, her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985). Accompanying her attack on the structural inequalities of marriage is an image of marriage modeled on the lines of higher friendship and based on equality, choice, complementarity, mutual esteem, and concern for character. This model for the reform of marriage highlights her comprehensive liberalism, for Wollstonecraft applies the values that liberals believe should govern the public realm, such as equality, autonomy, consent, reciprocity, and the diminution of arbitrary power, to the putatively private world of love, romance, and family life. Those who characterize the liberal tradition as perpetuating a strong distinction between public and private spheres thus overlook her feminist contribution to liberalism, which was made in the century prior to Mill’s. Attention to this aspect of Wollstonecraft’s thought should lead us to recount the history of liberalism in a slightly different way.

However, appreciating this aspect of Wollstonecraft’s work has more than a retrospective relevance. Those who contend that in order for liberal political theory to move forward, the political nature of family relations must be taken seriously can return to her writing to find the beginnings of such a liberalism of the future. Liberals agreeing with Mary Shanley that “one of the aims of the liberal polity should be to promote the conditions which will allow friendship, in marriage and elsewhere, to take root and flourish” (Shanley 1981, 244) can also return to Wollstonecraft for assistance in this project. More generally, however, Wollstonecraft’s model of marriage as friendship is valuable because it allows us to imagine how liberal values might be furthered without increasing the domination of the social contract model of human relations. 30

Ruth Abbey

Ruth Abbey is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Australia. She is the author of a forthcoming book on Nietzsche’s middle period and is currently writing a book on Charles Taylor. (


* Hypatia vol. 14, no. 3 (Summer 1999) © by Ruth Abbey

**. Thanks to the three anonymous reviewers and the editors of Hypatia for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

1. Aristotle is an important source for this notion of higher friendship—see his Nicomachean Ethics, Books 8–9 (Aristotle 1980). Montaigne’s essay on friendship (Montaigne 1965, 195–209) is another source.

2. Indeed, Jean Grimshaw claims that Wollstonecraft, “despite her own extremely difficult and unhappy experiences of marriage and childbearing, did not really ask questions about the institution of marriage as such” (Grimshaw 1986, 11).

3. This tendency is discussed in G. Davis, B. Sullivan, and A. Yeatman (1997).

4. Charles Taylor is just one example of political theorists who call for the recovery of a richer and more nuanced understanding of liberalism (Taylor 1996, 9; 1997, 287).

5. Rousseau’s depiction of women’s duties culminates in the claim that “the genuine mother of a family is no woman of the world, she is almost as much of a recluse as the nun in her convent” (Rousseau 1966, 350).

6. As Catriona McKenzie notes, Wollstonecraft believes that it is possible to accept Rousseau’s premises without accepting his conclusions (McKenzie 1993, 51).

7. This theme is explored further in Maria or the Wrongs of Women (1975), Wollstonecraft’s work of fiction that was unfinished when she died.

8. See Karen Green (1995, 97). Wollstonecraft’s distress at the thought that her first daughter might “never experience a father’s care or tenderness” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 158) seems genuine, although its inclusion in a letter to the father, Gilbert Imlay, could also be designed to remind him of his parental duties.

9. Yet as Claudia Johnson says, for Wollstonecraft, “[t]he duties of maternity are striking precisely for what they do not signify: they are not binding upon all women, and they do not block women from participating in civic life any more than the equally important duties of fatherhood customarily inhibit men’s circulation in the public sphere” (Johnson 1995, 48).

10. See The Treasure of the City of Ladies (de Pisan 1985) and The Book of the City of Ladies (de Pisan 1983). In the latter de Pisan writes, “And you ladies who are married, do not scorn being subject to your husbands” (1983, 255). As Green says, the noble woman’s role involved obedience to her husband (Green 1995, 37). She draws a parallel between de Pisan’s sexual and political ethics; both involve respect for authority and taking one’s place in a just patriarchy (Green 1995, 42).

11. Although Astell wants marriage to become a more reasonable and friendly relationship, she does not see it as a partnership of equals. Women must still obey their husbands although in doing so they should be obeying the command of reason rather than arbitrary dictates (Astell 1986, 116). She also argues that women who suffer in this world because they are women will be rewarded in the next (1986, 128, 110, 112).

12. Even though it was not a republic, Wollstonecraft observes considerable freedom from arbitrary power in Norway: “the farmers not fearing to be turned out of their farms, should they displease a man in power, and having no vote to be commanded at an election for a mock representative, are a manly race” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 102). She describes the people in Denmark and Norway as “the least oppressed people of Europe” partly because they can freely discuss ideas “without fearing to displease the government” (1987, 105).

13. In a letter from Denmark, she continues to “harp on” to Imlay about the reciprocal exercise of arbitrary power in unequal marriages (Wollstonecraft 1987, 171).

14. My argument about women’s exercise of arbitrary power differs from Moira Ferguson’s interpretation. Ferguson claims that Wollstonecraft “cannot see that flirting and vanity could have a positive dimension, could sometimes be deployed by these very women . . . as devious ways of assuming a measure of power. Wollstonecraft, instead, sees the trope of the coquette, for example, as exclusive evidence that women accept their inferiority” (Ferguson 1992, 90). However, Ferguson’s later claim that “this condition of subjugation provokes women into the flirtatious behaviour she dislikes, but also provokes duplicitous strategies of gaining power . . . she affirms a time-honoured slave strategy and the need for resistance” (1992, 92, 93) seems to go some way to challenge her former claim.

15. Contrast this notion to her advice in “On the Treatment of Servants”: “The same methods we use with children should be adopted with regard to them. Act uniformly, and never find fault without a just cause; and where there is, be positive, but not angry” (Wollstonecraft 1989, 29).

16. This aspect of Wollstonecraft’s thinking is more advanced than Mill’s, for he pays little attention to the place of reproduction and children in friendly marriages. He seems to assume that individuals united in this sort of marriage contribute to the general social good in a diffuse way rather than discussing how such a relationship might transmit values to children. For a fuller discussion of this, see Abbey (1997, 93).

17. This is connected with her more general promotion of the social bonds of sympathy and benevolence. Although a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this paper, it is interesting to note that she expresses a sympathy with animals that echoes this image of children learning to feel and practice affection from their relationships with animals. In a letter from Sweden she writes “I like to see animals sporting, and sympathize in their pains and pleasures” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 84).

18. Sapiro’s 1996 essay, which is based on her 1992 book, also points out that Wollstonecraft collapses the public/private separation at the ethical level (Sapiro 1996, 35, 37). As she notes when discussing Wollstonecraft’s view of citizenship, “Virtue is founded on sociability, an ever-expanding circle of esteem and compassion” (in Falco 1996, 35, 43).

19. Discussing “the great philosophical and canonical discourses on friendship,” Derrida asks, “Why can one not account for feminine or heterosexual experiences of friendship within it?” (1993, 382, 383).

20. See, for example, Chapter Seven of Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985). Compare Poston (1996, 96–98). Modesty also plays a role as Wollstonecraft recalls her sexual relationship with Imlay. Writing to him she says “if I blush at recollecting past enjoyment, it is the rosy hue of pleasure heightened by modesty; for the blush of modesty and shame are as distinct as the emotions by which they are produced” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 111).

21. See, too, her description of Maria and Darnforth’s mutual sexual desire in Maria (Wollstonecraft 1975, 50–51).

22. Cora Kaplan finds a severe and repressive attitude to sexuality in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1985) and contrasts this with the approach taken in her fictional works (Kaplan 1986, 34–50, 158–161). Green’s response is that Wollstonecraft’s concern is not sexuality per se but the reduction of women to sex objects (Green 1995, 99–100).

23. One of Wollstonecraft’s observations while traveling in Northern Europe suggests why her use of the term love includes a sexual component. She notes with dismay that “love here is merely an appetite, to fulfil the main design of nature, never enlivened by either affection or sentiment” (Wollstonecraft 1987, 157).

24. In the light of these passages, it is difficult to accept Grimshaw’s conclusion that Wollstonecraft “did not ask questions about sexuality” (1986, 11).

25. As Poston describes Wollstonecraft’s view, “In the mature and virtuous marriage, passion will be of short duration—no more than six months—and it will be succeeded by its far more dependable and virtuous cousin, friendship” (Poston 1996, 91).

26. Mill’s model of marriage as friendship faces a similar difficulty. If anything, Wollstonecraft’s attitude toward sexuality seems more positive than his. For a discussion of the role of sexuality in Mill’s view of marriage, see Abbey (1997, 92–93).

27. Describing the beginning of their sexual intimacy, Godwin says “It was friendship melting into love” (in Wollstonecraft 1987, 13).

28. “With all my attention and affectionate interest, I perceived that I could not become the friend or confident of my husband. . . . I vainly endeavoured to establish, at our fireside, that social converse, which often renders people of different characters dear to one another. Returning from the theatre, or any amusing party, I frequently began to relate what I had seen and highly relished; but with sullen taciturnity he soon silenced me” (Wollstonecraft 1975, 93).

29. How this image of the private realm could be reconciled with the reproduction of the species is another issue.

30. This seems especially valuable in the light of Carole Pateman’s arguments that the social contract had been also a sexual contract (Pateman 1988; 1989). Her argument that the social contract had included the subordination of women has, however, been challenged. In the case of Hobbes, see Slomp (1994) and of Locke, see Butler (1991).


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