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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006) 405-410
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Women and Politics
Hilda L. Smith
The most challenging aspect one confronts in reviewing Barbara Taylor's Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination and Amanda Vickery's edited collection Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present is the confused nature of politics itself. The character of politics shifts depending on whether one is discussing a pre-democratic England, activities rather than ideas, or the class assumptions underpinning gender and the political. Taylor's study of Wollstonecraft's feminism is grounded in her political perspective but studies her essentially as an intellectual—thus Wollstonecraft's treatment of ideas takes precedence over her more limited political activism. Vickery's collection, on the other hand, privileges the actual involvement of women in politics, along with the perception and representation of that involvement, and devotes little attention to political theory or the ideas providing the foundation for British politics. Both books document the dual effort to change the reality of women's political circumstances: the ideological push for women's empowerment and the establishment of organizations at the local and national levels that would provide a means to further their political involvement.
Barbara Taylor's approach to Wollstonecraft's feminism affirms the place of imagination and the importance of religion to her demands for women. And, while she insists that later commentators (both scholars and feminists) have removed Wollstonecraft from her historical moorings, she nonetheless overlooks the similarities of the eighteenth-century radical's views to earlier feminists, in particular Mary Astell. A number of issues Taylor identifies as central to Wollstonecraft's feminism are identical to Astell's concerns, even though the two feminists resided at opposite ends of the political spectrum: an attack on women's frivolous, non-serious life choices, and an equality based on religion. Astell, in pushing women's intellectual development, chides women: "how can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine shew and be good for nothing" (Serious Proposal to the Ladies, , 154), while Wollstonecraft bemoans that "this desire [for marriage] making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children...they dress, they paint, and nickname God's creatures." Each author, to encourage women's intellectual and moral seriousness, castigates women yet still excoriates men's ill use of them. A religious basis for human equality also characterizes each feminist, as Astell claims that an [End Page 405] individual has a "liberty" to think as she or he desires, and it would be wrong "to pretend to Dictate to our Fellow Rational Creatures." God created everyone with a rational soul, and for women not to use such abilities was an affront to the Deity. Wollstonecraft also pursued a similar equality, based in God's creation: "it is not empire,—but equality, that [women] should contend for" and pursue "those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character" (quoted in Taylor, 14). And tied to these similar views, both women were especially disdainful of supposed "chivalric" behavior that infantilized women and offered them artificial praise while denying them real power and respect. Wollstonecraft, both in pushing for women's agency and moral and intellectual equality with men and advocating a radical, democratic state (unlike Astell) was moving the ideological argument forward in ways that would ultimately lead to women's successful political campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But she has strong ties, as well, to those arguing for women's greater access to knowledge and individuality in the preceding century.
Barbara Taylor views Mary Wollstonecraft as both a unique woman concerned with being female, and as a female philosopher whose writings laid a foundation for women's intellectual and political empowerment. While not indulging in the details of...