Symposium Introduction

“Why Wollstonecraft?” Emily Dumler-Winckler has frequently fielded this question over the course of developing this book. Mary Wollstonecraft, for all of her undeniable historical import especially for women’s rights and the feminist movement, has received little substantive attention in the fields of Christian ethics and theology—while historians have underappreciated the theological aspects of her thought. Emily Dumler-Winckler’s Modern Virtue effectively introduces Mary Wollstonecraft to Christian ethics and theology and shows the significance of the theological aspects of her thought in this impressive and ambitious work. 

This book is broad-ranging in its scope without ever losing sight of its central focus and purpose: to demonstrate how Wollstonecraft intervened in disputes about the nature of virtue and its exemplars in ways that remain relevant today. Dumler-Winckler shows how Wollstonecraft may be a model for modern virtue theory that is responsive to social-political change and dissension. In Wollstonecraft’s context, this was notably (though not exclusively) centered on demonstrating that women are moral equals to men and that the “feminized” virtues to which their moral landscape is woefully restricted calls for contestation and revision. Thus, Dumler-Winckler suggests that we read Wollstonecraft in a tradition of dissent that she pictures as the ongoing “tailoring” of the “wardrobe” of the moral imagination through constructive critique that allows for subverting and adapting inappropriately conceived virtues. This image, taken from Wollstonecraft, is a guiding metaphor for the book, as it conveys the work of adapting and modifying the moral imagination and its norms. Dumler-Winckler picks up Wollstonecraft’s “tailoring” image as a key term for the ongoing revision of how virtues are conceived. Dumler-Winckler also argues that picking up this image offers a way of reconciling virtue theory and social critique. She situates Wollstonecraft in her eighteenth-century context and her lively political dialogues with contemporaries (for example, the Revolution debates of the 1790s) while showing the older traditions of Christian moral theology in which she stood and bringing her forward into dialogue with contemporary thinkers on virtue, gender and patriarchy, democracy and justice.

While it’s undeniable that the conditions of and opportunities for women’s lives have changed dramatically since Wollstonecraft’s time, the form Wollstonecraft’s dissent takes is all too familiar. She refuted “sexed” virtues and social norms for how women are expected to behave. She claimed that a range of virtues and aspirations are human rather than exclusive to one sex or the other. All of this remains highly relevant, even if it too requires tailoring. Still, “tailoring” the terms of Wollstonecraft’s vindications requires unfortunately all too little altering for contemporary terms. As Kate Manne’s recent work on misogyny has demonstrated,1 sexist expectations for women’s conformity to and performance of gendered social norms remain pervasive and subject to punitive enforcement. We are, alas, not so far from the archetypes of “virtuous virgins or vicious whores, Marys or Jezebels, sacrificial Hannahs or seductress Eves” (135) that Wollstonecraft bemoaned as constraints on women’s agency and that set the terms on which they are accepted or rejected, praised or pilloried. Wollstonecraft’s concerns are also politically embedded in concerns about democracy, abolition, and resistance. At the same time, and as Dumler-Winckler points out, significant alterations are required for our time, notably to encompass intersectional concerns, especially as regards racialized discrimination. This is a key asset that the “tailoring” metaphor and Wollstonecraft’s model offers—a way of integrating ongoing contestation and revision or, in a word, dissent.

Considering Wollstonecraft here and now also leaves us with the sober recognition of how hard it can be to gain receptivity to efforts at tailoring dominant and dominating norms. It is one thing to alter a garment, and another for these alterations to be accepted or embraced. Wollstonecraft understood that women thinking for themselves is a “herculean task” because “social norms create ‘difficulties peculiar to her sex to overcome, which require almost superhuman powers’” (164). Recent work on epistemic and testimonial injustice reveals that these difficulties remain current.2 Yet the way that Wollstonecraft persistently subverts sexist and misogynistic tendencies by focusing her attacks not on women who conform to confining norms but rather on “a masculinized body politic and its deficient social and ethical formation” (164) remains a bracing call—one that contemporary feminists must continue to “tailor” to encompass concerns beyond Wollstonecraft’s own.

The responses to Modern Virtue in this symposium offer a rich and wide range of avenues for further engagement. They also, I think, demonstrate how relevant Dumler-Winckler’s work is for contemporary debates in ethics broadly. Ted Smith suggests that a diachronic mode that situates the tradition of dissent across time and accounts for Wollstonecraft’s place in history—including more attention to the interplay between her ideas and her lived experience—might enrich both the study of Wollstonecraft and of the tradition of dissent in which Dumler-Winckler places her. He asks how to think about the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s thought, embedded as it remains in certain historical structures of domination, interacts with the model Dumler-Winckler wants to draw into the present. Constance Furey places Wollstonecraft in dialogue with an unlikely partner, the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, on questions around the imitation of Christ as a means of virtue formation. She prompts Dumler-Winckler to say more about what makes Wollstonecraft’s way of interacting with virtue distinctively modern, but also suggests that Wollstonecraft might be better understood as a visionary rather than a moralist. Tal Lewis also raises the question of exemplarity and imitation, particularly as regards a concern about plurality in the forms this might take. Further, he situates Modern Virtue in a line of works looking to dispel the persistent “zombie narratives” of modernity’s decline, but wonders what it will take for this endeavor to succeed – a query that invites us to think alongside Dumler-Winckler about the current shape of the field. Candace Jordan probes the relationship between passions and virtues, questioning whether in fact various passions (anger and sympathy, for example) should be understood as virtues in their own right, rather than passions to be perfected by virtues like love and justice, which might reinforce systems of domination that constrain women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. Madeline Cronin rounds out this set of responses with reflection on the kind of judgment that Wollstonecraft practices: a pluralistic form that is open to disputation without jettisoning appeals to standards or ideals. She also suggests that Sara Ahmed’s attention to how attempts at revision prompt resistance might orient us to the challenges involved in truly incorporating a queer “slant” in relation to dominant garb.

Dumler-Winckler offers a compelling portrait of what Wollstonecraft was up to and what she may offer to contemporary religious ethicists, feminists, virtue theorists, and theologians. But beyond that, she uses her engagement with Wollstonecraft to make an incisive intervention in the debate about how we might think about virtue, modernity, gender, and social critique. Modern Virtue shows us that one woman’s struggle may continue to yield generative insights and discussion on these fronts.


  1. Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  2. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

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Response

The Historical Wollstonecraft

On the very first page of Modern Virtue, Emily Dumler-Winckler makes sly and stylish use of two epigraphs to show the significance of the argument that follows. Dumler-Winckler quotes the worries of Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge—two of the defining faculty members of Princeton Theological Seminary in the nineteenth century—that if the views of Mary Wollstonecraft prevailed, then women might hold every kind of office (Miller) and there would be “an end to all social subordination” (Hodge). The impact of what Wollstonecraft called a “revolution in female manners” would be all-encompassing, and, Hodge feared, “all virtue would speedily be banished.” Dumler-Winckler shows that Hodge was wrong on this last point: virtue persisted, even flourished, in Wollstonecraft’s thought. But she hopes that Hodge and Miller will be right in their wider prediction that Wollstonecraft’s influence would lead to greater opportunities for women and an end to domination. The fears of Miller and Hodge define the hopes that animate Modern Virtue. That the book began life as a dissertation at the seminary they once dominated make the irony especially delicious.

Modern Virtue joins a more recent tradition that has flowed through both the university and the seminary in Princeton, especially since the publication of Jeffrey Stout’s Ethics After Babel (1988) and Democracy and Tradition (2004). Stout’s works resisted the twin caricatures that drove the narrative in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre described a modernity that renounced tradition, knew nothing of virtue, and so could not resolve moral arguments or form good characters. He contrasted this with pre-modern traditions that offered scant support for notions of rights, equality, or dissent, at least as they play out in modern societies. Against MacIntyre’s narrative of decline, Stout showed resources for moral reasoning within the “Babel” of modernity and sketched a modern democratic tradition with the kind of virtues, exemplars, and practices for resolving disputes MacIntyre’s story said modernity could not sustain. That project has been deepened, expanded, and transformed in myriad ways by a number of scholars who studied in Princeton, including Jennifer Herdt, John Bowlin, David Decosimo, Molly Farneth, and Alda Balthrop-Lewis. Individually and collectively, their work represents some of the finest and most influential scholarship in the field of religious ethics in the last three decades. To say that Dumler-Winckler joins this tradition as a peer with Modern Virtue begins to suggest both the excellence of the book’s scholarship and the nature of its contributions.

Dumler-Winckler frames her argument against those she identifies as “virtue’s defenders,” on the one hand, and “virtue’s despisers,” on the other (“designers” of new lists of virtues occasionally join the despisers). Against defenders like MacIntyre and Hodge who worry that modernity erodes any notion of virtue or tradition, Dumler-Winckler shows how Wollstonecraft had a lively (and decidedly modern) sense of virtue. She further locates Wollstonecraft in a tradition that flowed through Dissenters, Nonconformists, and other free-thinkers who built academies, places of worship, and other institutions in and around Newington Green in what is now North London. Dumler-Winckler presses these same notions of modern virtue and a tradition of dissent against those she calls despisers of virtue, like feminist ethicists Ann Snitow and Sarah Conly. Against despisers’ arguments that notions of virtue reflect sedimented relations of power, and so are inherently patriarchal, Dumler-Winckler shows the emancipatory and feminist potential in Wollstonecraft’s modern virtue and the tradition of dissent in which it comes to life.

If Dumler-Winckler’s representations of virtue’s defenders and virtue’s despisers are always on the edge of tipping into straw men, they still create a strong frame that makes the central argument of the book clear. It is especially strong in extending Stout’s argument against MacIntyre to a new generation of self-appointed defenders, with Brad Gregory’s Unintentional Reformation featured in repeated engagement. In making the case for the centrality of virtue to Wollstonecraft’s thought, Dumler-Winckler does not just find the word “virtue” sprinkled throughout her texts. Through readings that are both very close and nearly comprehensive, she develops a thick account of what Wollstonecraft means by virtue and how virtue functions in her thought. Dumler-Winckler’s depth of knowledge of both Wollstonecraft’s work and the secondary literature in multiple disciplines sets up the book’s most important contribution: establishing Mary Wollstonecraft as a thinker who must be reckoned with in religious ethics. 

Wollstonecraft was hardly unknown before this book. She was already a major figure in the fields of philosophy, English literature, and historical studies. And religious and theological ethicists like Lisa Sowle Cahill, Jean Porter, and Jeffrey Stout had all made reference to her. But Dumler-Winckler reads Wollstonecraft into the conversations of religious ethics in a sustained and purposeful way that is without precedent. She shows what Wollstonecraft might contribute to long-running conversations on topics like love, justice, and the relationship between the two. And she suggests the potential for much more. 

Modern Virtue’s careful work with early modern texts invites a series of questions about the role of historical studies in ethics. I don’t think these questions are unique to Modern Virtue, nor do I think they necessarily grow out of shortcomings of the book. They might be asked of many different works in ethics that engage history—including my own. But the work in Modern Virtue is rich enough to let them arise with particular clarity.

I want to raise three questions in particular. First, how should we construe the temporal relationship between the thoughts of past and present thinkers? There is a tension in Dumler-Winckler’s book around this question. When she is making her case against virtue’s defenders, she needs to speak of Wollstonecraft clearly in the past tense. Wollstonecraft’s location in the latter decades of the eighteenth-century matters, for it shows that notions of virtue survived into this time and flourished as part of a tradition of dissent. To establish that tradition, Dumler-Winckler needs some thinkers to be before Wollstonecraft and others to be after her. She needs a diachronic relationship between the thinkers she is considering. But when she wants to make clear Wollstonecraft’s contributions to contemporary debates, she tends to establish a synchronic relationship between thinkers in a timeless philosophical present. She might write that Wollstonecraft “seems to agree with Dewey” on one page (236) and then, just a few pages later, name Wollstonecraft’s affinities with Augustine (239). A single page might put Wollstonecraft in conversation with Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Henry David Thoreau, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas (127). It’s a rich conversation, but an ahistorical one. The book tends to oscillate between these diachronic and synchronic modes, considering Wollstonecraft in the dense network of her actual early modern interlocutors on one page and then putting her into a timeless conversation with a syllabus of thinkers from many different centuries on the next. 

The synchronic mode is so tempting because it promises contemporary relevance. It’s what lets the work feel like ethics, and not just a history of ethics. But the whole idea of tradition—even a tradition of dissent—requires the diachronic mode. That commitment is what sets the stakes in relation to which Modern Virtue’s core argument for a tradition of dissent matters. It’s too much to leave behind. What would it be like to stay in this diachronic mode—to think about ideas in history, or, more baldly, just to insist that it matters that some thinkers lived before others—even as we aspired to make normative claims upon the present? One way would be to follow Modern Virtue’s pointers towards a tradition of dissent and connect that tradition to the present. Dumler-Winckler makes promising hints at a tradition of interpreting Wollstonecraft that runs through nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminists like “Theodosia Bartow Burr, Lucretia Mott, Emma Rauschenbush-Clough, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Virginia Woolf, and Emma Goldman” (17). That list might be extended to canonical North Atlantic readers of Wollstonecraft like Simone de Beauvoir (who does get mentioned in the book) and Betty Friedan; it might be broadened with readers like Olive Schreiner of South Africa; it might get more personal with more extensive consideration of Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary Shelley; it might grow sharper in contrast to detailed assessments of critics like Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge. Pointers to many of the building blocks for such a tradition are already in Dumler-Winckler’s book (and even more are in Eileen M. Hunt’s Portraits of Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Feminist Icon1). The task is to string them together, however loosely, into a tradition of dissent that connects a thoroughly historical Wollstonecraft to contemporary debates. Such a narrative would show the making and remaking of the “wardrobe of the moral imagination” that Dumler-Winckler attributes to Wollstonecraft (and Burke). If a long narrative assumes too much continuity, one could tell shorter stories of moments of bricolage that retain a diachronic relation between thinkers. The challenge might be resolved in still other ways. The main thing is to take it up.

A second question is closely related to the first: How should we think about the relationship between a thinker’s biography and her ideas? Dumler-Winckler is surely right that William Godwin’s publication of his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, not even a year after Wollstonecraft’s death, gave her opponents tools for discounting her thought. The power of Dumler-Winckler’s intellectual portrait of Wollstonecraft helps overcome this marginalization. Dumler-Winckler does not deny the details of Godwin’s account of his wife’s life, including lovers she did not marry, a child born out of wedlock, and a suicide attempt. But she also does not let these biographical details too close to the arguments of Wollstonecraft that she wants to advance. This lets her position Wollstonecraft as the precursor to someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1–2), who was married to one man in an egalitarian but otherwise fairly traditional relationship for more than fifty years. It remakes the wardrobe passed on by Wollstonecraft into the respectable professional feminism of Kamala Harris’s white pantsuit and pussy-bow blouse (310–11).

But if Wollstonecraft’s life is seen as connected to her thoughts—if we assume some degree of agency, courage, and consistency on her part, even under difficult circumstances—we might imagine a more radical legacy. What difference would it make for our understanding of Wollstonecraft’s contributions to debates about sex, love, reproduction, and marriage if we let her own choices count as part of what she has to say, not displacing but supplementing her written work? And what difference would it make to reflections on what it means to live in imitation of Christ (as in Dumler-Winckler’s chapter 3) if we took seriously Wollstonecraft’s attempted suicide and comment afterwards that it was “one of the calmest acts of reason” (cited on p. 25)? What would it mean for how we understand what Wollstonecraft has to say about reason? It is to Dumler-Winckler’s great credit that she lets the embodied life of Wollstonecraft on to the page to open these doors to further thought. Now I’d like to follow her through them.

A third question arises as something of a particular version of the second: How can we make sense of a past thinker’s entanglement with prevailing forms of domination of her time? Wollstonecraft was committed to feminism, democracy, and the abolition of slavery in ways that were remarkable among white Europeans in the eighteenth century. As Dumler-Winckler helpfully acknowledges, she also used orientalist tropes of the subjugation of women to make her case for gender equality. Wollstonecraft was, Dumler-Winckler cites Joyce Zonana as arguing, “at once explicitly feminist and orientalist” (72). Dumler-Winckler further notes Willie James Jennings’s argument that Wollstonecraft saw the Black abolitionist writer Olaudah Equiano in a “middle position”: human, but beneath “those with extra ordinary powers” (72).

Dumler-Winckler acknowledges these “now-obvious unjust prejudices” as parts of Wollstonecraft’s worldview (73). But she argues that Wollstonecraft is still working towards a more democratic taste, especially in her valorization of poor and working-class people. She further argues that Wollstonecraft “provides the resources for an immanent critique of her own work and of the Scottish Enlightenment’s racialized stage-theory of civilization” (73). I think that’s right. The next step is to actually perform a detailed version of that immanent critique. What happens to Wollstonecraft’s arguments for gender equality without an assumed hierarchy of civilizations? What happens to her rhetoric if orientalist tropes are seen for what they are? How do her arguments emerge on the other side of the refining fire of immanent critique? What’s the shape of modern virtue after whiteness?

Pursuing questions like these would strengthen the book’s response to those Dumler-Winckler labels as virtue’s deniers. She can find some thinkers who want to jettison the whole notion of virtue, even normativity itself, and the book’s arguments hold up against these totalizing critics. But arguing that we need some kind of normativity, some notion of virtue, doesn’t really touch Jennings’s argument against Wollstonecraft’s dismissive reading of Equiano in The Christian Imagination.2 Jennings’s critique is fully normative. It does not depend on denying all virtue; it just denies the virtues of a particular imaginary that privileges whiteness. It argues that a particular notion of virtue—one Wollstonecraft shares—is implicated in a pattern of domination that was powerful in her time. Likewise, Judith Butler does not argue against normativity as such in their more recent work. Rather, they argue for an ethic that “is not an ethic that seeks to destroy the constitutive violence of all norms. It is a mobilization of that same violence against a particular violent outcome for the purposes of nonviolence.”3 Here Butler, like Jennings, calls for something like what Dumler-Winckler calls immanent critique. Critics like Butler and Jennings cannot be positioned as deniers, and Dumler-Winckler’s arguments against deniers do not fully answer them. They rather help define the task before one seeking to make a critical retrieval of Mary Wollstonecraft’s modern virtue. 

Each of these questions, at its heart, asks Dumler-Winckler for something more. That is not because this ambitious, learned book does not offer enough. It is because it offers so much: a model of historical research for the sake of ethics, an important argument about modern virtue, and, most of all, a fresh presentation of the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft that significantly enriches the whole field of religious ethics. I am grateful for the book and for the chance to join this early conversation around it.


  1. Eileen M. Hunt, ed., Portraits of Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Feminist Icon, 1785-2020 (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).

  2. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 193.

  3. Judith Butler, “Reply from Judith Butler to Mills and Jenkins,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 18.2 (2007), 187-88. Dumler-Winckler cites the reply on pp. 123–24 of her book/

  • Emily Dumler-Winckler

    Emily Dumler-Winckler

    Reply

    Response to Smith

    Most authors hope to be read, ideally, to be read well. Having written a good deal about taste, I also hoped that readers might enjoy, even relish, the reading. I am delighted that Ted Smith finds my use of the opening quotes “especially delicious.” I have long admired Smith’s work and particularly his ethical engagement with historical movements and figures. Our first conversation began with friendly disagreements about John Brown and fellow abolitionists, and we have had others since then. I have found him to be a generous, rigorous, and critical interlocutor, and no less so, here, with Modern Virtue. I’m grateful.

     How should we construe the temporal relationship between the thoughts of past and present thinkers?” 

    Smith construes the relationship as either diachronic or synchronic and worries that the synchronic mode places thinkers in an ahistorical and “timeless philosophical present.” I want to linger with this construal before offering another. I wrestled with the question of when to use past and present tense throughout the book. Ultimately, I use the present tense far more than the past, even when describing thinkers thoughts and commitments within their historical context. Sometimes that’s quite deliberate, as when I stage the Revolution debates of the 1790s in a dramatic mode that mimics Burke’s and Wollstonecraft’s depictions of the French Revolution (81). Elsewhere, it was simpler to describe various thinkers’ ideas, in context, in the present tense. 

    Smith’s suggestions about staying in a Wollstonecraftian diachronic mode are fertile. As he notes, I provide hints about some of the figures that might appear in such a project: not only those influenced by her work in Europe and America, but also in Jamaica, South America, and eventually many other regions of the globe. I hope that others continue this work.

    Admittedly, my primary aim in Modern Virtue was not to trace traditions of dissent that flow directly from Wollstonecraft to other thinkers. I was not primarily interested in the question of her influence or impact. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate the significance of her work, which has been largely overlooked in religious ethics, within longer and wider traditions of dissent. I hoped to show that such traditions are capacious and porous enough to integrate premodern traditions of the virtues, Christianity, republicanism, and democracy with traditions of feminism, gender and critical theory, liberation, abolition, revolution, and rights in the modern era, indeed, that Wollstonecraft exemplifies this integration (3). 

    With Smith, I agree that diachronic considerations are particularly important for situating any thinker within their historical context and for tracing their inheritance, contributions, and influence. I am also not convinced that synchronicity is the most helpful way of thinking about the constructive work involved in creating a conversation among thinkers in various times, places, and contexts. Importantly, I do not see this latter, constructive task as ahistorical, acontextual, or timeless. 

    Rather than situate my writing within diachronic and synchronic modes, I use what Robert Brandom calls de dicto and de re and Richard Rorty calls “historical reconstruction” and “rational reconstruction” to construe the relation between past and present thinkers (32). De dicto and “historical reconstruction” involve specifying and examining a thinker’s commitments within their historical context. De re or “rational reconstruction” involves imagining what a thinker might say or with whom they might agree or disagree, if they were able to address similar issues and debates in other contexts, given what we know of their commitments (32). When I draw connections between Wollstonecraft and John Dewey or Shawn Copeland, for example—that Wollstonecraft seems to agree with Dewey that “Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself” or that her criticisms of forbearance are akin to Copeland’s criticism of the virtues and “Christianity of the plantation”—I do not imply a timeless or ahistorical conversation that floats above diachronic traditions of dissent (237, 155). Rather, I suggest points of connection or congruence (or discontinuity and disagreement) among various thinkers given their particular commitments in their particular contexts. 

    How should we think about the relationship between a thinker’s biography and her ideas?”

    Smith feels that I do not let the biographical details of Godwin’s Memoirs, which scandalized many nineteenth-century readers, close to the arguments that I advance about Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft’s life and work were more radical and scandalous in her time, as I elaborate, than even Smith lets on: two children conceived with two men out of wedlock, a rejected proposal for a ménage-à-trois, two suicide attempts, persuading her postpartum sister to leave an abusive marriage which resulted in the death of her newborn, residing with fellow radicals in Paris during the Reign of Terror, the publication of two political treatises (as a woman!) including the first sustained vindication of women’s rights, a Gothic novel on the oppression or Wrongs of Women that treats class inequalities, prostitution, asylums, and (what we would now call) rape and abortion, and much else besides (18–26). While I am sure that I could have done more, I indicate that I aim to depict her agency and work in precisely the agential, courageous, radical, and integrated terms that Smith commends (18). 

    At the same time, Smith’s question is complex. It is especially complicated in the case of non-male thinkers who are often overly biographized and psychologized in ways that detract from rather than illuminate their substantive contributions. For instance, if seen as a precursor to the monogamy of Ginsburg or the professionalism of Harris, as Smith suggests, Wollstonecraft certainly appears less radical! I worried that referencing these contemporary figures might confuse or distract. Crucially, what connects Wollstonecraft to the fiery dissents of the “notorious RBG” and the abolitionist Sarah Grimké is not their sex lives. Rather, as I note, what connects these women across the centuries is their commitment to justice and the ways they augment traditions of dissent (3). Likewise, the connection with Harris is neither professionalism nor politics (302). She broke a historical-political glass ceiling the same week that the first public statue honoring Wollstonecraft made a dent in England’s public art ceiling. Such “firsts” expose the deficiencies of the social, political, and religious imaginaries that have long fastened and reinforced the ceilings. I use these events to elaborate the sartorial metaphor central to the book: the importance of tailoring rather than dispensing with inherited ethical wardrobes as Hambling does with her “Barbie on a Boulder” statue. I trust that Smith would ask similar questions of a book that focused on Hegel, Barth, Thoreau, Tillich, Yoder, or indeed, John Brown. But many, perhaps most, would not. 

    Specifically, Smith wonders, “What difference would it make for our understanding of Wollstonecraft’s contributions to debates about sex, love, reproduction, and marriage if we [I] let her own choices count as part of what she has to say?” I address that question most directly in the section “A Revolution in Loves: Friendship and Marriage” (262–69). Here, a discussion of her marital ideal of mutual friendship, eros, and sexual pleasure is paired with her insistence that the patriarchal inequalities of eighteenth-century marriage, education, and sexual norms—which render wives property of their husbands—make it virtually impossible to realize that ideal. Wollstonecraft descriptions of marriage various as a form of slavery, prison, and prostitution (267). For this reason, she and Godwin were both principally opposed to the institution of marriage (only marrying for pragmatic reasons three months before her death in childbirth with Mary Shelley). Wollstonecraft’s romantic relationships exemplify, I argue, both (with Imlay) the tumultuous love against which she warned readers in VRW and (with Godwin) the inception of her marital ideal of mutually erotic friendship. Both extremes were “still quite radical in Wollstonecraft’s own time” (269). 

    In the same section, I discuss her vivid refusal of an early marriage proposal. Declining to “prostitute [her] person for a maintenance” she declared in a letter to her suitor, “I am POOR—yet can live without your benevolent exertions” (268). How should we think about the connection between her life, ideas, and work in this instance? Does her refusal reflect her principled thoughts on prostitution and the institution of marriage, or did this specific proposal amid poverty form her thoughts? Or is this a false opposition? How would we know? In any event, this early refusal is integrated with her later arguments that women need more opportunities for economic independence so that they are not forced to resort to marriage as “common or legal prostitution” (VRW 218, MW 137). Her depiction of prostitution in her late novel suggests that Wollstonecraft neither denounced prostitution or sex work nor endorsed it as a marital ideal. As an aside, I relate Wollstonecraft’s own suicide attempts most directly to the suicide attempt in one possible ending of the same unfinished novel (275).

    How can we make sense of a past thinker’s entanglement with prevailing forms of domination of her time?

     My attempt to grapple with this question led me to suggest that recognizing such entanglements should make us more curious and reflective about our own entanglements today. I begin to make sense of Wollstonecraft’s entanglement with the orientalist tropes, as Smith notes, by naming them and suggesting that she provides resources for internal critique. Some of the resources for internal critique described in the book include her sharp rejection of civilizing missions meant to assimilate and romanticizing logics meant to idealize the poor, as well as her abolitions commitments and efforts to expose and censure racist logics (73–74). But the internal critique might take several other forms. I will suggest a few. 

    When Wollstonecraft invokes orientalist tropes about gender inequalities, power, and sexuality—the “seraglio,” “Chinese bands,” “Egyptian taskmasters,” “Turkish bashaws,” and Russian whips—she does so to accentuate her criticisms of the patriarchy, misogyny, and gender inequalities of European pedagogies, practices, and gender norms (VRW 76, 111, 267, 260). Whatever prejudices the English and French may have against these other cultures, she suggests, their own gender norms are just as bad if not worse. For instance, amid her censure of the English educational system, she remarks, “To preserve personal beauty, women’s glory! The limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands” (VRW 111). Her use of such orientalist tropes is troublesome and lamentable. 

    Nevertheless, if the point of such problematic comparisons is to make European gender norms and inequalities appear all the worse, to provoke her readers to see the patriarchy and misogyny of their own culture, to turn the orientalist gaze back on the Occident with freshly critical eyes, or even to blur rather than reinforce the distinction between the two, then the comparisons themselves provide one resource for internal critique. If Wollstonecraft had seen orientalist tropes for what they are would she have still used them to try and advance her criticisms of European gender inequalities? If the rhetorician’s subversive use of sexist European tropes (like “masculine women”) are any indication, she may have (162). Regardless, we can criticizer her use of these tropes while recognizing that the substance of her criticisms of European patriarchy, gender norms, and inequalities do not depend on them. She thoroughly criticizes prominent European pedagogues, philosophers, and politicians on their own terms. 

    Another way of reckoning with such entanglements includes recognizing interpretive disputes about them. As I discuss, some have suggested that like much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century white feminism, Wollstonecraft did not devote as much attention to race, racism, or slavery as she did to other forms of domination (208). Others argue that her unwavering and explicit opposition to the institution of slavery, calls for abolition, and denunciations of racist logics undergird her resistance to all other forms of domination and oppression including her arguments for women’s rights (72, 208–9). 

    No doubt, Wollstonecraft’s life, work, and literary priorities were shaped by her own social location as a white eighteenth-century woman. Between publishing her first and second vindications of human and women’s rights (1790, 1792), an important Abolition Bill was defeated in the House of Commons, signaling a major setback for the antislavery campaign (209). Rather than devoting her energies to the abolitionist cause in London, Wollstonecraft left for France to join fellow revolutionaries, witness the Revolution, and write a work entitled, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794). Abolition was not her primary or singular focus. 

    Still, Wollstonecraft grasped the significance of debates about the Revolution in France for revolutionary and abolitionist movements in Europe, Haiti, and beyond. Indeed, an excerpt of her Vindication of the Rights of Men (VRM), including some of her key abolitionist arguments was published in a Kingston, Jamaica, newspaper a few months prior to the inception of the Haitian Revolution (1791) (208). In their respective accounts of the French Revolution, Burke turns the British gaze to the “horrors and monstrosities” of the women’s march in France, the “unutterable abominations of the furies of hell in the abused shaped of the vilest of women”; Wollstonecraft redirects their gaze to the horrors and monstrosities of “the fair ladies” in England who assiduously wed mastery, pseudo-virtue, and a culture of sensibility, as well as to slavery as a veritable hell on earth (105, 110, 111). Because hers was the first book-length radical response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, these two became the major European political theorists of the revolutionary era for the Kingston newspaper in 1791.1 

    But there is at least one other resource for internal critique: modern virtue in a Wollstonecraftian vein. Wollstonecraft is committed to an account of the virtues that augments practices of social criticism by rejecting as vicious semblances of virtue imaginaries that privilege hetero-patriarchal whiteness. In this respect, I find her account compatible with the work of Jennings and Butler. Smith reads Jennings as arguing that Wollstonecraft’s “particular notion of virtue… is implicated in a pattern of domination particular to her time.” Modern Virtue demonstrates that there are various accounts of the virtues in modernity and that Wollstonecraft uses virtue discourse to denounce pseudo-virtues and condemn the vicious patterns of domination in her time. As a piercing social critic, she not only denounces various systems of domination and their interrelations—slavery, patriarchy, education, standing armies, penal systems, prisons, the enclosure of the commons, and religious intolerance—she also provides resources to continue that work, even in critical engagement with her own. Because virtue discourse participates in traditions of dissent, we can use the virtues as sources of internal critique and renew the task in our own time.

    I portray Butler as neither a defender nor denier, but rather both at once. They defend a notion of virtue understood as critique and deny a notion of virtue understood as violence. Wollstonecraft provides a more nuanced account of the virtues than these extremes provide. At the same time, I argue that robust criticisms of sham virtues—like the criticisms that Wollstonecraft and Butler offer—depend not merely on a practice of criticism but on the virtues that augment this practice (124).


    1. Eileen Hunt Botting, “Wollstonecraft in Jamaica: The International Reception of A Vindication of the Rights of Men in the Kingston Daily Advertiser in 1791,” History of European Ideas 47, no. 8 (2021): 1304–14.

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