The Social and Political Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft
30 May, 2013. Birkbeck, University of London


conference abstracts:


Sandrine Berges

“Wet-Nursing and Political Participation: the Republican Approaches to Motherhood of Mary Wollstonecraft and Sophie de Grouchy”
There is a well known feminist objection to Republicanism: caring duties, which fall particularly to women are not always compatible with the degree of public life and political participation which go together with republican citizenship. Here I address this objection by focusing on the case of the mothering of infants and wet-nursing in the writings of two feminist writers of the Enlightenment period: Wollstonecraft and de Grouchy. I will argue that both writers believe that mothering is central to the development of republican values: the early development of affections in a child, leading to the faculty of compassion, enables the growth of the republican sentiments of equality and fraternity. It is also noteworthy that for Wollstonecraft making mothering central to Republicanism is a double-edged sword. For women to earn the status of citizens, Wollstonecraft says, they must, if they are mothers, perform all duties attending to motherhood, including breastfeeding their children. Unfortunately, it is those mothering duties which I suggested could enter into conflict with republican citizenship. A comparison with de Grouchy’s own views on wet-nursing will point to a possible solution.

Martina Reuter

“Mary Wollstonecraft’s Critique of Rousseau”
Feminist scholars examining Mary Wollstonecraft’s thought do most often in one way or other touch upon her critique of Rousseau’s views on the nature and education of women. This is almost inevitable, since the critique constitutes an essential component of the feminist argument Wollstonecraft spells out in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Still, I want to claim that the philosophical foundation of Wollstonecraft’s critique has not yet been sufficiently explored.
In this paper I will broaden the perspective by examining, not only Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s explicit views on women, but also her profound disagreements with his views on civilization and the role of the imagination. By looking at Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s views on women in a broader philosophical perspective and by looking carefully at what Rousseau is actually claiming about women, we will be better able to grasp the philosophical details of Wollstonecraft’s specifically feminist critique. I will argue that contrary to what has been claimed, Rousseau was not a biological determinist and Wollstonecraft’s critique must not be understood as a critique of biological determinism.


Alan Coffee

“Wollstonecraft: Independence, Diversity and the Virtuous Republic”
In developing her criticism of and solution to women’s domination, Wollstonecraft adapted and enriched a classical republican model of freedom as independence form arbitrary rule. This model differs from standard contemporary neo-republican models in two key respects. First, it always considers freedom from two perspectives, individual and the collective, which converge around an idea of non-arbitrariness that reflects an inclusive consensus on the common good. Secondly, virtue in the sense of the capacity and willingness to use public reason is constitutive of independence, rather than simply an instrumental tool that can help secure it. Whereas republicans have traditionally focused what it is to be protected by the law from arbitrary power, Wollstonecraft shows that we must consider a second source of oppression, namely the social ideas, values and traditions that make up the background against which the law and public deliberation always operate. This, too, can be arbitrary and so a threat to freedom. To be oppressed by social convention and closed minds, she argued, is to be a slave in a literal sense.
Wollstonecraft’s arguments can be generalised beyond the context of women’s domination, as she herself recognised. Adapting her approach, we can identify one of the preconditions for a multicultural or socially plural modern republic. Since virtue is constitutive of freedom, a free republic must be a virtuous one. (The first virtue of social institutions, we might say, is virtue). A virtuous republic is one in which all its citizens are able to represent themselves in law and in public debate. This requires an open and accommodating culture rather than a shared or homogenous one. This can be in part fostered by the policies and institutions of government. It also requires a positive engagement from a sufficiently representative number of citizens, in order to maintain its openness over time.


Lena Halldenius

“Mary Wollstonecraft and Representation: Constitutional, Political, Moral”
The purpose of this paper is to try and construct a theory of representation out of the scattered remarks that we find in Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings. The interpretation here offered is guided by a commitment to a certain way of reading Wollstonecraft’s philosophy of political society. I start by laying out some implications of that commitment. I place Wollstonecraft in the republican tradition, both for reasons of political allegiance and for reasons of philosophy, and interpret her concept of the right to freedom as a republican concept of non-dependence. Equality is a natural principle but not a natural fact. Inequality of strength of body and mind is a fact of nature; inequality of condition is a creation of civilization. Government, therefore, has its moral purpose in counteracting the fact of inequality on the basis of the natural principle of equality. After placing Wollstonecraft in relation to some of her republican contemporaries on representation, I go on to suggest that Wollstonecraft’s notion of representation – read, as it were, from inside her theory of political society and its moral function – has the job of incorporating into one complex concept these three entities: The people as an abstract rights-bearing authorizer, an agonistic political field of classes preying upon each other, and the person, whose capacity to represent herself as entitled to freedom, however weak in fact, is the ultimate moral point of law. Representation, then, appears on three different levels of right: constitutional, political, and moral. The “what” that is being represented on these three levels of right is, respectively, authority (of the people), perspective (of functional groups or classes), and entitlement (of persons). An important element for this argument is that the objective view that morality requires is, for Wollstonecraft, the view of the non-privileged.


Susan James

“Wollstonecraft and Rights”
Wollstonecraft is famous for championing the rights of women.  But what does she understand by a right? I argue that  she makes use of two contrasting conceptions, one consonant with a republican tradition in which rights are subordinate to liberty, the other drawn from a traditional conception of natural law.  What makes her view of rights original is her sensitivity to the range of  rights that a free way of life involves, and to the many kinds of obstacles that must be overcome if these rights are to be realised.