Between Trust and Distrust: The Case of Mary Wollstonecraft

Gendering in Research talk by Arman Teymouri Niknam, Department of English

2018.07.02 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

Date Thu 13 Dec
Time 11:00 13:00
Location IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. SKous Vej 4, Building 1483-312, 8000 Aarhus C

Abstract:

Mary Wollstonecraft took centre stage in the struggle for greater freedoms in England during the 1790s. She was part of a band of radical English intellectuals that included figures such as Richard Price, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Hays, who all strove for greater equality and a dismantling of authoritarian power in its various forms. These thinkers were writing in a tumultuous era after the French Revolution in 1789, an event that had ignited hopes of radical change for many in England. Yet, these hopes were met with strong resistance from the government and various anti-revolutionary societies. As a proto-feminist philosopher and author, Wollstonecraft wanted women to be self-reliant and educated in their manner of thinking, instead of dependent on the authority of others. She is today famous for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a seminal text from 1792 wherein she proclaimed: “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore to them their lost dignity—and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world”. Wollstonecraft strongly criticised male patriarchy, but her writings were as much a call for women to educate themselves by using their reason, become critical, and thus take charge of their own lives.

 

Wollstonecraft understood the importance of experiencing genuine and loving human relationships. In her autobiographical travelogue Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark from 1796 she wrote that “an affection for mankind, a passion for an individual, is but the unfolding of that love which embraces all that is great and beautiful”. But she also emphasised how “dangerous” it is to cultivate such feelings of affection in our “imperfect state of existence”. Wollstonecraft was well aware that humans may betray and exploit one another. Her last novel The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria was published in 1798, one year after her premature death following the birth of her daughter, the later Mary Shelley. In this novel, Maria wants to leave her libertine husband, but instead of achieving freedom she is put in a mental asylum. Maria clearly has reasons to distrust her unfaithful husband, and she comes to realise the “extreme credulity” she had towards him at an earlier stage in their marriage. In many ways, Wollstonecraft’s writings emphasised the need for people to refrain from trusting others blindly and especially the need for the oppressed to stop being silent to injustices. At the same time, Wollstonecraft held an optimistic belief in our ability to become better persons and create a better and more equal society. A more virtuous and equal society would see people loving and trusting each other, instead of fighting and dominating each other. However, her writings certainly also demonstrate the difficulties in reaching such an ideal.

About the speaker:

Arman Teymouri Niknam, PhD Student, Department of English, AU

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