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Barbara Taylor’s “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination”

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Growing interest to feminism provokes great interest to the pioneers of feministic movement, such as Mary Wollstonecraft. Her personality and work became the object of great controversy and argument. Many specialists from different fields of science, such as political studies, history, literature and even philosophers study Wollstonecraft’s works and their vision of her main ideas can be controversial.  Barbara Taylor in her book “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination” gives a deep research of Wollstonecraft’s views, their origins and meaning for all further feministic movement. Taylor’s study of mother of Western feminism views is especially valuable because she connects her exploration to cultural, political and social context of the time when Wollstonecraft lived.

Barbara Taylor’s “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination”

In the first part, which is called “Imagining Women”, Taylor describes Wollstonecraft’s life and career. She describes her life path from lady’s companion to professional writer known all over the world. In this chapter Taylor also describes Wollstonecraft’s view on sexuality, conditioned by attitudes of the eighteenth century. She explains the complexities of relations between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, which had great influence on the work of the last. Despite Wollstonecraft followed many of Rousseau’s ideas and shared his criticism of contemporary women, she did not treat the case as desperate and believed in the abilities of perfection give to any woman. She bases her assumptions on the premise that women are rational creatures, who can gain same positions as men do. She uses the concept of feminist imagination in order to explain the roots of Wollstonecraft’s desire to see women free and liberated. Taylor traces deep impact Rousseau had on Wollstonecraft and admits his impact but she also underlines that Wollstonecraft departs him at the moment when he described women as a plaything for men. She has another vision of female roles in the society and proves this with all her works. Taylor proves with her research that feminism for Wollstonecraft was nothing but a way to see women more godlike and help her to become better.

                        In the second part of her book, which is called “Feminism and Revolution”, Taylor describes Wollstonecraft’s position in the context of radical movements at the end of the eighteenth century. Taylor possesses perfect knowledge of the topic described and gives the readers a perfect account of radical movements of the time described. All the research is provided with big quantity of personal information about the personalities described. Taylor believes such a combination of analyses, historical data and autobiographical facts to be crucial for right perception of the phenomenon described. As she states in the second section of her book, “This split between public-political thought and the private self is an orthodoxy seldom questioned by intellectual historians; to Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries, however, it would have seemed nonsensical.

To the eighteenth-century mind, reason and imagination, public professions and private emotions were inseparably (if often problematically) conjoined” (Taylor, 2003, p. 19). The book gives a perfect account of the environment Wollstonecraft lived and created in. Taylor explains that her attempt to trace different personalities and teachings, which influenced Wollstonecraft’s philosophical credo, are not aimed to undermine the greatness of the Wollstonecraft’s impact. Indeed, she did her research in order to underline the genius and uniqueness of Wollstonecraft’s personality by depicting her environment and underlining her ability to find her own way in the diversity of influential theories. “By examining the extent to which Wollstonecraft was influenced by her contemporaries and by her predecessors, Taylor in fact serves to highlight the uniqueness of Wollstonecraft’s contribution.” (Richards, p. 117)

The main purpose of the book is a deep survey of the legendary personality of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the founders of Western feminism. The portray and survey of Mary’s life is made in context of her epoch and social, cultural religions and political beliefs. The life of an artist and great thinker can not be separated from the epoch he lives in and people who surround him. Despite the fact that ideas expressed by geniuses are often universal and serve the mankind for centuries, these ideas can not be understood in a right way without the connection to their environment as these people reflect the spirit of the epoch and serve as the carriers of its progressive ideas. That is exactly what does Barbara Taylor in her book “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination”.

Taylor argues that modern critics of Wollstonecraft’s works overestimate and misunderstand her attitude to religion.  Taylor finds her way between historical recall of events and philosophical background of her works. At the same time she made a lot of autobiographical researches and used a lot of facts from Wollstonecraft’s life, which give a better understanding of cultural context she worked in. Taylor employs a lot of tools in her research, such as psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism.

As Taylor wrote, the main purpose of her writing about Wollstonecraft was to depict her “religiously inspired utopian radicalism” (Taylor, 2003 p. 11) Despite Taylor herself does not share Wollstonecraft’s religious ideals and wants to break the myth of “the imposition on Wollstonecraft of a heroic-individualist brand of politics utterly at odds with her own ethically driven case for women’s emancipation,” she shows a lot of understanding of the ideas expressed by Mary (Taylor, 2003, p.12). Taylor’s research shows great impact, Wollstonecraft’s religions beliefs had on her life and work. Mary Wollstonecraft was not a single feministic writer of her epoch. Such personalities as Mary Hays and Mary Robinson also expressed feministic ideas and based their beliefs on religious teachings.

This fact partially explains Wollstonecraft’s affection with religions utopism. At the same time her courage and artistic insight were very uncommon for her time and Taylor proves this with the facts from her book. This field of Wollstonecraft’s life has been little studies before. Despite Taylor criticizes religions utopism, she in no way diminishes Wollestone’s ability “To represent women’s hopes of a society free from misogyny and sexual injustice. However distant her ideas and imaginings may be from feminist thinking of the present — very distant indeed in some cases  — as a symbol of what remains to be achieved. Mary Wollstonecraft remains as vital and necessary a presence today as she was in the 1700’s.” (Taylor, 2003, p.  253)

 Taylor pays special attention to the concept of imagination and the way it was perceived in Wollstonecraft’s times. As Taylor states imagination for Wollstonecraft was nothing but a bridge, which unites human and divine and she actively used this link between them.

Using of psychoanalytic and Freudian approach to the analysis of Wollstonecraft’s utopianism in her attitude to God has added new dimension to all research works made on this subject earlier. Taylor drops her own conclusion and links Wollstonecraft’s devotion to Got with her yarning for the figure of father. “For Wollstonecraft, eros was the core of the religious experience” (Taylor, 2003,  p. 108). This conclusion Taylor bases not only on deep research of Wollstonecraft’s private life, such as letters, autobiographical notes and Memoirs of the Author of ‘The  Rights of Woman, written by her husband after her death. She also turns to Wollstonecraft’s fictional novels as a source of information about her. Taylor’s investigation of connection between religion and erotism in Wollstonecraft’s works gives a deeper understating of driving motives, which influenced her life and works.

Personal Opinion

Taylor’s style is a unique combination of formalism of academic writing and informality and personal involvement into her writing. Taylor’s writing gives not only good account of Wollstonecraft’s writing but also provides a deep understanding of her life and reasons, which influenced her religions, philosophical and feministic ideas. When reading Taylor’s work the readers get an idea that she possesses perfect knowledge of the subject of her research and, what is more important, has an ability to share this knowledge with her readers. I really liked Taylor’s impartialness. She describes both, strong and week points of Wollstonecraft’s works but manages not to judge her. Impartial description of Mary’s personality and her works is a positive contrast to other works about Wollstonecraft.

 Taylor uses a lot of quotations from Wollstonecraft’s works, which create personal and close connection between this legendary personality and readers. Even in the cases when Taylor does not use citations and speaks with her own words the readers feel that she has really got deep understanding of the subject of her research. This effect is achieved due to the combination of two factors. The first reason is Taylor’s deep interest in the topic of her research, i.e. the history and development of Western feminism. The second factor of such deep penetration into the roots of the material described is Taylor’s ability to penetrate into the mind of her character.

At the same time her depiction of Mary’s personality is quite realistic and readers can get a true account of events. In her “Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination” Taylor presents life and three-dimensional portray of Mary Wollstonecraft. She depicts her life and work from different sides and perspective: “Wollstonecraft, a lover of paradoxes, plunged straight into the paradox that was to characterize all subsequent feminisms: the simultaneous affirmation and denial of the ‘peculiarity’, the feminine specificity, of women’s destiny” (Taylor, 2003, p. 226). The book is even more valuable because it gives Wollstonecraft’s portray on the background of her epoch that gives readers an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the roots of Western Feminism and one of its leading figures.

            I really liked new approach, presented by Taylor, and believe that her research is very important for better understanding of the personality of Mary Wollstonecraft and her role in the development of Western feminism. What is more important, the book gives new perspective of the time and social structure, which gave birth to feminism, which has become popular all over the world nowadays and has change the type of social relations forever.

I fully agree with Barbara Taylor about the necessity to learn social, historical and other facts, which influenced Wollstonecraft’s life in order to get a better understanding of her ideas. Many specialists, who made Mary Wollstonecraft the object of their research finally met contradiction between her ideas and ways, they had been transformed in her personal correspondence. Different scholars have chosen different ways to treat these contradictions but usually they describe only one side of the problem and, thus one part of Wollstonecraft’s personality. Barbara Taylor has chosen another approach. She gathered facts and data, which finally let her shed light to tensions in Wollstonecraft’s work. I really appreciate the depth of Taylor’s study because she manages to notice things, missed up by other critics. I believe that historical context, so deeply researched by Barbara Taylor, is crucial for the understanding of Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Taylor shows how much Wollstonecraft depended on her epoch and all her literary prophesy should be perceived accordingly.

I also believe that imagination is a key concept, which helps to understand Wollstonecraft’s feministic credo. Taylor makes a deep survey of the way imagination influenced her life and work and presents her own vision of this concept. Taylor dedicated a lot of time to the study of the phenomenon of imagination and the way it influences human lives. In contrast to Wollstonecraft, she takes more realistic approach and regards both, positive and negative aspects of imagination. Taylor enumerates the ways, in which imagination creates problems in women’s lives. At the same time she goes further in her study and takes deeper and more generalized survey on the topic of imagination and finally concludes that feministic imagination can help women to create the future they want. It is feminist imagination, according to Taylor’s opinion, which can help women to imagine just and equal future and the type of gender relationships, which would have satisfied them. I like her realism and the way she transforms the very concept of imagination, making it to serve practical and rational needs. Taylor shows idealistic perspective created by Wollstonecraft, but she goes further than mere critics of her idealism and uses the concept of imagination in positive and realistic way.

I agree with Taylor’s concept bout the importance of religion for better understanding of  Wollstonecraft’s works. I agree with Taylor’s concept about the importance of religion for better understanding of  Wollstonecraft’s works. I think that religious beliefs are crucial for the right understanding of Wollstonecraft’s ideological and philosophical credo. Taylor made religious beliefs one of the core stones of Wollstonecraft’s works. As she states, “If Wollstonecraft’s faith becomes a dead letter to us, then so does much of her feminism, so closely are they harnessed together” (Taylor, 2003, p. 94). Unfortunately, this theme was often skipped by other critics. I agree with Taylor that understanding of Wollstonecraft’s works and philosophical credo can not be possible without the understanding of her religious beliefs.

Taylor finds close connection between Christian concepts and ways of their female realization in Wollstonecraft’s works.  Taylor states that for Wollstonecraft identification with God could have become means of female realization. Wollstonecraft believed that only through God and faith women could have renewed their equality and achieved a true understanding of their social roles. Taylor’s research about imagination and reason of the way they have been presented in Wollstonecraft’s works and life is very interesting and contains clues to the better understanding of Mary’s works. Taylor’s comparison of the meaning of the term imagination in the eighteenth century and the way we perceive it now is very interesting and useful for the right perception of Wollstonecraft’s works.

Cynthia Richards also agrees that religion is one of key concepts to understanding of Wollstonecraft’s literary prophesy. “It is Wollstonecraft’s grounding in the tradition of Rational Dissent that allowed her to posit women’s perfectibility and to affirm woman’s aspirations toward reason, and not simply reiterate the gendered tensions of her period. Moreover, it became the mechanism by which she reclaimed her own ardor, the eros of her own philosophical imagination.” (Richards, p. 112)

I liked Taylor’s investigation of the way Wollstonecraft treated mail and female sexuality. Taylor uses psychoanalysis to investigate Wollstonecraft’s sexuality and the way it influenced her works. This theme became one of fundamental ones and shaped her life and work. Sarah Lorch also puts a lot of attention to the investigation of the question of sexuality in Wollstonecraft’s works. As she states, Wollstonecraft managed “to show how questions of class and survival cut across woman’s loyalty to women, and how men’s position of power links men to one another, while dividing women from each other.” (Lorch, p. 95) Sexuality and nuances of the relations between men and women became the source of inspiration for Mary Wollstonecraft.

Lorch believes that: “ in the Vindication, Mary Wollstonecraft assumed as the basis of her arguments the similarities between men and woman and discounted sexual difference; in doing so she also discounted, or suppressed, sexuality itself. In the later work she draws on her relationship with Gilbert Imlay and addresses the issues of both sexual passion and sexual difference. In the relationship with Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft experienced what some have seen as the very core of the feminist dilemma: how to love a man, live with a man, and retain feminist integrity and sisterly loyalty. (Lorch, p.  98) Lorch gives extreme meaning to sexual passion and sexual investigation in Wollstonecraft’s works and Taylor also turns to these themes to make her investigation complete.

Taylor goes even further and connects the concepts of religious consciousness and sexuality and investigates the way they overlapped and supplemented each other in life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft.

There is one point in Taylor’s research, which I can not agree. Her attempts to escape controversy of Wollstonecraft’s works by any means can give readers wrong perception of the events and phenomena described. Despite Taylor did a perfect job describing the roots of the controversy, which appears in Wollstonecraft’s works and life position, she still escapes certain ambiguous moments from her life, which can make her contribution to the feministic thought doubtful. Susan Gubar also puts under doubt Wollstonecraft’s contribution to the development of feministic thought. As she states, “Not only did Wollstonecraft reproduce the male misogyny of her period in Vindication, but also that she gave birth to a rhetorical tradition of feminist misogyny that continues in feminism even today.” (Gubar, p. 460)


Barbara Taylor’s “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination” is a deep and touching survey of life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, “an icon of modern feminism.” Taylor explores widely discussed themes of Wollstonecraft’s work and private life but she give new perspective on the things she writes about. Special attention to Wollstonecraft’s religious beliefs and their influence on the life and work of this famous personality adds new information to the facts known earlier. The study of life and attitude to sexuality also helps to add new levels of understanding of the origin of Wollstonecraft’s feministic ideas.


1.Gubar, Susan, (1994) Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One, Feminist Studies 20.

2.Ezell, Margaret J M. (2006) Writing Women’s Literary History. Johns Hopkins University

3.Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc, 1972

4.Lorch, Jennifer. (1990).Mary Wollstonecraft: The Making of a Radical Feminist. New York: Berg Publishers Ltd.

5.Richards, Cynthia. (March, 2004) “Review of Barbara Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, H-Women.

6.Sunstein, Emily W. (1975) A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

7.Taylor, Barbara. (1997). For the love of God: Religion and the erotic imagination in Wollstonecraft’s feminism. In Mary Wollstonecraft and 200 years of feminisms. Ed. by E. Yeo. London: Rivers Oram.

8.Taylor, Barbara. (2002). The religious foundations of Wollstonecraft’s feminism. In The Cambridge companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. by Claudia Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

9.Taylor, Barbara. (2003). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

10.Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

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