Romantic Continuities and Feminist Contemporaries

Laura Haigwood (Saint Mary’s College)

Romantic Continuities and Feminist Contemporaries

ENLT 384: Romantic Era Feminism teaches eighteenth-, nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts together to show feminism’s roots in Romantic-era human rights discourse and its growth into our current historical moment. My approach is influenced by the second wave insight that political and personal power structures reinforce one another, so I encourage students to observe these structures closely in all contexts, including their own power insofar as they may be privileged relative to others. Although my course is designed to cultivate understandings of Romantic continuities in contemporary feminist and anti-feminist arguments, its method of pairing Romantic-era texts with twentieth- and twenty-first-century ones would work equally well for courses focused on race and civil rights, separation of church and state, and similar topics whose current terms of debate reflect the declarations, constitutions and manifestos of Romantic revolutionary governments and movements.

We study the lives and works of selected Romantic-era writers, and their influence on one another; the continuities and discontinuities of arguments for and against women’s rights from the eighteenth century to the present; the diversity of feminist positions within and across historical periods; how social context and political expediency (as well as class, race and culture) shape, expand or limit the feminist imagination in every era; and how both feminist and anti-feminist authors use a range of genres (fiction, poetry, polemic, essay, manifesto, etc.) to engage readers with their constructions of gender at various levels of understanding and action, that is, empathetically, critically, philosophically, politically. In addition to acquiring such knowledge, I want students to learn the habit of critically analyzing their own political location in history, as well as their personal responses to feminist questions. Assuming that public citizenship begins in private life, I encourage students to observe and reflect on their own lives, so that their political and personal perspectives are thoughtfully integrated and mutually informed.

Course Description: Although eighteenth-century advocates for women did not call themselves “feminists,” their vindications of the rights of woman have informed all subsequent “waves.” Sometimes aligning themselves with parallel movements for democratic government or the abolition of slavery, Romantic-era feminists asserted women’s social, intellectual and spiritual equality even when they did not argue for equal legal rights. We start with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to locate middle-class Romantic-era Englishwomen in their time and place. We then study Mary Wollstonecraft, whose work and life exemplify persistent tensions between “sense” and “sensibility” in feminist discourse and feminine experience. Shorter works by contemporaries Hannah More, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Hays and others demonstrate the range and variety of British Romantic-era feminist voices. We then listen for their influence in the voices of the next generation, both British and American, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Caroline Norton, and Harriet Taylor Mill. William Godwin and John Stuart Mill, among others, affirm the historical continuity of feminist male allies. Throughout the course, we read complementary twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts, recognizing familiar arguments while also discovering new ones that may help to resolve earlier arguments’ flawed premises or inconsistencies.

Texts: The Oxford World Classics Sense and Sensibility, introduced by Margaret Doody, is required, along with Anne Mellor’s edition ofA Vindication of the Rights of Woman and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria; Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker’s Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by William Godwin; and Eleanor Ty’s The Victim of Prejudice by Mary Hays. Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era, by Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, is optional but highly recommended because its well-chosen visual resources and engaging short biographies of Mary Robinson and others represent the broad extent of contemporary women’s involvement in arts, literature and politics. I select additional short readings from the Longman, Norton and Broadview anthologies of British and American literature, as well as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. For historical documents, such as Olympe de Gouges’ 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, and Edith M. Stern’s 1949 “Women Are Household Slaves,” I rely on three collections: The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, edited by Lynn Hunt; The American Women’s Movement, 1945-2000: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Nancy MacLean; and Women, the Family and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750–1880, edited by Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen.

From the wealth of additional editions, anthologies and electronic databases of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers now available, a few I find especially helpful are Moira Ferguson’s First Feminists, a comprehensive collection, knowledgably contextualized. It could serve well as a required textbook for a course like this one, as could Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, edited by Lisa L. Moore, Joanna Brooks and Caroline Wigginton. Carolyn Christensen Nelson’s Literature of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in England thoroughly represents mid- to late-Victorian arguments on both sides of the question. Stephen Behrendt’s electronic databases broadly illuminate the poetic range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish and Scottish women writers.


Clear thinking and insightful writing are born in accurate reading, so the first paper is a close reading exercise. I introduce close reading by focusing one class discussion on a few paragraphs of Sense and Sensibility, asking questions designed to elicit thorough scrutiny of Marianne Dashwood’s first encounter with John Willoughby. This proves worthwhile even for senior English majors because the many students who have seen Emma Thompson’s film adaptation tend to read Sense and Sensibility through a glamorizing cinematic mist that obscures Austen’s irony. It is therefore especially helpful to draw attention to the deflating or foreboding implications of words, images, and pointed repetitions. Students’ heavily OED-informed papers examine similarly rich short passages from the novel, and this work immediately improves students’ accuracy and insight as classroom discussants. It also keeps their subsequent writing closely accountable to texts.

To guide students from reading literary texts accurately to reflecting on their own lives analytically, I invite but don’t require them to write personal reflections. Prompts for thinking and writing analytically about both text and self appear in daily study questions, such as “What did ‘sensibility’ mean to Austen’s readers? How does Austen describe and criticize Marianne’s performance of sensibility? What personal values and political statements does this self-presentation style assert or imply? How would you characterize your own style and its statements?” I also invite students to write extra credit personal responses when—as frequently happens—classroom discussion evokes strong emotions or vivid, real-life parallels. But students who prefer not to write personally always have the choice to write literary analysis only.

How do I assess personal writing? I don’t assess students’ experiences or emotions. Although occasionally a student’s personal experience is such that it would be inhumanely “professional” not to express direct sympathy, empathy and support, I generally try not to remark directly on experiences or feelings, focusing instead on the accurate observation and analytic thinking I want students to cultivate and practice. Competitive pressure and performance anxiety are incompatible with self-honesty, another good reason to keep comments on personal reflections descriptive and responsive rather than evaluative: “I’m impressed by how thoroughly you analyze this incident, considering more than one motive for your antagonist’s behavior.” Most personal essay prompts require students to do more than write about their own experiences and feelings, though; they must also define an issue and accurately analyze a text in relation to that issue, as well as reflect personally. For example, one prompt asks, “What sexual propriety rules seem important in Austen’s novel? Are there different rules for women and men? How are they enforced and how do they affect both men’s and women’s sexual self-expression? Are the rules in your own milieu similar or different? Do similar constructions of gender support both sets of rules? Have any rules changed in response to changing constructions of gender?” The clarity of a student’s definition of “sexual propriety rules” and the accuracy of her analysis of Austen’s portrayal of those rules can be assessed objectively relative to other students’ work. In narratives of personal experience, though, intellectual errors such as false assumptions or shallow analyses cannot be touched on directly without bruising a vulnerably exposed psyche, and yet such errors must be addressed. Students seem to respond best to “criticism” in the form of friendly questions that suggest alternative assumptions and/or encourage deeper thinking, such as “Have you considered whether their assumptions about gender roles may have influenced the expectations each party brought to this encounter?”

Their third paper, a “gender-focused polemic,” may be an essay in gender-focused protest or advocacy on a topic of their choice, or a polemic within feminist or queer discourse about equal rights and gender—that is, a criticism, revision or refinement of someone else’s feminist or queer argument. Moira Ferguson’s introduction to First Feminists includes a discussion of feminist polemic subgenres that helpfully guides students both in analyzing polemics they read and in crafting their own.

The last paper, a literary analysis, has three letter-graded stages—pre-writing, draft, and final version. Students must analyze how an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century texts applies a term such as “rights,” “reason,” “authority,” “equality,” and “consent” to the situation of women. In other words, their task is to immerse themselves in the feminist implications of a specific Romantic-era political idea and to observe how those implications are developed in the text. My task is to help them emerge from that immersion with a clearly focused, substantive thesis, logically argued and convincingly developed.

In the final oral presentation, students bring one or more Romantic-era writer(s)’ arguments to bear on a current women’s issue, articulating how the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century writer(s)’ insights may shed light on the current problem, and/or how those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perspectives may be limited by circumstances that have changed or by assumptions we no longer accept. This project tests two things: 1) students’ understanding of the Romantic-era writer(s) they have studied, and 2) their ability to abstract the assumptions and methods of a feminist analysis of one problem, and then to apply or adapt those assumptions and that method to analyzing a different problem, or the same problem in a different social context. For example, one student researched street harassment, a current problem that is also addressed in The Victim of Prejudice and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her research led her to Hollaback, among other web and print resources, and her report analyzed Hays’, Wollstonecraft’s, Hollaback’s and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s differing explanations and solutions to the problem of street harassment. Another student compared nineteenth-century rhetoric for and against English and American women’s suffrage with current rhetoric for and against Saudi women’s right to drive.

After the focused research of these last two projects, the take-home final examination encourages more speculative thinking, such as, “Reflect on theory and action in your own political life: is there any compromise, means or rhetoric that you would not use in your own active citizenship, even if it were likely to advance your cause? Give an example from one of our texts or class discussions. Explain what’s wrong with the example and why your conscience can’t accept its strategy.” Students will know the question alludes most obviously to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist and xenophobic arguments in “Speech before the Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C., 18 January, 1869,” but they have many other examples, contemporary and historical, from which to choose. My goal is to heighten their ethical self-consciousness as rhetorically sensitive future citizens, activists, and, perhaps, political candidates.

In framing this and similar questions designed to cultivate students’ sensitivity to the ethics of discourse, I am indebted to John Duffy, Associate Professor of English and Frances O’Malley Director, University Writing Program, University of Notre Dame. Both my students and I are grateful for Prof. Duffy’s insights into virtuous dispositions and rhetorical practice. See his forthcoming “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition” in Journal of Advanced Composition and “Writing Involves Ethical Choices” in Adler-Kassner, L., and E. Wardle, editors, Naming What We Know:

Further encouraging them to imagine their mature leadership role beyond the class, I ask, “Where would you most like to see change in women’s lives? What is needed to make it happen? What can you personally do now? In the future? How will your knowledge of Romantic eraRomantic-era feminism inform your priorities, arguments or strategies?”

Finally, I also want to see their concluding synthesis of historical continuities: “How has learning about Mary Wollstonecraft and other Romantic-era feminists informed your understanding of why feminism is what it is today?” Typically, students say that their understanding of this is not just informed but transformed: prior to the course, they did not know the legal and social context in which Romantic-era feminism developed; now, they respect earlier feminists’ work to achieve the rights and opportunities they themselves currently enjoy; going forward, they understand why the movement continues, and some of them hope to shape its future.

Defining terms, establishing contexts

In the first week we must define terms and establish contexts for the semester’s work, so I start with a general introduction to the Romantic era, including a British literature timeline, representative authors and texts, major historical events, characteristic themes and genres. Although I inform students that the term “Romantic” could itself be a course topic, I ground them in a fairly traditional, Norton anthology understanding. Such relative stability is helpful because our second key term, “feminism,” is for them a much less stable and more controversial term. Although I sometimes write a basic definition on the board, such as “feminism is the belief that women are entitled to the same legal, social, and economic rights as men,” I prefer for students to volunteer their own definitions, to take an active role, and also to alert me about their initial assumptions. I refer them to sources such as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more in-depth background on feminist theory, but our initial, collectively constructed, working definition of feminism proves helpful throughout the course. We hold one another accountable to it, we continue to discuss it, and, if necessary, we revise it.

With basic definitions of “Romantic era” and “feminism” on the board, I then pass out the 1776 American Declaration of Independence for close analysis of its explicit assertions and implicit assumptions about power. I especially direct students’ attention to words and concepts that Romantic-era feminists apply to the situation of women, such as “consent,” “nature,” “rights,” “liberty,” “happiness,” and the ultimate authority of reason implied by submitting “facts” to a “candid world” to “prove” one’s case against “tyranny.” We next look briefly at similar language in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), A Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), and Declaration of the United Irishmen (1798). Teaching multiple contemporary documents illustrates the Romantic revolutions’ transatlantic scope as diverse groups adapted similar principles to their distinctive contexts. To these I like to add the 1948 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, as well as the 2011 Saudi Women’s Revolution Statement, posted by Mona Kareem, which serves as our first example of twenty-first-century feminist continuities.

Before leaving this first class meeting, each student jots down and turns in the current women’s issue she personally thinks most important. Throughout the course, I will lead discussion back to these specific issues, analyzing how our eighteenth-, nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts comment on, for example, employment discrimination, reproductive rights, sexual violence, divorce, working mothers, unmarried mothers and the other issues that a given class of students has said are important to them. I also give extra credit for sharing brief, regular, in-class updates on the relevant news unfolding in that particular semester, such as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, or the Nigerian schoolgirls’ kidnapping. I invite students to draw parallels between sexist political rhetoric used to attack Clinton and sexist political rhetoric used to attack Marie Antoinette, Mary Wollstonecraft and others. Similarly, we compare Rousseau’s and Boko Haram’s construction of girls as sexual objects rather than intellectual subjects.

On day two, we start discussing Sense and Sensibility, and, yes, every time I prepare to teach this course, I wonder whether I should replace Sense and Sensibility with a novel students are less likely to read on their own. But it remains a good place to start because it accessibly portrays Romantic-era middle-class Englishwomen and their context. The first few chapters introduce primogeniture and its related gender biases, illustrating how profoundly men’s unequal inheritance privilege affects women’s lives. In later chapters, Marianne and the two Elizas dramatize how the sexual double standard enforces unequal social privilege, as well. The negative effects of middle- and upper-class women’s typical educations are shown in Mrs. Dashwood’s and Marianne’s over-cultivated feeling and under-cultivated reason, in Lucy Steele’s narrow-minded self-interest, and in other women’s limited subjects for thought and conversation.

The parental tyrannies of Colonel Brandon’s father and Edward Ferrars’ mother parallel the abuses of unchecked monarchy in ways that invite comparison with Helen Maria Williams’ “Letter XVI,” recounting the story of M. Du F. Williams explicitly suggests that the same traditional hierarchical power structures in both state and family deny the rights of life, liberty and happiness in political and personal life. Comparison with Williams shows that Austen shares some of her feminist contemporaries’ views on a woman’s right to happiness, as well as the ultimate authority of a woman’s individual conscience, typically asserted by accepting or refusing marriage. Emphasizing personal agency over political change, Austen suggests that women’s choices have decisive personal power even within their politically powerless sphere. This relatively conservative but penetrating focus on improving individual women’s characters so that they make better choices, rather than changing the social order to increase women’s choices, makes Austen a useful foil to more radical contemporary thinkers, such as Wollstonecraft. Students also see that if they want to call Austen a “feminist” (and they do) then they may have to change our working definition.

Austen’s rich psychological realism and narrative craft are also an instructive foil to The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria which we read immediately after Sense and Sensibility, compelling us to discuss the novel as a literary genre and our expectations from it. This is also where I introduce students to the Gothic subgenre, pointing out that the Gothic imprisonments in Sense and Sensibility (especially the first Eliza’s story, but also Marianne’s heartbroken self-seclusion), The Wrongs of Woman (Maria’s confinement in the asylum), and The Victim of Prejudice (Mary’s forced sojourn in Sir Peter Osborne’s London residence) resonate with images of the Bastille, linking the situation of women to ancien régime oppression.

Course themes

Although some ongoing themes are established on the first day by the Declarations’ language and students’ interests, others grow out of later class discussions. All of these thematic threads weave through the course, connecting texts in patterns unique to each semester’s cohort. Here are a few representative themes as different classes have developed them.

i. Legitimate Lives: “I had a right to exist!” (The Victim of Prejudice 14). When we read Colonel Brandon’s account of the two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, we begin to look critically at how legal marriage and paternal acknowledgement give women and children “legitimate” existence. Jemima’s story in The Wrongs of Woman gives more direct voice to the women and children who are socially outcast without paternal acknowledgement, and Mary Hays’ heroine still more forcefully asserts her “right to exist” despite both her illegitimacy (which damages her sexual reputation by association with her mother) and her gender (which makes her sexual reputation an obstacle to finding respectable work and excludes her entirely from higher-paying jobs). Noting the persistent presence in our reading of people with human needs but no “legitimate” human claim on others to help them meet those needs, we see how abstractly and artificially “legitimate” life is constructed, and yet how concretely and materially that construction disadvantages those who don’t fit within it. In addition to these novels, Wollstonecraft’s letters to Gilbert Imlay, Godwin’s Memoir, the Young Lords Party’s 1970 “Position Paper on Women,” Margaret Cerullo’s 1968 account of an illegal abortion, and the unmarried mothers and unacknowledged children whom students bring into discussion from their own experience all provide scenarios for thoughtfully considering who has “a right to exist.”

Students also notice that although illegitimacy is frequently framed as a moral problem, it is also—perhaps more so—a financial question. Like male primogeniture, the sexual double standard’s moral construction of “legitimacy” assigns power over property: that is, those with power to acknowledge, deny or affirm sexual relationships and blood kinship have corresponding power to bestow, deny or demand financial support and inheritance. Some students use the final research presentation to test this observation, reporting back that women’s increased financial independence, not “looser morals,” has increased social acceptance of children born outside of marriage. Others research the history of legal paternity, or the economic consequences of paternal absence.

Once our perspective on this question is re-directed from morality to money, someone invariably asks whether a “right to live” also implies a right to the means of staying alive—such as employment, health care? Still more probingly, students have wondered aloud in class whether individual rights discourse might possibly have some limitations. That is, can the language of individual rights resolve conflicts at sites where autonomous individuals are not easily distinguished, such as pregnant women’s bodies, the global environment where some pollute yet all must live, or economic systems that produce and unequally distribute what all people equally need? These and related questions are urgently important to my students, and while such conversations may take us temporarily “off topic,” they grow naturally from studying Romantic-era feminism.

ii. Sexual Revolutions: “Women as well as men ought to have the common appetites and passions of our nature, they are only brutal when unchecked by reason” (Vindication, Chap. VII 161). When students express disappointment that Wollstonecraft seems not to be the same “strong” feminist in her relationship with Gilbert Imlay that the firm tone of A Vindication has led them to expect, I remind them that “women as well as men . . . have the common . . . passions of our nature,” which may include the same love characterized by emotional dependency and vulnerability that some men also sometimes feel. This leads to more thoughtful and analytic discussion of feminism and heterosexuality. It also leads to closer attention to personal and political continuities, enabling students to more accurately read Wollstonecraft.

I also explain how Wollstonecraft’s sexual attachments were politicized after her death, leading nineteenth-century feminists to repudiate her sexual honesty. The Broadview edition’s contemporary reviews of Godwin’s Memoir show students how aggressively Wollstonecraft’s sexual character was attacked to discredit her circle’s political ideas. Just as we know to expect a generally conservative view from Fox News and a comparatively moderate one from The New York Times, I tell students, Romantic-era readers knew what to expect from The Anti-Jacobin andAnalytic reviews, respectively. Tipped off to their politics, students readily identify and articulate how each reviewer’s tone toward Mary’s life follows each journal’s ideological bent.

To further explain why, until fairly recently, some feminists in subsequent generations also scorned Wollstonecraft, I introduce the “angel in the house” ideology, focusing on its sexually repressive assumption that “good,” “angelic” (typically also white and upper- or middle-class) women are morally superior to men. Why did some mid-nineteenth-century feminists accept this false construction of gender so uncritically? The gendered moral high ground is a heady rhetorical advantage to imagine that one has, and feminists occasionally still speak from that location.

For example, in an eloquent and insightful editorial on pornography, Germaine Greer recently stated that “As far as male sexual fantasy is concerned there is no too far.” Such phrasing goes beyond specific individuals to inaccurately include all men and exclude all women, echoing the “angel in the house” false construction of women’s moral superiority and men’s moral inferiority; such sexist constructions are unjust to both. Would it be more just and accurate simply to say, “As far as sexual fantasy is concerned, there is no too far?”

Politically, it allowed nineteenth-and early twentieth-century feminists to argue for women’s suffrage without too forcefully challenging contemporary gender roles: they could urge the need for “good” women’s superior moral influence on national politics. But to maintain credibility as morally superior “angels,” feminists who chose that political strategy also had to shun contaminating contact with Wollstonecraft, an ideological choice that would require substantive reappraisal when childcare, sexual freedom and reproductive rights became more central to the movement.

With this background, students read Godwin’s Memoir and Wollstonecraft’s letters more thoughtfully, observing how ethically Wollstonecraft persists in respecting the commitment she believes she has made to Imlay, and how reasonably she makes requests and sets limits that he chooses not to respect. Instead of faulting her for “weakness” in trying to maintain a relationship with her child’s father, and for becoming depressed when she can’t, students begin to see Imlay’s faults more equally. The point of such discussion is to analyze how the same conventional constructions of masculinity that Wollstonecraft critically analyzes in the Vindication are also shaping Imlay’s behavior toward her, and how the same Romantic hope for a “revolution in female manners” with which she writes the Vindication also gives her hope, for a time, that Imlay may revolutionize his own manners from those of a conventional womanizer into those of a faithful partner who shares emotional power equally. Where at first students saw only contradiction, they begin to see consistency between Wollstonecraft’s political and personal principles.

Jessica Valenti’s documentary “The Purity Myth” complements those passages in Wollstonecraft’s life and work where sexual reputation is, literally, a matter of life or death. By deconstructing “purity” and “virginity” in twenty-first-century terms, Valenti continues Wollstonecraft’s, Austen’s, Hays’ and others’ demolition of the sexual double standard. I show Valenti’s film when we read Vindication Chapter VII “Modesty—Comprehensively considered and not as a sexual virtue,” and Chapter VIII “Morality undermined by sexual notions of the importance of a good reputation.” Valenti says similar things more accessibly, helping students to hear Wollstonecraft more clearly, as when, for example, anticipating sex-positive third-wave feminism, Wollstonecraft asserts that “it is indelicate, not to say immodest, for women to feign an unnatural coldness of constitution” (161). Observing “purity balls” in juxtaposition with “hook-up” dating, students are struck by the vastly different sexual cultures contemporary Americans occupy, both scientifically and ethically. Some see scientific ignorance as an ethical problem in itself, and use their final presentations to invoke Mary Wollstonecraft in support of current arguments for HPV vaccination or for comprehensive K–12 sexuality education.

iii. Women’s Education: “the heterogeneous studies pursued in this helter-skelter fashion were of the smallest possible utility in later life; each acquirement being of the shallowest and most imperfect kind” (Cobbe 1632). When students learn firsthand from Frances Cobbe how superficially even upper-class girls were educated in the Romantic era, they better understand both Wollstonecraft’s and Hannah More’s criticisms of the women such education produced. Complementary readings from I Am Malala and Reading Lolita in Tehran make the gender politics of education acutely contemporary, as does Julia Meltzer’s 2011 documentary, The Light in Her Eyes. Every design for women’s education implies a corresponding idea of “woman,” as these authors variously demonstrate, so we analyze it anew in every text. I then invite students to reflect on what their own education so far has implied about the nature, needs and roles of women and men, as well as what that education has assumed about the nature of gender identity itself. I find that all students thrive on opportunities to reflect personally about the gender identities assigned to them, their own gender identities as they choose to perform them, and the gender role expectations others have of them. Such reflection both deconstructs cultural constructions of gender and empowers students to actively construct their own gender identities for themselves. As queer and transgender voices become more prominent in popular culture, students find resonant Romantic-era parallels in “the ladies of Llangollen,” Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby; Lord Byron; and the “Sapphic separatists” researched by Susan Lanser, among others.

iv. Class and race: “‘Who ever acknowledged me to be a fellow-creature?’”; “And ain’t I a woman?” (Wollstonecraft, The Wrongs of Woman 289; Truth 510). Jemima’s story in The Wrongs of Woman illustrates how poverty exacerbates gender oppression for Romantic-era women, and teaching it alongside Johnnie Tilmon’s 1972 Ms. article, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” introduces racial intersectionality into the conversation. When I teach Sojourner Truth’s well-known speech, I also lead pointed discussion of Stanton’s racism (mentioned above, under “Assignments”). In future classes, I will assign students to read Alice Walker on womanism along with Truth. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or excerpts from it, and poems by Phillis Wheatley also heighten students’ awareness of continuities and discontinuities between black and white women’s historical experience. Although teaching abolitionist poems by white women is in some ways the opposite of racial inclusivity, teaching poems by More and others on that theme is nonetheless useful for raising students’ awareness of how false notes can mar good intentions if racist assumptions are not thoroughly deconstructed. Throughout the course, I point out white Romantic-era feminists’ appropriation of African women’s real “slavery” and “chains” as metaphors for their own comparatively privileged oppression. But I’m still not satisfied with my course’s representation of non-white and non-middle-class feminists in any century, and so I continue researching new texts and searching for a still more intentionally inclusive, deeply historical anthology of feminist writing.

v. From Rousseau to the manosphere: “. . . woman is made specially to please man . . .” (Rousseau, Emile 358): If man, born free, should break his unnatural chains, then why is it natural for woman to remain shackled? Our class reads Rousseau’s answer in Book 5 of Emile: “In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. . . . One ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. One must necessarily will and be able; it suffices that the other put up little resistance . . . it follows that woman is made specially to please man. . . . This is not the law of love . . . But it is that of nature . . . .” (358). To understand why Wollstonecraft spends so much time refuting Rousseau so thoroughly, students need to appreciate his cultural weight in articulating ideas, such as the authority of nature over cultural traditions, that Wollstonecraft herself then applies to deconstructing his constructions of gender. They also need to grasp how ingeniously he reconstructs gender hierarchy in new, “natural” terms to replace the ancien régime’s traditional, religious ones.

On the Internet, my students have found Rousseau’s construction of “natural” gender roles renovated for the twenty-first century. When they first brought these texts into our classroom, I thought we were reading satire in the style of Stephen Colbert. But Arthur Goldwag assures us that the Red Pill Game, Return of Kings and similar “manosphere” bloggers are not joking. Their sport and hunting metaphors remind students of John Willoughby’s first appearance in Sense and Sensibility, and Sir Peter Osborne’s in The Victim of Prejudice. Their arguments for repealing the nineteenth amendment are similar in substance to its original opponents’, and their rules for women’s conduct seem drawn from the same passages of Emile that Wollstonecraft critiques. Although the manosphere’s characteristically crude or violent rhetoric dismays my students, its power to intimidate them is deflated when they read it in an historical context that exposes how outdated, extreme and marginal it now is. Similarly, when Richard Polwhele labels Wollstonecraft “lascivious” and “licentious,” and when “The Vision of Liberty” characterizes the Vindication as a “scripture, archly fram’d, for propagating w[hores],” the YouTube clip I show of Rush Limbaugh’s comparable commentary on Sandra Fluke strikes students as more anachronistic than shocking (Vindication, Appendix D,185–86, ll. 19, 32; Anti-Jacobin Review, August 1801, Broadview edition 193).

Analyzing and discussing rather than swiftly dismissing extreme contemporary examples sensitizes students to similar messages in subtler and more mainstream texts, and when a period literature course intersects with the immediate moment, students soon begin connecting them independently. As a result, I am frequently thrust without warning from the eighteenth century to today’s front page by students whipping out their laptops or smartphones and reading aloud a relevant story, post or sound bite. In such welcome emergencies, unable to prepare, I rely on close reading and critical thinking questions: “How does this discourse construct gender? What are its implications? its assumptions? Where might those assumptions lead if they were applied more broadly? Do you want your society to go there? Why or why not? Does this language echo any of the feminist or anti-feminist Romantic-era discourse we have read? Whose? How, specifically?” From these spontaneous discussions, students learn to analyze and articulate their immediate reactions, gaining confidence both in their responses and in their authority to express them.

vi. Male Allies: “I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretence to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage” (Mill 1186). Despite the powerful efforts of Rousseau and others to lead Romantic revolution away from equal rights for women, its feminist implications were seen and explicated by other men, such as Nicolas de Condorcet and John Stuart Mill. As Lynn Hunt points out in her introduction to “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship,” “Condorcet took the question of political rights to all of its logical conclusions” in such statements as, “It is therefore unjust to advance as grounds for continuing to refuse women the enjoyment of their natural rights those reasons that only have some kind of reality because women do not enjoy these rights in the first place” (119, 121).

Reading John Stuart Mill’s repudiation of husbands’ unequal rights in Victorian marriage, students note its resonance with Godwin’s criticism of “the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries,” “an affair of property, and the worst of all properties” (Memoirs, Appendix B 137). To understand what Godwin condemns and Mill repudiates students need to understand the traditional legal and social construction of marriage. Most do not know that marriage laws were ever unequal to men’s advantage with regard to property, child custody, divorce, and domestic violence. Nor do they know the cultural expectations of married women in previous generations. So we read Caroline Norton’s “A Letter to the Queen” alongside Edith Stern’s 1949 “Women Are Household Slaves,” and the 1969 pamphlet, “Women: Do You Know the Facts about Marriage?” (Damrosch and Dettmar 1639–42; MacLean 50–54, 87–88). This helps students understand precisely what elements of traditional marriage earlier feminists criticized, and why. Once women students fully realize what Mill voluntarily gives up, their admiration sometimes exceeds their coherence: “to think a man would actually do that . . .” is a representatively reverent fragment from one recent discussion. The 1970 Young Lords Party’s repudiation of “machismo” is a similarly appreciated revelation.

We then read excerpts from the debate in the House of Commons following Mill’s 20 May 1867 speech proposing “leav[ing] out the word ‘man,’ in order to insert the word ‘person’ . . . instead thereof,” which would have extended the Second Reform Bill’s voting rights to women. As they read the arguments for and against Mill’s proposal, students recognize familiar twenty-first-century arguments against women’s other rights, and better understand why peaceful change is slow. But they also see that Mill persuaded seventy-three Victorian Englishmen to vote against their own gender privilege in support of women’s suffrage, helping to advance a change that eventually did come. Accurate attention to the continuous historical presence of feminist male allies is both instructive and inspiring to young activists.

With these texts, assignments and classroom strategies, ENLT 384: Romantic Era Feminism teaches selected literature from the age of Romantic revolutions to the current moment, revealing feminism’s historical depth and intellectual authority, as well as the persistent conflict between a progressive feminist movement and a reactionary anti-feminist counter-movement, from the eighteenth century into the present. Teaching such historical continuities transforms students’ view of their own position in history and their power to shape the future.

Words Cited

Austen, Jane.Sense and Sensibility. Edited by James Kinsley, Oxford World Classics, 2004.
Behrendt, Stephen, editor. Irish Women Poets of the Romantic Period. Alexander Street P, 2008.
--- with Nancy J. Kushigian, editors. Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period. Alexander Street P. 2002.
Bell, Susan Groag and Karen M. Offen, editors. Women, the Family and Freedom: the Debate in Documents, Vol. One, 1750–1880. Stanford UP, 1983.
Cerullo, Margaret. “Hidden History: An Illegal Abortion.” In MacLean, pp. 79–81.
Christensen, Carolyn, editor. Literature of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in England. Broadview P, 2004.
Cobbe, Frances Power. “From Life of Frances Power Cobbe As Told by Herself.” In Damrosch and Dettmar, pp. 1628–32.
Condorcet, Nicolas. “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship.” In Hunt, pp. 119–21.
Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, editors. The Longman Anthology of English Literature, Longman, 2006.
“Debate in the House of Commons following Mill’s Speech.” In Bell and Offen, pp. 482–93.
Denlinger, Elizabeth Campbell. Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era. Columbia UP, 2005.
Duffy, John. “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition.” Journal of Advanced Composition, Forthcoming 2014.
---. “Writing Involves Ethical Choices.” In Adler-Kassner, L., and E. Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies. Utah State, Forthcoming 2014.
Ferguson, Moira. First Feminists: British Women Writers, 1578–1799. Indiana UP, 1985.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, editors. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Edited by Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker, Broadview, 2001.
Goldwag, Arthur. “Leader’s Suicide Brings Attention to Men’s Rights Movement.” Intelligence Report, no. 145, Spring 2012.
Greer, Germaine. “Gluttons for Porn.” The Observer, Sat. 23 Sept. 2000.
Hays, Mary. The Victim of Prejudice. Edited by Eleanor Ty, Broadview, 1998.
Hunt, Lynn, editor and translator. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. The Bedford Series in History and Culture, Bedford, 1996.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Harvard UP, 2009.
Jones, Mike. “Being a Misogynist Can Help You Get Laid.” Return of Kings. 7 Jan. 2013.
MacLean, Nancy. The American Women’s Movement, 1945–2000: A Brief History with Documents. The Bedford Series in History and Culture, Bedford, 2009.
Meltzer, Julia and Laura Nix, directors. The Light in Her Eyes. 2011.
Lanser, Susan. “’Au sein de vos pareilles’: Sapphic Separatism in Late Eighteenth-Century France.” Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis, Haworth P, 2001.
Mill, John Stuart. “Statement Repudiating the Rights of Husbands.” In Damrosch and Dettmar, pp. 1186+.
Moore, Lisa L., Joanna Brooks and Caroline Wigginton, editors. Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, Oxford UP, 2012.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random House. 2004.
Nelson, Carolyn Christensen, editor. Literature of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in England. Broadview. 2004.
Norton, Caroline. “From A Letter to the Queen.” In Damrosch and Dettmar, pp. 1640–42.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Trans. Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1979.
Stern, Edith M. “Women are Household Slaves.” In MacLean, pp. 50–54.
“Saudi Women’s Revolution Statement.” Posted by Mona Kareem.
Sonofra, Tuthmosis. “9 Old-School Ways for a Woman to Become More Attractive to Men.” Return of Kings. 5 Feb. 2014.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta.
Tillmon, Johnnie. “Welfare is a Women’s Issue.” In MacLean, 106-110.
Trouble, Kyle. “20 Things Women Do That Should Be Shamed, Not Celebrated.” Return of Kings. 15 Nov. 2013.
Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I a Woman?” In Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 510–11.
Valenti, Jessica, creator. The Purity Myth. 2011.
Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France. Edited by Neil Fraistat and Susan S. Lanser, Broadview, 2001.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. Edited by Anne Mellor, Longman, 2007.
“Women: Do You Know the Facts about Marriage?” In MacLean, pp. 87–88.
Young Lords Party. “Position Paper on Women.” In MacLean, pp. 91–93.
Yousafzai, Malala, with Christina Lamb. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot By the Taliban. Little, Brown and Company. 2013.


1. In framing this and similar questions designed to cultivate students’ sensitivity to the ethics of discourse, I am indebted to John Duffy, Associate Professor of English and Frances O’Malley Director, University Writing Program, University of Notre Dame. Both my students and I are grateful for Prof. Duffy’s insights into virtuous dispositions and rhetorical practice. See his forthcoming “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition” in Journal of Advanced Composition and “Writing Involves Ethical Choices” in Adler-Kassner, L., and E. Wardle, editors, Naming What We Know:
Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Utah State, 2014. [back]
2. For example, in an eloquent and insightful editorial on pornography, Germaine Greer recently stated that “As far as male sexual fantasy is concerned there is no too far.” Such phrasing goes beyond specific individuals to inaccurately include all men and exclude all women, echoing the “angel in the house” false construction of women’s moral superiority and men’s moral inferiority; such sexist constructions are unjust to both. Would it be more just and accurate simply to say, “As far as sexual fantasy is concerned, there is no too far?” [back]