2 Pages

Love and trouble

WithBarbara Taylor

Speaking of love, the feminist voice breaks, producing a discourse that is fractured and contradictory. Political imperatives jostle with personal longings; ancient animosities conflict with intense allegiances. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the founding text of modern western feminism. The following year she went to Paris to witness the revolutionary process first hand— and promptly fell in love with an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay. If one reads Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman on its own, the impression is of a dour puritanism reminiscent of moral conservatives. Sexual feelings, she argues, are "bestial" and "degraded", and those who indulge in them are "debauched". "Perfect love and perfect trust have never yet existed except between equals," as Wollstonecraft's great admirer, the suffragist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, quoted at her readers in 1897, while a century earlier Wollstonecraft herself provided a model for such a "perfect" union.