Advice and Enlightenment: Mary Wollstonecraft and Sex Education

  • Vivien Jones


This essay is about Mary Wollstonecraft and sex education. An unpromising topic, perhaps, given the scarcity — and, on occasion, the notorious prudishness — of Wollstonecraft’s explicit comments on the subject. Writing from within the tradition of moral education which is committed to control over the passions, Wollstonecraft is often thought of as troubled, even disgusted, by the body and the burden of sexual difference — hence her ready appropriation of the Enlightenment discourse of masculinist reason. I want to rethink this assumption by examining Wollstonecraft’s occasional remarks on how knowledge of sex might be communicated, and by bringing her into relation with a rather different tradition of instructional writing: that of popular medical and sexual advice. Thinking about Wollstonecraft in this less familiar context can contribute to our still developing understanding of the complexities and contradictions of her feminism. It also raises wider questions about popular manifestations of Enlightenment thinking, and specifically about how we might define the role and status of popular advice literatures in relation to ‘Enlightenment’ discourses.2


Sexual Knowledge Female Education Sexual Advice Conduct Literature Willed Ignorance 
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  1. 2.
    See Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2000), particularly chaps. 4, ‘Print Culture’, and 15, ‘Education: A Panacea’; and cf. Mary Catherine Moran’s discussion of John Gregory in Section I of this volume.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See Elaine Jordan, ‘Criminal Conversation: on Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman’, Women’s Writing 4:2 (1997), 221–34; ‘deployment of sexuality’ is of course Foucault’s term.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 5: 142, my emphasis (hereafter VRW).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Cora Kaplan, ‘Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism’ in Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), p. 39Google Scholar
  5. Susan Gubar, ‘Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the paradox of “it takes one to know one”’, Feminist Studies 20:3 (1994), 453–73 (pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+)). See also Cora Kaplan, ‘Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism’, Sea Changes, pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+); Mary Poovey, ‘Man’s Discourse, Woman’s Heart: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Two Vindications’ in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Cf. Barbara Taylor, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and the Wild Wish of Early Feminism’, History Workshop Journal 33 (1992), ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) for the view that ‘it is in fact within the domain of sexual love itself that the wish [to confound, confuse the distinction between the sexes] is formulated’ (p. 198).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For an attack on Enlightenment blindness to the claims of cultural difference within Wollstonecraft’s feminism, see particularly Felicity Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Clara Reeve, Plans of Education: with Remarks on the Systems of Other Writers (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1792), p. 135 in Vivien Jones (ed.), Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Hester Chapone, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (London: H. Hughs for J. Walter, 1773), 2 vols, II, 121–2, Jones, Women, pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+). Cf., for example, ‘there is a modesty with regard to science, which belongs to their sex’, François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, Treatise on the Education of Daughters (1688; first English trans. 1707), trans. T. F. Dibdin (Cheltenham and London, 1805), p. 126.Google Scholar
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    Catharine Macaulay, Letters on Education: With Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (London: C. Dilly, 1790), pp. 220–1.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    The classic texts on the proper lady ideal are Poovey, Proper Lady and Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). For challenges to the hegemony of the proper lady, see Vivien Jones, ‘The Seductions of Conduct: Pleasure and Conduct Literature’ in Roy Porter and Marie Mulvey Roberts (eds), Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+); Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, The Historical Journal 36:2 (1993), 383–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a full discussion of Wollstonecraft’s relationship with instructional writing see Vivien Jones, ‘Wollstonecraft and the Literature of Advice and Instruction’ in Claudia L. Johnson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 119–40. See also Lisa Plummer Crafton, ‘“Insipid decency”: Modesty and Female Sexuality in Wollstonecraft’, European Romantic Review 11:3 (2000), ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Richard Polwhele, The Unsex’d Females: a Poem (London: Cadell and Davies, 1798), p. 9., and in Jones, Women, pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar
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    John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), ed. John W. and Jean S. Yolton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 167, 185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 26.
    James Nelson, apothecary, An Essay on the Government of Children, under three general heads: viz. health, manners and education (London: Dodsley, 1753), pp. 199–200. Cf. Wollstonecraft’s anxieties about the ‘nasty and immodest habits’ which girls develop in boarding schools (VRW, p. 234).Google Scholar
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    See Vivien Jones, ‘The Death of Mary Wollstonecraft’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 20:2 (1997), 187–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 36.
    On the relationship between physiological theory and theories of sensibility, see for example, John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context (Cambridge University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
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    On pornography and Enlightenment, see Lynn Hunt (ed.), The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (New York: Zone Books, 1993), particularly Margaret C. Jacob, ‘The Materialist World of Pornography’, and Kathryn Norberg, ‘The Libertine Whore: Prostitution in French Pornography from Margot to Juliette’. For an interesting study of the self-conscious radicalism of Wollstonecraft’s own sexual and domestic arrangements, see Gary Kelly ‘(Female) Philosophy in the Bedroom: Mary Wollstonecraft and Female Sexuality’, Women’s Writing 4:2 (1997), ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar
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    See Ann B. Shteir, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Alan Bewell, ‘“Jacobin Plants”: Botany as Social Theory in the 1790s’, The Wordsworth Circle 20:3 (1989), ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar

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© Vivien Jones 2005

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  • Vivien Jones

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