Pathological Conceptions

Medical Discourse and Disruptive Rhetoric in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Inspired to take up her pen in response to the new writings concerning the rights of man that proliferated around the Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) with A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). Frustrated by the failure of the French to extend the rights of men to women in spite of their opportunity to do so, she followed this treatise with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, dedicating it to one of the architects of France’s new government. In the intervening centuries, this text has stirred controversy, partly over its own apparent contradictions.

Many critics have proposed conflicting theories to explain the deep-seated tension in Rights of Woman ; while both contemporary and more recent critics have attributed the sense of the work being at odds with itself to Wollstonecraft’s incompetence or haste, her work persists, being not so easily dismissed. Most recently, however, scholars have come to a consensus that the competing voices in Wollstonecraft’s text are rather more purposeful than not, the result of a dual project of undermining the prevailing discourse and attempting simultaneously to create a new one unburdened by its associations. These scholars rehabilitate Wollstonecraft’s reputation by showing as Laurie Finke does that “the idiosyncrasies of her style that have been criticized in the past are part of a deliberate rhetorical strategy by which Wollstonecraft attempts to forge —out of a hostile philosophic tradition— an alternative language that embodies her thinking about her sex, a feminine rhetoric” (157). While Wollstonecraft does not entirely succeed in her project of creating a completely new rhetoric, she does succeed in introducing a new methodological approach to such problems, partly through contrast with the failed methods of Enlightenment philosophy. One path to seeing Wollstonecraft’s new methodology and to understanding her critique of the old one lies in the text’s prevailing metaphor : femininity as disease.

Using this common metaphor for the problems of women in her society, Wollstonecraft taps into a shift occurring in the field of medicine, a shift in the fundament whose time had come in other cultural fields as well. Wollstonecraft’s roots in English philosophical and cultural discourse allow her to borrow its rhetorical styling and examine its precepts even as she is pulling them apart. In order to show Wollstonecraft’s simultaneous location within this discourse and attempts to escape it, I connect the philosophical tradition she is critiquing with the philosophical underpinnings and methodology of pre-Revolutionary eighteenth-century nosological medicine as described by Michel Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic : An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Part of what allows her to escape this discourse is her outsider perspective and an inductive methodology similar to that of the clinical medicine arising in the Revolution, as identified by Foucault.

The next stage of my argument shows how Wollstonecraft’s text adopts this clinical methodology and its values to critique the metaphorical connection philosophy makes between femininity and disease. Cindy Griffin summarizes Wollstonecraft’s perspective on the result of this equation : “An artificial status for women had been built through years of faulty male reasoning and destructive educational philosophies” (300), creating woman in the image these men had chosen for her. Since medical perception undergoes a shift in the same historical moment when Wollstonecraft is writing, a comparative examination of her methodologies in this text and these two medical philosophies provides insight into how she counters the Enlightenment prescription of sex and gender and why her use of these two disparate medical discourses can seem to pull the text in two different directions. Ultimately, Wollstonecraft utilizes this position between epistemes to the advantage of women by attaching pathological conceptions of women to a discourse that is in the process of passing away.

To facilitate reading Rights of Woman through Foucault’s theory, I will briefly summarize the relevant aspects of The Birth of the Clinic. Foucault primarily argues that as the fundamental ideas of a historical epoch shift, ruptures occur in fields that traditional historians have viewed as developing linearly. Yet these shifts can create significant disjunctions from one episteme to the next as the field changes. In medicine, the shift from one paradigm to another occurs when the medical gaze undergoes a perceptual shift. Foucault repeatedly points out that the information necessary to each new incarnation of medicine was available before the shift, but it needed new eyes to recognize its potential. Foucault describes three phases of clinical medicine : eighteenth-century nosological medicine, clinical medicine during the Revolution, and the anatomo-clinical or anatomo-pathological medicine of the nineteenth century, although my discussion here will focus solely on the first two of these.

The first type, pre-Revolutionary eighteenth-century medicine, has disease as its object, more so than the patient. This medical perception is concerned with the spaces of disease, including the field of the body where the disease appears, the field of the table where the diseases are arranged according to their classifications, the spaces of treatment, and the spaces of teaching. The disease takes priority over the patient, as though what matters is the maturation of the disease in the only field where it can appear, rather than the restoration of the patient’s health. In this scenario, the patient’s body becomes merely the substance through which the disease extends its being, and the body and the distortions it causes to the disease are considered accidental, rather than the distortions that the disease causes to the body. By letting the disease manifest itself in this field, the doctor may classify it according to its visible marks, so that it may be situated in its proper place in the nosological, or classificatory, field. The setting of this type of medicine can be the family home, the hospital, or the clinic ; the proper space is disputed not in terms of what will be most beneficial to the patient, but in terms of the place that will best allow the disease to appear in its purest form for classification, showing that this form of medical perception conceives of disease as having a pure abstract existence outside of its concrete manifestation.

The “classificatory gaze” of nosology roams over the exterior space of the patient’s body, searching for the symptoms that epitomize each disease. Diseases have a natural order that has only to be classified and added to the table of knowledge. This gaze watches the surface of the body for the symptoms and their temporal process so that the disease may be identified and related to the body of theoretical knowledge informing the gaze. The medical gaze in this instance carries with it a prescribed and precise language, so that seeing is a process of fitting names to the visible. The result of this system is that only what can be named can be seen. The point is to name the disease ; once it has been identified, the body of knowledge attendant on the name predicts the course of the disease and prescribes treatment for it. The nosological system, taught in universities and administered in the home, crumbles with the abolition of university training after the Revolution. Training becomes practical instead, and observation becomes its ideology.

Once the institutional spaces of nosological medicine are destroyed in the Revolution, medical perception changes to a system based on language. However, this language has an entirely different character from the exclusionary professional jargon of eighteenth-century nosology. In the clinic, the gaze is naive, unburdened by the cumbersome systems of nosology. The clinic has hidden its ideology behind a negative, professing a system of observation without preconceived notions. The doctor and the student alike look at the patient and observe what is visible to the untrained eye. This gaze, unpolluted by the confused systems of nosology, claims to see the truth, in “a language without words” (Foucault : 68). With the old obfuscatory language out of the way, this new language transmits the truth directly through the gaze : “henceforth the signifier (sign and symptom) would be entirely transparent for the signified” (91). Symptoms are transformed into signs by being read by the clinical gaze ; speaking these signs captures the essence of the disease : “in clinical medicine, to be seen and to be spoken immediately communicate in the manifest truth of the disease of which it is precisely the whole being” (95). This emphasis on language does create a new method of analyzing the information given by the gaze. Instead of the classificatory system of nosology similar to the Linnaean systems of natural history, an alphabetical system is created, more like that of chemistry. Visual data can be broken down into elements that can form different combinations and thus different diseases. These elements can also include the idiosyncrasies of the patient and his or her environment that nosology tried to expunge from the space of the disease, thus making some room for the individual for the first time. In the clinic, the gaze is everything : methodology, knowledge, and language of the disease.

Because of the nature of the education required for nosological medicine, this kind of knowledge gains a privileged position. Its discourse is exclusionary, academic, and arcane, like the common perception of all forms of learned writing, such as political philosophy. Clinical medicine, on the other hand, does not have a specialized language. Seeing with a naive eye and describing with a naive tongue take the place of nosology’s arcana. This new value of naïveté opens the field to those who are self-educated or have practical knowledge, just as Wollstonecraft’s own outsider status in relation to voices of power and privilege no longer prevents her from being heard.

Although in France the Revolution provided a sharp demarcation between pre- and post-Revolutionary institutions, there was no such clearly defined rupture in English institutions. While internal pressure from those in political sympathy with the ideas of the Revolution had an effect, and a relatively rapid one, writers such as Wollstonecraft were operating in an environment where the slate had not been wiped clean overnight ; thus, Wollstonecraft had to work within the framework of English philosophical and religious thought still firmly in place. However, her outsider position and sympathy with the Revolution’s ideals work to create a tension in her text between the established philosophical discourse, of which she too is a product, and the new perspective of those ignited with the possibility of real social change. Even in England, the rupture in the political and social landscape opened new vistas of possibility to those able to see them beyond the obstructions of old notions.

The problem with nosological medicine that proponents of clinical medicine were trying to remedy is precisely that which Wollstonecraft sees with the Enlightenment’s philosophy and institutions, particularly with regard to its definitions of women. Operating from fixed ideas about the essence of women developed in a vacuum of abstract thinking, philosophical writers separated the nature of women from that of men, a distinction that Wollstonecraft shows to be false with her concrete observations of women and men in the real world. Wollstonecraft’s rhetoric, through her persistent metaphor of pathology, simultaneously undermines this philosophical diagnosis of womanhood by exposing its assumptions and diagnoses the illness as these very metaphors that form sickly female creatures through self-fulfilling prophecy.

This first part of Wollstonecraft’s project requires that she approach her topic with a nosological eye ; she begins with the names that patriarchal discourse has given to women and searches for these symptoms in what she sees. She aims ultimately, however, at revealing the false assumptions encoded in the very terminology she employs in order to explode it. As Griffin describes this project, “Wollstonecraft’s contribution is that, through her analysis, patriarchy is named and assessed as both the ‘universal’ mind-set and the discourse available to the public” (305). Wollstonecraft’s deconstruction of gendered language has been explored by Janet Todd, who examines in detail her use of gendered language and her attempts to find a neutral one before settling for redefining key terms such as “manly” and “masculine,” and by Orrin Wang, who remarks, “By having the feminine and the masculine occupy, at different strategic moments, the key position of both her negative critique and utopian polemic, Wollstonecraft is, in effect, deconstructing the intrinsic identity of a gendered subject” (134)1.

As part of her critique of the essentialist arguments of her opponents, Wollstonecraft also attacks the terms “natural” and “artificial,” both as descriptions of rhetorical styles and as distinctions between essential and culturally inculcated qualities of the sexes. Tom Furniss presses her point to the next level : “If there is nothing natural or anatomical which might legitimize gender roles and behavior, then Wollstonecraft’s argument is based not on the distinction between the natural and the artificial, as she often claims, but on that between two sets of social conditioning which are presented as ’artificial’ and ’natural’ » (198) – cf. Wang (138-39), Furniss (179-80, 197-98), and Griffin (299-300). Wollstonecraft may not have acknowledged holding the position that what is thought to be natural is also culturally encoded, but her deconstruction of gendered language still gets at the root of the false connection between culturally acquired traits and biological sex codified in the language of patriarchal philosophy. She fights the idea of essential natures linked to biology through observations of real people that contradict the received notions of qualities possessed by each sex by virtue of their sexes, although ultimately she retreats from holding this position completely “when faced with what she believes to be monstrous transgressions of gender roles in sexual and political behavior” (Furniss : 198). Nonetheless, the erosion of the connection between biological sex and virtue is significant, and Wollstonecraft successfully shows that similar cultural conditions breed similar traits and behaviors in both men and women. That Wollstonecraft perceives the flaw in the patriarchal discourse of sex and can see that culture, not nature, creates character in both men and women signals her shift in perception to a gaze similar to that of the clinic.

Wollstonecraft’s primary goal is the perfection of human beings through virtue, and she thus begins her book by setting out a description of the nature of a human being. She establishes that reason distinguishes human beings from animals, that virtue creates the only real hierarchy, and that the passions are to be used to further knowledge (13). She then writes, “Consequently, the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society : and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively” (13). However, this description is of a state of perfection. In reality, Wollstonecraft says, reason is used to justify “prejudices,” when it should be used to destroy “prescription as an argument to justify the depriving men (or women) of their natural rights” (14). In the dedication to Talleyrand-Périgord, Wollstonecraft makes her major complaint explicit : “If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test ; though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very same arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman— prescription” (9). In this passage, Wollstonecraft attacks the writings of those philosophers who have created arguments to explain the nature of things as they are rather than as they should be and to justify maintaining the status quo. In essence, the irrationality of prescription as a foundation for government and society constitutes one of the major thrusts of her argument. In addition, she has found here one of her primary methodologies, namely to expose to the light of reason the assumptions behind the so-called natures of the sexes.

Because of this aim, her book will be a prescription, not in the sense of prejudice as in the passages quoted above, but in the sense of a remedy to aid the health of human relations after the damage has been done. She writes, “Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally : a crowd of authors that all is now right : and I, that all will be right” (16). The difficulty with the language of philosophy she has borrowed is that, like nosological perception, it can only see what can be named ; in other words, it can only see what has been prescribed, pre-written, already named. Wollstonecraft must either invent a new vocabulary, or at least come at the old vocabulary from a fresh perspective, like that of clinical medicine with its “naive” outlook2. She ultimately solves this problem by deconstructing and reconstructing gendered language to her own ends.

One of Wollstonecraft’s major arguments is that virtue should be the same in man and woman, if not of the same degree. She analyzes the language that men have used to describe the passive or negative “virtues” of women, such as patience and docility, and decides that this prescription is what makes them into sickly blooms that quickly fade. The particular language that has been used to describe the nature of women is pathological in itself, and it is what is making them sick. Wollstonecraft regards these descriptions as a plethora of symptoms from which she must make her diagnosis of the illness’s root cause.

Both nosology and clinical medicine employ a gaze that examines the surface of the body for symptoms. Because of the peculiar nature of the disease women have been infected with, its signs also lie on the surface of the body. Under Wollstonecraft’s gaze, beauty and a preoccupation with it are converted into a symptom of inner deformity. Women occupy themselves with adornment, fashion, care of themselves, and acquiring the accomplishments of coquetry, or “contemptible infantine airs” (5), which will add to their outward charms and attract men, because they have not been trained to do anything else. Instead, Wollstonecraft would like to see chastity reign, which she observes is impossible until “the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolised, when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of affection” (9). She asks that society abandon its view of the surface of women and search for inner qualities. She wants to save women from being “insignificant objects of desire” (4), and instead to “render [her] sex more respectable members of society” (4) and “rational creatures” (3). The primary difference between Wollstonecraft’s ideas and those of her opponents, however, is that she believes there is a cure for these diseases while they do not, because they see the feebleness of femininity as natural rather than induced by something else, like a disease. Like nosological practitioners, the Enlightenment philosophers she opposes are content to let the disease fester, to flourish into its final stages. They are not particularly concerned about the patient, because in their view, there is nothing to be done. In fact, as they see it, there is no patient ; the woman is the disease. But Wollstonecraft sees a rational creature infected with the man-made pathogen of femininity, and she means to cure the patient. First, however, she must review the symptoms and spell them out in the style of clinical medicine, before she can make a prescription.

This stage of Wollstonecraft’s argument signals her first and most radical usage of a perception akin to that of clinical medicine ; because she is not blinded by the manliness of monarchs, soldiers, and clergy, she is able to see and thus delineate the conditions that affect their virtue. In this way, she is able to get beyond the prescriptions of women’s infirmity by demonstrating that the same conditions corrupt men in the same ways. Interestingly, this critical point is the one most often attacked as digression (Finke : 168-69). It comes as no surprise, however, since it is the first major perceptual departure she makes from the discourse she is attempting to displace. As Finke writes, “The charges of Wollstonecraft’s lack of organization criticize her—paradoxically—by the very standards she is bent on attacking. Preoccupied with her breaches of philosophic and stylistic decorum, her critics largely fail to identify the alternatives posed by her writing because they have not done justice to her radically subversive argument” (157). Perhaps if she had not written at all from inside this discourse her lapses from it would go unnoticed, but she would also have run the risk of finding no audience at all.

Yet part of Wollstonecraft’s preferred subversive discourse also attacks the opposition on the basis of a quality that it hides in itself. In the rhetorical manifesto laid out in her introduction, where she proclaims, “I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style. I aim at being useful, and my sincerity will render me unaffected…. I shall be employed about things, not words !” (4) This profession of an “unaffected” style—actually a claim of having no style in the sense of artificial and fussy arrangement—echoes the value placed on the similarly untutored language employed by clinical medicine. Wollstonecraft’s claims here about the pure truth of her language recall the transparency of language valued by the clinical gaze : “henceforth the signifier (sign and symptom) would be entirely transparent for the signified” (Foucault : 91). Her final determination to “be employed about things, not words” coincides exactly with Foucault’s description of clinical medicine’s claims to see the truth, in “a language without words” (68). While displacing the masculine ideology and its accompanying discourse that have prevented society from seeing the truth, Wollstonecraft claims that truth will be transmitted directly through her statements. This masterful rhetorical sleight-of-hand makes her own language disappear, the better to critique her opponents’, which she does under “the guise of critiquing their rhetoric,” as Julia Allen points out (325 ; Allen’s emphasis). Furniss comments, “We will see, however, that the claim to employ a straightforward, transparent language as part of a critique of the ‘false’ rhetoric through which the old order maintained power (a claim which has been reiterated by radical thought across history) is a founding rhetorical gesture in what is actually a densely and complexly rhetorical text—an enabling fiction” (188). Wollstonecraft and the clinicians, however, only trumpet this linguistic doctrine because they know it to be untrue. Wollstonecraft’s masterful manipulation of her opponents’ terminology and her employment and parody of a variety of rhetorical styles3 make it clear that she is never a naive thinker, although she is genuinely more concerned with reporting concrete reality than she is with rhetorical flourishes.

However, Wollstonecraft’s perception also differs from philosophical rhetoric’s because she takes on the concrete manifestations of social institutions founded on patriarchal discourse. Finke explains that while Wollstonecraft’s writing makes claims to philosophical authority, her analysis of attitudes toward women contains not only the examination of serious philosophic writings, but also conduct books and popular writings, because “the rationality that argues for the subjugation of women cannot be divorced from the social institutions that shape the lives of both men and women” (156). In addition, rather than believing in an abstract conception of manliness and blindly attaching it to certain male activities and professions, Wollstonecraft examines the actuality of men’s lives in particular situations. This variety of particular cases represents the inductive reasoning of science slowly gaining popularity in philosophical thought throughout the eighteenth century. This also accounts for why Wollstonecraft’s examples cannot be reduced to essentialist definitions like those of the philosophers she is contending with, as Wang comments (132).

As part of her attempt to make readers see the reality of power relations in their society, Wollstonecraft identifies particular symptoms that afflict both men and women, allowing her to argue backwards from the similar effects of their circumstances that women share the same virtue as men, since it may be ruined in the same ways. She asks what else but a “pestilential vapour can hover over society” when male rulers are educated only in “the invention of crimes” and “childish ceremonies” (17), as she will later claim is similar to the limited education of women. Also, their position of supreme authority makes it impossible for them to gain “wisdom or virtue” because “flattery” and “pleasure” prevent them from thinking (17). This authority is echoed in the mock power that women have through beauty, and the same conditions prevent them from developing their rational faculties. By looking first at solely male occupations, Wollstonecraft reinforces her overall argument that women are rational since they can be corrupted in the same ways by the same conditions that corrupt men, widely supposed by her audience to be rational, too.

In the same line, Wollstonecraft compares the conditions of soldiers and women. Soldiers are “idle,” “superficial,” with “polished manners” that hide “deformity under gay ornamental drapery,” and “An air of fashion, which is but a badge of slavery, and proves that the soul has not a strong individual character” (18). One without high connections must become a “servile parasite or vile pander” in order to rise in the ranks (18). The contagious nature of these symptoms appears in Wollstonecraft’s assertion that soldiers “catch a sentimental cant” from associating with women (18), an instance demonstrating the belief that femininity is a social disease, not a genetic condition. Men’s rationality does not preserve them from infection, since soldiers and clergymen can be infected due to the subordinate state they share with women. She calls these corrupting influences in society a “baneful lurking gangrene,” and a “contagion” spread by the “unnatural state” of tyranny (19). Presaging her diagnosis, Wollstonecraft adds that “the nature of the poison points out the antidote” (19) : if dependence makes men and women sick, some means must be found to make them independent.

In Chapter II, Wollstonecraft moves on to the case of women, now that she has established how men are corrupted. She announces ignorance as her diagnosis of the disease before she details the symptoms of it (21). She makes an extensive list of the signs : “headstrong passions and groveling vices ;” “cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, … a puerile kind of propriety ;” “frail[ty] ;” “sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience ;” “the winning softness … that governs by obeying” (21) ; “a state of childhood” and an “imperfect cultivation” of their understandings ; innocence, which Wollstonecraft calls “a civil term for weakness” (22) ; a “disregard of order” (24) ; and “enervat[ion] by confinement and false notions of modesty” (25). Women themselves are called “fair defects” and “amiable weaknesses” (37). The terminology that describes the “nature” of women, with words such as weak, frail, and defective, uses a rhetoric of pathology ; references to puerility and childhood describe stunted, diseased states in adults. These pathological manifestations indicate to male philosophers a creature appealing to the protective and desiring impulses of men, while to Wollstonecraft they indicate diseases she names as dependence and ignorance that require curing. For the diseases of ignorance and dependence that these multiple symptoms signify, she prescribes “individual education” to “sharpen the senses, form the temper, regulate the passions as they begin to ferment, and set the understanding to work before the body arrives at maturity” (23). She adds that society also must play a role in education. A perfect education will be “an exercise of the understanding … best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart, … to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent” (23). Viewed from a Foucauldian perspective, it is clear that those in power create in women, soldiers, clergy, and tyrants the classes they need in order to maintain those power relations. To break out of these lines of power, Wollstonecraft recommends an education for women—and soldiers—that will cure physical, mental, and emotional infirmities. This prescription of education will right things in the future by forming independent individuals, and not by maintaining the status quo.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft employs two languages, the learned and the naive, as two different rhetorical strategies linked to two conflicting perceptions of her project. On the one hand, she diagnoses the cause of women’s inferiority according to the manifestation of the disease with the classificatory gaze of nosology and couches her findings in the formal masculine language of philosophy she has appropriated. On the other hand, she subverts this formality with parody and a rhetorical strategy of plainness that mark her as an outsider, as “naive,” in the manner of clinical medicine. In addition, while the philosophical and nosological perception isolates women’s inferiority from the circumstances of their lives—making inferiority a generic feature of their diseased female natures rather than an accident of environment—the clinical perception allows Wollstonecraft to place women and their pathological inferiority in the settings of society that influence their disease. Wollstonecraft’s diverging rhetorical strategies reveal her writing as situated at the epistemological break between the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, and at the same time reveal her work as an active force in that rupture.

The metaphor of femininity as disease echoes throughout the book as Wollstonecraft reiterates in more particular instances the symptoms, her diagnosis, and her prescription. She sees the formation of independent individuals through education as a movement toward a human perfection that should be open to the striving of everyone. From a perception linked to the spirit of clinical medicine, she proposes a cure for women’s pathological existence, attaching the root of the disease of femaleness to the old overgrown discourse of Enlightenment philosophers, hoping that when the Revolution burns away the old growth, her new perception of the problem of sex will remain, firmly staked to the discourse of the new century.

  1. 1See Todd (10-17) and Wang (134-35). See also Furniss (179-81, 197-98) ; Griffin (299) ; Finke (esp. 170) ; and Allen (330-333). Allen also notes that in American rhetoric “the association between manly virtues and the male body began to crumble in the mid 1770s. Having a need to castigate those not in support of the [American] Revolution—and the English themselves—speakers and writers began to separate men as a category from virtue” (333).
  2. 2Finke also comments on this issue : “She must appropriate the apparently disinterested rhetoric of masculine authority for her own purposes because there is no other language in which she can write ; but she must simultaneously subvert it, exposing it as an arbitrary fiction, a prejudice that keeps women in their place. She must fashion out of patriarchal discourse a language in which to inscribe her subjectivity and experience as correctives to the masculine authorities on women she has read. Her task is not easy” (161-62).
  3. 3For an illustration of parody and contrasting style in Rights of Woman, see Finke (164-65).