Wednesday 25 June 2008

Past and present

I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, which first appeared in 1974. We think of the ‘70s as the high tide of second wave feminism and gay liberation, but I was struck by just how dated some of the book’s attitudes seemed. Tomalin’s attitude to her subject is often peevish and disapproving, but particularly noticeable was her tendency to blame the failures of feminism, whether in the 19th or 20th centuries, on feminists themselves. And I thought her account of Wollstonecraft’s early same-sex passions, unconvincingly construed here as little more than platonic, was coy and old-fashioned, to the say the least.

I’m now revisiting Barbara Taylor’s magnificent and groundbreaking Eve and the New Jerusalem, which for me is up there with E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class as a classic study of early 19th century radicalism. But Taylor’s book, first published in 1983, strikes me as dated for different reasons. Its optimistic vision of reviving the utopian socialist feminism of the Owenites now seems sadly misplaced, given the worldwide collapse of socialism at the end of the decade. Again, the dominant image we have of the ‘80s is as the decade of thrusting free-market Thatcherism, but it was actually the period when the ideas of ’68 gained widespread influence, as the ‘60s generation achieved power in local authorities and political organisations. In retrospect, the ‘new times’ socialism and feminism of the ’80s appear like a last burst of radical energy and hope, before the neoliberal left-right consensus of the ‘90s.

I think I’m right in saying that there hasn’t been a major biography of Wollstonecraft since Tomalin’s. This is a pity, since Wollstonecraft’s ideas, like those of her radical contemporary Tom Paine, are more relevant than ever, at this time when freedom of expression and women’s rights are under threat from religious fundamentalism and shoddy cultural relativism. This, and not the dates of kings and imperial wars, is the ‘heritage’ that government ministers, concerned to bolster notions of shared ‘Britishness’, should ensure is studied by schoolchildren and new immigrants.

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