Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s’ Feminist Thought

Katherine Binhammer. Feminist Studies. Volume 28, Issue 3. Fall 2002.

I want to challenge the assumption that feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality. Feminism is the theory of gender oppression. To automatically assume that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other. ~ Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984)

I will only say that I never claimed that sexuality and gender were always unconnected, only that they are not identical. Moreover, their relationships are situational, not universal, and must be determined in particular situations. ~ Gayle Rubin with Judith Butler, “Sexual Traffic. Interview ” (1994)

In the period since the 1984 publication of Gayle Rubin’s programmatic essay, “Thinking Sex,” critics have been thinking sex over and over again. One could appropriate Foucault’s famous “repressive hypothesis” for contemporary theory and argue that, since 1984, “around and apropos of sex, one sees a veritable discursive explosion.” Bruce R. Smith recently calculated the output of what one could call this “incitement to scholarly discourse” and determined that keeping up with current research in studies on sexuality is almost impossible because, since 1981, the Modern Language Association database provides well over 3,000 citations for articles on “sexuality.” My own rough calculations estimate that of these 3,000 only 10% include reference to gender and/or feminism. Rubin’s article, often referred to as a founding text of lesbian and gay studies, called upon scholars to theorize sexuality both as a separate category from gender and as outside the methodology of feminism, and her call seems to have gone well heeded. With sexuality defined as its object of study through the assigning of gender to feminism, queer studies has now emerged as the privileged site of a theory of sexuality.

The rise of queer studies as the institutional and methodological location for both the history and theory of sexuality coincided with the desire of some lesbian theorists to break away from a particular strain of Second Wave feminism. Battle lines were drawn up during the “Porn Wars” of the 1980s, with “pro-sex” lesbian theorists arguing that feminism had reduced sexuality to heterosexuality and silenced lesbian and gay issues by subsuming sexuality into an antecedent interest in gender as sexual difference. The queer breaking away was often enacted through the claim that feminism repressed sexuality and reduced all sex to coercive heterosexual intercourse. Judith Butler insightfully writes in “Against Proper Objects,” that lesbian and gay studies was created through the “desexualization of the feminist project and the appropriation of sexuality as the ‘proper’ object of lesbian/gay studies.” By 1994, the critique of feminism’s prudish and heterosexist assumptions had become the given of queer studies. However, queer feminist critics, including Rubin, have recently begun to count the cost of defining gay and lesbian studies as a liberating movement away from the staid Victorian morality of feminism. What are the effects, they ask, of giving gender to feminism but greedily keeping feminists from claiming any purview over sexual knowledge? Biddy Martin, in one of the first and most astute interrogations of what happened to gender and sexuality when queer studies emerged, wonders if, by seeking to distance themselves from the mistakes of feminism and celebrate queer sexualities, queer theorists denied the importance of gender to analyses of sexuality and constructed a false conception of a sexually repressive feminism: “I have been concerned about a tendency among some lesbian, bisexual, and gay theorists and activists to construct ‘queerness’ as a vanguard position that announces its newness and advance over against an apparently superceded and now anachronistic feminism with its emphasis on gender.” Martin’s query is not meant to discount the political and strategic importance of a distinction between feminism and lesbian and gay studies. Rather, her point is that the mode in which that separation operates in recent queer theory renders mute or, worse, suppresses any discussion of the way sexualities flow through gendered bodies. As Martin points out, the separation has often had the consequence “of making sexuality, particularly homo/hetero sexual definition for men, seem strangely exempt from the enmeshments and constraints of gender (read: women), and, thus, even from the body.”

This essay pursues the question of what gets left out of our critical understanding when gender and sexuality are thought of as separate categories by reading how the two concepts interacted in 1790s’ feminist thought. The first theoretical articulations of “modern feminism” have much to teach contemporary feminist and queer theorists about the difficult yet powerful connections between gender and sexuality. By 1790s’ feminism, I refer to an assortment of texts by women published in that decade that began to articulate a sustained critique of the political and social deployment of sexual difference. To the most famous text in this group-Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—I add Mary Hays’s Appeal to the Men of Great Britain (1798), Catharine Macaulay’s Letters on Education; With Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (1790), Mary Robinson’s Thoughts on the Condition of Women, And on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), and Priscilla Wakefield’s Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, with Suggestions for its Improvement (1798). Although specific ideas varied considerably within this group of authors, all entertained the philosophical position that the distinction between the sexes was the result of mistaken customs and not natural differences and, further, that the differences between the sexes were not as acute or intransigent as they were perceived to be in their society. The concentration on sexual difference speaks to the period’s preoccupation with the issue. “Sex” was being redefined in the eighteenth century to designate essential differences between the sexes, and the hierarchal model of sexual difference was replaced by the model of complementarity. “Woman,” in all her particularities and essential specificities, was created as a separate and proper object of study.’ Who was woman, given that she was no longer simply a lesser man? This question was asked repeatedly from the mid-eighteenth century on, and the answer often entailed an account of her essential difference from what was now understood as “the opposite sex.” Feminism of the 1790s emerges out of this interest in women’s new nature—the desire to minimize sexual difference is made possible by the cultural obsession with discovering and asserting this difference. I explore below how the paradigm of thinking sex as the opposite—that is, the paradigm of essential complementary differences—binds sexuality to an erotic desire for the sex that is opposite (that is, heterosexuality). Whether one’s thinking affirms or rejects the difference of sex as gender, both positions establish the essential naturalness of opposite-sex desire.

The particular entanglements of gender and sexuality in these feminist polemics comment upon contemporary territorial struggles over who can speak about gender and about sexuality, how they can speak, and when. Because of the place 1790s’ feminist thought currently holds in the narrative of the history of feminism, these writers offer a crucial way out of the current methodological impasse between queer and feminist thinking. Too often, late-eighteenth-century feminism has been the victim of “pro-sex” attacks on “anti-sex” feminism in which Mary Wollstonecraft and others are constructed as repressive precursors to a Victorian morality. This essay challenges the methodological division of sexuality and gender by showing how 1970s’ feminists could not imagine a new gender formation outside the enmeshment of sexuality and, conversely, how sexuality is rethought through gender in their texts. Wollstonecraft, Hays, and others were not simply anti-sex, as some 1980s’ feminists have constructed them to be, rather they were actively trying to re-imagine a feminist subject that included a liberated sexual identity. By thinking the relationship between gender and sexuality as “situational, not universal” (to use Rubin’s phrase), this essay demonstrates the chiasmatic relation of gender and sexuality in the 1790s’ “rights of woman” debates in which the gender of sexuality and the sexuality of gender produce a “truth of sex” at the heart of both sexual difference and heterosexuality. Although feminism may not be the methodological home for the history of sexuality, the way gender mixes with sexual identities in the texts of these 1790s’ feminists shows us that historians of sexuality must not refuse “thinking gender.”

Feminists have questioned the way sexuality remains coded as male sexuality in historical studies given that Foucault’s groundbreaking work in the field seemed to ignore the particular force of sexuality in the history of gender oppression. Women’s specific relation to sexuality and sexual oppression was certainly a blindspot in Foucault’s work. In “Does Sexuality Have a History?” Catherine MacKinnon—the feminist all queer theorists love to hate—lambastes Foucauldian historians of sexuality for ignoring sexual abuse, rape, and gender inequality in their histories. She argues that rape has not changed over history, that in all times men have raped women, and that at each historical moment male sexual aggression has oppressed women. Because sexual abuse is a transhistorical phenomenon, MacKinnon concludes that “sexuality is the set of practices that inscribes gender as unequal in social life.” By construing the history of feminism as antierotic, queer history’s celebration of a sexuality freed from gender difference has left historians of sexuality open to MacKinnon’s attack. This essay foregrounds a historical moment in modern feminism to ask what it can offer, not only to a history of gender, but to a history of sexuality. Ultimately, what I hope to unravel is the way a gender identity of the feminist subject is constructed through a sexual identity and the way sexual identity in these texts is fundamentally grounded in gendered, not sexual, practices. In doing so, I hope I am not solely performing a queer reading of these feminist texts or a feminist reading of sexuality; my “wild wish,” to invoke Wollstonecraft’s phrase, is to provide a reading that holds out and onto both, simultaneously entertaining the possibility of their collaboration and dissonance.

Unsexing or Desexing the Feminist Subject?

Criticism in the 1980s on 1790s’ feminism often interpreted these early feminists as hostile to the desiring female body. Critics such as Cora Kaplan and Mary Poovey registered their disappointment with A Vindication because of what they saw as its repressive attitude toward sexuality. Like the 1980s’ queer construction of a sexually repressive feminism, 1980s’ readings of A Vindication often performed a desexualization of Wollstonecraft, interpreting her text as expressing “a violent antagonism to the sexual” and concluding that her feminism is limited because of her blindness about sexuality. Virginia Sapiro notes the tendency of scholars to criticize Wollstonecraft for the “apparent sexual repression and even prudery” of her texts. Claudia Johnson has also commented on this critical tradition, writing that Wollstonecraft’s “suspicion of sexuality has seemed ‘puritanical’ to those more convinced than she is of the emancipatory potential of pleasure.” Sapiro and Johnson have already begun the project of reading the positive production of sexuality in A Vindication, and I would like to extend their readings, attending to the way sexual and gender identities were configured not only in Wollstonecraft but also in her feminist contemporaries.

In turning to the writing of these early feminists, one is struck not by the prudery of their polemical tracts but by the powerful presence of female erotic desire in their fictional work and in their lives. Women who act on their sexual desires in an unpuritanical way repeatedly and explicitly are present in their oeuvres. From Maria in Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Women (1798), whose feminism justifies her adulterous offair, to Emma Courtney in Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), who claims her right to sex outside marriage, to Mary Robinson, who was notorious for her scandalous public affair with the Prince of Wales, and, finally, to Catherine Macaulay, who refused social and sexual conventions by marrying a man twenty-six years her junior, these women did not ignore, deny, or silence female sexuality in their novels and lives. But, neither did they imagine it as the key to women’s freedom. Their representations of erotic desires often align them with MacKinnon s interpretation of the history of sexuality: female desire cannot be thought or imagined outside the history of rape, ruin, imprisonment, poverty, and death. Sexual agency for these women ironically entailed their victimization, and acknowledging or acting on their desires often met with the harshest of social and personal repercussions. In The Victim of Prejudice (1799), Hays portrays the plight of a fallen woman, Mary, who, denied marriage to the man she both desires and loves due to class prejudice, raped by a corrupt aristocrat, barred from economic independence because of her sex, and prevented from reentering society because she has “fallen” through rape, ends up ruined, imprisoned, and ultimately dead. Mary Robinson’s autobiography recounts her own romantic history with the men who cheated her by promising love in exchange for sex. Her most notorious affair was with the Prince of Wales (later, George IV) who saw her acting the part of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale and, as the story goes, was enraptured by her beauty. Robinson fell for his declarations of love and agreed to become his mistress in return for a promised L20,000. Quickly bored with her and moving on to his next prey, the prince abandoned Robinson a year into the affair without paying the money. The ensuing settlement negotiations between Robinson’s supporters and the royal family provide an interesting case study of the gendered politics of sexuality at the time. Her reputation destroyed by the public affair (“Florizel” and “Perdita” were a constant source of bawdy humor and satirical caricatures in the popular press), Robinson could no longer sell her wares as an actress. Yet, to admit she gave her body to the prince for money and not for love and to demand the payment he promised would be to publically declare herself a prostitute. The tricky secretive negotiations ended with the royal family paying Robinson L5,000 in exchange for her returning the prince’s love letters. The Whig leader, Charles James Fox (who also may have been her lover) later helped Robinson negotiate a L500 annuity from the royal family, but it was rarely paid. Robinson turned to writing to support herself, but she died in poverty at the age of forty-two.

As these examples illustrate, the desire to be embodied and erotic beings circulated throughout 1790s’ feminist culture, but not unproblematically. Although these women risked imagining and acting on their erotic desires, they or their characters were often punished for doing so. At a time when no sustained feminist analysis operated in popular discourse and when active eroticism had severe consequences for women, these early feminists, in their polemical tracts, began to develop the first rigorous political critique of how female sexuality was used to oppress them as women.

At a foundational level, it is impossible to disassociate gender and sexuality in these texts, because their critiques of sexuality form the bases of their feminist arguments. These writers repeatedly associate male sexual appetite, figured almost exclusively as aristocratic, with tyranny and link the oppression of women to male sexuality. Wollstonecraft believes that men keep women in a state of infancy and cultivate female ignorance because of their own sexual appetites: “For I will venture to assert, that all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity, which I have already enlarged on, branch out of one grand cause—want of chastity in men.” Men’s desire to gratify their baser appetites and their inability to govern them cause the enslavement of women. The forceful critique of libertine sexuality that runs throughout the texts assumes an association between a certain type of sexual practice (unbridled aristocratic male lust) and gender oppression. Women are not educated to know their duty as mothers and wives but are taught to be coquettes and schooled in the tricks of seduction. The fault for this lies with “those men who find their happiness in the gratification of their appetites” and the social codes that define women’s value in terms of their sexual attractiveness to men keep women in a state of infantilized stupidity. Catharine Macaulay’s educational treatise calls for coeducation because sexual difference does not exist in the mind, but she also acknowledges that women will continue to be ignorant if the only way they can attract men (and therefore be valued) is through feigning weakness: “my sex will continue to lisp with their tongues, to totter in their walk, and to counterfeit more weakness and sickness than they really have, in order to attract the notice of the male.” Robinson argues that men keep women ignorant and oppressed so that women can fulfill one of three sexual roles for men: “There are but three classes of women [who are] desirable associates in the eyes of men: handsome women; licentious women; and good sort of women. The first for his vanity; the second for his amusement; and the last for the arrangement of his domestic drudgery.” In all three cases, women are defined by their sexual relation to male desire.

In placing the blame for the state of women on a male aristocratic sexual appetite, these theorists locate feminism within the radical class politics of the 1790s. Like the revolutionary philosophy of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and others, 1790s’ feminism asserts the corruption of the aristocracy to argue for a democratic revolution. The consequence of this class challenge is that, to sexualize male aristocratic oppression, feminist writers assert a new moral superiority and virtuous bourgeois female subject. Their counterargument, that men and not women are sexually licentious, and their attendant assertion that women’s sexual nature is, in fact, more modest than men’s, is the reason they have been criticized for not celebrating the emancipatory nature of unbridled sexual pleasure. In desexualizing women in this way, 1790s’ feminists maintain that women are essentially more virtuous and more chaste than men. Hays explicitly states, “[m]odesty is innate in a greater degree in women than in men.” By modesty, Hays does not mean a denial of sexual feelings. Rather, she suggests that women know better than men how to properly manage and control their sexual feelings. Robinson similarly implies women’s superior virtue when she defines the difference between female and male passions: “The fact is simply this: the passions of men originate in sensuality; those of women, in sentiment: man loves corporeally, woman mentally: which is the nobler creature?” Although perhaps disappointing to present-day pro-sex feminists and queers, the desexed female body within these texts is strategically empowering and historically comprehensible. Tapping into the production of female sexuality within domestic ideology, these women counter the image of Pope’s female rakes with modest women capable of virtue, reason, and knowledge. They are not “women” all the time, 1790s’ feminists assert, if culture defines women as the sexual objects of male desire. It is men’s, and not women’s, sexuality that needs to be controlled and constrained.

In stating that 1790s’ feminists desex the female body, I do not mean that they deny or repress sexuality carte blanche. I am using the term “desex” to designate the process by which these writers empty out, from the image of the female body, its ideological and social construction as licentious, seductive, aggressive, uncontrollable, and sexually objectified-an image that they rightfully and powerfully name as one of the modes through which sexuality is used to oppress them. The term “desex” registers the negative project of countering dominant ideas about female sexuality; to desex means to remove from sex its negative connotations. But, in saying these women desex the body by constructing it as modest and virtuous, I am not saying that this body has no sexual identity at all or that it contains no sexual desire, a point I will return to later in this article. Taking a certain sexuality out of the female body is done for a good reason—it allows these women to argue for a mind that is unaffected by gender difference. But, desexing the body is only the first stage in their radical revision of gender and sexuality. If Rousseau and the other “philosophical sensualists” that these theorists attack assign a gender difference to the mind because of the desired sexuality they attach to the female body, to critique the latter means to reject the former.” If men keep women in a state of mental ignorance to turn them into sexual slaves, freed from this sexuality, women should be able to cultivate their mind and reason. The second stage in their critique, or the goal of desexing the body, is unsexing the mind.

The unsexed female mind is central to the 1790s’ feminists’ call for women to be rational citizens, wives, and mothers. “[M]ind,” Hays proclaims, repeating the battle cry of Enlightenment feminism, “is of no sex.” If to desex is to argue against a particular sexuality of the body, to unsex is to refute a particular gender of the mind. It is in the name of this unsexed—that is to say, ungendered—mind, that Hays, Robinson, and Wollstonecraft make their call for women’s rights and female education. Citing classical sources to argue for the unsexed mind, Robinson writes that “Cicero did not confine the attribute of Reason to sex” and therefore it is clear that “the soul has no sex.” Devoid of sexual distinction, the mind, soul, and reason (the three are often interchangeable within the late-eighteenth century) are the same in both women and men; therefore, there is no ground for denying women knowledge. Women’s minds are not gendered and it is precisely because men give them a sex, claiming women’s mental inferiority, that women become sexual playthings for men or coquettes lacking rational virtue. Who can blame women, these texts ask again and again, for trying to manipulate men with the erotic and monopolize one man’s sexual affections if this is the only way to survive when denied education, an independent existence, and economic advantages. The way to make these women more virtuous is to give them knowledge: “knowledge has a direct and natural tendency to promote the love, and the consequent practice of virtue,-to improve the mind,—to exercise and strengthen the judgment,—to correct the heart” (Hays, 163). A little knowledge in an unsexed mind, here, seems to go a long and politically efficacious way.

The term “unsexed” within 1790s’ parlance has a range of significations, and attending to its connotations helps unravel the interconnection of its gendered and sexual meanings. The use of “unsexed” by 1790s’ feminists-within the context of the unsexed mind or the mind that is of no sex-differs significantly from other writers’ uses, for example, that of Richard Polwhele in his antifeminist poem, The Unsex’d Females, or of Thomas Mathias when he satirizes women writers by referring to them as “our unsexed female writers.” The “sex” of “unsexed” has two conflicting referents: the anti-feminist use of the term refers to sex as sexuality, while the feminist usage invokes sex as gender. Claudia Johnson’s insightful and suggestive interpretation of Polwhele’s “unsex’d” brings to light the assumptions underlying the distinction. Johnson points out that by “unsex’d,” Polwhele is not referring to women who are masculinized (like in Lady Macbeth’s speech, “Come you spirits, that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”), nor does he mean women who are “unnaturally” sexed (that is to say, lesbians). “Quite the contrary,” Johnson writes, “For Polwhele, ‘unsexed’ women are ‘oversexed.’ … What being an unsexed female entails … is indulging in unbounded heterosexual activity without the heterosexual sentiment.” The unsexed female’s mental sentiment—for Polwhele the public voice and radical politics of women such as Wollstonecraft and Hays—is linked to the practice of her body. In its review of A Vindication, the Critical Review, like Polwhele, associates an educated feminist mind with an oversexed and illicitly sexualized body. Although the Monthly Review had argued that A Vindication stood as proof that the “mind is of no Sex,” the Critical Review asserted that Wollstonecraft’s female, sexualized body invaded the whole of the work:

Even in the Dedication, she speaks of the “essence of sexuality” having been extracted in France “to regale the voluptuary, and that a kind of sentimental lust has prevailed”; of the calls of appetite, &co. Nor is the fault confined to the Dedication: it pervades the whole. Surely Mrs. Cowley did not tacitly allude to these improprieties, when, in the preface to her last comedy, she spoke of the work before us as containing “a body of mind.”

The sex of Wollstonecraft’s mind is proven by her sexuality and not her gender-the unsexed female for antifeminist writers is “a body of mind.” For Wollstonecraft, however, “unsexed” designates the absence of specific gender qualities—an unsexed mind is one that, at first glance, is disembodied for it is the same in both women and men. But is there such a thing as an unsexed body?

The residue of this image of the oversexed learned feminist with her unsexed mind, can be read in the way 1790s’ feminists implement their gendered use of unsexed. In order to unsex the mind, feminist writers first redefine the term to exclude the sexual definition and to reassure readers that gender difference still operates outside the mind and in the body. Wollstonecraft criticizes libertines who claim that “woman would be unsexed by acquiring strength of body and mind”; instead, she believes they would acquire “true grace” (242). Robinson asserts that rational equality will not unsex women: “Let these mental despots recollect, that education cannot unsex a woman; that tenderness of soul, and a love of social intercourse, will still be hers [sic]; even though she become a rational friend, and an intellectual companion” (16). Educating women will unsex the mind-proving that women’s mental capacities are not inferior to men’s-but Robinson and Wollstonecraft maintain that this will not oversex their bodies.

The slippage between the way unsexed is used to register oversexed sexuality and to denote the absence of sexual difference is politically pregnant. We cannot take the feminists’ call to unsex at face value without reading how this demand is influenced by the rejection of an oversexed body.

Heterosexing the Mind

In my discussion of an unsexed mind and a desexed body, I have been analytically dividing mind and body to argue that the former is identified with gender and the latter with sexuality. But, through the sexual identity of the feminist subject that 1790s’ theorists envision, I wish to argue that the two are ultimately linked. Far from opposing the body and mind, 1790s’ feminist arguments—their mergings of virtuous mother and political citizen, of sentimental affect and rational thought—depend upon establishing a connection between reason and passion, and mind and body. The mind and body are, ultimately, envisaged as necessarily connected and not as a Cartesian opposition. Wollstonecraft achieves the interdependence of the body and mind, in part, through the compounding effect of the repeated phrase “body and mind.” She rarely mentions one without adding the other. The pervasiveness of the body and mind as interrelated terms in the text has the effect of producing an expectation in the reader that the presence of one will necessarily be followed by the appearance of the other (for example, “I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body” 175]). Priscilla Wakefield explicitly states the connection when she writes: “It is an opinion, pretty well established, that the connexion between the mind and the body is of so close and reciprocal a nature, that the health of one materially depends upon the vigorous condition of the other”; therefore we must “fortify the body, in order to invigorate the powers of the mind.” As Wakefield’s vision of the fortified body invigorating the mind suggests, the goal of this merging is to foster the new ideal of the rational, maternal, bourgeois, female citizen.

In supporting their call for the education of the unsexed female mind, these early feminists assume that the goal of women’s education is the production of virtuous citizen-mothers; true virtue must be grounded in understanding and women will only know their duty as virtuous mothers when they are made unsexed rational citizens. Allow women to be educated and the social reward is that they will become chaste mothers and faithful wives who will participate in the progress of knowledge and humanity toward perfection; private virtue is a necessary antecedent to public good. As Wollstonecraft writes, “[s]ociety can only be happy and free in proportion as it is virtuous; but the present distinctions [between the sexes], established in society, corrode all private, and blast all public virtue” (241). Hays, like Wollstonecraft, bases her argument for women’s education on the perfectibility of society through virtue. Private virtue once again leads to public good, and the domestic space is assigned a political relevance: “In the sweet circle of domestic life we may venture to affirm, that the seeds of every virtue publick and private, and in both sexes, are planted and nourished to best advantage” (81). The centrality of private domestic virtue to the argument for women’s rights infers a sexual relation that joins the desexed body to the unsexed mind through a rational and reproductive sexuality. The consequence of this merging, I argue, is the return of sex (read: gender) to the mind.

In her critique of aristocratic male sexuality, as I have already stated, Wollstonecraft assumes a transparent link between gender and sexuality, and this link is an easy one to see. More difficult to bring to light, but equally powerful in the text, is the link that emerges from her positive description of an enlightened vision of sexuality. Her ideal union between political liberty and sexual practice involves its own merging of gender and sexuality. The vigorous body of the virtuous citizen appears in the text as the solution to the political evils caused by the promiscuous bodies of aristocratic libertines. As opposed to the caprices of male lust, which lead to the inferiority and oppression of women, 1790s’ feminists present their own affirmative vision of the sexual practices that they see as instrumental both to women’s freedom and to the elevation of the entire nation toward perfectibility. I want to provide a description of what I call their “rational sexuality” by focusing on A Vindication.

Wollstonecraft’s assumption that sexual practices influence the political state of the nation, and her depiction of the type of sexual practice necessary to ensure political liberty, inform her discussion of national character in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Wollstonecraft argues there that the level of progress a nation has made toward human perfectibility depends upon how far it has reached on the scale of virtue and reason. Sexual relations (for example, the degree to which men practice chastity) determine a nation’s virtue and, therefore, have an effect on the political freedom of its citizens. Sweden is not as advanced as England on the scale of human perfectibility because the Swedes are sensualists and do not sufficiently exercise their minds: “[T]he sensuality so prevalent [in Sweden] appears to me to arise … from indolence of mind, and dull senses,” and their “gross vices … are the concomitants of ignorance.” Human sexuality, Wollstonecraft proposes, must be educated and put to work for the cause of civilization’s improvement. Like the body itself, sexuality requires training, and it needs to be disciplined and managed.

Wollstonecraft believes that in a state of equality between the sexes, sexuality would be governed by reason and be performed in the interests of reproduction. Marriage would no longer take the form of legal prostitution that it did under an aristocratic and libertine governance of sexuality. She defines sexual desires as “the impulse of nature to propagate the species” and this impulse must be coupled with reflection so that it may fulfill its proper function (111). The reproductive purpose is not served when women are the slaves of male sexual appetite. Depraved and weak coquettes, Wollstonecraft argues in the following passage, do not make good mothers:

[N]ature, by making the gratification of an appetite, in this respect, as well as every other, a natural and imperious law to preserve the species, exalts the appetite, and mixes a little mind and affection with a sensual gust. The feelings of a parent mingling with an instinct merely animal, give it dignity … Women then having necessarily some duty to fulfil, more noble than to adorn their persons, would not contentedly be the slaves of casual lust; which is now the situation of a very considerable number who are, literally speaking, standing dishes to which every glutton may have access (208).

Wollstonecraft acknowledges the desires of “sensual gust” and wants to transform these desires into elevated human experiences by connecting them to the mind and affection through reproduction. The absence of the reproductive imperative, however, breeds the “pestiferous purple” of libertine sexuality. When the “parental design of nature is forgotten” in sexual practices, that is to say when the “lustful prowler” preys on women and uses them only to satisfy his carnal appetite, the body and mind are made weak and the purpose of sex is undermined.

Wollstonecraft’s association of libertinism with the birth of deformed offspring is an example of how the “pestiferous purple” renders the body and mind weak; for Wollstonecraft, weak and corrupt bodies produce sick and feeble children. Reproduction and, by extension, sexuality need to be regulated in the interests of creating healthy babies. She writes:

The weak enervated women who particularly catch the attention of libertines, are unfit mothers, though they may conceive; so that the rich sensualist, who has rioted among women, spreading depravity and misery, when he wishes to perpetuate his name, receives from his wife only an half-formed being that inherits both its father’s and mother’s weakness. (P. 209)

The corruption caused by a sexuality not influenced by the mind is depicted earlier in this same passage when she provides the example of an aristocratic couple who were both promiscuous: “She and her lord were equally faithless, so that the half-alive heir to an immense estate came from Heaven knows where!” (202). She argues that “the unchaste man doubly defeats the purpose of Nature, by rendering women barren, and destroying his own constitution” (209-10). “Surely,” she asks, “Nature never intended that women, by satisfying an appetite, should frustrate the very purpose for which it was implanted?” (209). Women and men need to exercise their minds and strengthen their bodies so that they may fulfill their parental duties. Far from denying female sexuality in the interests of her feminist argument, Wollstonecraft’s feminism (her conception of the rational capacity of women and her understanding of the way men use sexuality to constrain and oppress women) has at its foundation a belief about the necessity of a rational sexuality, that is to say, a sexual desire tempered by reason, a sexual practice with a proper sentiment attached.

Wollstonecraft’s theory of rational sexuality, as is evident from the above discussion, insists upon compulsory heterosexuality as a prerequisite to an equal and just society. She is not unique in her emphasis on reproductive sex as the primary form of sex; indeed, she can be seen as adopting the new definition of normative sex which emerged over the course of the eighteenth century with the rise of middle-class culture. As Henry Abelove and Tim Hitchcock have argued, sexual ideologies reconfigured normative sex in the century. Ideas about what counted as sex became increasingly confined to heterosexual intercourse and excluded all forms of non-reproductive sexualities (prior to this period, for example, other sexual practices in addition to intercourse-oral sex, masturbation, same-sex sex-were not defined as perversions). For Wollstonecraft and, increasingly, for the majority of eighteenth-century writers, the aim of sex was the propagation of the species. Because promiscuous sexuality oppresses women by rendering their bodies weak and their minds ignorant, only reproductive heterosexuality can truly free women. Claudia Johnson notes the presumption of compulsory heterosexuality in A Vindication: “Virtue is only available to humanity through the practice of ‘natural’ heterosexuality, and the chaste sentiments it promotes.” Although Wollstonecraft does not go as far as others who were advocating the penalization of celibacy, Johnson places her in this tradition with its emphasis on the reproductive imperative of sex. “The pervasiveness of nonreproductive sexuality, which Wollstonecraft finds both debasing and positively overwhelming,” Johnson argues, “is the given that makes heterosexuality morally compulsory.” Mary Robinson’s Thoughts on the Condition of Women also betrays an anxiety around celibacy when she acknowledges that celibacy is not the path for women to take in response to male libertinism (8). Priscilla Wakefield takes the anxiety around celibacy the furthest when she describes it as a political evil: “Celibacy … is a political evil of such magnitude, as to require every check that wisdom can suggest; for whether considered with reference to individual happiness and virtue, or the general good, its consequences are fatal.”” The strong reaction against celibacy was informed, in part, by the English nationalist fervor against French Catholicism, but an anticelibacy stance fit nicely with their vision of ideal sexual relations. Abstinence and the single life was not what these women imagined as the answer to a sexuality that oppressed women; the solution, for them, was a mindful heterosexuality.

The defining characteristic of the reproductive woman’s sexual identity is not that she has sex with men. After all, prostitutes and coquettes also engage in cross-sex intercourse. What distinguishes this identity is the mental state—a “mind of body,” as it were—of maternal and singular affection. In the 1790s, feminists exploit the desexed female subject in their arguments against male lust and for female mental equality, but they reintroduce gender inequality to the mind through their insistence on the sentiment or mental state corresponding to reproductive heterosexuality. The mind is, once again, gendered through the sexual identity of the feminist subject. What defines her sexual identity is that, unlike the libertine corporeal man, she has the proper sentiment attached to the sexual practice. Thus, a female mental state is affixed to the bodily function. Although, at first glance, sexual characteristics are eroded from the mental capacities of women, sexuality reintroduces gender distinction to the mind. My interest in pointing out the reproductive imperative in these texts is not simply to take a queer critical stand against the heterosexism of 1790s’ feminism, although, as Claudia Johnson points out, Wollstonecraft seems “to transmute misogyny into a form of homophobia.” Rather, I am interested in the way sexuality here flows through the minds of women to reconstitute gender identity. Hays, Robinson, and Wollstonecraft do not end up abandoning sexuality to liberate women from the bounds of gender difference. We cannot argue that the liberation of women from sexual (understood as gender) oppression came at the expense of sexual (understood as sexuality) oppression, as the queer criticisms of 1970s’ feminism inferred. Yes, these early feminist theorists were heterosexist, but their constructions of sexuality also had determining effects on gender.

Dreaming Asymmetry: Masculine Women and Effeminate Men

I have argued that gender identity in 1790s’ feminism is ultimately defined by sexuality and that sex distinction reappears through the back door of sexuality. Now I wish to invert the proposition and show how sexual identity is established crucially by way of gender in these texts through the figures of the exalted masculine woman and the disparaged effeminate man. If these feminists are interested in minimizing sexual difference, why, then, are masculine women and effeminate men represented so differently? Why is the blurring of gender categories not celebrated in both directions? The asymmetry becomes comprehensible when we acknowledge that gender centrally defines sexual identity.

The vindication of masculine women—a theme that recurs throughout the work of early feminists—most often begins with a redefinition of the phrase. “Masculine woman,” in their books, does not denote an association with illicit sexuality. Hays writes: “If … we are to understand by a masculine woman, one who emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes,” then women should be more masculine (179). Their definitions of masculine women are better described as counterdefinitions, for they begin with an assertion of what masculine women will not be (i.e., the monstrous aberrations antifeminist writers construct them to be). For instance, Robinson begins by qualifying what she means by a masculine woman. She then recasts the term to signify the unsexed mind or “a woman of enlightened understanding” (21) and praises those women who have broken through the “embargo upon words” and become masculine by expressing their knowledge in writing. Similarly, Wollstonecraft’s vindication of masculine women is connected to her unsexing of the mind and reclaims the concept of the masculine woman for feminist purposes. If by “masculine women” men mean women who hunt, game, and shoot, then Wollstonecraft does not support them, but if the term applies to “the attainment of those talents and virtues … which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind … [then I wish] that they may every day grow more and more masculine” (74). All three writers divorce “masculine” from its correspondence to the male body and redefine the term to apply to the unsexed female mind. That the female mind can be both unsexed-that is, devoid of gender characteristics-and, yet, masculine seems like a paradox, but it is a necessary paradox when one reads the dynamic interaction of gender and sexuality.

The repeated demarcation of masculinity in women as that which concerns their understanding and education is symptomatic of a sexual anxiety. The fear of an unnaturally sexualized manly woman haunts the masculine woman praised in these texts. Although I do not agree with Darryl Jones, who argues that feminism was associated with lesbianism in the 1790s, the history of lesbian sexuality informs their representation of masculinity. By the late-eighteenth century, manly physicality in women (the hunting and shooting that Wollstonecraft explicitly abhors) was coded as lesbian. The cross-dressed woman of the early-eighteenth century was not seen as sexually desiring other women, but as desiring the gendered privileges of a man (freedom of movement, access to better paying jobs, and so forth), and the female transvestite on stage and in the streets was understood as appropriately heterosexual (even if this may not have been the actual case). But by the late-eighteenth century, the tolerance for manliness in women had decreased, mostly because domestic ideology had introduced a rigorous system for policing a “naturalized” sexual difference. The mannish woman was no longer a woman who cross-dressed yet desired men. Now her mannishness denoted an oddness in her lifestyle and an unnatural erotic desire; for instance, Miss Barnevelt, “a lady of masculine features,” in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54) was comically coded as desiring women because of her masculinity, and the gun-toting and cross-dressing Harriet Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) was explicitly lesbian.

The shadow of the mannish lesbian informs early feminists’ understanding of masculinity as of the mind and not the body, and it leads to their insistence that such masculine women remain heterosexually desirable. The rejection of a masculine female body only occurs when 1790s’ feminists are redefining the figure of the masculine woman. For the most part, all these women encourage a strengthening of the female body and a rigorous regiment of physical exercise, but this assertion of the female body’s strength is never referred to as making women masculine. The body remains resolutely feminine because it is (hetero)sexually desirable. Mary Hays argues that “if we use the term masculine woman, for characters such as I have been describing [i.e., educated women] … I will not so far insult the common sense of men … to suppose … that because a woman is rational … she must of course be disagreeable to them” (179). Educated women will remain sexual objects for men. Bad masculine women, on the other hand, are women whose masculinity is erotic: “But if on the other hand we mean by a masculine woman, one who apes the exercises, the attributes, the unrestrained passions, and the numberless improprieties, which men fondly chuse [sic] to think suitable enough for their own sex … I must confess, that such are masculine in the worst sense of the word, and as we should imagine consequently disagreeable” (179-80). Hays’s need to calm the castration fears of men, once again, leads her to reassuring her “common sense” male reader that: “Women may be truly masculine in their conduct and demeanor, without wounding the delicacy of men” (180).

This fear that a masculine woman would have an unnatural sexual identity translates into the reassuring assertion that, when it comes to sexual desire, women will remain women. Indeed, the only distinction that should be made between the sexes is that of sexuality. Wollstonecraft attacks Rousseau’s assertion that “[t]he male is only a male now and again, the female is always a female” by arguing that the female is only a female when it comes to love and not in terms of her education, virtue, or knowledge. Her “wild wish” to check the social import of sexual difference stops at sexuality: “A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it though it may excite a horselaugh.-I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour” (126). Later she writes: “This desire of being always women, is the very consciousness that degrades the sex. Excepting with a lover, I must repeat with emphasis, a former observation, it would be well if they were only agreeable or rational companions” (169). Because being a sex distinct from men, that is, being a woman, is to be sexualized, Wollstonecraft claims that modesty demands women to forget their sex; to always remember it means to be in a relation of sexual desire. She has “conversed, as man with man, with medical men, on anatomical subjects” because she has modestly forgotten her sex and become a man; she concludes that “[m]en are not always men in the company of women, nor would women always remember that they are women if they were allowed to acquire more understanding” (193). In gendering sexual identity (to have a masculine understanding is one thing, but to have a masculine sexuality is another), Wollstonecraft maintains the collapsing of woman, femininity, and sexuality. Sexual difference defines sexual identity insofar as the heterosexual rational female subject is only sexed for sex. In a perverse sense, Wollstonecraft would agree with Monique Wittig’s polemical assertion that “[l]esbians are not women” because to be a woman, for Wollstonecraft, is to be a lover of a man for procreative purposes.’

If the masculine woman with her manly virtues is positively valued, is the effeminate man and his feminine virtues valued too? Unfortunately, not. These texts disparage and censure the effeminate man because of his gendered body. Because to be feminine is to be a lover of men and to follow the “impulse of nature to propagate the species,” then to be an effeminate male in these texts is to be illicitly sexualized. For Wollstonecraft, the aristocratic body, made weak by vice and sexual promiscuity, is feminized. Tom Furniss argues that by identifying effeminate libertines and their sexuality as the source of women’s oppression, Wollstonecraft associates “‘feminine’. . . with any kind of sexual activity which lies outside the procreative act.” The sexualized body that runs counter to the masculine woman is a feminized body corrupted by nonreproductive sexuality. In men, this nonreproductive sexuality becomes associated with the lover of men, the sodomite or, in A Vindication, the “equivocal beings” (that give Claudia Johnson’s book her title). Wollstonecraft writes when “the parental design of nature is forgotten” in men, “something more soft than woman is then sought for; till, in Italy and Portugal, men attend the levees of equivocal beings, to sigh for more than female languor” (208). In Robinson, the effeminate male is designated the “shadow of mankind.” She writes: “let me ask these human despots, whether a woman, of strong mental and corporeal powers, is born to yield obedience, merely because she is a woman, to those shadows of mankind who exhibit the effeminacy of women, united with the mischievous foolery of monkies? I remember once, to have heard one of those modern Hannibals confess, that he had changed his regiments three times, because the regimentals were unbecoming!” (5). Women, clearly, can be more manly than some men.

The sexuality of these “shadows of mankind,” however, is not determined by their having sex with men. Quite the contrary, “equivocal beings” have sex with men because they are effeminate. Their gendered identity—the soldiers’ attention to dress or the sighing softness of Italian men—indicates their sexuality. This gendering of sexuality confirms Randolph Trumbach’s assertion that the late-eighteenth-century sodomite was an outcast not necessarily because he had sex only with men, but because he was not properly socialized as masculine. Given the dynamic of gender determining sexuality, it makes sense that the cure Robinson suggests for the effeminate sodomite is that women should become more masculine: “Might not the society of some living English women, if properly appreciated, tend to the reformation of certain gothic eccentricities; as well as, by comparison, produce more masculine energies? Men would be shamed out of their effeminate foibles, when they beheld the masculine virtues dignifying the mind of woman” (11). Society needs to become less feminine to become less illicitly sexual. A consequence of the early feminist desire to minimize sexual difference by rendering the female mind masculine is their disparagement of all things thought to be feminine, including sodomites. Susan Gubar, in “Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One,'” writes: “Repeatedly and disconcertingly, Wollstonecraft associates the feminine with weakness, childishness, deceitfulness, cunning, superficiality, an overvaluation of love, frivolity, dilettantism, irrationality, flattery, servility, prostitution, coquetry, sentimentality, ignorance, indolence, intolerance, slavish conformity, fickle passion, despotism, bigotry, and a ‘spaniel-like affection.'” We can add male homosexuality to this list. The male sodomite is identified by his association with the characteristics Gubar lists. In this way, the effeminate male’s sexual identity emerges through his practice of gender. Ultimately, in reading representations of sexual identity in early feminism, we are led “straight” into the path of gender.

The path that sexuality takes through gender can be followed in the depictions Wollstonecraft and Robinson provide of Monsieur/Madame d’Eon, whom they figure as an exemplary masculine woman. Those familiar with the history of gender-bending will know d’Eon as the French diplomat in London who, part way through his career, announced he was a woman and remained a woman until death when, finally, his biological sex was determined to be male.” At the time Wollstonecraft and Robinson were writing their feminist polemics, however, it was widely thought that d’Eon was a woman who had previously cross-dressed as a man, rather than the other way around. D’Eon’s great feats of military bravery and respected knowledge of international politics (s/he was an accomplished spy), provided these feminists with fodder for their exemplary canons. If a woman dressed as a man could achieve such heroic status, it was possible for regular women to become more knowledgeable and useful in the masculine public sphere. D’Eon enters A Vindication in a list of ultra-heroic and exceptional women (the others are Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macaulay, and the Empress of Russia) who, “from having received a masculine education, have acquired courage and resolution” (146). S/he materializes in Thoughts on the Condition of Women within Robinson’s attack on a sexual double standard that allows men to fight for their honor while it consigns women to weak and passive femininity. “What in a man, is laudable,” that is, fighting for his honor, she asserts, “in woman is deemed reprehensible, if not preposterous.” To this attack, she adds a footnote:

We have a living proof of this observation in the person of Madame D’Eon. When this extraordinary female filled the arduous occupations of a soldier and an embassador (sic], her talents, enterprize, and resolution, procured for her distinguished honours. But alas when she was discovered to be a woman, the highest terms of praise were converted into, eccentricity, absurd and masculine temerity, at once ridiculous and disgusting .

Had Robinson and Wollstonecraft known that d’Eon was a man disguised as a woman, they, too, would have converted their praise into “eccentricity” and seen him as a ridiculous and disgusting figure who was, no doubt, a sodomite. For what possible reason would a man pass himself off as a woman in late-eighteenth-century London? The preposterous nature of this proposition made d’Eon’s male sex unthinkable to these women, and it is the very unthinkable-ness of the woman who is a man that ties gender and sexuality to a “truth of sex” in the late-eighteenth century. Arguing that the distinction between the sexes is a product of social construction easily allows one to read d’Eon as a woman who crossdressed as a man. However, by not interrogating the gendering of sexuality that emerges when sex is thought through opposition, early feminists could not imagine the possibility that Madame d’Eon was a man.

Conclusion: Confounding Categories

Where have I arrived in thinking gender with sexuality by taking this circuitous route through 1790s’ feminism? At the very least, I hope I have demonstrated one possible dynamic of their interaction, and one that requires us to think gender through sexuality. I also hope I have shown that this interaction took place where one would least expect that is, it was not to be found inside its proper methodological home. In the first place, a feminist history of gender turned out to involve sexual identities that complicate a model of sexual difference. Sexuality in 1790s’ feminism is not just about men having sex with women but about how women’s sexual practices—a mindful heterosexuality—define them, not only as heterosexuals, but also as women. Second, a queer history of sexuality, in this case, must also include a history of gender. Ultimately, the consequence of finding gender and sexuality in places where one least expects it is that our current methodological divisions collapse. We can not hold on to the assumption that gender is the object of feminism and sexuality is the object of queer studies. Feminist and queer criticism must actively take up both categories in their investigations. In her axiomatic introduction to The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick stakes out the territorial ground for feminism and queer theory in a way that this essay has argued against. Through a slippery analogy, sexuality becomes the particular object of queer theory. Sedgwick writes: “[t]he study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry.” Sexuality is to antihomophobic inquiry what gender is to feminism, and the assignment of sexuality to queer studies is transparently enacted. Sedgwick’s reluctance to posit an essential or analytical relation between gender and sexuality originates in her suspicion that such a relation most often leads to the silencing of lesbian and gay issues in feminist inquiries or the subsumption of sexuality into an antecedent interest in gender. But, should that suspicion determine our current mode of inquiry? By insisting that gender and sexuality are not the same thing and, therefore, feminism and queer studies must be kept separate, do we not reinforce the silence and deny the importance of gender to the history of sexuality? I am sympathetic to the political aims and practical necessities of the analytical distinction between gender and sexuality. I wish to suggest, however, that this separation often leads to a prioritization of the one over the other and to reaffirmation that “the question” is the relation of gender to sexuality and not the relation of gender to nation or sexuality to class, for example. We need to acknowledge the extensive ways gender and sexuality overlap, for a refusal to risk a necessary connection may blind us to the very significant and historically specific techniques by which the distinctions between gender and sexuality reinforce normative roles. And, we need to confound categories to confront the historical dynamics that frame feminist discourses. Feminists from the 1790s can teach us about the costs of sustaining boundaries. These early feminists were silenced in the earlynineteenth century, in part, because of the difficulties they encountered negotiating the divide between gender, sexuality, and class. They tried to offer a liberating vision of a feminist subject freed from the constraints of a restrictive sexuality, but in order to do this, another sexual restriction-a reproductive heterosexuality very much determined by an emerging bourgeois ideology-was put into place. If we read their texts as ignoring or denying sexuality without acknowledging how sexuality returns through the back door and defines the new feminist subject as Woman, we do not see the complex mechanisms of power that were operating at the time. Feminism, or, for that matter, materialism, may just be the privileged site for a history of sexuality in the eighteenth century, and queer theory, indeed, may be more useful in certain instances to a history of gender than feminism. My own “wild wish” is that we confound the methodological distinctions that build fences around the object of our historical investigation in advance of attending to history.