Friday, 4 April 2014

Liberty Is the Mother of Virtue

Wollstonecraft writes, "Liberty is the mother of virtue" (37). I love this idea. Only to the extent that we are free can we be good.

Yet in the same way that the First World War forever changed our relationships to abstract nouns like "honor" and "freedom" (as Paul Fussell explains in his tremendous book, The Great War & Modern Memory), my relationship to the word "liberty" feels fraught.

I like thinking about the opportunities in my own life to learn and grow, to become a better person. These include education, travel, work, voting, choosing friends and boyfriends and now my husband and partner, making choices about my own body and sexuality, choosing places to live, inhabiting and exploring a city, reading, and writing. These opportunities cannot be understood, however, without thinking (and talking) about privilege. And privilege exists on a wide spectrum, from having an awful lot of it to having an awful little.

I just got back from the White Privilege Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and I found the whole experience hard, important, moving, educative. It gave me a lot to think about, as I'd hoped it would. It gave me a lot to learn, a privilege in itself to attend. It also resonates now as I reread Wollstonecraft's book and as I look around myself in the world.

I love Wollstonecraft's passion and idealism: "Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated..." (133). Perhaps Naomi Wolf would say that Wollstonecraft never imagined the backlashes in response to wave after wave of progress for women. Wollstonecraft wanted a quick and total emancipation. We know from other movements for emancipation that it is not so easy.

In some ways, I think Wollstonecraft's negative statements and questions are more apt than her positive ones. For example: "How can women be just or generous, when they are slaves of injustice?" (124) In other words, there is no chance of generosity without emancipation. It wouldn't logically follow that emancipation necessarily yields generosity, but generosity becomes possible.

Soon in this course, we're reading Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, and the main character's experiences journeying to America raise hard questions for us about "the land of the free." 

I can still enjoy Wollstonecraft's philosophical optimism, of course; in fact, I think we need these voices able to articulate a clear and whole vision for our future, for what is possible if not inevitable or even very likely.