Wollstonecraft’s Widow: Understanding the Dead Husband’s Gaze

Laura Fairchild BrodieWashington and Lee University
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring 2018), 15-40

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft promotes her case for women’s education by contrasting a profligate, coquettish widow with her reasonable, self-controlled counterpart. Wollstonecraft suggests that the reasonable widow disciplines her desires, in part, by internalizing a vision of her dead husband’s gaze. This article provides an overview of the literary history of the dead husband’s eyes and English property law regarding widows before placing Wollstonecraft’s widow alongside eighteenth-century theories about the internalized gaze. Prior to Wollstonecraft, the dead husband’s surveillance was usually imagined by male authors who assumed a prescriptive tone, wielding the gaze as a panoptic device. Wollstonecraft’s revision of earlier treatments complicates that dynamic. She envisions a widow who welcomes her husband’s eyes with a performative flair before asserting the authority of her own gaze. In the process, Wollstonecraft transforms a degrading cultural imperative into an impetus for the widow’s empowerment.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]