Freedom used to stand at the heart of feminism, but modern feminists have succeeded in strong>erasing history
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Historians have referred to her as “bourgeois progressivist,” a “Christian capitalist,” “Burke for beginners,” the “first Victorian.” She could also be called the first conservative feminist. Unlike Wollstonecraft, More believed the sexes were significantly different in their propensities, aptitudes, and life preferences. She envisioned a society where women’s characteristic virtues and graces could be developed, refined, and freely expressed. She was persuaded that these virtues could be realized only when women were given more freedom and a serious education:
[T]ill women shall be more reasonably educated, and until the native growth of their mind shall cease to be stilted and cramped, we shall have no juster ground for pronouncing that their understanding has already reached its highest attainable perfection, than the Chinese would have for affirming that their women have attained to the greatest possible perfection in walking, while their first care is, during their infancy, to cripple their feet.
She loathed the mindless pastimes that absorbed upper-class women of her day, and encouraged middle- and upper-class women to leave their homes and salons so as to take up serious philanthropic pursuits. According to More, women were more tender- minded than men and were the natural caretakers of the nation. She told women that it was their patriotic duty to apply their natural gifts— nurturing, organizing, and educating—not merely to their own households, but to society at large. “Charity,” said one of More’s fictional characters, “is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession.”
More envisioned armies of intelligent, informed, and well-trained women working in hospitals, orphanages, and schools. She appealed to women to exert themselves “with a patriotism at once firm and feminine for the greater good of all.” And women listened.
Her didactic 1880 novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which valorized a new kind of wise, effective, active, and responsible femininity, went into 11 editions in nine months, and to 30 by the time of More’s death. UCLA literary scholar Anne Mellor comments on the extent of More’s influence:
She urged her women readers to participate actively in the organization of voluntary benevolent societies and in the foundation of hospitals, orphanages, Sunday Schools….And her call was heard: literally thousands of voluntary societies sprang up in the opening decades of the nineteenth century to serve the needs of every imaginable group of sufferers.
It is hard to overstate the positive impact of widespread volunteerism on the fate of women. As women became engaged in charitable works, other parts of the public sphere became accessible. British historian F.K. Prochaska, in his seminal Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England (1980), wrote, “The charitable experience of women was a lever which they used to open the doors closed to them in other spheres.” According to Prochaska, as women began to become active in the outside world and form philanthropic organizations, they became interested in “government, administration and the law.” Their volunteer work in charity schools focused their minds on education reform—for women of their own social class and for the poor women they sought to help. Prochaska, who calls More “probably the most influential woman of her day,” concludes, “It should not come as a surprise that in 1866 women trained in charitable society were prominent among those who petitioned the House of Commons praying for the enfranchisement of their sex.”
It was taken for granted in More’s time that women were less intelligent and less serious than men, and thus less worthy as human beings. More flatly rejected these assumptions. She did so without rejecting the idea of a special women’s sphere. She embraced that sphere, giving it greater dignity and power. That was her signature Burkean style of feminism. More initiated a humane revolution in the relations of the sexes that was decorous, civilized, and in no way socially divisive. Above all, it was a feminism that women themselves could comfortably embrace: a feminism that granted women the liberty to be themselves without ceasing to be women. Indeed, if More’s name and fame had not been brushed out of women’s history, many women today might well be identifying with a modernized version of her femalefriendly feminism.
Fortunately, her ideals and her style of feminism are well represented in the novels of Jane Austen. We don’t know for sure whether Austen read More, but scholars claim to see the unmistakable influence in her writings of both More and Wollstonecraft. Her heroines are paragons of rational, merciful, and responsible womanhood. Austen also honors a style of enlightened and chivalrous manhood. Austen’s heroes—men like Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Knightley—esteem female strength, rationality, and intelligence.
Egalitarian feminists like Wollstonecraft (and later, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor) are staple figures in the intellectual history of feminism, but they have never attracted a very large following among the rank and file of women of their time. More succeeded brilliantly with all classes of women. She awakened a nation and changed the way it saw itself. What she achieved was unprecedented. But the feminist scholar Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace speaks for many when she describes More as a case study of “patriarchal complicity” and an “univited guest” who “makes the process of celebrating our HERITAGE as women more difficult.”
HANNAH MORE is not the only once-famous women’s advocate to have vanished from the official “herstorical” record. Ken Burns, the celebrated documentarian, followed his awardwinning Civil War with a 1999 film about Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and their struggle to win the vote for American women. There is one brief sequence in which the narrator explains that in the last quarter of the 19th century, Anthony forged coalitions with conservative mainstream groups. The mood darkens and a pioneer in the field of women’s studies— Professor Sally Roesch Wagner—appears on the screen. Wagner informs viewers that Anthony was so determined to win the vote, she established alliances with pro-suffrage women who were “enemies of freedom in every other way—Frances Willard is a case in point.” The camera then shows a photo of a menacing-looking Willard.
One would never imagine from Burns’s film that Frances Willard (1839–1898) was one of the most beloved and respected women of the 19th century. When she died, one newspaper wrote, “No woman’s name is better known in the English-speaking world than that of Miss Willard, save that of England’s great queen.” Because of her prodigious good works and kindly nature, Willard was often called the “Saint Frances of American Womanhood.” But Willard, a suffragist and leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, is another once esteemed figure in women’s history who is today unmentioned and unmentionable. Willard brought mainstream women into the suffrage movement, and some historians credit her with doing far more to win the vote for women than any other suffragist. But her fondness for saying things like “Womanliness first—afterwards what you will” was her ticket to historical obliquy.
Approved feminist founders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony promoted women’s suffrage through Wollstonecraft-like appeals to universal rights. Their inspirations were John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Wollstonecraft herself. Stanton wrote affectingly on “the individuality of each human soul,” and on a woman’s need to be the “arbiter of her own destiny.” She and her sister suffragists brought a feminist Enlightenment to women, but to their abiding disappointment, American women greeted the offer with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Stanton’s words were effective with a relatively small coterie of educated women, mostly on the East Coast. When a suffrage amendment failed dismally in the state of Colorado in 1877, one newspaper editorial called the suffragists “carpetbaggers” promoting an elitist “eastern issue.” The headline read: “Good-bye to the Female Tramps of Boston.”
For many decades the average American woman simply ignored the cause of suffrage. In a 1902 history of women’s suffrage, Anthony and her co-author wrote, “the indifference and inertia, the apathy of women lies the greatest obstacle to their enfranchisement.” Throughout the 1880s and 1890s many women actively organized against it. Stanford historian Carl Degler, in his classic 1980 social history, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, notes that in 1890, more than 20,000 women had joined an anti-suffrage group in New York State alone.
To prove once and for all that the majority of women wanted the vote, suffragists organized a referendum in Massachusetts in 1895. Both men and women were allowed to take part. The initiative lost, with 187,000 voting against the franchise and only 110,000 in favor—and of those who voted yes, only 23,000 were women! According to Anthony, “The average man would not vote against granting women the suffrage if all those of his own family brought a strong pressure to bear upon him in its favor.” It is the conventional wisdom that men denied women the ballot. But even a cursory look at the historical record suggests that men were not the only problem.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?