Freedom used to stand at the heart of feminism, but modern feminists have succeeded in strong>erasing history
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Degler and other historians believe that, because the vote was associated with individualism and personal assertiveness, many women saw it as both selfish and an attack on their unique and valued place in the family. Feminist historians denigrate what they call the “cult of domesticity” that proved so beguiling to nineteenth century women. But they forget that this “cult” freed many rural women from manual labor, improved the material conditions of women’s lives and coincided with an increase in female life expectancy. Furthermore, as Degler shows, in nineteenth-century America, both the public and private spheres were prized and valued. The companionate marriages described by Jane Austen were the American domestic ideal. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the essential equality of the male and female spheres in Democracy in America (1840) “Americans,” he said, did not think that men and women should perform the same tasks, “but they show an equal regard for both their perspective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as being of equal value.”
Hence as long as women saw the vote as a threat to their sphere, suffrage was a lost cause. Impassioned feminist rhetoric about freedom, dignity, autonomy, and individual rights fell on deaf ears. If the American women’s movement was going to move forward, the suffrage movement needed new arguments and new ways of thinking that were more respectful and protective of women’s role. Frances Willard showed the way.
FRANCES WILLARD served as president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. Under her leadership it grew to be the largest and most influential women’s organization in the nation. Today we associate temperance with Puritanism. But in the late 19th century, most feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, supported it. Temperance advocates believed that a ban on the sale of alcohol would greatly diminish wife abuse, desertion, destitution, and crime. In other words, temperance was a movement in defense of the home—the female sphere.
Willard was proud of women’s role as the “Angel in the house.” But why, she asked, limit these angels to the home? With the vote, said Willard, women could greatly increase their civilizing and humane influence on society. With the vote, they could protect the homes they so dearly loved. Indeed, Willard referred to the “vote” as “the home protection ballot.” Women were moved by this, and men were disarmed. Anthony admired Willard; Stanton, a skeptic in religious matters, was leery. Both were startled by her ability to attract unprecedented numbers of dedicated women to the suffrage cause. The membership figures for the various women’s organizations are striking. In 1890, two leading egalitarian suffragist groups merged because they were worried that the cause was dying. They formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association and elected Elizabeth Cady Stanton president. The total membership of these combined groups, according to University of Michigan historian Ruth Bordin, was 13,000. By comparison, Willard had built an organization with more than ten times that number; by 1890 she had 150,000 adult dues-paying members. Moreover, Willard and her followers began to bring the suffrage movement something new and unfamiliar: victories.
In 1893 the state of Colorado held a second election on women’s suffrage. Unlike 1877, when the suffragists lost and the so-called “tramps of Boston” were sent packing, this time the suffragists won the vote by a 55 percent majority. Many historians agree that Willard’s new conservative approach explains the success. She had persuaded large numbers of men and women that it was a mother’s sacred duty to vote. Thomas Carlyle has ascribed the insights of genius to “cooperation with the tendency of the world.” Like Hannah More before her, Willard cooperated with the world and discerned novel and effective ways to improve it. Feminists do not honor the memory of these women. Indeed, with the exception of a small group of professional historians and literary critics, almost no one knows who they are.
Still, it is interesting to note, today the Hannah More/Frances Willard style of conservative feminism is on the verge of a powerful resurgence. In her 1990 book, In Search of Islamic Feminism, the University of Texas Middle Eastern studies professor Elizabeth Warnock Fernea described a new style of feminism coming to life throughout the Muslim world. Traveling through Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, and Iraq, Fernea met great numbers of women’s advocates working hard to improve the status of women. There have always been Western-style egalitarian feminists in these countries. But they are small in number and tend to be found among the most educated elites. The “Islamic feminists” Fernea was meeting were different. They were traditional, religious, and family- centered—and they had a following among women from all social classes. They were proud of women’s role as mother, wife, and caregiver. Several rejected what they see as divisiveness in today’s American women’s movement. As one Iraqi women’s advocate, Haifa Abdul Rahman, told her, “We see feminism in America as dividing women from men, separating women from the family. This is bad for everyone.” Fernea settled on the term “family feminism” to describe this new movement. Experts on the history of Western feminism will here recognize its affinities with Frances Willard’s long-lost teachings. Today, almost 20 years after Fernea’s book, conservative feminism is surging in the Muslim world.
When Frances Willard died in 1898, her younger feminist colleague Carrie Chapman Catt remarked, “There has never been a woman leader in this country greater than Frances Willard.” But today’s feminists remain implacably hostile to Willard’s notions of “womanly virtue” and have no sympathy with her family-centered feminism. These are unforgivable defects in their eyes, but they are precisely the traits that make Willard’s style of feminism highly relevant to the many millions of women all over the world who are struggling for their rights and freedoms in strongly traditional societies, and who do not want to be liberated from their love for family, children, and husband.
TRUTH BE TOLD, there are also great numbers of contemporary American women who would today readily label themselves as feminists were they aware of a conservative alternative, in which liberty rather than “liberation” is the dominant idea. Today, more than 70 percent of American women reject the label “feminist,” largely because the label has been appropriated by those who reject the very idea of a feminine sphere.
Clare Boothe Luce, a conservative feminist who in her heyday in the 1940s was a popular playwright and a member of the United States Congress, wrote and spoke about women at a time when feminism’s Second Wave was still more than 20 years away. Luce’s exemplary remarks on Mother Nature and sex differences are especially relevant today. It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society up to Mother Nature—a difficult lady to fool. You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature. What is in women’s nature to do they will do, and you won’t be able to stop them. But you will also find, and so will they, that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity, they will not do, and you won’t be able to make them do it.
Camille Paglia once told me she found these words powerful, persuasive, and even awe-inspiring. So do I. Luce takes the best of both egalitarian and conservative feminism. She is careful to say that women’s nature can be made known only in conditions of freedom and opportunity. It is in such conditions of respect and fairness that woman can reveal their true preferences. Clearly Luce does not expect that women will turn out to be interchangeable with men.
When Luce wrote her cautionary words, sex role stereotypes still powerfully limited women’s choices and opportunities. Today, women enjoy the equality of opportunity that Luce alluded to. The conventional constraints, confinements, and rigid expectations are largely things of the past. It is now possible to observe “the role of women in society” by taking note of the roles women themselves freely choose. Was Wollstonecraft right to insist that under conditions of freedom the sexes would make similar choices? Or was Hannah More closer to the truth when she suggested that women will always prevail in the private sphere and express themselves as the natural caregivers of the species?
We know from common observation that women are markedly more nurturing and empathetic than men. The female tendency to be empathic and caring shows up very early in life. Female infants, for example, show greater distress and concern than male infants over the plight of others; this difference persists into adulthood. Women don’t merely say they want to help others; they enter the helping and caring professions in great numbers.
Even today, in an era when equal rights feminism is dominant in education, the media, and the women’s movement, women continue to be vastly over-represented in fields like nursing, social work, pediatrics, veterinary medicine, and early childhood education. The great 19th-century psychologist William James said that for men “the world is a theater for heroism.” That may be an overstatement, but it finds a lot of support in modern social science—and evidence of everyday life. Women are numerically dominant in the helping professions; men prevail in the saving and rescuing vocations such as policemen, firefighters, and soldiers.
HERE WE COME to the central paradox of egalitarian feminism: when women are liberated from the domestic sphere and no longer forced into the role of nurturers, when they are granted their full Lockean/Jeffersonian freedoms to pursue happiness in all the multitudinous ways a free society has to offer, many, perhaps most, still give priority to the domestic sphere.
In a 1975 exchange in the Saturday Review, the feminist pioneer Betty Friedan and the French philosopher and women’s rights advocate Simone de Beauvoir discussed the “problem” of stay-at-home mothers. Friedan told Beauvoir that she believed women should have the choice to stay home to raise their children if that is what they wished to do. Beauvoir candidly disagreed:
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