The Feminist Promise

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2011-05-10
  • Publisher: Modern Library

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In this sweeping, definitive volume, Christine Stansell, one of the leading historians of her generation, tells the story of one of the great democratic movements of our times. For more than two centuries, the ranks of feminists have included dreamy idealists and conscientious reformers, erotic rebels and angry housewives, dazzling writers,shrewd political strategists, and thwarted workingwomen. Well-known leaders are sketched from new angles by Stansell, with her bracingeye for character: Mary Wollstonecraft, the passionate English writer who in 1792 published the first full-scale argument for the rights of women; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, brilliant and fearless; the imperious, quarrelsome Betty Friedan. But figures from other contexts, too, appear in an unforgettable new light, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in the 1970s led a revolution in the constitutional interpretations of womenrs"s rights, and Toni Morrison, whose bittersweet prose gave voice to the modern black female experience. Stansell accounts for the failures of feminism as well as the successes. She notes significant moments in the struggle for gender equality, such as the emergence in the early 1900s of the dashing"New Woman"; the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote; the postWorld War II collapseof suburban neo-Victorianism; and the radical feminism of the 1960s-all of which led to vast changesin Americanculture and society. The Feminist Promise dramatically updates our understanding of feminism, taking the story through the age of Reagan and into the era of international feminist movements that have swept the globe. Stansell provocatively insists that the fight for womenrs"s rights in developing countries "cannot be separated from democracyrs"s survival." A soaring work unprecedented in scope, historical depth, and literary appeal,The Feminist Promiseis bound to become an authoritative source on this essential subject for decades to come on. At once a work of scholarship, political observation, and personal reflection, it is a book that speaks to the demands and challenges-individual, national, and international-of the twenty-first century.


Chapter One

Wild Wishes

There is nothing new about men's power, or women's recognition of it. Men have dominated, ruled, lorded over, and subjugated women as long as there has been recorded history. But the ways people have understood the preeminence of one sex over the other have changed through time. Western beliefs are rooted in a Christian schema that divided human beings into ranks according to a divine plan. As God ruled the world and man ruled beasts, so monarchs (usually kings) ruled subjects, fathers ruled children, masters ruled apprentices and servants, and men governed women. Rebelling against one's place in this order amounted to defying the will of God.

In the late eighteenth century, the great world-transforming revolutions in America and France overturned these assumptions, overthrowing monarchical rule first in the American colonies and then in France and installing governments based on the consent of the governed and the rights of man. The subordination of women survived the American and French revolutions, as did slavery, whose colossal expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries introduced another stark relationship of domination. In the American Revolution, patriots barely considered the question of women, nor did they debate the emancipation of the slaves (although the British offered emancipation as an enticement to join their side). Women joined the revolution in full force, but they never pressed for clarity about their own relation to the rights the patriots claimed, and soon most of those rights were out of bounds. In the French Revolution, women were present in all phases. Some pursued rights for their sex, and in the early days they were partially successful, but in the end, they made no headway.

The outcomes were different: a stable republic in the United States, based on the political rights of white male property holders and a compromise that resulted in the Constitution's tacit protection of slavery; in France, bloodshed and repression followed by Napoleon's dictatorship. As to the universal application of the rights of man, however, the answers were the same: Women would be acknowledged as mothers, not sisters, present at the edges of the political community in their families and safely under the governance of men.

For centuries in Europe, women spoke of the indignities of being subject to men. Their laments were a kind of underground tradition in women's culture, winding through songs, proverbs, and tales. "Hard luck is the fortune of all womankind," mourns the singer in an old Anglo-American ballad. "She's always controlled, she's always confined / controlled by her father until she's a wife / then a slave to her husband the rest of her life." A sixteenth-century female poet gave a sharp, pragmatic piece of advice in "Unyoked Is Best! Happy the Woman Without a Man." "Don't hurtle yourself into marriage too soon," she urged:

Wedlock's burden is far too heavy.

They know best whom it harnessed.

So often is a wife distressed, afraid. . . .

A man oft comes home all drunk and pissed

Just when his wife had worked her fingers to the bone

(So many chores to keep a decent house!),

But if she wants to get in a word or two,

She gets to taste his fist--no more.1

Women had their place in the great chain of submission and authority like everyone else. Many ideas specified how men's and women's natures differed and why these differences placed men over women. But the determining premises came from the story of the Garden of Eden in the third chapter of Genesis, the Bible's second account of Creation, when God makes Woman from one of Adam's ribs. Disobeying God, she succumbs to the serpent's enticements and eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, bringing catastrophe on humankind. Eve's weak-mindedness set the pattern: Women were judged to be by nature unruly and prone to wreck the divine order with their lust, their fickle characters, their susceptibility to Satan's wiles. Women, too, understood things this way. "Girls were brought up to believe that they ought to obey their husbands," stresses Natalie Zemon Davis, "and boys were brought up to believe that they had the power of correction over their wives."2

It was only possible to imagine otherwise by conjuring up a fantastic scenario when the normal order of things was turned upside down--on festival days and in communal rituals, when life went topsy-turvy and women acted like men and sometimes vice versa.3 But except for those extraordinary moments, men's power over women was a fact of life. Status was complicated and power was never divvied up tidily, with all men holding power over all women: The lady of the manor lorded it over male commoners. But no matter how highborn the woman, she was first and foremost subject to her husband. And because it was impossible to live outside family networks, virtually all adult women were destined for marriage.

Political authority was explicitly modeled on male authority in the family. British common law--which was, of course, the law of the North American colonies--designated the family a realm of government in itself, a kind of gendered jurisdiction where fathers and husbands ruled and (theoretically) protected women, children, laborers, and servants. In a satisfying marriage, a woman saw herself as a man's helpmate, his support and complement, her talents and labor put to the uses of their joint household. Nonetheless, she had no legal standing: Husband and wife were one, with the husband being the "one" before the law. "The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband," explained Sir William Blackstone, whose section on marriage in his 1765 Commentaries codified English common law.4 Blackstone gave common law pride of place over other jurisdictions in England--church law and courts of equity--that at times did recognize women's separate legal identity. He thus authorized a body of law especially hostile to women. A husband had rights to any property his wife brought to the marriage, the fruits of her labor, the property they accumulated together, and custody of their children. The principle of coverture pertained: A man "covered," or stood in place of his dependents before the outside world, including the law and the church (a reminder of coverture today is the custom of a woman taking her husband's name). A wife owed her husband compliance and labor; in return, husbands owed wives economic support and protection. Each owed the other sexual fidelity: Legal monogamy seamlessly bound the couple to Christian doctrine.

But in any social order there are cracks that thoughtful people notice and probe, widening the distance between what is supposed to be and what is. Isolated and unaware of each other, investigators and skeptics over the centuries wondered about women's place. Challenges to prevailing notions of female incapacities began to appear with some regularity in seventeenth-century France and England, from learned ladies who were well connected--Marie le Jars de Gournay, Mary Astell--but also from open-minded men: Francois Poullain de la Barre, influenced by the principles of Descartes, proposed in the 1670s that the mind had no sex. Although isolated from one another by time and geography, these writers made similar defenses of women's education and criticisms of their position in marriage. Mary Astell, writing in an era when the transatlantic trade in human beings boomed, compared marriage to slavery. "If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?" she inquired.5

Beginning with the North American colonies in 1776 and culminating in the Latin American wars of independence in the 1820s, revolution reshaped the Atlantic world. The intellectual origins lay with political philosophers of the British and French Enlightenments who, harking back to the idealized republics of Greece and Rome, proposed that reason and not obedience to God was the basis for proper human relations; that the origins of just government lay in the consent of the governed; and that people possessed certain immutable rights by virtue of being human.

Through the eighteenth century, republican ideas moved growing numbers of critics of monarchy in France, Britain, and British North America, firing their indignity at the way things were and setting in motion plans for what might yet be. The abstract ideas of treatises took on heat as they passed through arguments and conversations in coffeehouses and taverns, newspapers and pamphlets, drawing rooms and kitchens. Revolution fed on revolution. The establishment of the United States of America in 1789 emboldened the French, and the outbreak of the French Revolution inspired the uprising in the West Indian French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791, which resulted in the world's first republic of emancipated slaves.

These were revolutions made by men who saw themselves as brothers overthrowing tyrannical fathers--as the Americans and later the French labeled their kings.6 In the crisis that led up to the American Revolution, hot-blooded patriots lambasted George III's abnegation of the role of just patriarch; Tom Paine's sensational Common Sense of January 1776 railed against the king as the "wretch . . . with the pretended title of FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE." The colonists in rebellion came to believe that the overthrow of the unnatural father and the triumph of a virtuous people would effect a great change in hearts and minds, "a renovation of the natural order of things." In France, the king's bond with a much maligned queen intensified the sense of ill usage by bad parents. As Lynn Hunt writes, the French "imagined replacing them--the king and the queen--with a different kind of family, one in which the parents were effaced and the children, especially the brothers, acted autonomously."7

No one mentioned the analogue, sorority, because sorority was the void at the other end of the ubiquitous idea of fraternity. To be sure, women were not the only people whom the revolutions left in a liminal position. Only in Saint-Domingue did constitution makers recognize the total denial of natural rights that chattel slavery represented. But free women's exclusion is a bit more difficult to grasp because they were not seen as so far outside the polity that they lacked rights altogether, as were slaves, but neither were they seen as full members of the political community.8

In the American Revolution, women's subordination was so deeply ingrained that questions about their place in the postrevolutionary order were barely raised. Writers of the British Enlightenment had little to say about women's relationship to liberty and equality, and what they did say tended toward the negative: Women were the agents of foolishness and social retrogression.9 Their absence in the political theory that legitimated the revolution does not mean, however, that they were marginal to the actual war. Their contributions were crucial: They worked as nurses, spies, couriers, and prison wardens, housed troops, and ran farms, shops, and businesses. A few disguised themselves as men and fought in the army.10 Here and there one catches a fleeting sense of entitlement, without the words to articulate protest: "I have Don as much to Carrey on the Warr as maney that Sett now at ye healm of government," objected the widow Rachel Wells, a patriot supporter, in 1786 (she had purchased New Jersey war bonds that the state subsequently refused to honor). She called herself a "Sitisen."11 But in the colonies there was no flood of pamphlets and petitions from women as there would be in France, no learned ladies demanding to be included in political discussions, no intense debates about women's place.12

Insofar as patriot leaders thought about women, which was seldom, they thought about their weak characters and the need to keep them in line for everyone's good. "Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature?" demanded James Otis of Massachusetts in 1764; he was virtually the only patriot to ask the question.13 No, ladies were not slaves. They were citizens; so were freeborn children. But they were certainly not slated for the generous, activist conception of citizenship the patriots embraced. Tom Paine, whose Common Sense was the match to tinder, scoffed at any hereditary basis for rank and distinction but, in a commonsensical spirit, noted that the one basis in nature for social differences was sex. Unlike king and commoner, or the aristocracy and the people, "male and female are the distinctions of nature."14

Women were minimal citizens, not energetic participants. Citizen-

ship was so thin for them because wifeliness was so thick. Marriage mediated their relationship to the self-governing nation. Marriage was deemed their normative state, and marriage made them dependents of husbands, putting them in the same category as children. In the republican vocabulary, dependence and its shining opposite, independence, were as much moral states as they were economic categories. To be independent, a person must own property and head a household; propertyless men could not vote, either. Thus single, property-owning women had some rights in the early years of the republic. But wives, like propertyless men and children, were too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment and too dependent on men to have a will of their own. So maintained John Adams, who, we will see, spent some time working out the logic of women's exclusion.15 Sons grew to adulthood, however, and apprentices, servants, and poor men could in theory acquire the property that conferred independence. Women were dependents for life.

Independent men represented their dependents in public affairs. This was the principle of "virtual representation" that passed intact from the British political system into the new republic. Women had no direct relationship to those who legislated for them, just as the colonies did not elect representatives to Parliament. While Americans repudiated the principle of virtual representation on which British rule was predicated, they retained virtual representation in regard to women. Virtual representation would have a long and hardy life in democratic-republican thought, lingering in various guises around the world well into the twentieth century as the chief argument against women's political rights.

One exception to the silence about women is the famous "remember the ladies" argument that occurred at the very beginning of the American Revolution, in the spring of 1776, between John and Abigail Adams, the future president and his wife. Abigail Adams was at home in Massachusetts, running the family farm as she would for a good decade while her husband served the new government. John Adams was in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which would soon issue the Declaration of Independence. They wrote each other constantly, on matters large and small. The exchange on women is remarkable because the spouses confronted directly a question that everyone else ignored. Their writing has the bite of intimacy: In a sense, it was an argument between a brother and sister--in the ways that longtime spouses can turn into siblings--about the future of the republic.

Abigail Adams was not a learned lady. She was, however, a woman of great intelligence. Born in Massachusetts in 1744 to a prosperous country family, she educated herself in her father's library.

From the Hardcover edition.

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