Since the late 1960s, feminists have very successfully waged war against the traditional family, in which husbands are the principal breadwinners and wives are primarily homemakers. This war’s immediate purpose has been to undermine the homemaker’s position within both her family and society in order to drive her into the work force. Its long-term goal is to create a society in which women behave as much like men as possible, devoting as much time and energy to the pursuit of a career as men do, so that women will eventually hold equal political and economic power with men.
-F. Carolyn Graglia, Domestic Tranquility
In the 1990s, 30 years after the launch of second wave feminism, books critical of feminism such as Christina Hoff Summers’ Who Stole Feminism, Danielle Crittenden’s What Our Mother’s Didn’t Tell Us, and F. Carolyn Graglia’s Domestic Tranquility were published. One of the latest books in this small and necessary area of social commentary is The Flipside of Feminism by Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly, published in 2011. While some of these critiques merely criticize what are perceived as feminism’s excesses, The Flipside, along with Graglia’s book, posit that feminism has not helped women at all, and has had negative influences on the family and society. These critiques, however, refer to feminism beginning in the 1960s—known as second wave feminism—without any or little thought to what came before. The Flipside goes as far as claiming feminism began in the 1960s and whatever came before, for example, the woman suffrage movement, has nothing in common with it.
Nearly all critiques of feminism make a distinction between first wave feminism, which is associated with the woman suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and second wave feminism, which is associated with Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique and which took so-called “women’s rights” to a new level; legalized abortion on demand, easy access to birth control, and government-subsidized daycare were three primary demands of the second wave.
These critiques, which analyze the flaws of feminism and discuss the negative effects feminism has had on women, men, families and society, often suggest that feminism took a wrong turn in the 1960s away from what was essentially a reform movement rather than a protest against male domination with social revolution as the goal. However, the idea that first wave feminism was a benign movement that had nothing to do with later stages of the feminist movement is false. There are clear ideological bloodlines between first wave and second wave feminism, and some of the rhetoric is indistinguishable. The ideology that “empowers” and “liberates” women through birth control, legalized abortion, publicly-funded daycare, and no-fault divorce—what traditionally-minded conservative women abhor about feminism—was the ideology of the feminist movement from its earliest days.
One of the problems with looking back at the stirrings of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries is that feminist scholars themselves don’t agree on when feminism began or which of women’s actions throughout history belong to feminism. Some, like feminist historian Nancy Cott, don’t apply the term feminism and feminist retrospectively, and so, feminism begins when the idea of feminism and the use of the word began—when women actually thought of themselves as feminists. In the United States this was in the 1910s. Most historians, however, use the term loosely and, for example, call the 15th century writer Christine de Pizan an early feminist. Nancy Cott, in her book The Grounding of Modern Feminism, makes a distinction between the woman movement and feminism:
The appearance of Feminism in the 1910s signaled a new phase in the debate and agitation about women’s rights and freedoms that had flared for hundreds of years. People in the nineteenth century did not say feminism. They spoke of the advancement of woman or the cause of woman, woman’s rights, and woman suffrage. Most inclusively, they spoke of the woman movement, to denote the many ways women moved out of their homes to initiate measures of charitable benevolence, temperance, and social welfare and instigate struggles of civic rights, social freedoms, higher education, remunerative occupations, and the ballot.
Cott writes that the broad “woman movement,” which especially sprang to life in the 19th century, the suffrage campaign, which was at its height in the first two decades of the 20th century, and feminism, which came into being in the 1910s, have been lumped together by historians. She pulls apart this lumping together to show they are connected, overlapping, yet distinct from each other. For instance, as Cott points out, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two names most associated with first wave feminism in America, would not have called themselves feminists—they wouldn’t have been aware of the word or its meaning.
Cott quotes an early feminist to illustrate the distinction between suffragism and feminism. Winnifred Harper Cooley, in a 1913 Harper’s Weekly article, wrote: “All feminists are suffragists, but not all suffragists are feminists.” The vote was viewed as a tool to feminists, with their real goal being “complete social revolution.” Included in this complete social revolution, Cott writes, was “freedom for all forms of women’s active expression, elimination of all structural and psychological handicaps to women’s economic independence, an end to the double standard of sexual morality, release from constraining sexual stereotypes, and opportunity to shine in every civic and professional capacity.”
What did other early feminists have to say?
Henrietta Rodman, who founded a group called the Feminist Alliance in 1914, advocated for communal living for families with working mothers. In her “feminist apartment house,” the “four primitive industries of women—care of house, clothes, food and children”—would be provided by trained professionals, freeing mothers to work outside the home to the same extent as fathers. This living scheme was to take care of what Rodman called “the weak point in feminism”—”the care of the baby.” (She later said she would rather express this idea by saying: “…the baby is the great problem of the woman who attempts to carry the new responsibilities of wage-earning and citizenship.”
Later feminists of the second wave would address the “great problem” of the baby by advocating for legalized abortion and subsidized daycare.
Rodman: “A home is just as demoralizing a place to stay in all day as is a bed.”
Rodman: “If a woman stays in the home she fails to develop courage, initiative and resourcefulness; she fails to makes those contributions to society that society has a right to expect her to make.”
The above two statements were reiterated by Betty Friedan in her 1963 classic feminist work The Feminine Mystique. Friedan went as far as calling the home a “comfortable concentration camp.”
Rodman maintained that a baby aged 6 months to 2 years could be better cared for by a trained nurse than by his or her own mother. She also correctly prophesized that sex differences, what are now called gender differences, would become much less apparent: “My prophecy is that men and women will be much more like each other, mentally and physically, both approximating a type far higher than the distinct sex types of today.” Now, 100 years later, the ideal woman is strong and independent, while the ideal man is sensitive and not afraid to show his feelings. We have come so far with the idea that gender is malleable that “transgendered” kids can use the restroom at school that matches their “gender identity” rather than their sex.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a writer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The main idea of her most influential work, Women and Economics, published in 1898, is women will only be liberated when they became economically independent of men. The vote, according to Gilman, was not the key to women’s freedom.
Gilman called for a restructuring of family and home life in which mothers work outside the home and domestic responsibilities such as childcare, cooking and cleaning are done by professionals:
If there should be built and opened in any of our large cities to-day a commodious and well-served apartment house for professional women with families, it would be filled at once. The apartments would be without kitchens; but there would be a kitchen belonging to the house from which meals could be served to the families in their rooms or in a common dining-room, as preferred. It would be a home where the cleaning was done by efficient workers, not hired separately by the families, but engaged by the manager of the establishment; and a roof-garden, day nursery, and kindergarten, under well-trained professional nurses and teachers, would insure proper care of the children.
Gilman: Homemakers are “parasitic creatures, whose living is obtained by the exertion of others.”
Gilman: “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”
In Domestic Tranquility, F. Carolyn Graglia acknowledges Gilman’s foresight saying that a century ago she “accurately predicted the daily lives of today’s women who, early in the morning, leave their babies in some childcare establishment and after collecting them at day’s end, dine on the products of our industrialized, efficient fast food industry.”
The denigration of the traditional family of husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker began long before the 1960s with Betty Friedan’s indictment of the housewife in The Feminine Mystique. Fifty years earlier feminists were already intent on remaking the family, and society with it, to suit the feminist ideal of the economically independent woman.
In the 1920s, as Cott points out in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, the question of can and should women combine marriage and motherhood with careers was a burning one, much discussed in magazine articles and among college women. “Dorothy Dix, the most widely read newspaper advice columnist in the country at the time—who herself believed that ‘economic independence is the only independence in the world. As long as you must look to another for your food and clothes you are a slave to that person’—said that the question most frequently asked of her was, ‘should a woman work outside of the home after marriage?’.”
Almost 100 years before Sheryl Sandberg wrote the feminist manifesto Lean In, recommending that women give free reign to their career ambitions and choose a husband that will allow for this (that is, he will take equal or more responsibility for taking care of children and the house), feminists in the 1920s such as Lorine Pruette, a psychologist and feminist who wrote for The New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post, were urging women to either abstain from marriage to be a success in one’s profession, or, find the right kind of man to marry—one that would contribute to housework and childcare duties, and wouldn’t mind having a wife who was more successful than he.
Part 2 of this essay to be posted next week.