The Total Anti-Feminist or: Why All Feminism is Bad. Part 3

A woman that is content to wash stockings, and make Johnny-cake, and to look after and bring up her boys faultless to a button, and that never thinks beyond the meal-tub, and whose morality is so small as to be confined to a single house, is an under-grown woman, and will spend the first thousand years after death in coming to that state in which she ought to have been before she died.

Henry Ward Beecher, “Woman’s Duty to Vote” speech, 1866

In Part 1 and Part 2 of “The Total Anti-Feminist,” I employed the distinctions feminist historian Nancy Cott makes between the woman movement, suffragism, and feminism. I provided evidence that feminism from its earliest days at the beginning of the 20th century espoused the same destructive ideology of later feminism. However, what if I include the woman suffrage movement within feminism, as most historians do? Can I still conclude that all feminism is bad? In other words, was the woman suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries bad?

Eleanor Flexner, the author of the 1959 history of the woman’s rights movement, Century of Struggle, wrote in the preface to a 1975 edition of the book, “What must be made clear is the continuity between today’s upsurge and the earlier movement, even if the ambiguities and problems that confront today’s woman in her quest for identity and fulfillment may seem very different from the obstacles that faced her predecessors.” Flexner believed that women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Charlotte Perkins Gilman “all would have felt at home” in the 1960s and 70s feminist movement.

Historians usually date the beginning of the woman suffrage movement in the U.S. to the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 where Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Sentiments included a list of grievances and resolutions demanding equal rights for women. The right to vote was listed and was the most controversial of the demands for women. It passed, but was the only resolution not passed unanimously. (Apparently, when Stanton read a draft of the Declaration to her husband in advance of the convention, he told her that if the resolution demanding the vote for women was included then he would have nothing to do with the convention and would leave town for the duration of it—which he did.)

For those who associate the woman suffrage movement with the Seneca Falls convention it may seem strange that the demand for woman suffrage was so controversial. According to Flexner, however, “the early woman’s rights movement showed little interest in getting the vote; few felt its importance then as strongly as Mrs. Stanton. Of more immediate concern were the control of property, of earnings…guardianship, divorce, opportunity for education and employment, lack of legal status…and the whole concept of female inferiority perpetuated by established religion.”

Within the woman suffrage movement there are several distinctions to make. The suffragist campaign spanned a period of about 70 years in the U.S. so there were roughly two generations of suffragists—the early suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the later ones, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman. With the younger generation came new arguments for enfranchising women. Originally, the basis of the argument was the natural rights or justice argument—that is, since women are equal to men they too should have the vote. Later in the campaign arguments based on expediency, such as government needs women or the vote is a means for women to achieve social reform, were used. However, the vote as a natural right for women was at the heart of the woman suffrage movement.

Further, within both generations of suffragists, as would be expected, there were splits between radical and more conservative approaches to women’s rights. In the earlier generation Stanton and Anthony were in the radical camp, leading the National Woman Suffrage Association, while Lucy Stone and Henry Ward Beecher led the more conservative group, the American Woman Suffrage Association. However, in 1890 the two groups overcame their differences and merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Most early suffragists would have been of the opinion that women had a duty to remain in the home to care for her family. Most early suffragists were fighting for the vote because they believed it was their natural right as human beings. Some though, like Stanton, increasingly saw suffragism as just one piece of a greater revolution in woman’s freedom. The later suffragists also had a much fuller program in mind for the emancipation of women, and a split emerged when a group of suffragists left NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1917. The NWP was a radical, feminist group. These later suffragists, and some of the earlier ones, held ideas in common with the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s.

In The Grounding of Modern Feminism, Nancy Cott writes that for the “suffragists during the latter half of the nineteenth century” there was a “common thread of rage at the injustice of male dominance and the arbitrariness of male privilege…” Rage against so-called male dominance and privilege is central to the ideology of second wave feminism.

In addition to protesting male dominance, economic independence has always been a focus of feminists, and it seems it was for some suffragists too. Cott writes that for the later generation of suffragists, who were active at a time when women were increasingly college educated and taking up professions, “the connection between women’s economic roles in society and their justification and need for the ballot was crucial.”

Militancy and feminist ideology within the suffragist movement was particularly apparent in the Congressional Union (CU), a suffragist organization created in 1913, which became a rival to the NAWSA. The CU morphed into the NWP in 1917. The staff of the CU “were by and large young women who had entered fully into the Feminist vision and saw themselves as professional stirrers-up; most of them had radical political sympathies” (Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism). Crystal Eastman, whose views were discussed in Part 2 of this post, is an example of the type of woman who belonged to the CU.

However, lest one think that only suffragists belonging to the later generation are the ideological “sisters” of feminists from the 1960s and 70s, one need only to take a look at Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the early instigators of the woman suffrage movement and one of its central figures. Flexner called her, “the leading intellectual force in the emancipation of American women.”

Stanton was the main author of the infamous Declaration of Sentiments introduced at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. The introductory statement to the list of grievances in the Declaration, based on a statement in the Declaration of Independence, when applied to the cause of women’s rights becomes a gross exaggeration. It comes across as anti-male rhetoric rather than anything resembling a factual statement: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” That Stanton and her colleagues thought woman’s suffrage a cause equal to a country’s fight for independence shows lack of a sense of proportion and a less than firm grasp of reality.

On the whole, the document is one part anti-male tirade and one part impassioned plea for women’s rights. For example, it states: “Having deprived her of this first right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.”

It further states: “He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”

Within the Resolutions section of the document, this sentiment stands out as being in line with contemporary feminism’s ideas about woman’s sphere: “Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.”

(Betty Friedan wholeheartedly agreed. In 1998, Friedan and others signed a “Recomittment to the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’” in a ceremony at Seneca Falls at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park.)

That this ill-formed document with its upbraiding tone and distorted view of reality is a foundational document of the women’s rights movement, suffragism, and feminism in the U.S. says a great deal.

Part 4 of this essay to be posted next week.