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Freedom, Feminism, and the State
An Overview of Individualist Feminism
By Wendy McElroy
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 1991 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
Human Rights Not Founded on Sex
Although Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) was the genteel daughter of a prominent plantation owner, she became one of the foremost crusaders against slavery and the first woman in America to lecture before mixed audiences — audiences composed of both men and women. Angelina exemplified many of the characteristics common among abolitionist women: a Quaker background and pietistic spirit; the dramatic influence of William Lloyd Garrison; the determination to wed women's rights to the anti-slavery cause. She insisted that the struggle against slavery was a battle for the dignity of human beings, not just men. Even though many of the abolitionists were sympathetic to feminism, they objected to linking the two issues for fear that the more popular anti-slavery cause would be damaged by the less popular women's rights. It is in this context that the following essay must be understood. Angelina Grimké was writing not only for the general public, but for her fellow abolitionists who wished to separate the issues of slavery and sex.
Her views of feminism were best expressed in a line from the following essay drawn from a letter written in 1837: "My doctrine then is, that whatever it is morally right for man to do, it is morally right for woman to do."
The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. I have found the Anti-Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land — the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other. Here a great fundamental principle is uplifted and illuminated, and from this central light, rays innumerable stream all around. Human beings have rights, because they are moral beings: the rights of all men grow out of their moral nature; and as all men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights. These rights may be wrested from the slave, but they cannot be alienated: his title to himself is as perfect now, as is that of Lyman Beecher: it is stamped on his moral being, and is, like it, imperishable. Now if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstance of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to woman. To suppose that it does, would be to deny the self-evident truth, that the "physical constitution is the mere instrument of the moral nature." To suppose that it does, would be to break up utterly the relations, of the two natures, and to reverse their functions, exalting the animal nature into a monarch, and humbling the moral into a slave; making the former a proprietor, and the latter its property. When human beings are regarded as moral beings, sex, instead of being enthroned upon the summit, administering upon rights and responsibilities, sinks into insignificance and nothingness. My doctrine then is, that whatever it is morally right for man to do, it is morally right for woman to do. Our duties originate, not from difference of sex, but from the diversity of our relations in life, the various gifts and talents committed to our care, and the different eras in which we live.
This regulation of duty by the mere circumstance of sex, rather than by the fundamental principle of moral being, has led to all that multifarious train of evils flowing out of the anti-christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues. By this doctrine, man has been converted into the warrior, and clothed with sternness, and those other kindred qualities, which in common estimation belong to his character as a man; whilst woman has been taught to lean upon an arm of flesh, to sit as a doll arrayed in "gold, and pearls, and costly array," to be admired for her personal charms, and caressed and humored like a spoiled child, or converted into a mere drudge to suit the convenience of her lord and master. ... This principle has given to man a charter for the exercise of tyranny and selfishness, pride and arrogance, lust and brutal violence. It has robbed woman of essential rights, the right to think and speak and act; the right to share their responsibilities, perils, and toils; the right to fulfil the great end of her being, as a moral, intellectual and immortal creature, and of glorifying God in her body and her spirit which are His. Hitherto, instead of being a helpmeet to man, as a companion, a co-worker, an equal; she has been a mere appendage of his being, an instrument of his convenience and pleasure, the pretty toy with which he w[h]iled away his leisure moments, or the pet animal whom he humored into playfulness and submission. Woman, instead of being regarded as the equal of man, has uniformly been looked down upon as his inferior, a mere gift to fill up the measure of his happiness. In "the poetry of romantic gallantry," it is true, she has been called "the last best gift of God to man;" but I believe I speak forth the words of truth and soberness when I affirm, that woman never was given to man. She was created, like him, in the image of God, and crowned with glory and honor; created only a little lower than the angels, — not, as is almost universally assumed, a little lower than man; on her brow, as well as on his, was placed the "diadem of beauty," and in her hand the sceptre of universal dominion. Gen: i. 27, 28. "The last best gift of God to Man!" Where is the scripture warrant for this "rhetorical flourish, this splendid absurdity?" Let us examine the account of her creation. "And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man." Not as a gift — for Adam immediately recognized her as a part of himself — ("this is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh") — a companion and equal, not one hair's breadth beneath him in the majesty and glory of her moral being; not placed under his authority as a subject, but by his side, on the same platform of human rights, under the government of God only. This idea of woman's being "the last best gift of God to man," however pretty it may sound to the ears of those who love to discourse upon "the poetry of romantic chivalry," has nevertheless been the means of sinking her from an end into a mere means — of turning her into an appendage to man, instead of recognizing her as a part of man — of destroying her individuality, and rights, and responsibilities, and merging her moral being in that of man. Instead of Jehovah being her king, her lawgiver, and her judge, she has been taken out of the exalted scale of existence in which He placed her, and subjected to the despotic control of man.
I have often been amused at the vain efforts made to define the rights and responsibilities of immortal beings as men and women. No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet. Confusion, uncertainty, and great inconsistencies, must exist on this point, so long as woman is regarded in the least degree inferior to man; but place her where her Maker placed her, on the same high level of human rights with man, side by side with him, and difficulties vanish, the mountains of perplexity flow down at the presence of this grand equalizing principle. Measure her rights and duties by the unerring standard of moral being, not by the false weights and measures of a mere circumstance of her human existence, and then the truth will be self-evident, that whatever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do. I recognize no rights but human rights — I know nothing of men's rights and women's rights; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. It is my solemn conviction, that, until this principle of equality is recognised and embodied in practice, the Church can do nothing effectual for the permanent reformation of the world. Woman was the first transgressor, and the first victim of power. In all heathen nations, she has been the slave of man, and Christian nations have never acknowledged her rights. Nay more, no Christian denomination or Society has ever acknowledged them on the broad basis of humanity. I know that in some denominations, she is permitted to preach the gospel; not from the conviction of her rights, nor upon the ground of her equality as a human being, but of her equality in spiritual gifts — for we find that woman, even in these Societies, is allowed no voice in framing the Discipline by which she is to be governed. Now, I believe it is woman's right to have a voice in all the laws and regulations by which she is to be governed, whether in Church or State; and that the present arrangements of society, on these points, are a violation of human rights, a rank usurpation of power, a violent seizure and confiscation of what is sacredly and inalienably hers — thus inflicting upon woman outrageous wrongs, working mischief incalculable in the social circle, and in its influence on the world producing only evil, and that continually. If Ecclesiastical and Civil governments are ordained of God, then I contend that woman has just as much right to sit in solemn counsel in Conventions, Conferences, Associations and General Assemblies, as man — just as much right to sit upon the throne of England, or in the Presidential Chair of the United States.
Dost thou ask me, if I would wish to see woman engaged in the contention and strife of sectarian controversy, or in the intrigues of political partizans? I say no! never — never. I rejoice that she does not stand on the same platform which man now occupies in these respects; but I mourn, also, that he should thus prostitute his higher nature, and vilely cast away his birthright. I prize the rarity of his character as highly as I do that of hers. As a moral being, whatever it is morally wrong for her to do, it is morally wrong for him to do. The fallacious doctrine of male and female virtues has well nigh ruined all that is morally great and lovely in his character: he has been quite as deep a sufferer by it as woman, though mostly in different respects and by other processes....
Thou sayest, "an ignorant, a narrow-minded, or a stupid woman, cannot feel nor understand the rationality, the propriety, or the beauty of this relation" — i.e. subordination to man. Now, verily, it does appear to me, that nothing but a narrow-minded view of the subject of human rights and responsibilities can induce any one to believe in this subordination to a fallible being. Sure I am, that the signs of the times clearly indicate a vast and rapid change in public sentiment, on this subject. Sure I am that she is not to be, as she has been, "a mere second-hand agent" in the regeneration of a fallen world. Not that "she will carry her measures by tormenting when she cannot please, or by petulant complaints or obtrusive interference, in matters which are out of her sphere, and which she cannot comprehend." But just in proportion as her moral and intellectual capacities become enlarged, she will rise higher and higher in the scale of creation, until she reaches that elevation prepared for her by her Maker, and upon whose summit she was originally stationed, only "a little lower than the angels." Then will it be seen that nothing which concerns the well-being of mankind is either beyond her sphere, or above her comprehension: Then will it be seen "that America will be distinguished above all other nations for well educated women, and for the influence they will exert on the general interests of society. ..."CHAPTER 2
Anarchism and American Traditions
Voltairine de Cleyre
In his biography of Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912), Paul Avrich describes her as "A brief comet in the anarchist firmament." At the age of 20, the already unconventional de Cleyre turned her attention toward anarchism, which became the organizing principle of her life. The following essay, "Anarchism and American Traditions," is de Cleyre's best-known work and argues that anarchism is the logical consequence of the principles of the American Revolution. Unfortunately, most of her work is buried in the pages of obscure radical papers, and her reputation is based on a small fraction of her writing.
De Cleyre's anarchism is intimately related to her battle for women's rights, for they have the same root — the hatred of tyranny. Her condemnation of man's dominance over woman led her to condemn marriage and question the wisdom of living with the men who were her lovers. Such an arrangement too easily stifled independence. "To me," wrote Voltairine de Cleyre, "any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery." To her, equality and dignity for both sexes led to anarchism.
American traditions, begotten of religious rebellion, small self-sustaining communities, isolated conditions, and hard pioneer life, grew during the colonization period of one hundred and seventy years from the settling of Jamestown to the outburst of the Revolution. This was in fact the great constitution-making epoch, the period of charters guaranteeing more or less of liberty, the general tendency of which is well described by Wm. Penn in speaking of the charter for Pennsylvania: "I want to put it out of my power, or that of my successors, to do mischief."
The revolution is the sudden and unified consciousness of these traditions, their loud assertion, the blow dealt by their indomitable will against the counter force of tyranny, which has never entirely recovered from the blow, but which from then till now has gone on remolding and regrappling the instruments of governmental power, that the Revolution sought to shape and hold as defenses of liberty.
To the average American of today, the Revolution means the series of battles fought by the patriot army with the armies of England. The millions of school children who attend our public schools are taught to draw maps of the siege of Boston and the siege of Yorktown, to know the general plan of the several campaigns, to quote the number of prisoners of war surrendered with Burgoyne; they are required to remember the date when Washington crossed the Delaware on the ice; they are told to "Remember Paoli," to repeat "Molly Stark's a widow," to call General Wayne "Mad Anthony Wayne," and to execrate Benedict Arnold; they know that the Declaration of Independence was signed on the Fourth of July, 1776, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783; and then they think they have learned the Revolution — blessed be George Washington! They have no idea why it should have been called a "revolution" instead of the "English war," or any similar title: it's the name of it, that's all. And name-worship, both in child and man, has acquired such mastery of them, that the name "American Revolution" is held sacred, though it means to them nothing more than successful force, while the name "Revolution" applied to a further possibility, is a spectre detested and abhorred. In neither case have they any idea of the content of the word, save that of armed force. That has already happened, and long happened, which Jefferson foresaw when he wrote:
"The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may become persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing every essential right, on a legal basis, is while our rulers are honest, ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will be heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion."
Excerpted from Freedom, Feminism, and the State by Wendy McElroy. Copyright © 1991 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword Lewis Perry,
Introduction The Roots of Individual Feminism in 19th-Century America Wendy McElroy,
I Women and Government,
1 Human Rights Not Founded on Sex Angelina Grimké,
2 Anarchism and American Traditions Voltairine de Cleyre,
3 Give Me Liberty Rose Wilder Lane,
4 Antigone's Daughters Jean Bethke Elshtain,
5 Government Is Women's Enemy Sharon Presley and Lynn Kinsky,
II Women and Sex,
6 Irrelevancies Bertha Marvin,
7 Prostitution "Danielle",
III Women and Family,
8 Marriage Contract Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell,
9 Legal Disabilities of Women Sarah Grimké,
10 The Speech of Polly Baker,
11 Some Problems of Social Freedom Lillian Harman,
IV Women and Birth Control,
12 Body Housekeeping Angela Heywood,
13 The Persecution of Moses Harman Stanley Day,
14 Abortion Wendy McElroy,
V Women and Work,
15 Are Feminist Businesses Capitalistic? Rosalie Nichols,
16 The Economic Position of Women Suzanne La Follette,
17 Protective Labor Legislation Joan Kennedy Taylor,
18 Women and the Rise of the American Medical Profession Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English,
VI Women and Church,
19 Cardinal Gibbons's Ignorance Ellen Battelle Dietrick,
VII Woman's Suffrage,
20 A Right to Make Laws? Lysander Spooner,
21 Perpetual Vassalage Ezra H. Heywood,
VIII Women and War,
22 Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty Emma Goldman,
About the Editor,