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The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America

By Wendy McElroy

"To me," wrote Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), "any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery."(1)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote: "To define individual duty is difficult; but the collective duty of a class or sex is clear. It is the duty of women ... to bring children into the world who are superior to their parents; and to forward the progress of the race."(2)

These quotes illustrate two opposing traditions within feminism - individualism and socialism. Both believe that women should have the same rights as men, that women should be equal , (3) but the meaning of equality differs within the feminist movement. Throughout most of its history, American mainstream feminism considered equality to mean equal treatment under existing laws and equal representation within existing institutions. The focus was not to change the status quo in a basic sense, but rather to be included within it. The more radical feminists protested that the existing laws and institutions were the source of injustice and, thus, could not be reformed. These feminists saw something fundamentally wrong with society beyond discrimination against women, and their concepts of equality reflected this. To the individualist, equality was a political term referring to the protection of individual rights; that is, protection of the moral jurisdiction every human being has over his or her own body. To socialist-feminists, it was a socioeconomic term. Women could be equal only after private property and the family relationships it encouraged were eliminated.

In order to appreciate the radical traditions within feminism, we must set the context of the mainstream movement. Currently, socio-economic equality is the dominant goal of feminism. Even moderate feminists, exemplified by the National Organization for Women, accept this form of equality by demanding legislation that would provide equal pay for equal work.(4) This has not always been the case. The roots of American feminism are individualistic. This introduction will trace feminism from these roots to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), which incorporated women's suffrage into the U.S. Constitution. We will then compare the philosophy and relative contribution of individualist and socialist feminism.

The Roots of Feminism

As an organized force, feminism dates from abolitionism in the early 1830s.(5) Abolitionism was the radical anti-slavery movement which demanded the immediate cessation of slavery on the grounds that every man was a self-owner; that is, every human being has moral jurisdiction over his or her own body. It was the first organized, radical movement in which women played prominent roles and from which a woman's movement sprang. Abbie Kelley (1810-1887), an abolitionist-feminist, observed: "We have good cause to be grateful to the slave, for the benefit we have received to ourselves, in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves."(6) The modern historian, Aileen S. Kraditor, wrote:

"A few women in the abolitionist movement in the 1830s ... found their religiously inspired work for the slave impeded by prejudices against public activity by women. They and many others began to ponder the parallels between women's status and the Negro's status, and to notice that white men usually applied the principles of natural rights and the ideology of individualism only to themselves."(7)

In the early 19th century, married women could not enter into contracts without their husband's consent, women lost all title to property or future earnings upon marriage, children were legally controlled by the father, and women were often without recourse against kidnapping or imprisonment by husbands and other male relatives.

Within abolitionism, women's rights stirred hot debate. The strongest advocate of women's rights was the libertarian William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), editor of the Liberator, who insisted that anti-slavery was a battle for human rights, not male rights.(8) Many of the abolitionists who opposed Garrison on this agreed that women were self-owners but resisted mixing woman's rights with anti-slavery for fear it would hurt the latter cause; Theodore Weld (1803-1895) exemplified this position. Through his encouragement, Angelina Grimke (1805-1879), Sarah Grimke (1792-1873), and Abbie Kelley became the first women in America to do lecture tours before audiences that included men.' Nevertheless, he admonished them to stop introducing woman's rights into their speeches.

"Is it not forgetting the great and dreadful wrongs of the slave," he asked Angelina, "in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievances of our own?"(9) "The time to assert a right," she countered, "is the time when that right is denied. We must establish this right for if we do not, it will be impossible for us to go on with the work of Emancipation."(10)

In a speech before the Massachusetts Legislature on February 21, 1838, whereby Angelina Grimke became the first woman to speak before an American legislative body, she continued to mix the two issues:

Mr. Chairman, it is my privilege to stand before you ... on behalf of the 20,000 women of Massachusetts whose names are enrolled on petitions ... these petitions relate to the great and solemn subject of slavery ... and because it is a political subject, it has often tauntingly been said that women have nothing to do with it. Are we aliens because we are women? Are we bereft of citizenship because we are mothers, wives, and daughters of a mighty people?"(11)

Sarah Grimke's tactics were similar to those of her younger sister. Her pamphlet, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), used the individualist feminist approach of comparing women to slaves. "If the wife be injured in her person or property," Sarah quoted Blackstone, "she can bring no action for redress without her husband's concurrence, and in his name as well as her own." Sarah observed, "[T]his law is similar to the law respecting slaves, 'A slave cannot bring suit against his master or any other person, for an injury - his master must bring it.' " She compared the Louisiana law that said that all a slave possesses belongs to his master with a law that said, "A woman's personal property by marriage becomes absolutely her husband's which, at his death, he may leave entirely from her."(12)

Through the efforts of the Grimke sisters, women's rights became a subject of controversy throughout America. Angelina wrote:

"We have given great offense on account of our womanhood, which seems to be as objectionable as our abolitionism. The whole land seems aroused to discussion on the province of women, and I am glad of it. We are willing to bear the brunt of the storm, if we can only be the means of making a break in that wall of public opinion which lies right in the way of women's rights, true dignity, honor and usefulness."(13)

To the Grimke sisters, who smoothed the path for future feminists by breaking social taboos, and to Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), who encouraged civil disobedience through her involvement in the underground railroad, equality meant equal protection under just law and the equal opportunity to protest injustice.

The Civil War and Feminism

To focus the discussion of pre- and post-Civil War feminism, we will consider four questions: What were the feminists' views of themselves, of blacks, of men, and of government?

Before the Civil War, feminists championed black rights, identifying themselves with the plight of the slave. Their attitude toward men was generally cordial. In light of the harsh discrimination they often suffered, this was surprising. American women who journeyed to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London, for example, were barred from sitting with the assembly; they were forced to follow the proceedings from balcony seats hidden behind curtains. Any anger they felt toward men may have been tempered by the actions of Garrison and several other male abolitionists who chose to sit with them in protest rather than to join the body of the conference.

The feminists' attitude toward themselves was largely a manifestation of the Quaker background many of them shared and of Garrison's influence in maintaining that the individual must act according to his conscience and be held rigidly accountable for his actions. The core of Garrisonian strategy was that a revolution in ideas must precede and underlie any institutional reform. Both of these influences tended to instill a moral pietism within these women which they carried over into feminism.

This had wide implications for the abolitionist-feminist view of politics and government. Quakers at that time repudiated political action, often ostracizing those members who engaged in it. Angelina Grimke exemplified the Garrisonian position on politics:

"Dost thou ask me if I would wish to see women engaged in the contention and strife of sectarian controversy, or in the intrigues of political partizans? I say no!-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."(14)

Nevertheless, political feminism was on the rise. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference, was embittered by its treatment of women. With Lucretia Mott, she planned the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to discuss women's rights and there introduced a women's suffrage resolution: "Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."(15) The resolution met strong resistance from Mott and other members of the old guard. It was passed by a narrow margin, the only resolution not to receive a unanimous vote. But by the 1858 woman's convention, political feminism had prevailed to the point that suffrage was a virtually uncontested goal within the movement.

The Civil War changed feminism. Individualism,in America was dealt a stunning blow by war measures that included conscription, censorship, suspension of habeas corpus, political imprisonment, legal tender laws, and dramatically increased taxes and tariffs. The war also affected the popular view of government. With the cry of "no taxation without representation" still echoing from the recent past, government was viewed as requiring the consent of its citizens. "One of the fundamental principles announced in the Declaration of Independence," wrote Harriet Martineau, "is that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed."(16) Feminists capitalized on this by paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence to reflect their grievances against the government of men."(17) When the North refused to permit the South to withdraw its consent by seceding and when it imposed an unpopular government upon the South during Reconstruction, the consensual view of government was weakened. "One Union Under God" became a common sentiment.

Generally, feminists supported the war as a means of ending slavery, and, in devoting themselves to the war effort, they shelved the women's rights issue. After 1800, the legal disabilities of women had been changing slowly. In 1809 Connecticut gave married women the right to make a will. Texas (1840) and Alabama (1843) followed suit. After the war, however, feminists found that some legal rights had been lost to them. For example, the 1860 New York law granting women the right to equal guardianship of their children had been diluted so as to merely forbid the father from giving away the child without written permission from the mother. Moreover, the war had enfranchised neither blacks nor women. The freedom of blacks in particular was greatly jeopardized by post-war hostility, and many felt their rights would be secure only through an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing enfranchisement.

Post-Civil War Feminism

After the war, the key issues for mainstream feminism were the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, all aimed at securing freedom for blacks. Although feminists were pulled in two directions, desiring rights for blacks and rights for women, they gave priority to black rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) organized the National Loyal Women's League, which collected 400,000 signatures on petitions supporting the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, however, were different matters.

The Fourteenth Amendment provided that if the right to vote were denied to any law-abiding male inhabitants of a state over the age of 21 (excluding untaxed Indians), that state's basis for representation in Congress would be proportionately reduced. Its purpose was to secure votes for black men and, in attempting to do so, it introduced the word "male" into the U.S. Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment assured that the right to vote could not be abridged because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It was objectionable to feminists because it made no reference to sex.

Male abolitionists almost universally rejected women's claim to suffrage, insisting that this was not the time to stress women's rights."(18) "As Abraham Lincoln said, 'one war at a time," counseled Wendell Phillips, "so I say one question at a time. This hour belongs to the negro."(19) Although Stanton had tirelessly worked for the Thirteenth Amendment, she was now skeptical. "Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?" she asked Phillips.(20) To Susan B. Anthony, she wrote: "I have argued constantly with Phillips and the whole anti-slavery fraternity, but I feel one and all will favor enfranchising the negro without us. Women's cause is in deep water."(21)

Susan B. Anthony appealed to the male fraternity: "No, no, this is the hour to press woman's claims; we have stood with the black man in the Constitution over half a century ... Enfranchise him, and we are left outside with lunatics, idiots and criminals."(22)

The catalyst to this situation was the 1867 Kansas campaign to secure votes for women in that state. As confirmed Republicans, Anthony and Stanton traveled from town to town within Kansas, publicly giving impassioned speeches and privately appealing to the Republican Party and Republican papers to lend them the promised support. This support never materialized. Later, Stanton wrote:

"The editors of the New York Tribune and the Independent can never know how wistfully from day to day their papers were searched for some inspiring editorial on the woman's amendment, but naught was there; there were no words of hope and encouragement, no eloquent letters from an Eastern man that could be read to the people ... all calmly watched the struggle from afar and when defeat came ... no consoling words were offered for the woman's loss."(23)

Feeling betrayed, Stanton and Anthony repudiated the Republican Party, thus breaking with many of their abolitionist friends. They began to court the traditionally pro-slavery Democrats and to associate with the prominent racist George Francis Train, who lectured with them and financed the initial issue of their periodical Revolution; its motto was "Men, their rights, nothing more; Women, their rights, nothing less."

Stanton and Anthony's activities split mainstream feminism in two. To the sharp criticism of their racist connections, Anthony replied, "Why should we not accept all in favor of woman suffrage to our platform and association even though they be rabid pro-slavery Democrats."(24) The association referred to was the National Woman Suffrage Association established by Stanton and Anthony in 1869. The antagonism this created was so great that Lucy Stone (1818-1893) and Henry Blackwell (1825-1909) founded the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. The rift lasted 20 years until the two groups merged to form the National American Woman's Suffrage Association which, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, became the League of Women Voters.

Despite their protests, Stone and Blackwell were not above reproach on racial matters. In his address, What the South Can Do: How the Southern States Can Make Themselves Masters of the Situation (1867), Blackwell used white supremacist arguments:

"If you are to share the future government of your states with a race you deem naturally and hopelessly inferior, avert the social chaos, which seems to you so imminent, by utilizing the intelligence and patriotism of the wives and daughters of the South."(25)

Even feminists who considered themselves true to their abolitionist roots were straying far from its spirit.

The feminist movement had clearly changed. Prior to the war, black rights were emphasized as part of every human being's right of self-ownership; the conditions of slaves and women were drawn as parallels. After the war, many feminists began to view black rights as hostile to those of women. "This republican cry of manhood suffrage," commented Stanton, "created an antagonism between black men and all women."(26)

The refusal of abolitionist men to support feminist goals created a suspicion of men among some prominent feminists. "We repudiated man's counsels forever," wrote Anthony. (27) The attitude toward political action had also shifted. Before the Civil War, feminists tended toward apolitical strategy. The new feminism focused upon enfranchisement almost to the exclusion of other goals.

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(1) Paul Avrich, An American Anarchist, The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 161.

(2) Quoted in Aileen Kraditor, Up From the Pedestal (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), p.175.

(3) This does not include the small minority who believe women are naturally superior to men and that society should reflect this.

(4) A statement adopted by NOW's organizing conference (1966) reads, in part, "Discrimination in employment on the basis of sex is now prohibited by federal law ... the Commission has not made clear its intention to enforce the law with the same seriousness on behalf of women as of other victims of discrimination."

(5) For background information see Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973); and Blanche Glassman Hersh, The Slavery of Sex: Feminist Abolitionists in America (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978). For an overview of women's participation in the American Revolution, see Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic (Williamsburg, Va.: Universi- ty of North Carolina Press, 1980).

(6) Carrie Hapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, Woman Suffrage and Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), p. 37.

(7) Kraditor, Up From the Pedestal, pp. 13-14.

(8) Quakerism was another major influence. Quaker abolitionist-feminists included Sarah Grimke, Angelina Grimke, Lydia White, Lucretia Mott, Abbie Kelley, M. Carey Thomas, Elizabeth Chandier, and Prudence Crandall. The Quaker influence imbued woman's rights with a religious fervor, perhaps best exemplified by the lectures of Lucretia Mott. See Dana Greene, ed., Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980).

(9) Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967), p. 200. Weld also expressed concern over the fact that they felt themselves logically proceeding from "peace" principles to opposition to au government. For additional information on the Civil War period and feminism, see Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980).

(10) Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, p. 201.

(11) Ibid., p. 183.

(12) Sarah Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (New York: Burt Franklin, 1837), Letter XII.

(13) Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, p. 183.

(14) Angelina Grimke, Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (Boston: 1838), Letter XII (East Boyston, Mass., 1837).

(15) Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida H. Harper, The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881-1922), pp. 70-73.

(16) Harriet Martineau, Society in America, Vol. 1 (New York: Saunders & Otley, 1837), p199.

(17) The Declaration of Sentiments (1848) is perhaps the most famous feminist document. It begins: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course."

(18) Even Garrison, the all-weather friend of feminism, refused to support women's suffrage on the grounds that he was against voting altogether. This line of opposition to women's suffrage is relatively unexplored.

(19) Anthony, et al., History of Woman Suffrage, p. 59.

(20) Ibid., p. 60

(21) Ibid.

(22) Quoted in William L. O'Neill, Everyone was Brave: A History of Feminism in America (New York: Quadrant Press, 1971), p. 17.

(23) Catt and Shuler, Woman Suffrage and Politics, pp. 55-56. Parker Pillsbury, editor of the Standard, was an exception; he resigned his post in protest over the paper's refusal to print the woman suffrage point of view.

(24) Anthony, et al., History of Woman Suffrage, P. 95.

(25) Kraditor, Up From the Pedestal, p. 256. Although women's suffrage may have increased the white vote proportionately, the South was reluctant to endorse the right of the federal govern- ment to extend suffrage as this could be viewed as an endorsement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

(26) O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave, p. 17

(27) Ibid.

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