30 Aug 2011
The present study attempts to trace the struggle of women in American society post 1877.It aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the different feminist movements vis a vis the political developments.
In the nineteenth century, the ideological ascendancy of science and medicine joined the spread of industrialization to promote the ‘sexual division of labor’ based on the assumption that ‘biology is destiny’. Women’s fixed role as caregivers was ideologically determined by their biological capacity to bear children. Associated with that biological capacity was a host of psychological attributes — passivity, dependence, moodiness — which further reinforced a growing emphasis on the gendered separation of the domestic and the public spheres. The qualities requisite to economic or political success were linked to biologically based notions of masculinity and femininity, according to which men’s bodies and minds are naturally suited to positions of power and women’s are naturally suited to positions of subordination. While the resistance to this view of sexual difference varies historically and culturally, it is against this backdrop that modern and contemporary feminism must be understood.
Not surprisingly, feminism often consolidates into a political movement as a result of women’s participation in other radical, reformist, or revolutionary activities.
Equality Through Difference
During the Victorian era, there was a model of womanhood founded on ideals of domesticity. This model, True Womanhood, rarely held true for real women, but it nevertheless effected women’s lives. Women, particularly white middle-class women, often lived at least partially conforming to True Womanhood. They generally stayed in the home to devote themselves to their family, allowing their husbands to fulfill the male role of breadwinner. They remained sexually pure and devotedly religious. An important part of living this ideal was not interfering with men’s public affairs, remaining untainted from public life.
Throughout the 1850’s, women continued to meet in conventions and less formal gatherings to discuss their economic, educational, political, legal, and familial rights. The women, who were mostly white and middle class, participated in a broad spectrum of protest movements, fighting against alcohol and slavery, and for the rights of immigrants and the poor. All of these movements gave women the opportunity to develop and sharpen organizational and ideological skills. However, women were often discouraged or even barred from holding positions of power equal to those of their male counterparts. Thus, women began to focus more and more on their own status in America.
1. Boris, Eileen “Black and White Women Bring the Power of Motherhood to Politics,” in Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander Major Problems in American Women’s History. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.
2. Cott, Nancy Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Women and the American Civil War
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, women turned their attention, and their considerable energy, to the conflict. In both the North and the South, women gathered in aid societies, circulated petitions, and, at home, took over the masculine duties of running the household. (i) While these activities kept the women at home busy, many women wanted to support their causes closer to the battlefield.
Rather than face low-paying, grueling factory work or even prostitution, poorer women followed their husbands, brothers or fathers to camp. Slave women also found protection in camps. These women, in particular, were vulnerable to the horrors of war, often forced to protect themselves and their children from Confederate raiders who might rape, kill, or capture them. Escaping to a Union camp was often their most promising option. (ii)
Many of the poor and middle-class women who joined the troops worked as nurses, or even as soldiers. Throughout the war, about 10,000 women served as nurses on either the Confederate or the Union side. (iii) Smaller numbers of zealous women enlisted with the troops, disguised as men. Cautious estimates place approximately 250 Confederate and 400 Union female soldiers on the battlefields. (iv)
For both the nurses and the female soldiers, their jobs required forgoing the modesty and innocence attributed to white women at the time of the Civil War. No illusions of feminine weakness could be sustained in the face of the day-to-day hardships of war. There existed, however, yet another option for patriotic women who wanted to work for their cause — spying. This option could allow a woman to not only maintain her femininity, but also greatly capitalize on it.
The American Civil War dramatically altered the roles women played in American society, if only temporarily. Gender roles became malleable as even white, middle-class women stepped out, or were forced out, of their traditional private sphere. At home, they took over the duties of running the household previously performed by their husbands. On the battlefront, they bandaged wounds or fought side by side with men. Somewhere in between, one particular woman enchanted men with her femininity, bewitchingly betrayed them, and consoled herself that “All was fair in love and war.” (v)
i. Sara M. Evans Born for Liberty. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997) p.117.
ii. ibid., p.113.
iii. Linda Grant DePauw Battle Cries and Lullabies, Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998) p.156.
iv. ibid., p.151..
v. ibid., p.216.
Three main feminist movements: 1870s-1919
From the 1870s until World War I, many feminists became more conservative in their views and goals. They were divided into three major groups of reformers:
1. The Suffragists
After 1870, suffragists focused on winning for women the right to vote. Their arguments were slightly different than those of suffragists before the Civil War. Early reformers had argued that women, as human-beings, had a natural right to vote. From the 1870s on, however, suffragists took their cues from the Cult of True Womanhood and argued that women were different and, in some cases, better than men. Women, for example, were more noble, more spiritual, and truer of heart then men. Granting women the right to vote, they argued, would help purify political corruption in the United States.
2. The Social Feminists
Social feminists agreed with the suffragists that women should get the vote, but dedicated themselves to social reforms other than suffrage. Prominent social feminists were often leaders of the settlement movement, such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. Florence Kelley (1859-1932) was a prominent feminist and social reformer. Part of that generation of women who first gained access to higher education, Kelley graduated from Cornell University in 1882. However, like many women graduates of her time, she had difficulty finding work that was worth her talents. She went to Europe, studied law and government in Zurich, and translated major works of Marx and Engels into English. In 1891, she joined Jane Addams at Hull House. From 1898 until 1932, Kelley served as the head of the National Consumers’ League (NCL), a lobbying group for the rights of working women and children.
In addition to the NCL, there were a host of other reform organizations headed by women: the Woman’s Trade Union League, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Council of Colored Women. These groups saw the state as a potentially beneficial agent of social welfare.
The new generation of social feminists were more conservative, but also more pragmatic. In 1890, these new feminists reunited the squabbling AWSA and NWSA and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA was led from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920 by Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947). Catt was born in Ripon, in the great state of Wisconsin, went to school in Iowa, and worked for women’s suffrage, eventually becoming a close colleague of Susan B. Anthony. Catt believed it was a woman’s natural right to participate in politics, and also wanted women to have the vote in order to reform society. Catt reasoned that if women had political power, they could not only improve life for themselves and for their children, but have influence over more global issues such as world peace. Catt founded the League of Women Voters in 1920.
3. The Radical Feminists
Radical feminists offered a much stronger critique of American society, economics, and politics. The most prominent radical feminist was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), a sociologist, author, lecturer, and self-proclaimed socialist. In 1898, Gilman achieved international fame with her book, Women and Economics: The Economic Factor between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, a condemnation of the Cult of True Womanhood. Her chief arguments in the book were quite radical for America at the turn of the century. She argued that:
Common humanity shared by men and women was far more important than sexual differences
Social environment, not biology, determined the roles of men and women in society
In an industrial society, women would be released from the home, enabled to make a broad human contribution rather than a narrow feminine contribution to society
Alice Paul, who organized the Woman’s Party in the 1910s and introduced the first Equal Rights Amendment in 1916, represented the other facet of radical feminism. The campaign for the ERA during the 1910s was so radical that most social feminists rejected it out of fear that the proposed constitutional amendment would endanger protective legislation for women. As a result, the campaign for the ERA remained a minority movement within feminism.
The Nineteenth Amendment
In addition to the ERA, another point of division among various feminist groups was World War I. Jane Addams and other social feminists were vocal pacifists who opposed Wilson’s decision to enter the war. Hard-core suffragists, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, endorsed Wilson’s decision, with the understanding that Wilson would support women’s suffrage at war’s end. After the war came to a close, Wilson pointed to women’s loyalty in the war effort and urged Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
One thing was obvious to everyone: In the course of the century the United States had undergone a profound transformation. From an agrarian nation of independent settlers it had changed into a largely urban and industrial society with millions of new poor immigrants and vast social problems. The subjection and disenfranchisement of women only added to these problems, because it made their solution more difficult. Other nations which experienced similar pressures finally took corrective action. New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, Finland in 1906. The First World War produced social upheavals in Europe and secured the vote for women in the Netherlands and the Soviet Union (1917) and, to a limited extent, in Great Britain (1918). Germany followed suit in 1919. Under the circumstances, the lack of women’s suffrage in the United States became an embarrassment. Therefore, in 1920, the country finally adopted the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting the right to vote to women. A struggle of over seventy years had finally been won.
Feminism in the 1920s
Still, as feminists well knew, this victory was hardly enough, since sexual discrimination continued in many other subtle and not so subtle ways. Unequal pay for equal work, exclusion from influential positions, and innumerable specific legal restrictions denied women equal opportunities in American life. The economic exploitation of women was far from over. The feminist movement supported welfare legislation for maternity and infant care, birth control, stricter labor laws, and government regulation of business. This led to a vicious “red smear” attack by the established powers which denounced feminists as “bolshevik dupes” and “communist conspirators” and accused them of “undermining the family”. Primitive and transparent as they were, these smear tactics proved nevertheless to be very successful. Many “respectable” middle-class women were frightened away from the movement and dissuaded from defending their interests.
In the 1920s, the women’s rights movement practically died down. This was due, in part, to the achievement of the goal of suffrage, but also because of a general retreat from activism in post-WWI America. Feminists of the time made three discoveries:
Women did not vote as a bloc; there was no such thing as the “women’s” vote
The struggle for suffrage no longer united disparate elements of the feminist movement
Younger women were less interested in reform and more interested in rebelling against social conventions
To put it simply, the daughters of the early feminists were more interested in smoking, drinking, going without corsets, bobbing their hair, reading daring literature, and dancing the Charleston. They were enjoying new economic and sexual freedoms in the prosperous years that immediately followed World War I. The technological and economic boom that fueled a higher standard of living for many Americans is a crucially important reason for that.