The woman question in classical sociological theory

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The woman question in classical sociological theory
Kandal, Terry R. ( author )
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xix, 315 p. : ; 23 cm.


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Feminist theory ( lcsh )
Sociology ( lcsh )
Women ( lcsh )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


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This copy lacks Bibliography and Index.
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Terry R. Kandal.

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Women in Development
University Press of Florida

Full Text

Terry R. Kandal

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The Woman Question

in Classical Sociological Theory

The Woman Question

in Classical Sociological Theory

Terry R. Kandal

Florida International University Press / Miami

Copyright 1988 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
All rights reserved.

98 97 96 95 94 8 7 6 5 4

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Kandal, Terry R.
The woman question in classical sociological
p. cm.
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
ISBN 0-8130-0796-8
1. Feminism. 2. Sociology. 3. Women.
I. Title.
HQ1206.K36 1987
305.4'2-dcl9 87-18616

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To my mother, Gertrude


Abbreviations, ix
Preface, xiii
Acknowledgments, xvii
1. Introduction, 1
Contemporary Feminism and Classical Sociological
Theory, 1
Historical Context of the "Woman Question," 4
2. England, 10
Feminism and Liberal Social Theory, 10
The English Theorists, 22
John Stuart Mill, 22
Herbert Spencer, 32
3. France, 49
Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism, 49
The French Theorists, 67
Alexis de Tocqueville, 68
Auguste Comte, 74
Emile Durkheim, 79


4. Germany, 89
Die Frauenfrage and Historical Sociology, 89
Socialist Feminism, 90
Liberal Feminism, 99
The Erotic Movement, 108
Socialism, Feminism, and the Fate of the Weimar
Republic, 118
The German Theorists, 126
Max Weber, 126
Georg Simmel, 156
Ferdinand T6nnies, 177
Karl Mannheim, 182
5. Italy, 186
Women, Sexuality, and the Tradition of Machiavelli, 186
The Italian Theorists, 192
Vilfredo Pareto, 193
Robert Michels, 201
6. The United States, 212
Contrasting Versions of the Sociological Tradition on Sex
Roles, 212
The U.S. Theorists, 228
Talcott Parsons, 228
C. Wright Mills, 235
7. Conclusion, 245
Evaluation, 250
Theoretical Issues, 262
Historical Alternatives, 271
Notes, 281
Bibliography, 317
Index, 333



Work ofAuguste Comte
SPP System of Positive Polity. 1851. First published in En-
glish in London in 1875. Translated by John Henry
Bridges. Vol. 1. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.
Works of Emile Durkheim
DLS The Division of Labor in Society. 1893. Translated by
George Simpson. New York: Free Press, 1964.
S Suicide: A Study in Sociology. 1897. Translated by John
A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill1.: Free
Press, 1951.
Work of Karl Mannheim
ESC Essays on the Sociology of Culture. Edited by Ernest
Manheim, in cooperation with Paul Kecskemeti. Lon-
don: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956.
Works of Robert Michels
PP Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchi-
cal Tendencies of Modern Democracy. 1911. Translated
by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. Introduction by Sey-
mour Martin Lipset. New York: Collier Books, 1962.



SE Sexual Ethics: A Study of Borderland Questions. 1911.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915.
Work of John Stuart Mill
SW The Subjection of Women. 1869. In Essays on Sex
Equality, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill,
edited by Alice S. Rossi. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1970.
Works of C. Wright Mills
"PTFS" "Plain Talk on Fancy Sex." 1952. In Power, Politics, and
People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, edited
by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Ballantine Books,
WC White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1956.
"WDLS" "Women: The Darling Little Slaves." 1953. A review of
Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. In Power, Poli-
tics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright
Mills, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Bal-
lantine Books, 1963.
Work of Vilfredo Pareto
MS The Mind and Society. 1916. Edited by Arthur Living-
ston. Translated by Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur
Livingston, with the advice and active cooperation of
James Harvey Rogers. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt
Brace and Company, 1935.
Works of Talcott Parsons
"AS" "Age and Sex in the Social Structure of the United
States." American Sociological Review 7 (October 1942):
FSIP Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process. By Tal-
cott Parsons and Robert Bales, in collaboration with
James Olds, Morris Zelditch, Jr., and Philip E. Slater.
Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955.
Works of Georg Simmel
CW' Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations. Translated
by Kurt H. Wolff and Reinhard Bendix. New York: Free
Press, 1964.
SISF Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms.


Edited by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1971.
"SNC" Passages from Simmel's works as quoted in "Simmel's
Neglected Contributions to the Sociology of Women."
By Lewis A. Coser. Signs: A Journal of Women in Cul-
ture and Society 2, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 869-76.
SGS The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited and translated
by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: Free Press, 1964.
Works of Herbert Spencer
PS The Principles of Sociology. 1876. 3d ed. Vol. 1. New
York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899.
SS Social Statics; or, The Conditions Essential to Human
Happiness Specified and the First of Them Developed.
1851. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1969.
SSoc The Study of Sociology. 1873. Introduction by Talcott
Parsons. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
Work of Alexis de Tocqueville
DA Democracy in America. 1835. Translated by George
Lawrence. Edited by J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner. New
York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Works of Ferdinand Tonnies
CA Community and Association. 1887. Translated by
Charles P. Loomis. London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1955.
OS Ferdinand Tbnnies on Sociology: Pure, Applied, and
Empirical, Selected Writings. Edited by Werner J.
Cahnman and Rudolf Heberle. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1971.
Works of Max Weber
GEH General Economic History. 1924. Translated by Frank
H. Knight. Glencoe, Ill1.: Free Press, 1950.
"HC" "The Household Community." Translated by Ferdi-
nand Kolegar from Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. 1922.
In Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern So-
ciological Theory, edited by Talcott Parsons, Edward
Shils, Kasper D. Naegele, Jesse R. Pitts. New York:
Free Press, 1965.


xii Abbreviations

"RR" "Religious Rejections of the World and Their Direc-
tions." 1915. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology,
edited and translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright
Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.
SR Sociology of Religion. 1922. Translated by Ephraim
Fischoff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.


This book grew out of an intellectual puzzle. In the context of a
quarter-century of women's struggles for equal rights and individual
dignity and of a swelling wave of feminist scholarship, I could think of
no major history of sociological theory that suggested that the classi-
cal theorists had written anything of substance about women. I
knew that some of them had. I was versed in some of the classics of
the Marxist tradition on the "woman question," especially Engels's.
My consciousness about gender issues was shaped in discussion
groups in San Francisco and Berkeley during the early 1960s, in
which criticism and self-criticism around the problem of what was
then termed male chauvinism were voiced. As a consequence of my
political background, it was years later before I familiarized myself
with the debate among feminist theorists about Freud's work.
My search through and rereading of the works of the classical
(non-Marxist) sociological theorists was guided at first by what I
would call a radical-feminist hunch-namely, that I would discover
that they were, to a man, ideologically antifeminist. The matter
turned out to be more complex; the theorists displayed some diver-
sity of attitudes toward the position of women in society. More
intriguing were changes of interest in and analysis of the "woman


question" and changes in attitudes toward feminist movements
within the careers of certain theorists. These shifts indicated clearly
the thus far neglected impact of feminism on classical theory. As I
came to better understand the historical and feminist contexts of,
and the biographical facts relevant to, the theorists' writings on
women and the relations of the sexes, my thinking about the mate-
rial became more personal in character, and the material took on
more and more meaning for me.
This book is deeply influenced by the lives of my parents. My
father's background as a son of Norwegian immigrants, his work as a
tool-and-die maker, trade-union organizer, and participant in the
left wing of the working-class movement from the 1930s to the pres-
ent have strongly influenced my work. My mother's origins in a
German Lutheran family of small businessmen in part accounts for
the length of the chapter on Germany. She was to become a woman
of the working class and presently is a member of the Ada James
Chapter of the National Organization for Women (Richland Center,
Wisconsin). The organization of the historical materials along class
lines stems from my reading of the evidence and my reading of it in
light of my own history. And thus the dedication of this book to my
mother, Gertrude.
Feminist critical discourse has raised the epistemological ques-
tion of whether one must be a woman in order to contribute to an
authentic sociology of or for women. Obviously, having written this
book, my answer is: not necessarily. Although a man cannot experi-
ence what it means to be a woman, this does not preclude making a
contribution to the sociology of women. William James's distinction
between "knowing" and "knowing about" is apropos. Oppression
seems to me to have transgender aspects, which those who have
experienced it can communicate.
Several caveats are in order. It was not my intention to write
complete histories ofwomen's movements in modern European capi-
talist societies. Rather, my purpose was to provide sketches of the
historical contexts surrounding the classical theorists' writings on
women, selecting the works of the historians that best served this
purpose. Therefore, I attempted to avoid joining issues in feminist
historiography-with full awareness that the facts I selected do not
speak exactly for themselves.
For consistency and conformity to contemporary usage, I have
used the terms feminist and feminism to describe the movements
for extensions of rights to women and proposals to alter fundamen-



tally the relationships of the sexes, once again knowing full well that
such characterizations were not used throughout the period cov-
ered here, nor uniformly.
Finally, I do not offer a theory of the relations of women and
men. Therefore I do not address contemporary research on and ar-
gument about the biological and physiological differences between
women and men, differences stressed by some feminists as well as
antifeminists. What I have stressed of necessity are the ways in
which conventional and "scientific" biological ideas about women's
nature were used by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century clas-
sical sociologists to determine the "proper" social sphere of women
and as a result to see them with a theoretically blurred vision. In
the final chapter I offer my evaluations of the theorists, an argument
for a theoretically informed comparison of histories as the only
route to a sociology of the sexes, and my judgments of what the his-
torical cases covered here tell us about variations in the oppression
and liberation of women.
In this book I present what thirteen male classical sociologists
wrote about the social position of women, the relationships of the
sexes, and the feminist movements of their times-in short, the
theoretical treatment of women by the founding fathers of classical
sociological theory. To convey the original flavor of their texts, I
have chosen to use extensive quotations from their writings rather
than summary paraphrase and interpretation.
Quotations from the works of the theorists are cited in the text
after citation in a note at first mention. A list of abbreviations of the
titles and information about the editions used follows the table of
contents. Other sources, particularly in the historical sketches, are
cited in notes at the end of the book. Within paragraphs, when it
was possible to do so and still be clear, citations were combined in
one note referenced at the end of the paragraph; page numbers of
quotations are listed in order of their appearance in the paragraph,
followed by page numbers of references to general discussions.




There are several people without whom this work might neither
have been published nor acquired whatever virtues it possesses.
Chuck Elkins provided the sounding board some years ago and the
initial encouragement to go ahead with the idea of the book. He
gave freely of his skills with the English language and his wide
range of intellectual resources to get the early draft into presentable
shape. Unbeknownst to me, he submitted it to the editorial board
of Florida International University Press (Miami). Elliott Currie
gave me added confidence to carry out the project and offered valu-
able suggestions at the beginning and in the last phases of my work,
pushing me to sharpen formulations. Randall Collins unselfishly
displayed his professional commitment by giving me a thorough cri-
tique of the initial conception of the work; he also shared with me
his extensive knowledge of Weber and suggested I develop more
detailed pictures of the historical contexts of the classical theorists'
writings on women. I was honored to have Rose Laub Coser review
the manuscript and take my work seriously.
I also wish to thank especially Bob Dunn for his critical com-
ments on an early draft of the book and a later draft of the conclu-



sion. He generously allowed me to use the wonderful library of
feminist scholarship of the late Harriet Older. It was Harriet (whose
tragic death entwined with the historical subjects in these pages)
who introduced me to the work of Sheila Rowbotham. Jon Snod-
grass offered valuable suggestions for revising the tone of the initial
draft of the manuscript. He shared his psychoanalytic training in
the section on Weber and so many of his books. Mary Jane Elkins
directed me to Spencer's biography to find clues to his shift from
support of equal rights for women in his first book to the infamouss
antifeminist stance of his later work.
A number of my colleagues in the Department of Sociology at
California State University, Los Angeles, gave continuous support.
I thank Ralph Thomlinson, Paul Rowan, Eui-Young Yu, Larry Hong,
Janice Marie Allard, Steve Gordon, Marion Dearman, and Fred
Lynch (for suggestions on Mills). From outside my department, I
want to thank Norma Pratt for pointing me in the right direction on
the historiography of German socialist feminism, and Don Dewey,
dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences, for special en-
couragement on two occasions. Although it is impossible for me
to thank individually all of my friends and colleagues throughout
the university for their enthusiastic response to and concern for
my work, I hope they will accept my gratitude. The Facuilty Awards
and Leaves Subcommittee recommended me for two grants that
the CSULA Foundation awarded me to defray the costs of manu-
script preparation. I am grateful for these awards, which allayed
worries that otherwise would have interfered with my work. Harriet
McNeeking typed a good part of the revised version of the manu-
script. I was heartened that the material touched her. I cannot for-
get my students for their interest, encouraging responses, and pa-
tient anticipation. The personnel of University Presses of Florida
have been unusually supportive.
I also wish to thank my friend Harry Orr for his persistent inter-
est and prodding, my sister Kathryn Ann Kandal for her confidence
in my way of thinking about the issues, and Tom Peters for helping
me to build my own confidence.
I also thank my seventeen-year-old son Josh for his interest,
pride in my work, and mostly for his patience. For five years, he
lived with me and my work on the book. My wish and hope is that
the world in which he lives will be one of peace, equality, and dig-
nity for all persons and that he will experience the end to the op-
pression of women and the war between the sexes.


Acknowledgments xix

From Anita Aurora Acosta I came to understand more fully the
personal and interpersonal costs to women and men of the victimiza-
tion of women and how deeply sexism is embedded in the language
of everyday life. She educated me in what it all means in practice.



Contemporary Feminism and Classical

Sociological Theory

Most recent social theories about the oppression of women take
as their starting points the works of Karl Marx and/or Sigmund
Freud.' These theories usually omit the treatment of women's roles
by the founding fathers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century clas-
sical sociological theory. This lacuna is puzzling in light of current
professional concern about the status of women in sociology and be-
cause of the general issue of the role of ideology in the development
of sociological theory.2 It is also puzzling because within the social
sciences and the humanities in general, and in social theory in par-
ticular, a universe of discourse has emerged concerning the position
of women in society, a universe of discourse composed of the sepa-
rate but related vocabularies of various disciplines-for example,
anthropology, historiography, and literary criticism-each with its
distinctive subject matter and traditions.3
Much feminist writing has consisted of critiques of traditional


and contemporary scholarship and theory about women, or the ab-
sence thereof, highlighting how good or bad in an ideological sense
such work is on what used to be referred to as the "woman ques-
tion." Such concerns remain tacit but never too far below the sur-
face in the following chapters. Feminist scholars are committed to
rewriting herstoryy," to include women, in the same way that Karl
Marx forced the retelling of history from the point of view of the
exploited classes; and feminist theorists of patriarchy, drawing on
Freud's work, have constructed explanations of male domination
over women. In Gayle Rubin's characterization, "The literature on
women-both feminist and anti-feminist-is a long rumination on
the question of the nature and genesis of women's oppression and
social subordination."4 Although not widely recognized, the texts of
classical sociological theory of the nineteenth and twentieth cen-
turies are part of this literature.
Sociologist Eloise C. Snyder wrote in 1979: "What is important
to note here is not only the inferior position accorded to women in
society by social theorists but the fact that for years no significant
recognition was given to the prescriptive quality that such descrip-
tions have. Even more important is the fact that during the many,
many years that such pronouncements about women were being
made, in spite of the changes that were occurring in women's roles,
few writers found it important enough to address the manner in
which women were portrayed in 'classical' theory. Recently, how-
ever, such reassessments are being made through feminist scholar-
ship and are contributing a great deal more to our understanding of
women in society than the entire collection of writings about women
has done in the past."5 Although such reassessment may be going
on in a piecemeal way, to this day there exists no major history of
classical sociological theory in which the impact of nineteenth- and
twentieth-century debate and controversy over the "woman ques-
tion" and of feminist movements on the sociological tradition is rec-
ognized, acknowledged, and evaluated.6 The purpose of this work is
to contribute to such a reassessment of classical sociological theory,
which, after all, provides the foundation of the discipline.
The contemporary debate over feminism, as in the nineteenth
century, has brought to the fore the issue of "woman's nature."
Sociobiology, for example, assumes the universality of male aggres-
sion and dominance over women in its genetic-evolutionary theory
of human behavior. The family-its nature and its relationship to

Contemporary Feminism and Classical Sociological Theory

the social structure, the economy, work, and other institutions-
has been a second major issue in the contemporary controversies
surrounding feminism. Conservative thinkers going back to Comte
and Spencer argue for, or fear for, the autonomy of the family, and
Freudians view it as a determinative-if not the determinative-
social institution. On both sides of the feminist divide are to be
found assertions of the universality, if not the inevitability, of the
patriarchal family. However, some historical sociologists and eth-
nologists show that forms of the family and degrees of oppression or
equality of women vary with historical conditions and types of so-
cial organization of work, authority, and force. And in individual
lives, women and men strive to create or re-create alternative forms
of family life. A related theoretical dispute centers on the relative
importance of sex/gender and social class in producing and repro-
ducing the oppression of women. Closely linked to these issues are
analyses of the historical circumstances in which women's move-
ments for equality occur-their relationships to reform and revolu-
tionary movements of other oppressed groups, and the forces favor-
ing or hindering their success.7 Some of the first contemporary
discussions of these issues are to be found in the classical tradition
of sociological theory. Turning back to read and to critically evaluate
these discussions seems particularly appropriate in our time, when
women "are suffering under a resurgence of femininity."8
In feminist criticism, sociology is faulted for its exclusion of
women in most of its subject matter and for its preference for "hard"
methods of inquiry that are alleged to disguise its masculine bias.
Feminist criticism (explored in the concluding chapter of this book)
argues, in effect, that sociology is constructed on male-dominated
categories of understanding and perspective. What is missing in
feminist scholarship is an assessment of the treatment of women in
the history of classical sociological theory. For the most part, we are
offered merely cursory, generalized, and unhistorical references to
the sexism of classical theorists. Sociology, feminist and nonfeminist,
apparently knows only its contemporary self. In this study, I attempt
to explore in greater depth the puzzle of the missing link between
contemporary feminism and the treatment of women in classical
theory, by noting the debates in classical sociological theory about
the inequality and subjection of women and by examining the his-
torical context in which this theory was formed.


Historical Context of the "Woman Question"

The omission in major secondary historical and theoretical analysis
of the classical theorists' treatment of women is striking for another
reason: the formation and development of classical sociological the-
ory occurred, after all, as a response to social, political, and intel-
lectual changes arising with or from the Industrial Revolution, the
French Revolution, and the Enlightenment. Thus, classical socio-
logical theory originated in the same historical epoch as the long
swell of modern feminism, flowing in pulses and lulls roughly from
the eighteenth century to the present. Sheila Ryan Johansson has
referred to the first wave when she speaks of "the great nineteenth-
century flowering of feminist thought."9
Chiding standard historiography for its virtual neglect of femi-
nist movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
Theodore Roszak wrote: "A fair survey of feminism would see the
pressure for woman's emancipation building from the 1830s and
1840s and reaching out well beyond the issue of the ballot By
the late nineteenth century-in the wake of at least two genera-
tions of feminist organization and crusading-this supposedly mar-
ginal curiosity called the 'woman problem' had become one of the
most earth-shaking debates in the Western world, fully as explosive
an issue as the class or national conflicts of the day One would
be hard pressed to find many major figures of the period in any cul-
tural field who did not address themselves passionately to the rights
of women." 10 By the late 1920s and early 1930s, "the last great femi-
nist wave of the late nineteenth century finally faded,"" not to be
revived worldwide until the 1960s and 1970s. For the most inclusive
contexts of the beginnings of feminism, however, we must go back
beyond the 1830s, to the two revolutions of the last years of the
eighteenth century-the French Revolution and the Industrial
"Feminism came, like socialism, out of the tangled, confused
response of men and women to capitalism," Sheila Rowbotham has
argued.12 The Industrial Revolution, which occurred first and with
purest effect in England, involved the separation of the workplace
from the home, thereby producing roles for women as workers dis-
tinct from their roles in the family. As a result, women were sub-
jected to a double oppression-at home and in the workplace-or
they were faced with "an unprecedented choice between homeland
children on the one hand, and the continued possibility of earning a

Historical Context of the "Woman Question"

cash wage, however meager, on the other." The conflict caused by
the demands of these two roles "survives in the twentieth century
as perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Victorian period."'13 Al-
though the earlier development of capitalism had weakened the
position of working women, associated "women's work" with low
pay, and restricted middle-class women to the household, the In-
dustrial Revolution created the potential material basis for women's
emancipation by drawing them back into social production separate
from family life, thereby altering the prevailing relationships of the
sexes. Opportunities were created for weakening patriarchal au-
thority in working-class households, for financial independence for
women, and for women to fight collectively for new rights as work-
ers and citizens.
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution provided the
ideas for feminist protest and the forms of political activity in which
to express them. The moral and political aspirations of the En-
lightenment were captured in ideas such as progress, contract, na-
ture, reason, and in the Enlightenment's central theme, the "re-
lease of the individual from ancient social ties and of the mind from
fettering traditions."14 For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, na-
ture and reason demanded recognition of the inalienable rights of
the individual, including the right of equality. The Marquis de Con-
dorcet, an aristocratic supporter of the French Revolution who be-
came one of its victims, joined the feminists in stating the case for
the equality of the sexes:

Among the various sorts of mental progress most important
for the general good, we must count the total destruction of
those prejudices which have established between the two
sexes an inequality of rights fatal to even that one which it
favors. We shall search in vain for motives to justify it in differ-
ences of physical organization, or in differences we should like
to find in power of intellect or moral sensibility. That inequal-
ity has had no other origin than the abuse of strength, and it is
in vain that we have tried since to excuse it through sophisms.
We shall show to what degrees the abolition of the prac-
tices authorized by this prejudice and of the laws which it has
dictated can contribute to the increased happiness of families,
to rendering common the domestic virtues, the first founda-
tion of all the others; to favoring the progress of instruction,
and especially to making it truly general, either because it


should be extended to both sexes with greater equality, or be-
cause it cannot become general, even for the men, without the
concurrence of the mothers of families. Would not this tardy
homage paid finally to equity and good sense dry up a too
fruitful source of injustice, cruelty, and crime, by doing away
with so dangerous an opposition between man's most active
natural propensity, and the most difficult to suppress, and his
duties, or the interests of society? Would it not produce, fi-
nally, what has hitherto been only a dream, national manners
of a gentle and blameless character, built, not on proud priva-
tions, on hypocritical appearances, on reservations imposed
by fear of shame or religious terrors, but on habits freely con-
tracted, inspired by nature, and avowed by reason?15

Condorcet was, of course, a rare exception among male revolution-
ary leaders, most of whom believed that women should serve the
revolution as wives and mothers. Nevertheless, the revolutionary
tradition was an inspiration to feminists in France, England, Ger-
many, Italy, and the United States. As Rowbotham has pointed out,
"By the 1840s connection between social revolution and the libera-
tion of women had been made." 16 Classical sociological theory took
shape against the background of revolutionary upheaval and capi-
talist industrialization, along with the concomitant "explosive ex-
pansion of state bureaucracies" and the surveillance and regulation
of public and private life by the state, subjecting women and men
"to a host of new strictures.''17
Articulating a view shared by many feminists, Erna Olafson
Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Often have argued
that "modern 'objective' social science, born during the Victorian
period, both incorporated and legitimized Victorian prejudices
about gender, the family, work, and the division between public
and private spheres." Further, they have contended that an "ex-
treme polarization of sex roles" emerged during this period: "In
both practice and prescription the male and female spheres became
increasingly separated, and the roles of men and women became
even more frozen. Social scientists by and large sanctified the sepa-
ration of spheres and consigned women to the domestic, private
sphere.'"18 Similarly, Snyder has argued that sociological theories
"tended either to ignore women or to place them in extremely in-
ferior roles. Such predominantly male orientations are evident in
the writings of almost all the classical theorists, such as Comte,

Historical Context of the "Woman Question"

Durkheim, Pareto, T6nnies, and Weber.'19 These assessments omit
both the complexities and contradictions of the effects of the two
revolutions on the lives of women and on relationships of men and
women of different classes, of the new class and sexual divisions of
labor under capitalism, and-of chief concern here-of the re-
sponses of classical sociologists to the "woman question."
In the following five chapters, the central representatives of
five national traditions or variants of classical sociological theory-
English, French, German, Italian, and North American-are ex-
amined for their analyses of the social position of women and their
responses to movements for women's emancipation. Each chapter
begins with a historical sketch followed by sections on that nation's
theorists selected for study. I will discuss the English themes of
"woman's nature," the struggle for women's suffrage, and access for
middle-class women to equal education and to the professions ex-
pressed in John Stuart Mill's liberal social theory; and I will explore
Herbert Spencer's shift, in response to currents of evolutionary
naturalism and pressures for women's rights, from a profeminist to
an antifeminist position.
Next I will turn to France to observe the moralistic and political
responses of Alexis de Tocqueville and Auguste Comte to the revo-
lutionary feminism of the period 1830-48 and Emile Durkheim's
move from a functionalist to a conflict perspective on the relations
of men and women in post-Paris Commune France, in which the
struggle for women's rights to divorce, education, and suffrage took
nonrevolutionary forms.
In Germany, feminist and class struggles occurred in tele-
scoped historical processes, and the tradition of sociological theory
there is rich in feminist concerns. For these reasons, the German
case is the centerpiece of the story, containing as it does the con-
frontation of bourgeois theory and Marxism, the theory and prac-
tice of socialist feminism, the conflict of socialist feminism with lib-
eral feminism, and the patriarchal reaction against both of them. I
will explore the effect of the erotic and feminist movements on Max
Weber's sociological interests, life, and personal values, Georg Sim-
mel's preoccupation over nearly three decades with the social psy-
chology of women and the relations of the sexes in their social and
cultural dimensions, the modification of Ferdinand Tdnnies' con-
ception of womanly Gemeinschaft and "woman's nature" in the light
of capitalist development, and Karl Mannheim's historical-structural
analyses of male sexuality and variations in marital relationships.


Vilfredo Pareto's sociological theory, written around the time of
the First World War, mirroring the relative backwardness of Italian
capitalism, commented on feminism outside of Italy more than
within it and also discussed sexuality and prostitution. His work ex-
hibits a hostile and fearful response to the battle for women's suf-
frage. Robert Michels's shift from Marxist socialism to Italian na-
tionalism is prefigured in his writings on prostitution, sexuality,
and flirtation. His Sexual Ethics documents the debates about sexu-
ality and the relations of the sexes in turn-of-the-century Europe.
In the chapter on sociological theory in the United States, the
contrasting versions of classical theory in the writings of Talcott Par-
sons and C. Wright Mills about women are summarized against the
background of the history of feminism in the United States and the
rise of corporate capitalism.
The concluding chapter contains an evaluation of the classical
theorists' writings about women, a comparison of alternative theo-
retical accounts of the subjection of women derived from Marx and
Freud, and some suggestions for a comparative-historical sociology
of women. By assessing classical theory in light of contemporary
feminist concerns, I hope to bring to light a neglected but crucial
aspect of the sociological tradition.
The approach adopted draws on the perspectives of the sociol-
ogy of knowledge and of ideology, modes of inquiry that seek to
trace the interplay of social structure and theoretical consciousness.
Each chapter therefore begins with a historical sketch of the na-
tional (and sometimes international) context of the works of the clas-
sical sociologists. In this way, differences can be specified in intel-
lectual traditions, in conceptions of feminine nature, and in the
timing, size, degree of militancy, class, and political characteristics
of particular movements for women's emancipation. These, along
with a modest attempt to link biography and history, may offer clues
to help explain what the theorists said, and did not say, about the
condition and "nature" of women and their responses to women
struggles for freedom and equality.
The larger theoretical issues of the sources of the oppression of
women are not new issues but have their modern roots in the nine-
teenth and early twentieth centuries, including the sociological
theory of that period. The topics, then as now, include the relation-
ships of class and sex (and at times, race); the nature of the family
and its relationship to changes in social structures; sexuality; as well
as the related but more specific and practical issues of the exclusion

Historical Context of the "Woman Question" 9

of women from professional and creative endeavors; equal pay; pro-
tective legislation for women; prostitution; reproductive rights; re-
form versus revolution; and the relationship of women's struggles to
radical movements. In short, to paraphrase Georg Lukacs, the
present is itself a historical problem.



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

The development of capitalism in England during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries caused a transformation in the sexual divi-
sion of labor. Among artisans, women were excluded from the most
profitable trades, and because of increased agricultural productivity
and a ready supply of cheap labor, the wives of successful yeoman
farmers participated less than peasant women in direct economic
production. The household dwelling was restructured to include
separate bedrooms and dining rooms. The virtues of monogamy
and chastity became standards of conduct for bourgeois men as well
as for women. In short, the stable, monogamous, middle-class fam-
ily was in place before the Industrial Revolution. Well-off farmers
aped the upper classes by regarding the leisure of their wives as a
symbol of status and by sending their children to boarding schools,
where boys were given an academic education and girls learned
"accomplishments." As historian Sheila Rowbotham has noted,
these disparate sex roles, shaped by emerging capitalism, were the
historical bases for nineteenth-century bourgeois-feminist attacks
"on the exclusion of women from education, the professions," the


Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

middle- and upper-class world of work, and on the laws that upheld
men's control of women's property. These themes recur in the writ-
ings of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer about women. For
peasant and poor women, lives of "ceaseless labor" in an essentially
family-centered economy remained the norm. The silence of the
historical record over the plight of these women is, in Rowbotham's
words, "the silence of class and sex oppression."'1
During the seventeenth century, Cromwell and his followers
used the language and imagination of the Old Testament to make
their revolution, which was associated with the emergence of bour-
geoi: society in England. At the same time, the Puritan doctrine of
the equality of the souls of men and women was used by radical or
leftist sectarians, such as Quakers and "ranters," to draw feminist
conclusions that would permit women to be preachers, that ques-
tioned monogamy, and that justified the participation of women in
the politics of the Civil War. However, the spate of pro- and anti-
feminist pamphleteering and the voices of women and children
were silenced by the Restoration. Mainstream Puritanism aban-
doned the rule of king and priest but substituted for it patriarchal
authority in the family; the Puritan bourgeois wife was given the
role of an unequal partner whose soul might be equal in God's sight
but whose place on earth was inferior to her husband's.2
During the eighteenth century, a "movement of resistance to
patriarchy"3 found expression in English novels, in proposals for new
education for women, in calls for personal equality with men, and in
criticism of the brutishness of men. Patriarchal responses were satir-
ical, patronizing, and contemptuous. Coincidentally, there occurred
a shift in conceptions of feminine nature: women were now consid-
ered sexually modest and passive; earlier they had been considered
sexually insatiable. Already excluded from business and the profes-
sions and therefore economically dependent on men, and thought
of as helpless by their very nature, women were divested of any
legal personality in marriage by Blackstone's 1765 codification of
common law. In similar circumstances in France, it required but a
small step for Jean-Jacques Rousseau to justify the restriction of
women to the domestic sphere by virtue of their "nature" and to
develop "a natural female education" to fit them for the duties of
chaste wives nobly taking care of and pleasing their husbands.4
Modern European feminism in general and the struggle for
women's rights in nineteenth-century England in particular are usu-
ally dated to the publication in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vin-


dication of the Rights of Women, a direct response to the French
Revolution. Citing Enlightenment ideas developed during the
revolution about the importance of environment and education and
using her own experience as an example, Wollstonecraft countered
Rousseau's proposals for feminine education, claiming that "the doll
will never excite attention unless confinement allows [the little girl]
no alternative." She observed the inconsistency of radical males
who fought for the freedom of individuals to determine their own
happiness and yet continued to subjugate women, leaving them "to
procreate and rot." Describing the ways in which sex roles set spe-
cial limits on the freedom of women, she said, "There are some
loopholes out of which a man may creep, and dare to think and act
for himself, but for a woman it is a herculean task, because she has
difficulties peculiar to her sex to overcome which require almost
superhuman powers.'5
Wollstonecraft's book and the liberation of women were cham-
pioned by a small intellectual circle that included the anarchist
William Godwin, with whom Wollstonecraft lived until her death
in childbirth. (They married when she became pregnant.) Other
members of the group were the poet William Blake, who could
imagine the disappearance of "A Religion of Chastity, forming a
Commerce to sell Loves"; Mary Hays, a feminist novelist and biog-
rapher of famous women; and, later, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who
married Wollstonecraft's daughter. Shelley showed awareness of the
constraints imposed on sexual love by marriage in his remark "Not
even the intercourse of the sexes is exempt from the despotism
of positive institution."6 The feminist tradition was carried on by
the "free-thinking Christians," the Unitarians, clustered around
William J. Fox's Monthly Repository, with which John Stuart Mill
later became associated. However, as Rowbotham has noted, "The
English Jacobins were not primarily concerned with the rights of
women."'7 A signal and interesting exception was Thomas Spence,
"a poor schoolmaster from Newcastle" and a follower of Thomas
Paine. Spence, who was virtually alone in addressing Jacobin propa-
ganda to working women, asked rhetorically, "What signifies Re-
forms of Government or Redress of Public Grievances, if people
cannot have their domestic grievances redressed?" In a dialogue
that he wrote, a woman character says to an aristocrat that hus-
bands have been so negligent about "their own rights" that "we
women mean to take up the business ourselves."8 For a time the
anti-Jacobin repression silenced the attempt to link the personal to



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

the political revolution. As E. P. Thompson has observed, "The war
years saw a surfeit of sermonising and admonitory tracts limiting
or refuting claims to women's rights which were associated with
The revival of the struggle for women's rights in England is as-
sociated with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, circa 1760
to 1840. The epoch was characterized by technological change in
methods of production, the shift of the locus of industrial activity to
urban settings, and the transformation of the organization, means,
and authority relationships of work. The classic example is the in-
troduction in the textile industry of first the water frame, then the
self-acting mule, and finally the power loom.10 The Industrial Revo-
lution was, in Marx's periodization of the history of capitalism, the
time of the replacement of manufacture based upon existing crafts
by machine industry housed in factories." It was the period of the
emergence of new class relations and the transformation of the old,
a time when master craftsmen, artisans, and domestic industry
were being shoved aside by upstart, capitalist entrepreneurs; when
the Luddite weavers attacked and destroyed the machines that
threatened their very livelihood-in Thompson's conception, the
age of "the making of the English working class."12
The effects of the Industrial Revolution on the work experience
and lives of working-class women were not uniform. The evidence
we have shows that women apparently continued to be employed
primarily in their traditional occupations, single women in domestic
service and retail distribution, married women in domestic manu-
facturing and agriculture (until its decline in England around 1850).
Families persisted tenaciously as economic and social units. It was
in the context of traditional relations of the sexes that change was
occurring. Short of family financial crises, those women who were
wives and mothers were least able to-and were not expected to-
take advantage of opportunities for factory employment.13 Row-
botham has commented: "The separation of family from work had
occurred before capitalism, but as industry grew in scale it ap-
peared in its most distinct and clear form." 14 As increasing numbers
of women and children, as well as men, were employed in the facto-
ries, the social experience of some women changed, and therefore
the conditions for the transformation in the relations of the sexes
began to take shape.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, manufacturers intro-
duced technical innovations that made it possible to replace adult


male craftsmen with women and children who were paid lower
wages. Employers and their apologists such as Andrew Ure justified
the poor wages by saying they did not want to tempt women out of
their homes. But the other motive behind the changed composition
of the industrial labor force was the employers' interest in imposing
discipline on their workers: children and unskilled women with no
other sources of income were less likely to object to their employ-
ers' policies. By the early 1830s women made up more than half the
adult labor force.15 When Lord Ashley introduced the Ten Hours
Bill in the House of Commons on 15 March 1844, he presented statis-
tics to show that of the 419,560 factory workers in the British Empire
in 1839, only 96,569, not one full quarter, were adult males; 80,695
were males under eighteen years of age, while 242,296 were fe-
males, of whom 112,192 were younger than eighteen.16
Speaking of some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on
the quality of women's lives, Thompson has pointed out: "It is here
that it is most difficult to draw a balance. On the one hand, the claim
that the Industrial Revolution raised the status of women would
seem to have little meaning when set beside the record of excessive
hours of labour, cramped housing, excessive child-bearing and ter-
rifying rates of child mortality. On the other hand, the abundant
opportunities for employment in the textile districts gave to women
the status of independent wage-earners. The spinster or the widow
was freed from the dependence upon relatives or upon parish re-
lief. Even the unmarried mother might be able, through the lax-
ness of'moral discipline' in many mills, to achieve an independence
unknown before."17
Thompson has observed that employment of women in the tex-
tile districts "gave rise to the earliest widespread participation by
working women in political and social agitation." The first Female
Reform Societies were formed in Lancashire about 1818-19, a pos-
sible indication of "a sudden leap forward in consciousness." The
first independent trade-union action by women workers occurred in
1832 when fifteen hundred female card-cutters went out on strike
in West-Riding. The event elicited John Wade's remark that "alarm-
ists may view these indications of female independence as more
menacing to established institutions than the 'education of the
lower orders.'" Thompson has noted that "the coarse language and
independent manners of Lancashire mill-girls shocked many wit-
nesses." However, advances for women did not happen without a
"paradox of feeling": "The Radicalism of northern working women



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

was compounded of nostalgia for lost status [based upon successful
management of a household economy] and the assertion of new-
found rights."18 Rowbotham adds that "conflict and competition be-
tween male and female workers was to continue to be an obstacle to
joint unionisation," as in the case of the unsuccessful attempt to
form a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834. Many
workers (most men and some women) retained the traditional no-
tions that women needed to be protected from the factory system
and should not have to work, because a living wage should be one
that would allow a man to support his family as well as himself.19
On the more private relationships of the sexes, it is difficult to
assess the effects of the Industrial Revolution, as Thompson has

The evidence tells us so little about the essential relations ...
between. men and women ... But there is no evidence
that a repressive sexual code and patriarchal family relations
brought enhancement of either happiness or of love. while,
as sexual conduct in the early 19th century became more in-
hibited and secretive, so also, in the great towns, prostitution
But there is plenty of evidence as to the heroic family loy-
alties which sustained many people in these years.2"

The response of working people to changes in the family and in
the economic system, Rowbotham has written, "was bound up with
the desperate defence of a way of life, in which fear of the indepen-
dence of wives and daughters working under another roof with
other men, coming back with their ownwages, mingled with a no-
tion of the family as a producing unit and protest against the sheer
brutality of conditions in the early factories."21 Further, the contra-
diction between traditional roles and factory work for wages was
most intensely experienced by women, as Thompson has noted:

Each stage in industrial differentiation and specialisation
struck also at the family economy, disturbing customary re-
lations between man and wife, parents and children, and dif-
ferentiating more sharply between "work" and "life." It was to
be a full hundred years before this differentiation was to bring
returns, in the form of labor-saving devices, back into the
working woman's home. Meanwhile, the family was roughly


torn apart each morning by the factory bell, and the mother
who was also a wage-earner often felt herself to have the worst
of both the domestic and the industrial worlds.22

Commenting on the situation in the early 1840s of unemployed men
who did "woman's work," young Friedrich Engels drew a perceptive

This condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the
woman all womanliness without being able to bestow upon the
man true womanliness, or the woman true manliness. de-
grades, in the most shameful way, both sexes, we must
admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can
have come to pass only because the sexes have been placed in
a false position from the beginning. If the reign of the wife
over the husband, as inevitably brought about by the factory
system, is inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the
wife must have been inhuman too.23

This development only proved to Engels that, at bottom, the tradi-
tional family was bound, not by affection, but by the economic
power of the breadwinner. These disruptive effects on the working-
class family are only dimly reflected, if at all, as we shall see, in
what John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer wrote about women.
The liberating potentials of the French and Industrial revo-
lutions began to come together in the 1820s and the 1830s in at-
tempts by a vigorous minority to make a cultural revolution in
the social position of women and in the relationships between
men and women. Radical men and women included rationalists who
subscribed to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, followers of Great
Britain's Robert Owen, France's Fourierist utopian socialists, and
millenarian Saint-Simonians. The tradition was expressed in such
publications as the Black Dwarf, for which John Stuart Mill wrote
as a young man. Ideas for the liberation of women were not limited
to middle-class and professional circles but were accepted and prac-
ticed by advanced artisans and by men and women working in the
During the 1820s, Francis Place, a tailor, advocated birth con-
trol for working-class women. He convinced Richard Carlile, editor
of The Republican and a hero to feminist working women, of the
necessary connection between sexual and reproductive rights. In



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

an article entitled "What Is Love?" Carlile described extant meth-
ods: the vaginal sponge, the "skin" or glove, and withdrawal. While
some radicals saw birth control as encouraging promiscuity, pros-
titution, and infidelity, the main issue of contention (as has con-
tinued to be the case even to the present) was the connection of
birth control with the ideas of Malthus. Radical Malthusians re-
garded contraception as a strategy for maintaining population within
the limits of the world's capacity to produce and distribute the means
of subsistence; the radical opponents of Malthus believed that con-
traception was a tool that the upper classes used to interfere in the
lives of the poor, to limit their numbers, and thus to put off needed
reforms. In the years 1834 and 1835, several books that provided
birth control information (one written by Robert Owen's son) sold
hundreds of copies. The debate about contraception was clouded
by the common prejudice that the economic independence women
gained by working in factories was a cause of sexual promiscuity
among them.25
Several proposals for the liberation of women were current in
the first half of the nineteenth century. Charles Fourier's plans for
great communes included communal responsibility for child care
and the organization of work to fit individuals' interests. Owenites
pioneered cooperative nursery schools, and classes of instruction
held by Owen's followers were open to women. Owen believed that
the nuclear family, because it promoted individualism and com-
petition, was an obstacle to creation of a cooperative society. The
Owenites believed in easy divorce. They also opposed celibacy and
rejected the double standard in matters of sexual morality. Saint-
Simonian "missionaries" arrived in Britain in 1833-34 and gave
feminist and socialist lectures. One of the leaders, Barthelemy
Prosper Enfantin, criticized what he saw as the oppressive nature
of Christian marriage. He advocated the idea that God was both
man and woman, from which premise he concluded that women
and men are equal. The Saint-Simonians expected a female messiah
who would usher in the new age.26
William Thompson, an Irish landowner, best summed up the
currents of socialist feminism of the period. Against the utilitarian,
middle-class radicalism of James Mill, which saw no need for sepa-
rate legal interests for women, Thompson wrote his 1825 "Appeal of
one half of the Human Race, Women, against the pretensions of the
other Half, Men, to retain them in Civil and Domestic Slavery."
Thompson used the analogy to slavery, which John Stuart Mill also


used: a woman's appearance was "indelible like the skin of the Black."
About the institution of marriage Thompson said, "Home is
the external prison house of the wife." Without reforms, he said,
"to be a woman is to be an inferior animal." He also believed that
women must first respect themselves and exert their power before
they would be respected by men. Going further, he argued that a
competitive class society would keep women at a disadvantage and
would have to be replaced by a "positive" cooperative society in
which child care would be socialized. He was much influenced by
Anna Wheeler, "an important mediator between [these] several dif-
ferent tendencies in radical thought," to whom he dedicated his
International exchange of ideas among the utopians flourished
during the 1820s and 1830s. But some male radicals said sexual
equality had to wait for a change in the property system of society,
an argument that has recurred in our own time. Some feminists re-
sponded, then as now, that a cultural revolution in the relationships
between men and women is a precondition for a socialist society. As
Rowbotham has pointed out, with the defeat of Chartism in the
1840s and the resulting loss of hope for a new world, "these ideas
about transforming relations between the sexes and struggling in
the area of personal life faded in the working-class movement until
the socialist movement was reborn at the end of the century."28
Prosperity strengthened patriarchy and intensified the de-
pendency of women of the Victorian middle class, who were consid-
ered part of their husbands' belongings; the wife's leisure was a
mark of the husband's success in the world.29 Martha Vicinus has
suggested that there was a shift in models of femininity during the
Victorian period. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, the
ideal was that of the "perfect wife," whose first tasks were child-
bearing and child rearing, and who also contributed to the family
economy by managing the household. In the upper-middle class,
this notion was replaced by the ideal of the "perfect lady," a con-
spicuous consumer totally dependent economically on her father and
later on her husband. Her only roles were as wife and mother, incon-
gruously combined with "total sexual innocence." In Vicinus's words,
"Ruskin's vision of girls as flowers to be plucked is the norm, and Mill's
marriage between intellectual and emotional equals the aberra-
tion."30 At the same time, however, as Rowbotham has noted, "A new
ideal of the relationship between men and women, reminiscent of
the puritans, and of Defoe's notion of wives as companions appeared



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

very clearly by the middle of the century."31 It was precisely this
ideal that Mill employed in his criticism of the subjection of women
in bourgeois marriage. Further, the model of the "perfect lady" was
challenged by yet another, that of the "perfect" or "'new woman,'
who continued to hold chastity as an ideal, but made it equally ap-
plicable to men as to women. The new woman worked, sought
education, and fought for legal and political rights."32 (This context
must be recalled when Herbert Spencer's final position on equal
rights for women is discussed later in this chapter.)
Correspondingly, legislation whittled away at patriarchy; in
1882, women gained the right to independent ownership of prop-
erty. But from the late 1860s to the 1880s, bills to enfranchise
women were defeated in Parliament even after male workers won
the right to vote. The Saturday Review of 6 May 1871 opined that
the vote for women would "endanger the institution of marriage
and the family." Later, the militant feminist movement would re-
bound from these parliamentary defeats. In 1889, Emmeline Pank-
hurst helped found the Women's Franchise League, which took up
the cause of the rights of married women in divorce, inheritance,
and child custody. But on the question of women's sexual liberation,
liberal feminists were "reticent."33
To be useful, middle-class women did charity work among the
poor, and some argued that women should be educated in social sci-
ence to promote reforms. Beatrice Potter (who later married Sidney
Webb) was among the women radicalized by exposure to the condi-
tions of working women.34 By the 1860s, charitable work among the
downtrodden was part of a movement to expand women's "proper
sphere." Vicinus has pointed out that "activists. argued that just
as women had an obligation to educate their children in morality, so
too did they have the wider responsibility to educate society on
moral issues." Women's special nurturing skills could be applied be-
yond the family and traditional philanthropy to help "eliminate the
most grievous wrongs of society."35
Upper- and middle-class women were also motivated to fight
against prostitution and venereal disease because they recognized
that prostitutes were patronized by men of their own classes. A
stratum of "kept women" was emerging in suburban villas along the
new London rail lines. An 1864 bill to prevent contagious diseases
allowed the physical examination of suspected prostitutes. In 1869,
the Campaign against Contagious Diseases, led by Josephine But-
ler, made middle-class women aware of the hypocrisy of a male-


defined and class-oriented sexual morality that worked with "mur-
derous cruelty" on other women; even children were sold into
white slavery. The reaction to this open discussion of one of Vic-
torian culture's most taboo subjects is illustrated in a remark by a
member of Parliament that the campaigners were "worse than pros-
titutes." While the campaign attracted working-class and union
support, reformers revealed the gulf separating the classes by at-
tempting to inculcate in workers the middle-class values of thrift,
abstinence, good housekeeping, and proper child care.36
The liberal feminist attack on patriarchy did not immediately
resonate in the working class, where such authority was already
being shredded by capitalism. Lord Shaftes1fury worried (as did
Herbert Spencer) about the breakup of the family as a result of the
factory system. "Domestic life and domestic discipline must soon be
at an end," Shaftesbury said. The Trades Union Congress included
such women as Emma Paterson in 1876 and supported women's suf-
frage in 1884. But male/female conflicts of interest were clearly evi-
dent in the workers' and socialist movements. Male trade unionists
were suspicious of middle-class women reformers, and many also
believed, as union leader Henry Broadhurst stated, that "wives
should be in their proper place at home." During the depression of
the 1870s and 1880s, men advocated legislation protecting working
women, which working women viewed as "protecting" them out of
jobs. During the last half of the 1880s and throughout the 1890s, a
period of organizing noncraft unions and of a revival of socialism,
there was heightened activity among working-class women. Radicals
such as Eleanor Marx, Tom Maguire, and Tom Mann (who asked,
"Who would choose to be a workman's wife?") supported strikes; and
prominent women, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, joined the Inde-
pendent Labour Party. During the 1890s different concepts of family,
sexuality, and unconventional life-styles were subjects of intense dis-
cussion. In his Love's Coming ofAge (1896), the cooperative-socialist
Edward Carpenter attempted to link personal transformation and
radical politics. Carpenter openly discussed in his pamphlets the
sexual liberation of women and what he called the "intermediate sex"
(homosexuals). He was told by Robert Blatchford, the non-Marxist
socialist editor of The Clarion, to keep quiet until socialism was
achieved; Blatchford assured the public that socialism had nothing
to do with "Free Love" and the abolition of the family. Rowbotham
has summarized this period: "Like the utopian socialists earlier,
revolutionaries in the 1880s and 1890s tried to connect sexual sub-



Feminism and Liberal Social Theory

ordination to property ownership, and to discover the relationship
between the oppression of women and the exploitation of workers."`37
In the last half of the nineteenth century, the debate about
population continued to be cast in the mold of Malthus's "law" of
population. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were arrested in
1877 for publishing a new edition of Charles Knowlton's book con-
taining birth-control information, Fruits of Philosophy, first pub-
lished in the 1860s. The solicitor general called it "a dirty, filthy
book" that advocated the separation of sexual passion from its pro-
videntially ordained and only purpose, reproduction. (Besant lost
custody of her child because of publishing an "obscene" book-the
judge wished to prevent her daughter Jean from following in her
footsteps.) The anti-Malthusians included the church, upper-class
conservatives, moralists, and Marxists, an odd assortment. On the
other side, as Rowbotham has remarked, there was an "uneasy rela-
tion between a section of the feminist movement in the nineteenth
century and the Malthusian League." During the 1870s the Men-
singa diaphragm was invented by a Dutch doctor; and economic de-
pression provided an incentive to regulate family size, although the
more effective methods of birth control were priced beyond the
reach of working-class women. By 1880, the birth rate in England
had dropped, and by 1900 survey evidence linked birth-control
propaganda with the lower birth rate.38
This historical sketch ends at the turn of the century, because
Mill died in 1873 and Spencer in 1903. The struggle for women
right to vote was a unifying issue, but the various radical and liberal
movements were not without divisions. There were splits in Emme-
line Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)-includ-
ing a break with her more socialist daughter Sylvia-over which class
to ally with and which tactics to adopt to win the battle for women's
suffrage. Socialists and feminists parted company when some of the
latter agreed with Hannah Mitchell's conclusion "that socialists are
not necessarily feminists." Socialist women advocated the universal
franchise and thus opposed the suffragists' position of electoral
qualification. In 1904, after the Women's Enfranchisement Bill was
voted down in Parliament, the WSPU became militant, engaging in
strikes and violence. However, the death knell for militant liberal
feminism came when the leaders of the WSPU supported the Brit-
ish government in World War I, and the extension of the franchise
took away the single issue that unified feminists. The war also wore
down the cutting edge of socialism's position on women's rights by


integrating the workers' and radical movements into the emerging
state capitalist order.39

The English Theorists

England is the locus classics of the Industrial Revolution, which
provided many of the themes of classical sociological theory-the
industrial city, new forms of property, the condition of the working
class, the factory system, and social legislation concerning female
and child labor. Nevertheless, in Perry Anderson's words, England
"alone of major Western societies-never produced a classical soci-
ology," in the continental sense.40 Several historical conditions lay
behind this anomaly. First, England had its bourgeois revolution in
the seventeenth century. Its early transition to capitalism, domi-
nance of the world market, and political institutions capable of en-
capsulating class conflicts had given it, to paraphrase Engels, not
only a bourgeoisie but also a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois
proletariat. Second, England's tradition of philosophy is empiricism
and its social theory utilitarianism.41 As Robert Nisbet has argued,
the paradox of the sociological tradition is that while it "falls, in its
objectives and in the political and scientific values of its principal
figures, in the mainstream of modernism, its essential concepts and
its implicit perspectives place it much closer, generally speaking, to
philosophical conservatism." The "conservative image of the good
society" of the "Anti-Enlightenment" reasserted the values and
ideas of community, authority, hierarchy, and the sacred, which
came to constitute the "unit-ideas of Sociology." In England, in the
absence of such a classical sociological tradition, we must look to
the liberal social theory of John Stuart Mill and the writings of Her-
bert Spencer.42

John Stuart Mill
On The Subjection of Women

Strictly speaking, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was not a classical
sociological theorist.43 His work is considered here because of its
importance in the history of the literature on the subjection of
women. As Susan Moller Okin has pointed out, he is "the only
major liberal political philosopher to have set out explicitly to apply
the principles of liberalism to women."44 Since there are several ex-



The English Theorists: John Stuart Mill

cellent recent analyses of Mill's feminism, my examination of his
treatment of the "woman question" can focus on its more socio-
logical aspects.
Some facts of Mill's biography, particularly his relationship with
Harriet Taylor, are pertinent to his thought. Mill was a member of
the Philosophic Radicals (an intellectual-political society adhering
to Bentham's utilitarianism), who were attempting to carry on the
work of criticism and reform of traditional institutions in the man-
ner of the French philosophes. In the late 1820s, Mill came into
contact with a group of Unitarian radicals, free-thinking Christians,
whose leader was the Reverend William J. Fox. "Concern for the
status of women and the relations between the sexes," as Alice S.
Rossi has pointed out, "was no new idea in the social circle of the
Unitarian Radicals in the early 1830s."45 It was in that social circle
that Mill met Harriet Taylor in 1830. They developed a lifelong rela-
tionship and married in 1851, two years after her first husband's
death freed her from that unhappy relationship.
Mill was a feminist before he met Harriet Taylor. At the age of
seventeen he had been arrested for giving vaginal sponges to maid-
servants in public and to the wives and daughters of tradesmen and
mechanics in marketplaces. For The Black Dwarf he wrote articles
advocating birth control.46 In 1824, he wrote a piece for the West-
minister Review rejecting separate moral standards and sets of values
for the two sexes and nicely describing the opposite and unequally
valued character traits that society had prescribed for men and
women. He observed that women who infringed on male prerog-
atives, showed independence, or tried to be useful "either to them-
selves or to the world, otherwise than as the slaves and drudges of
their husbands, are called masculine, and other names intended to
convey disapprobation."47
Although questions of the nature and extent of her influence
and whether it was for good or ill continue to provoke controversy
among Mill's biographers, there is no doubt that Harriet Taylor in-
fluenced Mill's ideas about the condition of women. Mill's testimony
was that Taylor helped him transform what had been, in his words,
"little more than an abstract principle" into a real grasp of the every-
day lives of women denied equal rights and any prospects for self-
advancement. However, it appears that many of Taylor's ideas, for
example, about marriage laws, were more radical than Mill's. In the
intellectual circles in which he moved, Mill had the opportunity to
meet other educated, talented, and productive women, such as


Harriet Martineau and Jane Carlyle, who probably also contributed
to his understanding of how women were treated in his society.48
However, we must remember that Mill drafted The Subjection of
Women in 1860 and 1861 (although it was not published until 1869)
as a part of the larger context of "the great Victorian debate on
Woman," taking the position of the democratic rationalist against
sentimental, chivalrous romantics and reactionaries.49
Countering the argument that women voluntarily accept rule
by men, Mill observed in The Subjection of Women that "an in-
creasing number of them have recorded protests against their pres-
ent social condition," that is, exclusion from suffrage, from equal
education, and from the professions.50 The protest was occurring,
he noted, not only in England and the United States but also in
France, Italy, Switzerland, and Russia (SW, 139-40). He asserted:
"Through all the progressive period of human history, the condi-
tion of women has been approaching nearer to equality with men"
(SW, 148). Further, the principle that distinguished the modern
world, according to Mill, was that "human beings are no longer
born to their place in life" (SW, 143; see also 147). "The disabilities
of women are the only case, save one [royalty], in which laws and
institutions take persons at their birth, and ordain that they shall
never in all their lives be allowed to compete for certain things"
(SW, 145). Sex roles, in short, were the sole remaining ascriptive
adult status in the modern world.
Mill wrote that patriarchy as embodied in the marriage contract
differed from other forms of rule of the stronger over the weaker in
that it was "not confined to a limited class, but common to the
whole male sex" (SW, 136). If the law of marriage is "a law of des-
potism," Mill observed, it is necessary to give women only Hobsons
choice ("that or none") "lest all women of spirit and capacity should
prefer doing almost anything else, not in their own eyes degrading,
rather than marry, when marrying is giving themselves a master,
and a master too of all their earthly possessions" (SW, 155-56)-and
of their bodies as well. Wives may be treated better than slaves,
Mill said, "but no slave is a slave to the same lengths, and in so full a
sense of the word, as a wife is" (SW, 159; see also 160).
Employing an analogy commonly used by feminists of his own
time, Mill described the condition of women:

What, in unenlightened societies, colour, race, religion, or in
the case of a conquered country, nationality, are to some men,



The English Theorists: John Stuart Mill

sex is to all women; a peremptory exclusion from almost all
honourable occupations, Sufferings arising from causes
of this nature usually meet with so little sympathy, that few
persons are aware of the great amount of unhappiness even
now produced by the feeling of a wasted life. The case will be
even more frequent, as increased cultivation creates a greater
and greater disproportion between the ideas and faculties of
women, and the scope which society allows to their activity.
(SW, 241-42)

It is with these general considerations that Mill justified the open-
ing statement of his position:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations
between the two sexes-the legal subordination of one sex to
the other-is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hin-
drances to human improvement; and that it ought to be re-
placed by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or
privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other. (SW, 125)

The justification of the restriction of women to a separate domestic
sphere rested on a conception of "woman's nature." The strength of
Mill's analysis was in his strategy of logical-empirical argumentation
against the belief that inequality between the sexes is justified by
experience-"the feelings connected with this subject [are] the
most intense and most deeply-rooted of all those which gather round
and protect old institutions and customs" (SW, 126). Mill stated his
premise forcefully:

What is now called the nature of women is an eminently ar-
tificial thing-the result of forced repression in some direc-
tions, unnatural stimulation in others. (SW, 148)

To paraphrase Mill's argument: although there are dogmatic opin-
ions on the subject of the seemingly ineradicable moral and rational
differences between men and women, the only inference that can
be made is the negative one, namely, that what is natural is what
would be left after eliminating every difference that could be ac-
counted for by education or environment (SW, 149-50). Mill took a
swing at the prevailing weight of opinion when he said, "I do not
know a more signal instance of the blindness with which the world,


including the herd of studious men, ignore and pass over all the in-
fluences of social circumstances, than their silly depreciation of the
intellectual, and silly panegyrics on the moral, nature of women"
(SW, 213). Although physiologists and medical doctors may have
had some knowledge about the differences in bodily constitution
between the sexes, Mill considered that when it came to the mental
characteristics of women, "their observations are of no more worth
than those of common men." The opinions of common men about
women, he observed, were based on single cases-their wives:
"Accordingly one can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a
mans wife is like, from his opinions about women in general" (SW,
150-51). Inequality itself prevents men from having anything but
incomplete and superficial knowledge of women, Mill believed, be-
cause "thorough knowledge of one another hardly ever exists, but
between persons who, besides being intimates, are equals." Ac-
cording to Mill, men would have no sure knowledge of women "un-
til women themselves have told all that they have to tell," and until
a freely developed women's literature provided insight into what
women think and feel (SW, 152-53).
Mill, like Wollstonecraft, pointed out how the socialization and
education of women shaped their "nature." Unlike other subject
classes, women were required not only to obey but also to want to
obey. What men had done, Mill wrote, was to use the full force of
education to enslave the minds of women:

All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the
belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that
of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but sub-
mission, and yielding to the control of others. All the morali-
ties tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current
sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to
make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life
but in their affections. (SW, 141)

These affections were meant to be only for husbands and children.
Given the complete dependence of women on their husbands, Mill
noted, "It would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men
had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation
of character" (SW, 141). Mill wrote that the condition of being "at
the beck and call of somebody, generally of everybody," the restric-
tion of ambition within narrow bounds, the infrequency of "eager-



The English Theorists: John Stuart Mill

ness for fame," and the condition of being recognized only as "an
appendage to men"-all had contributed to prevent the occurrence
of an original women's art and contributions to intellectual life equal
to mens (SW, 211, 212, 203-13).
On the other side of the coin of sexual inequality are the char-
acter traits inequality produces in men. The absence of legal re-
straints on husbands brought out the worst in them, Mill wrote:

If the family in its best forms is, as it is often said to be, a
school of sympathy, tenderness, and loving forgetfulness of
self, it is still oftener, as respects its chief, a school of wil-
fulness, overbearingness, unbounded self-indulgence, and a
double-dyed and idealized selfishness. (SW, 165)

Clearly, Mill was debunking the mythic idealization of the Vic-
torian family hearth put forward by John Ruskin and others who
sought to keep women in their "true place" of "wifely subjection."5'1
Mill also stated that the false sense of superiority men were taught
could not but "pervert the whole manner of existence of the man,
both as an individual and as a social being" (SW, 219, 218). Due to
women's lack of legal rights and public power, he observed, the only
restraints on the arrogance and brutishness of men toward women
were "feminine blandishments" and "the shrewish sanction," the
former working only while women were young, attractive, fresh
with charm, and the latter working best on husbands who were of
gentler natures (SW, 166-67). The unfortunate synthesis of the
contradictions of inequality between men and women, Mill found,
was the absence of intimacy and of "real agreement of tastes and
wishes as to daily life" (SW, 232). Following Mill's argument to its
conclusion, we find that for men and women to have different char-
acters would require different-i.e., equal-relations between the
Much as a feminist would argue today, Mill argued that what
we call sex discrimination in employment and high social functions
occurred in order that they "be preserved for the exclusive benefit
of males." Mill insinuated an even deeper level of the inequality
between men and women: "I believe that their disabilities else-
where [i.e., in occupations] are only clung to in order to maintain
their subordination in domestic life; because the generality of the
male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal" (SW,
181-82). Breaking down the barriers to women's participation in


what is termed "men's business" would have as its effect the "con-
sciousness a woman would then have of being a human being like
any other, entitled to choose her pursuits. entitled to exert the
share of influence on all human concerns which belongs to an indi-
vidual opinion. this alone would effect an immense expansion of
the faculties of women, as well as enlargement of the range of their
moral sentiments" (SW, 222). The social good entailed, he main-
tained, "would be that of doubling the mass of mental faculties
available for the higher service of humanity" (SW, 221). The founda-
tion of domestic existence would no longer be "contradictory to the
first principles of social justice" (SW, 220). He believed that "though
the truth may not be felt or generally acknowledged for generations
to come, the only school of genuine moral sentiment is society be-
tween equals" (SW, 173). In true utilitarian fashion, Mill rested his
case on the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but espe-
cially "the unspeakable gain in private happiness to the liberated
half of the species; the difference to them between a life of subjec-
tion to the will of others, and a life of rational freedom." Mill's firm
belief was that the ideal marriage between "two persons of cul-
tivated faculties, identical in opinions and purposes," with similar
capacities, both of whom could contribute to each other's develop-
ment with a kind of "reciprocal superiority," would commence the
"moral regeneration of mankind," because the relation of men and
women is "the most fundamental" in society (SW, 235-36).
Mill then turned his attention to the problem of how women
could win equality, given the special nature of their oppression:

Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and al-
most, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters-in
closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow-subjects;
with no means of combining against him, no power of even
locally overmastering him, and, on the other hand, with the
strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give
him offence In the case of women, each individual of the
subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation
combined. (SW, 136-37)

Under such conditions of subjection, Mill believed, "Women cannot
be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women,
until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in
the undertaking" (SW, 215).



The English Theorists: John Stuart Mill

Evaluations of Mill from feminist perspectives have varied with
the politics of the persons making the judgments. For example,
from a liberal feminist viewpoint, Alice S. Rossi has asserted that
Mill's essay surpassed anything written before and ranks in impor-
tance with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898)
and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1953). However, Rossi
omitted mention ofFriedrich Engels's classic, and she dismissed the
Marxist approach in an invidious comparison of it to Mills.52 From
a Marxist perspective, Herman and Julia Schwendinger have criti-
cized Mill for his laissez-faire, individualistic conception of women's
rights, his emphasis on the family and the legal order as the major
sources of the oppression of women, and the hidden functionalism
in his notion of the complementarity of sex roles.53
From a feminist viewpoint in general, Mill's position is not with-
out weakness. For example, in his discussion of the influence of
women on public morality, Mill credited women with fostering "its
aversion to war, and its addiction to philanthropy," but, like Spen-
cer, he also stated that the directions women gave to these efforts
were "at least as often mischievous as useful." Particularly in phil-
anthropic activities, women's "religious proselytism" provoked ani-
mosity, Mill argued, and in charitable work, women concentrated
on immediate rather than long-term effects, thus wasting resources
and destroying attitudes of self-help among the persons meant to
benefit (SW, 226-27). In these statements, Mill revealed that he
shared some of the liberal, rationalist views about women that were
current in his time. But he did recognize that women's approach to
charity was conditioned by their own lack of independence.
As another and more telling example, Mill argued that women
did not encourage devoting energy to purposes that promised no
private advantages to their families. He observed that, in the upper

The wife's influence tends, as far as it goes, to prevent the hus-
band from falling below the common standard of approbation
of the country. It tends quite as strongly to hinder him from
rising above it. The wife is the auxiliary of common public opin-
ion. A man who is married to a woman his inferior in intelli-
gence finds her a perpetual dead weight, or, worse than a dead
weight, a drag, upon every aspiration of his to be better than
public opinion requires him to be. It is hardly possible for one
who is in these bonds, to attain exalted virtue. (SW, 228)


To keep the record straight, alongside these statements we must set
Mill's observation in a letter to Thomas Carlyle in 1833 that the best
persons of both sexes he had known combined the best of both mas-
culine and feminine qualities.'
Mill's solution to the tensions and conflicts of existing private
family life was to propose that women should have public rights and
legal equality in marriage. Jean Bethke Elshtain has maintained,
problematically, that Mill's liberal emphasis on law and his flat and
"external" theory of human motivation caused him to miss the non-
legal dimensions, in particular the deep psychological dimensions,
of mens power over women.55 However, Mill's marriage pledge, in
which he renounced the authority granted by the legal inequality
of husband and wife, is evidence that he was aware of the interper-
sonal and private aspects of this problem. He had learned from his
own family experience. His father was a domestic despot who en-
couraged in his children contempt for their mother. In his personal
crises of the 1820s, Mill had to establish an identity separate from
his father, and his attitude toward women seems to have served as
his vehicle.56
However, Mill showed ambivalence "about thoroughgoing al-
terations in private social arrangements between the sexes." It ap-
pears that he held a traditional notion of true love, in which a wife
was an educated but not quite equal companion whose ultimate
purpose in life should be to support the public and creative pursuits
of her husband by her private endeavors, providing the care for the
disappointments, frustration, and exhaustion such pursuits inevi-
tably entail. This contradiction is the major weakness of his work.
In Elshtain's formulation: "His analysis runs ashoal on the rock of
the traditionally structured family.'57 As Okin has pointed out, "It
is striking that Mill chose not to question the family and the way it
had developed, in any way, or to consider the relationship between
the institution of the bourgeois family itself and the contemporary
position of women in society."58 Neither the family nor the legal
order by themselves can explain the subjection of women. Mill ac-
cepted to a large extent the traditional division of labor in which
"the man earns the income.

When a woman marries, it may in general be understood that
she makes choice of the management of a household, and the
bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions,
during as many years of her life as may be required for the



The English Theorists: John Stuart Mill

purpose; and that she renounces, not all other objects and oc-
cupations, but all which are not consistent with the require-
ments of this. (SW, 178-79)

For Mill, a wife's role was analogous to a man's profession. He ac-
cepted "the immutability of the existing family structure."59 His
consideration of the relationship of the family to the social order
was limited largely to the ways in which the public legal disabilities
of women interplayed with the private relationships of men and
women. He overlooked variations in the forms of the family as they
were conditioned by transformations of the economic structures of
society. Most striking in this regard is his failure to address the
changes in the status of women of different classes as they were
shaped by the development of industrial capitalism in England-
certainly crucial to the conditions against which he protested so
The major strengths of Mill's work are his indictment of the
existing relations of the sexes and his powerfully lucid exposition of
the problem of distinguishing nature from experience and educa-
tion.6" His approach is still the only way to arrive at a "sound psychol-
ogy" of the sexes. However, Mill's focus on the family and the legal-
political order as major sources of women's oppression revealed the
class limitations of his perspective, for he was mainly concerned
with the equality of women from the middle and upper classes,
women of talent and property (see SW, 176, 194). He made clear his
acceptance of the existing class order when he stated that equality
in intellectual education would mean that "women in general would
be brought up equally capable of understanding business, public af-
fairs, and the higher matters of speculation, with men in the same
class of society" (SW, 221; emphasis added).6' Similarities between
Mill's ideas and Mary Wollstonecraft's in her Vindication are strik-
ing. "The Vindication," Rowbotham has written, "often taken as
the beginnings of feminism, was rather the important theoretical
summation of bourgeois radical feminism still in the phase of moral
exhortation, before there was either the possibility of a radical and
socialist movement from below, to which the revolutionary feminist
could relate, or a movement like that of suffragettes, of privileged
women for equal rights with bourgeois man.'"62
Although the young Mill credited the utopian socialists for their
stand on equality of the sexes,63 Rowbotham maintains that, as a
middle-class radical, he was alienated by the Saint-Simonians' ap-


peal to workers. Further, when Mill became a member of Parlia-
ment, he introduced an amendment to Disraeli's Reform Bill of
1867 to substitute the word person for man in the language of the
bill in order that women might also achieve the benefits of the ex-
tension of suffrage.64 In conclusion, of the "two feminisms," Mill, as
a middle-class reformer, clearly was allied throughout The Sub-
jection of Women with the feminism "seeking acceptance from the
bourgeois world, [not with] the other seeking another world al-

Herbert Spencer
Determining Feminine Nature by
Evolutionary Functionalism

The work of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), England's Auguste Comte
in the history of sociological theory, was extremely influential in the
nineteenth century and remains central to the legacy of contempo-
rary evolutionary functionalism in academic sociology.' Spencer's
thought is virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, with its
central theoretical tenet of the survival of the fittest in the struggle
for existence as the motor and the outcome of social evolution and
its political doctrine of noninterference by government in the work-
ings of this "natural law" of progress. Spencer used this concept to
explain and justify, as the final and best, or most ethical, stage of
history, industrial capitalism with its class inequalities; its domina-
tion, through "industrial war," of "inferior races"; its racism; its
domination of women by men and restriction of women to the func-
tions of mothering and caring for the family. As Karen Sacks has
stated, "Despite the lack of scientific method, social Darwinism has
been the dominant anthropological approach to the woman ques-
tion."67 What Sacks missed in her otherwise excellent critique of
Spencer's position is that his early views of women, published in his
first book, Social Statics (1851), could easily be called feminist.
"Equity knows no difference of sex .... The law of equal free-
dom manifestly applies to the whole race-female as well as male,"
Spencer began the chapter of Social Statics entitled "The Rights of
Women."68 He found that opponents of women's rights could not
show that "those trifling mental variations which distinguish female
from male" should be the basis for denying women equal rights
with men (SS, 155). Spencer maintained that "despotism in the
state is necessarily associated with despotism in the family If



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

injustice sways men's public acts, it will inevitably sway their private
ones also" (SS, 161). He believed that male authority in marriage
was incompatible with love and "connubial happiness" (SS, 166). To
the argument "that 'woman's mission' is a domestic one," Spencer
responded with historical and comparative evidence and asked the
rhetorical question "Who will now tell us what woman's sphere
really is?" (SS, 169). He continued, "However much, therefore, the
giving of political power to women may disagree with our notions of
propriety [which do not carry the weight of necessity], we must
conclude that, being required by that first pre-requisite to greatest
happiness-the law of equal freedom-such a concession is un-
questionably right and good" (SS, 170-71). He summarized:

Thus it has been shown that the rights of women must
stand or fall with those of men; derived as they are from the
same authority; The idea that the rights of women are not
equal to those of men, has been condemned [by Spencer] as
akin to the Eastern dogma, that women have no souls. It has
been argued that the position at present held by the weaker
sex is of necessity a wrong one, seeing that the same selfish-
ness which vitiates our political institutions, must inevitably
vitiate our domestic ones also. Subordination of females to
males has been also repudiated, because it implies the use of
command, and thereby reveals its descent from barbarism.
Proof has been given that the attitudes of mastery on the one
side, and submission on the other, are essentially at variance
with that refined sentiment which should subsist between
husband and wife. The argument that married life would be
impracticable under any other arrangement, has been met by
pointing out how the relationship of equality must become
possible as fast as its justness is recognized. And lastly, it has
been shown that the objections commonly raised against giv-
ing political power to women, are founded on notions and prej-
udices that will not bear examination. (SS, 171)

Spencer's advocacy of equal rights for women (and children) in
1851 was grounded in the same utilitarianism adhered to by Mill.69
But in a matter of years, Spencer began to change his mind about
the "nature" of women. Already in 1855 in The Principles of Psy-
chology, he held, in J. D. Y. Peel's summary, that "the women of his
own day differ from men in the same way that savages do, similar in


kind but less in degree, being fixed in their ideas and quick to draw
Matters became even clearer in 1865 when Spencer refused
John Stuart Mill's invitation to join a society to promote women's
admission to suffrage. Two months earlier he had refused Helen
Taylor (Harriet Taylor's daughter and Mill's stepdaughter) permis-
sion to include the chapter on women's rights from Social Statics in a
series of papers.71 In a 9 August 1867 letter to Mill, Spencer ex-
plained that he no longer supported the "immediate" extension of
suffrage to women. His reasons were as follows: Liberty would be
diminished doubly because women more than men "habitually"
side with authority, "both political and ecclesiastical," and, in the
face of suffering, favor solutions involving legislation and increased
state administration. Revealing his change of mind, Spencer added:

Of course, whoever holds that the minds of men and women
are alike will feel no difficulty of this kind. But I hold them to
be unlike, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I believe the
difference to result from a physiological necessity, and that no
amount of culture can obliterate it. And I believe further that
the relative deficiency of the female mind is in just those most
complex faculties, intellectual and moral, which have political
action for their sphere.72

Upon receiving a copy of The Subjection of Women from Mill,
Spencer wrote to him (9 June 1869) that he felt the whole question
was too much discussed on the assumption that the relations of the
sexes were determined "mainly by law." He suggested that "a very
trenchant essay might be written on the Supremacy of Women
showing that, in present civilization, the concessions made volun-
tarily by men to women" have counterbalanced those enacted in law
and that "throughout a large part of society the tyranny of the weak
is as formidable as the tyranny of the strong." Mill agreed that
women "in a great many cases tyrannize over men," usually the fate
of the best men, he said, but he pointed out that "two contradictory
tyrannies do not make liberty."73 It is sufficient to mention at this
point that prior to the construction of his sociology, in the early
1860s, just when "the woman question had become one of the most
important topics of the day,'74 Spencer had completed his study
and writing of The Principles of Biology.75 It is precisely a biological



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

analogy that is the intellectual key to Spencer's sociology and to the
changes in his position on the rights and "proper sphere" of women.
In 1873, four years after publication of Mill's The Subjection of
Women, and responding to the same historical forces, Spencer pub-
lished The Study of Sociology, in which the reversal in his position
on the question of women's "nature" and women's rights is most
apparent.76 Spencer opened the discussion of the comparative psy-
chology of the sexes by asking, "Are the mental natures of men and
women the same?" His answer was completely opposite to the one
he had given in Social Statics in 1851: "That men and women are
mentally alike is as untrue as that they are alike bodily" (SSoc, 340).
Spencer's new opinion was that the mental differences, like the phy-
sical, stemmed from the different shares men and women play in
the perpetuation of the race, and that to suppose otherwise would
be to believe that, unlike the rest of nature, there is no relationship
between special powers and special functions (SSoc, 341).
Spencer listed the physical and psychic differences between
men and women that he believed were adaptations to "paternal and
maternal duties": First, that an individual woman's development
began and ended more abruptly than a man's was a phenomenon
Spencer supposed necessary for producing offspring; second, that
women have comparatively smaller bodies, and so smaller brains,
meant to Spencer that women's mental powers were also less than
men's; and third, that women have a pronounced parental love of
helplessness gives them "an adapted power of intuition and a fit
adjustment of behaviour" to deal with "infantine life." Spencer
elaborated his view of what he considered women's mental back-
wardness: "There is a perceptible falling-short in those two fac-
ulties, intellectual and emotional, which are the latest products of
human evolution-the power of abstract reasoning and that most
abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice" (SSoc, 341-42).
Spencer believed women's adaptations to mothering determined
their general conduct.
SSpencer offered reasons why women should acquiesce to their
secondary position. He said that the "remaining qualitative distinc-
tions between the minds of men and women are those which have
grown out of their mutual relation as stronger and weaker." He ar-
gued that since the barbaric tribes that survived and became civi-
lized were those in which "the men were not only powerful and
courageous but aggressive, unscrupulous, intensely egoistic," it fol-


lowed that "necessarily the women of such races, having to deal
with brutal men, prospered in proportion as they possessed, or ac-
quired, fit adjustments of nature" (SSoc, 342). In the first instance,
women developed the ability to please men in order to survive and
reproduce, and in the second instance:

The wives of merciless savages must, other things equal, have
prospered in proportion to their powers of disguising their
feelings. Women who betrayed the state of antagonism pro-
duced in them by ill-treatment, would be less likely to survive
and leave offspring than those who concealed their antag-
onism; and hence, by inheritance and selection, a growth of
this trait proportionate to the requirement. (SSoc, 343)

He added:

One further ability may be named as likely to be cultivated
and established-the ability to distinguish quickly the passing
feelings of those around. In barbarous times, a woman who
could from a movement, tone of voice, or expression of face,
instantly detect in her savage husband the passion that was
rising, would be likely to escape dangers run into by a woman
less skilled in interpreting the natural language of feeling.
Hence, from the perpetual exercise of this power, and the sur-
vival of those having most of it, we may infer its establishment
as a feminine faculty. (SSoc, 343)

He admired an aspect of women's sensitivity:

Ordinarily, this feminine faculty, showing itself in an aptitude
for guessing the state of mind through the external signs,
end[s] simply in intuitions formed without assignable reasons;
but when, as happens in rare cases, there is joined with it skill
in psychological analysis, there results an extremely remark-
able ability to interpret the mental states of others. (SSoc, 343)

Spencer anticipated the sociobiologists77 in finding that the
women who seemed to prefer "the manifestation of power of every
kind in men" were more likely to survive.



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

Among women unlike in their tastes, those who were fasci-
nated by power, bodily or mental, and who married men able
to protect them and their children, were more likely to sur-
vive in posterity than women to whom weaker men were pleas-
ing. (SSoc, 344)

He observed further that some women preferred powerful men
even when that preference was detrimental.

To this admiration for power, caused thus inevitably, is as-
cribable the fact sometimes commented upon as strange, that
women will continue attached to men who use them ill, but
whose brutality goes along with power, more than they will
continue attached to weaker men who use them well. (SSoc,

His explanation is, of course, wrong, or at least problematic. That
women remain in brutal situations has also to do with fear, the lack
of legal recourse (as in the case of rape by a husband where that is
not a punishable offense), and the absence of economic alternatives.
Although Spencer believed women preference for powerful
men advantageous to men in marriage and for the survival of the
species, he thought it dangerous if transferred to public authorities.

With this admiration of power. there goes the admiration
of power in general; which is more marked in women than in
men, and shows itself both theologically and politically ..
And to this same cause ["natural character"] is in like manner
to be ascribed the greater respect felt by women for all em-
bodiments and symbols of authority, governmental and social.
(SSoc, 344-45)

He implied that women should be excluded from participation in
public life; he thought their influence should be limited to the indi-
rect shaping of their husbands' and sons' characters (SSoc, 347-48)
Spencer's work rested on ethnocentric and incomplete field-
work, as is characteristic of much nineteenth-century armchair an-
thropology, but his theory did allow the possibility of changes in sex
roles as society evolved.


It is inferable that as civilization readjusts men's natures to
higher social requirements, there goes on a corresponding re-
adjustment between the natures of men and women, tending
in sundry respects to diminish their differences. Especially
may we anticipate that those mental peculiarities developed
in women as aids to defense against men in barbarous times,
will diminish. (SSoc, 345)

Throughout Spencer's work there is the liberal ideal that scien-
tific knowledge of the laws of social development should be the
basis for intelligent social policy for "the furtherance of human wel-
fare." One of the things he meant by this was that government must
not interfere with the "natural" law of progress by protecting the
unfit or promoting their survival. According to Spencer, a danger-
ous effect of feminine nature, what he considered to be its mater-
nal instinct and less developed sense of abstract justice, was that
women were more apt than men to be swayed by appeals to pity
rather than equity and to support policies that gave aid to those
whose suffering was conspicuous enough to excite commiseration,
even if they had caused their own misery. He believed this an "un-
natural" and "wrong-headed" policy to which women were espe-
cially vulnerable because of "the aptitude which the feminine intel-
lect has to dwell on the concrete and proximate rather than on the
abstract and remote" (SSoc, 346). Just as Spencer felt that women
erred more in domestic affairs than men by thinking of their chil-
dren's present rather than their future characters, so he believed
"this difference between their ways of estimating consequences ...
makes women err still more than men do in seeking what seems an
immediate public good without thought of distant public evils." He
believed an awe of the symbols of power and a lack of "doubt, or
criticism, or calling-in-question of things that are established" made
women unfit for representation in a liberal democracy. He said,
"Reverencing power more than men do, women, by implication, re-
spect freedom less" (SSoc, 346-47). The effect of women's "nature,"
according to Spencer, was to contribute to the extension and consoli-
dation of controlling agencies.
Spencer disingenuously refused to articulate an answer to the
question of what roles should be open to women: "Whether it is
desirable that the share already taken by women in determining
social arrangements and actions should be increased, is a question
we will leave undiscussed." He argued that any changes in the posi-



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

tion of women must derive from his comparative psychology of the
sexes, making clear he felt little need for change. He noted that ad-
vocates for equal rights for women would be unlikely to base their
efforts on his work (SSoc, 348).
By the time Spencer had written The Principles of Sociology,
published in three volumes in 1876 and reissued in nineteen edi-
tions, his opinion of women's rights was, as we have seen, the op-
posite of his early views.78 The ideas that governed his treatment of
women in this work were evolution, survival through fit adaptation,
the idea that institutions "hang together," and that societies most
evolved are, "ethically considered," the best. He viewed English
industrial society as approaching the moral end of the historical
progress of civilization (PS, 610-12, 615). In outline, because mo-
nogamy was the most developed form of marriage, Spencer thought
it to be the best and the one that accorded to women the highest
possible status. He believed that full-time mothers were necessary
for the most improvement in the quality of offspring and, therefore,
the species. As for the rights of women, Spencer maintained that
biological and social evolution would eventually provide conditions
in which women would approach equality with men and in which
the rights of women would cease to be an issue.
Spencer engaged in a characteristically nineteenth-century
search for the origins and evolution of the family, examining differ-
ent forms particularly for their effects on the status of women, the
education of children, and the relationship of the family to society.
In the beginning, Spencer believed, there were no families, only
promiscuous relationships between men and women. Among primi-
tive tribes, men and women did not manifest "those ideas and feel-
ings which among civilized nations give to marriage its sanctity" (PS,
616; and see 613-15, 643-44, 649-51).
Polyandry was the next step up from promiscuity, he thought;
however, it was a form of the family oppressive to women-because
having many husbands was synonymous with having many mas-
ters-and disconcerting to children because adult authority patterns
were not stable (PS, 659).
Generally producing fewer offspring, weaker defense, and less
family solidarity, polyandry gave way to polygyny in Spencer's an-
thropology; notions of property and women as property had devel-
oped at the same time. Spencer thought polygyny superior to poly-
andry in several ways: it promoted family cohesion, selected the
wealthiest and strongest men for survival and reproduction, and


resulted in better government because sons inherited from their
fathers. However, polygyny was rejected in favor of monogamy,
Spencer believed, because of the emotional and physical duress
polygyny inflicted on women and children. Jealousy among wives,
the use of wives as slaves, and inadequate paternal care for children
were among the harmful effects that he noted (PS, 668-78).
Spencer believed that "the monogamic family is the most
evolved" (PS, 681) and thus the standard by which relations between
men and women must be judged. That he considered monogamy the
most highly evolved form of marriage did not contradict its occa-
sional appearance in more primitive societies. He considered the
virtues of monogamy to be that it multiplied social relations, contrib-
uted to political stability, lengthened life, promoted the passions of
romantic love, encouraged literature, and, in industrial societies,
freed women to be full-time mothers, giving their children "constant
maternal care," and beyond that "the children get the benefit of con-
centrated paternal interest" (PS, 684). Applying his Lamarckian con-
ception of evolution, Spencer maintained that monogamy was be-
coming an innate characteristic "in the civilized man" (PS, 679-85).
In the chapter "The Family" in The Principles of Sociology,
Spencer examined the relationship of family to society. He restated
his theory of the correlation of militant or warlike societies with
polygyny and of industrial society with monogamy. A plurality of
wives captured in war or purchased "implies domestic rule of the
compulsory type: the husband is tyrant and the wives are slaves."
Industrialization brought about a balanced sex ratio, he asserted,
and thereby compelled monogamy. With the decline in the practice
of the bride price and with the advance in honoring women's choices
of husbands, Spencer found, there was evolving "the voluntary co-
operation which characterizes the marital relation in its highest
form" (PS, 691).
Spencer believed that, politically, the "salvation" of all societies
"depends on the maintenance of an absolute opposition between
the regime of the family and the regime of the State," because the
monogamous family operates on the principle of compassion for the
weak whereas society works properly by rewarding the strongest
and most competent (PS, 719-21). Therefore, according to Spen-
cer, no society can progress if it allows family values to be the basis
of the state. Contrarily, he raised "a question of great interest,
which has immediate bearing on policy, Is there any limit to



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

the disintegration of the family?" The traditional functions of the
family were being eroded, he believed, by poorhouses that pro-
vided care for children at public expense and public education that
assumed the "paternal duty of the State" (PS, 717).
Feminist socialists alarmed Spencer; he asked:

Are we on our way to a condition like that reached by sundry
Socialist bodies in America and elsewhere? in these, along
with community of property, and along with something ap-
proaching community of wives, there goes community in case
of offspring: the family is entirely disintegrated. (PS, 718)

He answered his question by saying, "So far from expecting disin-
tegration of the family to go further, we have reason to suspect that
it has already gone too far." But, underneath it all, he believed, as
did Talcott Parsons three generations later, in the emergence of a
new type of family composed of parents and offspring" (PS, 719),
that is, the nuclear family.
The most important roles in maintenance of the nuclear family,
Spencer asserted, were those of wife and mother. The chapter of
The Principles of Sociology entitled "The Status of Women" re-
examined treatment of women from primitive times to the time of
industrial society. It may be interesting to look at his anthropologi-
cal exposition in some detail. Spencer opened the chapter by stat-
ing a familiar nineteenth-century theme:

Perhaps in no way is the moral progress of mankind more
clearly shown, than by contrasting the position of women
among savages with their position among the most advanced
of the civilized. At one extreme a treatment of them cruel to
the utmost degree bearable; and at the other extreme a treat-
ment which, in some directions, gives them precedence over
men. (PS, 725)

In the "lowest races," he said, the only limits to the sufferings of
women were set by what they could endure and still survive. He
was aware of "certain anomalies," namely, that "predominance of
women is not unknown," as among the Fuegians, some Australian
tribes, the Battas of Sumatra, the Dyaks, and the Haidahs, where
matrilineality prevailed. Apparently he dismissed matrifocal so-


cities as exceptions. The "average facts," he asserted, were that
among most uncivilized, non-Western peoples, women were re-
garded as domestic cattle (PS, 726-28).
Regarding the travel literature that was part of theanthropol-
ogy of his day, Spencer believed that "the only definite conclusion
appears to be that men monopolize the occupations requiring both
strength and agility always available-war and the chase." He noted
that when women were pregnant and/or nursing infants, they were
unfit for fighting and hunting. Contrary to his general theory of the
natural division of labor between the sexes and the elevated treat-
ment of women in industrial society, Spencer found that "women
are better treated where circumstances lead to likeness of occupa-
tions between the sexes." He cited the Chippewa, Chinooks, and
Cueba as examples and pointed out that among the Dahomans,
with their Amazon army, "the participation of women with men in
war goes along with a social status much higher than usual" (PS,
Virtually the rest of the chapter Spencer devoted to sketches of
the relationship between political structures and types of domestic
arrangements in Egypt, the Roman Empire, China, Japan, pre-
revolutionary and Napoleonic France, contemporary Germany, En-
gland, and the United States. These comparisons were used to
prove that political and patriarchal despotism occur together.
Spencer concluded that in monogamous families in industrial
societies the condition of women was the best, the education of
children was the best, and the degree of freedom was the highest.
He stated his conclusions somewhat carefully. First, "monogamy [in
contrast to polygyny], if it does not necessarily imply a high status
[for women], is an essential condition to a high status." Second,
like Mill in having a simplistic conception of the family and society,
Spencer believed that "the freedom which characterizes public life
in an industrial community [in contrast to a militant one, which is
common to most savage life] naturally characterizes also the accom-
panying private life." The elevation of women in industrial societies
resulted in the improved quality of offspring, accounting for their
success in "the struggle for existence" around the globe (PS, 743).
With the coming of industry, boys and girls were treated almost
equally: "We thus find a series of changes in the status of children
parallel to the series of changes in the status of women" (PS, 755;
and see 747-55). These statements appear outrageous in light of
the havoc wreaked on the lives of working-class women and chil-



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

dren during the Industrial Revolution in his own country; Spencer
failed to take into account any class but his own.
The final chapter of the first volume of The Principles of Sociol-
ogy is called "Domestic Retrospect and Prospect." Coming full cir-
cle, Spencer said that monogamy "is manifestly the ultimate form"
of the relationship between men and women; so future "changes to
be anticipated must be in the direction of completion and extension
of it" (PS, 764). Monogamous marriage had already been improved
when industrial society's cooperative character and its practice of
consulting the wills of others "outside the household" were brought
"inside the household." Marriage had been transformed into an
"approximately equal partnership" in which affection took prece-
dence over legal authority (PS, 762). Spencer believed that the fu-
ture would bring the extinction of promiscuity, the suppression of
the crimes of adultery and bigamy, and the death of "the mercantile
element in marriage." He felt that divorce would be facilitated but
at the same time become rare because affection would be the pri-
mary and law the secondary basis for marriage (PS, 764-65). As for
the status of women, he predicted that "further approach towards
equality of position between the sexes will take place. a dimi-
nution of the political and domestic disabilities of women [will oc-
cur], until there remain only such as differences of constitution en-
tail" (PS, 767). This, as Sacks pointed out, is the biological key to
Spencer's views of women,79 for this was as far as he was willing to
go for women's rights. Spencer thought that the unconscious sym-
pathy of "the stronger sex for the weaker" would lead men to com-
pensate women for their constitutional "disadvantages" (PS, 768).
In Spencer's judgment, "While in some directions the emanci-
pation of women has to be carried further, we may suspect that in
other directions their claims have already been pushed beyond the
normal limits from which there will be a recoil" (PS, 767). He
cited an alleged lack of manners among American women as an ex-
ample. Spencer wrote directly against the middle-class feminist
demands of his time:

In domestic life, the relative position of women will doubtless
rise; but it seems improbable that absolute equality with men
will be reached Evenly though law may balance claims,
it will, as the least evil, continue to give, in case of need, su-
premacy to the husband, as being the more judicially-minded.
And, similarly, in the moral relations of married life, the pre-


ponderance of power, resulting from greater massiveness of
nature, must, however unobtrusive it may become, continue
with the man.

When we remember that up from the lowest savagery,
civilization has, among other results, caused an increasing ex-
emption of women from bread-winning labour, and that in the
highest societies they have become most restricted to domes-
tic duties and the rearing of children; we may be struck by the
anomaly that in our day restriction to indoor occupations has
come to be regarded as a grievance, and a claim is made to
free competition with men in all outdoor occupations. This
anomaly is traceable in part to the abnormal excess of women;
and obviously a state of things which excludes many women
from those natural careers in which they are dependent on
men for subsistence, justifies the demand for freedom to pur-
sue independent careers. That hindrances standing in their
way should be, and will be, abolished must be admitted. At
the same time it must be concluded that no considerable al-
teration in the careers of women in general, can be, or should
be, so produced; and further, that any extensive change in the
education of women, made with the view of fitting them for
businesses and professions, would be mischievous. If women
comprehended all that is contained in the domestic sphere,
they would ask no other. If they could see everything which is
implied in the right education of children, to a full conception
of which no man has yet risen, much less any woman, they
would seek no higher function. (PS, 768-69)

On what grounds, then, did Spencer oppose the demands for
equal rights of the feminists of his time? The answer, as was evident
earlier in The Study of Sociology, is simple, namely, women's func-
tion was to reproduce the species and rear the young. If women
were allowed influence in public life, Spencer feared that the politi-
cal defects of "feminine nature"-too great a respect for authority
and an inability to appreciate long-term results-would result in
softheartedness toward the unfit, increased power for the state, and
retarded progress toward justice in social arrangements. Only when
the fully developed-i.e., nonmilitant-industrial society with
complete voluntary cooperation and individual freedom was in
place could women be granted political power without "evil" re-



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

suits, he said. He argued commonly that so long as war exists and is
the responsibility of men, to grant women equal political power
"would involve a serious inequality" and be "impracticable." In a
final hedge, Spencer wrote that eventually the moral evolution to-
ward the rights of individuals would render full equality for women
"harmless and probably beneficial" (PS, 769-70).
Spencer moved from a position supporting women's rights in
1851 to the opposite position by the 1860s. In 1851, he believed that
equity knew no difference of sex and that there were merely "tri-
fling" mental differences in the natures of men and women; these
ideas taken together provided justification for including women in
all aspects of public life. By the 1860s, Spencer completely rejected
claims for women's rights; his comparative psychology of the sexes
and view of history at that time argued for such differences between
men and women that he insisted women should stay in the home.
What caused the radical change of mind from a progressive position
to one staunchly supporting the status quo is a puzzle.80
Looking at Spencer's personal life offers few definitive clues to
the transformation of his views. He never married and died a bache-
lor in his eighty-fourth year. The novelist Marian Evans (George
Eliot) seemed to be romantically interested in Spencer for a brief
time in the early 1850s. He rejected her offer of affection on the
grounds that her physical appearance, which he considered some-
what masculine, did not match the beauty of her emotional and in-
tellectual traits. Nevertheless, he kept a picture of her in his bed-
room. Their friendship continued for the rest of his life, and Spencer
enjoyed the companionship of this relationship in which there was
no passion to hide or to confess. He tried to squelch rumors that
there had ever been romance between them. In reply to a friend
who urged him to marry for his health, he lamented that the educa-
tional system did not produce women who were morally and intel-
lectually stimulating to him as well as good-looking.8"'
Spencer's intellectual mentor was his father; his mother had
"little sympathy with his intellectual pursuits." He avoided her, not
visiting home even during her serious illness.82 (Spencer, like Weber,
was afflicted with symptoms of "nervous disorder.") There is a sug-
gestion in his autobiography that his mother was the source of his
conception of feminine nature. However, in that same autobiogra-
phy, Spencer printed, without comment, the remarks of a reviewer
who took him to task for his advocacy of women's rights in Social


Looking at Spencer's public life for answers puts us on more
solid ground. E. L. Youmans, overseeing an American edition of
Social Statics, wrote (12 April 1864) that Spencer's views, "consider-
ably modified" in the direction of "divergence from the democratic
views" expressed in his 1851 edition, would be less acceptable in
the United States and requested that Spencer explain fully the rea-
sons for his current views. Spencer replied in a letter dated 18 May
1864: "The parts which I had in view, when I spoke of having modi-
fied my opinions on some points, were chiefly the chapters on the
rights of women and children." All Youmans got from Spencer was a
vague disclaimer "not containing any specific explanations."84 The
second edition (1864) of Social Statics incorporated Spencer's rejec-
tion of equality for women and his developing biological views.85
The differences between Mill's and Spencer's responses to the
scientific and intellectual currents of their time are revelatory of
Spencer's rejection of his earlier views on women's rights. Mill did
not become caught up in the "contemporary preoccupation ...
with the biological sciences." In his extensive correspondence with
Auguste Comte during 1843, Mill rejected Comte's confident asser-
tion that biology had already established "the hierarchy of the
sexes, by demonstrating both anatomically and physiologically that,
in almost the entire animal kingdom, and especially in our species,
the female sex is formed for a state of essential childhood, which
renders it necessarily inferior to the corresponding male organism."
It followed that any change in social arrangements would be inexpe-
dient and, more importantly, a biological absurdity. Mill, in the
logico-empiricist tradition at its best, was skeptical that biologists
had produced conclusive evidence. He was willing to accept the
possibility that someday physiological data might show differences
between the brains of men and women, but in the meantime he
maintained that no precise relationship between, say, brain size
and intellectual power could be stated. To do so, he wrote, would
be to say that big men are more intelligent than small ones and ele-
phants smarter than either. 86 Unlike Mill, Spencer not only did not
question the contemporary popular and scientific belief that or-
ganic characteristics explained everything, but he also made it the
centerpiece of all his mature work. The relevant influences in this
regard were Karl Ernst von Baer's work in embryology (from which
Spencer got the central propositions for "Progress: Its Law and
Cause"),87 Malthus's essay on population, Darwin's The Descent of
Man, and other contemporary works in physiology, physical anthro-



The English Theorists: Herbert Spencer

pology, and historical geology-all linked together by a conception
of evolution in which survival of the fittest assured progressive de-
velopment in all areas of human life, including morals and social
It is important to recognize, as Robert Young has pointed out in
his brilliant essay "The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of
the Nineteenth-Century Debate on Man's Place in Nature," that
Spencer was "perhaps the most influential of all the interpreters of
the philosophical, ethical, social and political meaning of Victorian
scientific naturalism."89 Behind the popularity of the idea of evolu-
tion during the late 1840s and 1850s, among middle-class intellec-
tuals like Harriet Martineau was the sense of a crisis of belief and a
loss of moral conviction associated in England with the decline of
Bentham's utilitarianism accompanied by its simplistic pleasure-
pain psychology, which the "plain man" simply refused to believe
was the basis of all human conduct.90 Spencer's social theory from
beginning to end is a mixture of the water of utilitarian liberal indi-
vidualism and the oil of evolutionary functionalism. To drop his
support of women's rights involved no more than working out consis-
tently the social implications of evolutionary functionalism; how-
ever, he retained a liberal individualism as a political ideology.
Spencer became interested in evolution when he failed to find a
sound intellectual basis in either utilitarianism or religious dogma
for social integration and progress. Biological evolutionism became
the contradictory basis for a liberal political economy.
Middle-class thinkers like Marian Evans, who introduced Spen-
cer to Comte's writings (which exhibited similar concerns), told
workers to give up the notion of overthrowing class inequalities and
instead to turn "Class Interests into Class Functions or duties. The
nature of things in this world has been determined for us before-
hand," she said.91 Spencer, as we have seen, had the same message
for women, also based on the "findings" of evolutionary biology.
Stanislav Andreski has pointed out that "Spencer's treatment of the
family shows him at his weakest He accepted as self-evident
that a rather idealised family pattern of Victorian England was the
resting point of human history."92 In fact, this idealized and patriar-
chal family, not the adult individual, was fundamental to Spencer's
liberal political theory.93 The highest evolution of nature resulted,
Spencer thought, in the English middle-class family and civilization.
It has often been noted how the struggle for the trough in
nineteenth-century England was projected onto nature in Darwin's


theory of evolution by natural selection. In the same way, Spencer
may have transferred the conflicts of his own time, including the
war between the sexes, onto his vision of the "primitive" relations
of the sexes and family life in tribal societies while denying them in
his own. At the end of the century, the world was not going accord-
ing to the predictions of Spencer's theory. In 1893 Durkheim pointed
out the inconsistencies in Spencer's use of the organismic analogy.
Increasing social complexity brought about more not less govern-
mental regulation. And toward the end of his life Spencer recog-
nized that the militarization and centralization of European states
preparing for war were leading to a reassertion of coercive forms of
control.94 At the age of twenty-three, he had noted the universal
correlation "between great militant activity and the degradation of
I have intended to show that behind his idealization of the Vic-
torian bourgeois family and correlative repudiation of his earlier
support for the rights of women was Spencer's adoption of a func-
tionalist-evolutionary conception of social order and change. He
used the organismic conception of society to justify the rights of
men and to deny the rights of women by justifying theoretically the
restriction of women to the domestic sphere. In this respect his
work was close to French sociological theory.





Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

"Women should learn to have influence as they have in France
instead of trying to get votes."' That was the advice given to En-
glish feminist Sylvia Pankhurst by H. M. Hyndman, the leader of
England's "Marxist" Social Democratic Federation, who disliked
Engels and thought feminism irrelevant to socialism. His statement
summarized the thrust of male antifeminism circa 1900, and it also
reveals Hyndman's ignorance of the force of revolutionary feminism
in French history. England's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
history seems staid when compared with the dramatic events in
France. The French tradition of sociology was formed in the context
of the ideals of the Enlightenment, the fervor of revolution, the
vigor of feminists and socialists, and a marked rhythm of reaction
and repression.
Feminist and antifeminist discourse on the "nature" and the
"proper place" of women, on marriage, and on love has had a long
history in France, beginning in the Middle Ages.2 For our pur-
poses, the appropriate starting point is the French Enlightenment.
As Sheila Rowbotham has pointed out, unlike in England, "Femi-

nism in France tried rather to apply reason to the advantage of
women." With the increasing popularity of rational modes of analy-
sis and demonstration, "new grounds for questioning the subordi-
nation of women appeared.'3 In eighteenth-century France, there
was lively controversy over the position and education of women.
Emile Durkheim traced the heritage of the French sociological
tradition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and to Montesquieu, both of
whom felt that men and women were by nature different. On Rous-
seau, Susan Moller Okin has written:

Albeit in an exaggerated way and sometimes with almost hys-
terical fervor, Rousseau argues all the most commonly held as-
sertions that have, as part of our patriarchal culture, rational-
ized the separation and oppression of women throughout the
history of the Western world. He argues, to begin with, that
woman's sharply distinct position and functions are those that
are natural to her sex. It is interesting, since Rousseau was so
much an advocate of the natural, to see how different his rea-
soning is about what is natural in and for women from about
what is natural in and for "man.". Rousseau defines woman's
nature, unlike mans, in terms of her function-that is, her
sexual and procreative purpose in life.4

"Rousseau saw women as a major source of the world's evil," accord-
ing to Okin, because their sexual power aroused "feelings of fear
and guilt" in men. Therefore, he believed that women must be held
in check-their fidelity and chastity must be assured to guarantee
paternity and to prevent syphilis. However, he also wanted women
to remain seductive to their husbands. Rousseau demanded, in
effect, that a woman be "both virgin and prostitute." To this end, he
designed a vastly different education for women than for his perfect
man.5 In her sensitive interpretation of Rousseau's portrayal of the
complexities and dilemmas of being a woman, Jean Bethke Elshtain
cites Judith Shklar's point that Rousseau believed that morally cor-
rupt women in Paris deserved much of the blame for spoiling civi-
lization. The private virtue of women devoted to husbands and chil-
dren, he argued, was the foundation of civic virtue and the solution
to the problem of decadence prevalent in his time.6
Rousseau's attitude toward women was the object of feminists'
scorn; however, even feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft were
indebted to his ideas that children's education should emphasize



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

simplicity and naturalness.7 In private and public responses to the
critics of his position regarding women's rights, Rousseau main-
tained that inequality between men and women, though expressed
in tradition and law, "is not of man's making, or at any rate it is not
the result of mere prejudice, but of reason."8 The "romantic [and
reactionary] woman cult" that started in the nineteenth century
and appeared in caricatured form in the work of Auguste Comte
owed much to Rousseau.9
Other male Enlightenment thinkers, however, did not exclude
women from their ideas about the importance of environment and
education. Claude Adrien Helvetius blamed poor education rather
than nature for any disadvantages women might suffer. Citing ex-
amples of successful and famous women, he maintained that "if
women be in general inferior, it is because in general they receive a
still worse education." In a more thorough discussion found in the
chapter on women in his book on the social system, Baron d'Holbach
asserted, "From the way in which women in all countries are brought
up, it seems that it is only intended to turn them into beings who
retain the frivolity, fickleness, caprices and lack of reason of child-
hood, throughout their lives."0o Holbach believed that the remedy
for the universal enslavement of women was to give women a de-
cent education. An especially persistent notion of their culture not
overcome by these men's basically feminist attitudes was the idea
that women are closer to nature than men, an idea expressed in La
Mettrie's potentially liberating mechanistic physiology, Helvetius's
sensationalism, and Denis Diderot's utopian portrait of Tahiti in
Supplement to the Journey of Bougainville. Diderot felt that mar-
riages could be happy if they occurred far from the inequities and
artifices of society, but he also proposed that the "natural woman"
should be shared by the men of the community in order to create
solidarity among the men. Still, the philosophes' contrasting of na-
ture and contract led many of them to favor the right to divorce,
marriage being a man-made contract. As Maurice Bloch and Jean H.
Bloch have written of eighteenth-century French thought, "The
rhetoric of nature has some implication for the reform of the status
of women."11
The eighteenth-century tradition of male advocacy of women's
rights culminated in the writings of Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicholas
Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, whose Letters from a bourgeois
of New Haven to a citizen of Virginia (1787) comprised "the first
text to demand political rights for women." He followed it in 1790


with On the Admission of Women to Citizens' Rights and in 1795
with his historical sketch of human progress. Already before this
time, women of the haute bourgeoisie and the liberal wing of the
aristocracy had organized salons in which intellectuals debated
what was called feminine humanism and the extension of legal
rights and education to women. However, as Elaine Marks and
Isabelle de Courtivron have argued, "In a sense there is no history
of feminism in France until the French Revolution of 1789 when
feminist texts written by women and a feminist movement con-
scious of itself come together."12
In a January 1789 petition to the king prior to the outbreak of
the revolution, women of the Third Estate implored him, not for a
vote in the Estates-General, but for an improved free public educa-
tion so that women might "be taught above all to practice the vir-
tues of our sex: gentleness, modesty, patience, charity," in order
that they might overcome the ambiguous position of being "the
continual objects of the admiration and scorn of men." Accepting
the traditional French conception of women, they claimed that they
did not want a scientific education, which, they said, would go
"against the desires of nature" and make women "mixed beings who
are rarely faithful wives and still more rarely good mothers of fami-
lies." However, as the crises of the revolution occurred, women's
demands were not to remain so modest. Historical evidence reveals
that "the majority of Parisian women greeted the Revolution
with enthusiasm." Prominent bourgeois women offered their jewels
to help overcome the financial crisis. Poor and often illiterate women
demonstrated "a sophisticated grasp of the implication of revolu-
tionary events."'3 Sheila Rowbotham has described beautifully the
character and complexities of women's participation in what seemed
to contemporaries to be the greatest revolution in history:

In the French Revolution the feminist aspirations of the privi-
leged and the traditions of collective action of the unprivileged
women encountered each other. They regarded each other
uneasily and never really combined. But each emerged tinged
with liberty, equality and fraternity and the memory of revo-
lution. Things could never be quite the same again. Women
rioting over prices in Normandy in 1789, women of the third
estate in Grenoble taking action in favour of the States Gen-
eral, women demanding in the list of grievances presented
better medical provision and improved education, protection



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

of trades from male competition, women marching to Ver-
sailles to confront the baker and the baker's wife, pamphlets
and petitions about divorce, prostitution, are all indications of
a great acceleration of activity and consciousness.14

In early October 1789, symbolically counterrevolutionary acts
(e.g., the king and queen's insulting the tricolor) and concerns
about bread and unemployment resulted in an increase of tensions
in Paris. Parisian "women of the people," supported by radical Na-
tional Guardsmen, marched on Versailles to insist that Louis XVI
assure them of a regular supply of bread to Paris, accept the Na-
tional Assembly's revolutionary legislation, and return to live in
Paris under the popular eye. Feminist historians Levy, Applewhite,
and Johnson have stated that "of all the popular insurrections dur-
ing the Revolution, the October Days stand out as the women's in-
surrection." Radicalization of women was fostered by new revo-
lutionary institutions, assemblies, a press, and political clubs. In
1791, the Marquis de Sade wrote Justine, and Olympe de Gouges
set forth the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. In 1792, an at-
tempt was made to organize "Amazons" to fight the Austrians. Dur-
ing 1793, femmes sans-culottes joined the Society of Revolutionary
Republican Women, "the first political interest group for common
women known in western history."'15 The group was headed by
Pauline L6on and Claire Lacombe. That was also the year when
Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat and when the Con-
vention declared that women were not citizens (April), moved
against women's political clubs, and beheaded Gouges for "having
forgotten the virtues which belong to her sex."'16 After Robespierre
was deposed in July 1794 and the reactionary Thermidorians took
power, "Women ceased political activity."'17 In 1795, women were
prohibited from attending any political meetings.
For upper-class and middle-class refugees who returned after
the Reign of Terror, Paris had become "a city of license." The family
had apparently fallen apart: fathers abandoned their households;
"free love" was apparently common; and the number of divorces,
juvenile delinquents, and illegitimate children increased. "No coun-
try had up to this time seen such a transformation in familial hab-
its," in J. M. Mogey's estimate. 18 Emperor Napoleon's Civil Code of
1804 attempted to reestablish patriarchal authority. Mme de Stael,
"a woman Napoleon disliked with a special intensity, who combined
everything he most detested in revolutionary intellectual women,"


waged "a personal literary guerrilla war against Bonaparte. in
such novels as Delphine and Corinne women with a high opinion of
their own superiority conflicted with a society that would not allow
them self-expression."'19 In 1816, after Bonaparte's abdication, di-
vorce was abolished.
In 1808, Charles Fourier published Theory of the Four Move-
ments, in which he presented his argument that the progress of civi-
lization could be measured by the emancipation of women because
the quality and equality of relationships between men and women
reveal the extent to which human nature has triumphed over bru-
tality, an idea that influenced Mill, Marx, and Spencer.20
Revolutionary feminism reemerged in the period between the
revolutions of 1830 and 1848 along with the rise of utopian socialist
and workers' movements. Central to the ideological climate of these
movements were the ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon; around him
gathered bright young graduates of the EIcole Polytechnique, includ-
ing Auguste Comte, who was his secretary for a number of years.
On the basis of his contradictory synthesis of Enlightenment ideas
and reactionary Romantic ideas, Saint-Simon can be classified as a
utopian socialist or a prophet of authoritarian technocracy. From his
work some of his disciples, especially Barthelemy Prosper Enfan-
tin, drew feminist inspiration; they criticized sexual repression and
argued for free love.21 In the early 1830s, Enfantin preached-to
the chagrin of other Saint-Simonians-a millenarian sexual mysti-
cism to women and workers. Susanne Voilquin, a working woman
who joined Enfantin's pilgrimage to Egypt in search of the female
messiah, La Mere, was director of La Tribune des femmes, a femi-
nist paper founded in 1832 and banned in 1834, which displayed a
strong proletarian consciousness. In "Memories of a Girl of the
People," Voilquin described how Enfantin's ideas awakened in her
"the capacity for independent thought, feeling, and action." Claire
Demar, another of Enfantin's disciples, linked the emancipation of
women to that of the proletariat and imagined a law for the future
that would permit complete sexual freedom for both women and
men, collective child rearing, and the abolition of the family. Shortly
thereafter, she committed suicide with her lover. In 1832, George
Sand wrote a scathing attack on bourgeois marriage. Between 1836
and 1838, bourgeois women published Gazette desfemmes, which
focused on the right of women to petition the government for re-
dress of their grievances.22
Also important to the decade of the 1830s were Fourier's rejec-



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

tions of the Saint-Simonians' "cult of Woman" and proposals for his
own programs published in his newspaper, Phalanx: His historical/
anthropological theory of the development of society, as Rowbotham
has observed, "was to have a lasting impression on revolutionary
feminism." Fourier linked the phenomena of economic and sexual
oppression and analyzed the social conditions that produced the
supposed nature of women. He detected a "secret antipathy" be-
hind the compliments paid to women by philosophers, pointing out
that the same philosophers denied women access to intellectual
training and then concluded that women were incapable of abstract
thinking. He had little more regard for femmes savantes, who, hav-
ing escaped the collective fate of their sex, closed their eyes to the
misery of their sisters. In Fourier's phalansteries, men and women
were completely equal, child rearing was a cooperative affair, and
women were educated not for domesticity but for participation in
the public life of the community.23
During 1843 Flora Tristan, often thought of as "the first French
feminist," published Workers' Union, which contained one of the
earliest conceptions of an international association of workers and
an analysis of the double oppression of women, "the proletariat of
the proletariat." In her depiction of working-class family life, she
observed that working-class wives were brutalized and "few work-
ers' homes. are happy," the husband ruling by law and economic
power. She proposed a technical, intellectual, and moral education
for women that would be available in workers' palaces, which she
proposed for each town. Tristan appealed to male workers to grant
the same rights to women-"the last slaves remaining in France"-
that they had won as a result of the Declaration of the Rights of
Man in 1791. Rowbotham has written of her: "Flora Tristan's own life
followed the dramatic and tragic course which seemed to be the
inevitable fate of the feminist socialist." Unable to gain a divorce
from an unhappy marriage, in a legally weak position in the battle
for custody of her child, ill, exhausted, and persecuted, she wrote
to Victor Considerant (socialist political economist and follower of
Fourier) just before her death in 1844: "I have nearly the whole
world against me. Men because I demand the emancipation of
women; the owners because I demand the emancipation of wage-
earners." Workers carried her coffin to her grave, where a subscrip-
tion was raised for a monument. On 23 October 1848, during the
revolution, several thousand paid tribute at her grave.24
Other women made contributions not only to the preparation


for the Revolution of 1848 but also to the revolutionary process
once it had begun. Jeanne Deroin, another self-educated working
woman active in the early French trade-union movement, wrote
about women's internalization of their oppression.25 From March to
June 1848, she, Susanne Voilquin, and D6siree Gay joined with
Eugenie Niboyet in publishing Women's Voice, the "first feminist
daily," which advocated women's suffrage.26 Gay, a shirtmaker, rep-
resented the women of the National Workshops at the Provisional
Government of 1848. During the Revolution of 1848 these working-
class women were moving toward the idea of workers' control. They
opposed middle-class philanthropy with their own plans for creches
(a new idea at the time, emerging from their needs as working
women), socialized medicine, "enlightened care" and education for
children, and, in the words of Henriette D., "equality between
married couples."27
As in 1789, many women's political clubs were formed because
only a few of the revolutionary clubs admitted women; the club of
Etienne Cabet (utopian socialist and author of Travels to Icaria) was
one. In April 1848, Deroin's attempt to run for the legislative assem-
bly was ruled unconstitutional by the male representatives of the
Second Republic. After the bloody suppression of the workers' in-
surrection of June, revolutionary women's clubs were shut down.
This marked the beginning of a new period of reaction. Further,
Rowbotham has written, the revolution was a fork in the road for
French feminism: "After 1848 there is a clear division between the
socialist and liberal feminist position.'"28
On 2 December 1851, the success of the counterrevolution was
completed with the coup d'etat by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.29
Feminist-socialist leaders, including Deroin, Voilquin, and Pauline
Roland, were jailed, deported, or escaped into exile.3" Bonaparte,
nephew of Napoleon I, became Emperor Napoleon III in 1852, and
the Second Empire was born with a motto coined by Guizot: "Get
rich." Paris was reconstructed so there would be no more revolu-
tionary barricades; however, what remained in a new form was the
gulf between rich and poor. And within the proletariat "women
were the more exploited."31
Attitudes toward women during the authoritarian phase of the
empire (to about 1860) might best be gauged by the violently anti-
feminist book Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, pub-
lished in 1858, by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon,32 "the principal thinker"
of the French working class during the period, who had made his



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

peace with Bonaparte's protofascist regime. Earlier, in 1846, Proud-
hon had written, "For myself, the more I think of it, the less I am able
to imagine woman outside the family and marriage. I see nothing
between the state of courtesan and that of homemaker Man-
kind is created male and female: from this results the necessity of
the menage and of property."'3 He believed that a man's primary
business in marriage was to dominate his wife, physically if neces-
sary. For Proudhon, therefore, a woman had but two choices in life:
to be a harlot or to be a wife.?4 In the First International Working-
man's Association (created largely by Marx), the Proudhonians ar-
gued against women working at all, except as wives and mothers.
Ironically, as Edith Thomas has pointed out, "Marriage in the eyes
of the law and of God was not the rule in the working-class family.
But... irregular unions were often of long duration, and displayed
a much greater fidelity than legitimate marriages."35
During the liberal phase of the empire, Jenny d'Hericourt led
the cause for "civic emancipation" of women. Juliette Lamber, a
friend of George Sand, published Anti-Proudhonian Ideas, in which
she opposed prostitution and advocated women's rights to work,
education, divorce, and property. Victorine Brochon and Nathalie
Lemel organized food cooperatives and joined the International.
Marguerite Tinayre, a novelist whose pen name was Jules Paty,
wanted to make women aware of the necessity of "physical har-
mony" in marriage, a subject approaching a taboo in 1860; she was
also a member of the International.36 Maria Deraismes argued,
"The inferiority of women is not a fact of nature; it is a human in-
vention and a social fiction."'37
A common thread running through feminism in the 1860s was a
passion for knowledge. 1Elisa Lemonnier, for example, founded pro-
fessional schools for women. Louise Michel was a schoolteacher.
She belonged to the opposition to Bonaparte and was a member of
the International, and became involved in clashes with officials. Be-
cause she rejected marriage, she later became known as "the red
virgin." Michel taught in one of Lemonnier's schools, at which time
she also organized a society for short-term relief of the poverty of
working women. Other liberal professions at the time were, of
course, closed, even to young women of the bourgeoisie. In 1867,
Julie Daubie won a prize from the Lyon Academy for her study
"The Poor Woman in the Nineteenth Century," in which she de-
scribed the economic necessity behind urban working-class pros-
titution, referred to as "the fifth quarter of the day." The rector at


Lyon opposed Daubies taking the examination for her baccalaure-
ate; when she passed, the Minister of Public Education refused to
grant her her diploma, fearing he would be "forever holding up his
ministry to ridicule."38
In 1868, freedom of assembly was revived, and the feminist
movement burst forth, beginning with the famous conferences at
Vaux-Hall. The orators for women's rights included Maria Deraismes,
Paule Minck, a teacher and a linen draper, and Andre Leo, a novelist
and journalist. Leo's novels and sociopolitical writings were optimis-
tic. She believed that happiness in marriage was possible when love
overcame considerations of money and age. She wrote about di-
vorce; she examined current notions about women's nature and the
current belief that women's abilities were inferior to men's; she ar-
gued that such ideas were products of changing historical condi-
tions. She commented on the prevalence of hysteria in women at
the time: "When nerves are no longer in style, they will be put
to much less use." She took democrats and socialists to task for
their hypocrisy about freedom for women, which they regarded
with "suspicion" and "terror." Socialist men claimed that women's
suffrage and the oppression of women were secondary to capitalist
exploitation and that since the subordination of women antedated
capitalism, there was no guarantee that the abolition of capital-
ism would end the oppression of women-an argument now used
more frequently by feminists arguing against the priorities of social-
ists. Reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft, the publicist Olympe
Audouard said: "For woman to succeed in any career whatever, she
must have ten times as much talent as a man, for he finds a spirit of
cooperation ready to aid and sustain him, while she has to struggle
against a stubborn attitude of ill will."39
The whole feminist movement and its leading participants came
together in 1869 to found the League for Women's Rights and the
feminist newspaper Women's Rights.40 In August 1870, on the occa-
sion of French military disaster in the war with Prussia, followers of
the French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui attempted to seize army
weapons to make revolution; they were arrested and condemned to
death. Louise Michel, Andre Leo, and Addle Esquiros, "on behalf
of the people," took a petition with thousands of signatures to the
governor of Paris-"an extraordinary act, bordering on scandal." A
stay of execution was granted on 2 September; the republic was
proclaimed on 4 September. The workers felt that the victory was
theirs. As Edith Thomas has put it, "From that day on, an almost



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

unbridgeable gulf existed between the bourgeois and the socialist
The essence of the relationship of women to French revolutions
has been summed up by Thomas: "If women had participated in
the great battles of the 1789 Revolution, they were even more
caught up in the 1848 Revolution, from which they hoped for rec-
ognition of their rights. But the men of 1848 did not seem disposed
to grant them these rights, any more than did their 'great fore-
fathers' of 1789. The battle lines were drawn again in 1871, on the
occasion of the Commune." She went on to observe: "Contempo-
raries were struck by the importance of women's participation in the
1871 Revolution."42
On the Right, Maxime du Camp said, "The weaker sex drew
attention to itself during those deplorable days They bared
their souls, and the amount of natural perversity revealed there was
stupefying these bellicose viragos held out longer than the men
did behind the barricades." Alexandre Dumas fils said, "We shall
say nothing about their females, out of respect for women-whom
these resemble once they are dead."43
On the Left, Benoit Malon (Andre Leo's husband) noted that
one important fact that the Paris Revolution brought to light is the
entry of women into politics they felt. that woman and the
proletariat, those ultimate victims of the old order, could not hope
for their emancipation except by forming a strong union against
all the forces of the past." Karl Marx, in The Civil War in France,
contrasted the "tarts" whose "protectors" were "men of family, of
religion, and especially of property" to "the real Parisian women
[who] had come to the surface: heroic, noble, and devoted, like the
women of Antiquity The women of Paris joyfully give up their
lives on the barricades and execution grounds. What does this
prove? It proves that the daemon of the Commune changed them
into Megaeras and Hecates."44
Women took part in many political and military actions in Paris
during the Franco-Prussian War and during the days of the Paris
Commune. At the beginning of the Prussian siege of Paris, they
worked to feed and find employment for poor women, and they as-
sisted and accompanied the troops that defended Paris. Plans were
again made to implement a women's battalion, Amazons; but the
provisional government's military authorities squelched the idea.
Women took initiative in the resistance to the Germans, demon-
strating en masse at the Hotel de Ville against surrender, and they


were fired upon by government troops. On 28 January 1871, Louis-
Adolphe Thiers surrendered France, conceding territorial repara-
tions to the Germans on 26 February. But the people had kept their
cannons. The class war against the people of Paris was about to
On 18 March, Thiers ordered his troops into the working-class
districts to retrieve the cannons and disarm the people. Parisian
women formed a "veritable human barricade" between the Na-
tional Guard of Paris and the Versailles troops. The latter refused
the orders of General Lecomte and General Clement Thomas, the
butcher of the June 1848 insurgents; they fraternized with the
crowd and shot the generals instead. The treason (in the eyes of
Parisians) of the Versailles government resulted in the declaration
of the Commune on 26 March 1871. Beatrix Excoffon wrote about
the public calls exhorting women to march to Versailles in an at-
tempt at reconciliation following the tradition of October 1789, an
attempt that failed.46
In early April, women participated in the ceremonies to dedi-
cate the Commune, which had granted legal equality to common-
law marriages and to their offspring. In the face of the bombard-
ment of Paris by the bourgeois government at Versailles, on 11 April
radical women called for revolutionary war in the style of 1792 to
defend the Commune. But, as Thomas has noted, "Actually, the
women were as much divided by their social origin as the men."
Liberal bourgeois women proposed an armistice, while radical
women responded with a call to social revolution.47 The Commune
was being pushed to the left by the pressure of its opponents in
Versailles and in good measure by revolutionary women.
Central to this leftward rush of the Commune were women's po-
litical organizations. The Women's Union, part of the French section
of the International, was organized by Elizabeth Dmitrieff (a friend
of Karl Marx and an illegitimate child of a Russian noble). She pro-
posed a plan for free productive associations of women workers,
whose goals would be equal wages, jobs for those who wanted them,
and maintenance of an ongoing political organization. The plan was
approved by the Commune and later became a model for the orga-
nization of work in Yugoslavia. But its implementation in Paris was
interrupted 21 May 1871 when the Versailles army invaded Paris.
The Women's Vigilance Committees organized ambulance nurses,
hunted draft evaders, and fed the poor; Excoffon, Sophie Poirier,
and Anna Jaclard were prominent members. Poirier and Jaclard were



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

sisters, children of the Russian intelligentsia. Jules Allix's Comite
des Femmes was another women's political group. Discussion clubs
thrived; the major topic was "Woman in the Church and Woman in
the Revolution." A revolutionary paper declared, "It is time for us
to halt the injustices and prejudices of which women are victims."
Revolutionary leaders were from many countries: Fornarina de
Fonseca was from Italy, Lodoyska Kawecka from Poland, and Mme
Reidenreth from Austria. Reidenreth wore two American revolvers
and discussed prostitution at a meeting in a church. The arrest of
priests and the execution of draft dodgers were advocated in the
Club des Proletaires, of which Mme Andr6, a laundress, was secre-
tary. Nathalie Lemel urged women to armed defense of the Com-
mune. In another church, an old woman coaxed the assembly to
sing the "Marseillaise" in place of hymns, because "there is no
more God," she said.48
Louise Michel often chaired the Club of the Revolution, an ex-
tremely anticlerical group. It advocated killing hostages one by one
until the imprisoned Blanqui was freed by Versailles and returned
to Paris. Michel refused to condemn prostitutes; she felt that they
were "the saddest victims of the old world." Blanche Lefebvre, a
dressmaker, tall and thin, wearing a red scarf and a revolver, spoke
almost daily to the Club of the Social Revolution; she loved the
revolutionary Commune "as others love a man" (in the words of one
observer) and gave her life on the barricades. Women of the work-
ing class demanded revolutionary measures against the symbols of
the old order and the counterrevolution.4 They tore down, as Marx
had predicted in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
"that colossal symbol of martial glory, the Vendome Column."50 The
revolution spread beyond Paris to the departments.
Important in the plan of the Communards to organize a new
world was the reform of secular education, reminiscent of the plans
that Pauline Roland had drawn up in 1849. Technical and industrial
schools were set up for girls so that they could earn a living and
become self-governing citizens of the republic. Educational day
nurseries were planned for the children of working women. On
20 May 1871, the Commune raised and equalized the salaries of
men and women teachers. In its educational policies, the Third Re-
public followed the guidelines set forth during the all-too-brief two
months of the Commune's existence. Revolutionary institutions
also included art: Rosalie Bordas, a famous singer, performed La
Canaille at the Tuilleries, and Agar (Mme Charvin) performed with


the Comedie Franqaise, for which she was eventually blacklisted
after the fall of the Commune.51
Prominent women revolutionaries of this period included Andre
Leo, who told General Dombrowski that he would not have been
where he was were it not for women's support of the Commune. She
suggested as a title for a book on the period since 1789 "A History of
the Inconsistencies of the Revolutionary Party," a book that would
focus on the question of women's rights and the treatment of women.
(For example, women ambulance nurses encountered sexist attitudes
in officers but acceptance by common soldiers, similar to Jeanne
Deroin's experience during the Revolution of 1848.) An adherent of
the beliefs of Bakunin, Leo defined the revolution as "the liberty
and the responsibility of every human being, limited only by the
rights of all, without privilege of race or of sex." In Thomas's judg-
ment, she was "a great journalist." Victorine Louvet, the mistress
of Blanquist General Eudes, impressed even reactionaries with her
martial skills. Louise Michel was extremely active; in Thomas's
words, "her great figure dominated them all." During the "bloody
week" of 11 May 1871, when Parisian women constructed barri-
cades, one of the combatants was Josephine Courtois, a fifty-year-
old seamstress who had fought in 1848 in Lyon, where she earned
the sobriquet "Queen of the Barricades."52
Many Communards were from the provinces; they resisted the
Versailles army, which marched into Paris, setting fires with kero-
sene and incendiary bombs. To the advancing troops, "every poor
woman was suspect." The women of the Commune were assassi-
nated, tortured, and raped. "Society women" beat the prisoners
with parasols. Louise Michel turned herself in to save her mother
from the firing squad. As a prisoner she remained defiant; to re-
peated threats that she would be shot, her reply was, "As you
like."53 Les petroleuses, women accused of setting fires in order
to prevent the capture of Paris by the Versailles troops, were pre-
dominantly working-class and poor women; whether they were
justly accused remains a matter of controversy. However, the pros-
ecution reacted to them with hysterical antifeminism, claiming
they had repudiated "the great and magnificent role of women in
society," thereby jeopardizing the continuation of civilization. The
prosecutor, Captain Jouenne, "blushed" to give the defendants
"the name of women." He thought they were misled by revolution-
ary intellectuals seeking recruits with their "dangerous utopias"
namely, "the emancipation of women"



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

Have they not held out to all these wretched creatures bright
prospects, incredible chimeras: women judges, women as
members of the bar! Yes, women lawyers; deputies, perhaps
and-for all we know-commandants? Generals of the Army?
Certainly, faced with these miserable aberrations, we believe
we are dreaming!54

There were also trials in mid-1872 for the summary executions
carried out by the Commune, including that of the Archbishop of
Paris. In these trials, women were blamed for inciting men to their
"crimes." A parliamentary enquiry, surprisingly, pointed out that
women had supported the Commune because of the misery they
had had to endure under the old order. Louise Michel had ap-
peared before the Sixth Council of War on 16 December 1871,
accused of a long list of crimes resulting from her participation in
the Commune. She refused to defend herself but fully, proudly,
and defiantly assumed responsibility for her acts in support of the
Commune because "the Social Revolution is the dearest of my de-
sires."55 Michel was banished to a fortress in New Caledonia along
with Sophie Poirier and Nathalie Lemel. Anna Jaclard, Paule Minck,
Andr6 Leo, and Elizabeth Dmitrieff escaped to Switzerland, where
they continued to defend and support the Communards. Beatrix
Excoffon repented and recanted, and her sentence was reduced be-
cause she returned to "the duty of women in society." Thomas has
observed that in prison "the characters of this story retain their in-
dividuality. The women of the Commune were of every descrip-
tion." While serving her sentence, Michel studied science and
fought for prisoners' rights and against racism.56
A partial amnesty was granted to the Communards in 1879 and
full amnesty in 1880. The actions of women in the Commune were
memorialized by Eugene Pottier, composer of L'Internationale, and
in the poetry of Rimbaud and of Victor Hugo. Hugo never gave up
interceding on behalf of Communards under sentence of death. He
also exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians who condemned the
supporters of the Commune as common criminals. This morality of
the victorious was a lie flying in the face of the whole of French
revolutionary history since 1789, a betrayal of the very basis of the
legitimacy of their own authority, he said. Verlaine wrote in a ballad:

Heavenly name and heart, exiled
By bourgeois France of supple spine:


Listen, good-for-nothing wretches,
Louise Michel is doing fine.57

Marx, in The Civil War in France, contrasted two Parises:

The Paris of M. Thiers was not the real Paris of the "vile mul-
titude," but a phantom Paris, the Paris of the francs-fileurs,
the Paris of the Boulevards, male and female-the rich, the
capitalist, the gilded, the idle Paris, now thronging with its
lackeys, its blacklegs, its literary boheme, and its cocottes at
Versailles, Saint-Denis, Rueil, and Saint-Germain; consider-
ing the civil war but an agreeable diversion, eyeing the battle
going on through telescopes, counting the rounds of cannon,
and swearing by their own honour and that of their prosti-
tutes, that the performance was far better got up than it used
to be at the Porte St. Martin. The men who fell were really
dead; the cries of the wounded were cries in good earnest;
and, besides, the whole thing was so intensely historical.58

He was even more stinging than Hugo in his denunciation of the

The civilisation and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its
lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise
against their masters. Then this civilisation and justice stand
forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new
crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the
producer brings out this fact more glaringly. Even the atroci-
ties of the bourgeois in June 1848 vanish before the ineffable
infamy of 1871. The self-sacrificing heroism with which the
population of Paris-men, women and children-fought for
eight days after the entrance of the Versaillese, reflects as
much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the
soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilisation of which
they are the mercenary vindicators. A glorious civilisation in-
deed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the
heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!59

During the years following the Commune came "the despair
that swept France after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian war.' "60
Emile Durkheim, born in 1858, was in his teens during this period



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

of war, revolution, reaction, and malaise. As historian James F.
McMillan has pointed out, "It is one of the little recorded facts of
the Third Republic's history that the inequalities of sex became a
matter for widespread public discussion in the years before 1914."
We have seen in our sketch of the history of French feminism its
close connection with the fortunes and failures of revolutionary re-
publicanism. What distinguished mainstream feminism during the
Third Republic, McMillan has suggested, was its "conscious reac-
tion to what had gone before Now, just as the Third Republic's
new breed of moderate politicians wished to obliterate the connota-
tions of republicanism with the violence and disorder of the Com-
mune, the June Days [of 1848] and the Terror [during the Great
Revolution], so too the feminists were equally anxious to dispel
memories of previous links between feminism and political and sex-
ual radicalism. Intent on living down the past, republicans and
feminists alike sought above all to establish their respectability."
The two most important figures of this modern French feminism
were Maria Deraismes and Leon Richer. Their anticlericalism led
them to ally with antifeminist politicians in order to save the re-
public from its reactionary enemies. Richer even believed that to
give women the vote would be to give power to the clericalss." Suf-
frage was not as important to French feminists as it was to English
women at the turn of the century because of the relatively stronger
current in France of "social feminism," with its concern for philan-
thropy and moral reform. McMillan has characterized French femi-
nism in the Third Republic thus: "Indeed, if mainstream feminism
can be said to have had any one overriding goal, it was to obtain a
single standard of morality by abolishing the regulated system of
prostitution and by making men conform to the standards of sexual
respectability demanded of girls and women. Feminism in France
was very largely a 'purity crusade.' "61
Women achieved some successes in the decade following the
Commune. In 1878, Deraismes and Richer organized the First Inter-
national Congress for Women's Rights. During the conservative pres-
idency of Jules Grevy (1879-85), the Camille See Law (1880) was
enacted, extending to young women the right to attend secondary
schools. During 1880 and 1881, normal schools for women were es-
tablished. In 1882, Hubertine Auclert, more radical than Deraismes
and Richer, founded The Woman Citizen, which advocated women's
suffrage. (A year earlier, she had refused to pay taxes, saying, "I
don't vote, I don't pay.") During 1882 at Rouanne, an amendment


demanding "the abolition of all paragraphs of law which put
women in a subordinate position to men was attached to the Marx-
ist French Workers' Party's "minimum programme" for women's
emancipation. In 1884, divorce was once again possible, but the law
favored husbands.62
Just as liberal feminism avoided contact with Catholic women's
associations, so it steered clear of alliances with the Left and with
workers' movements, which themselves were divided on the issue
of feminism. McMillan has observed that "solidarity with the bour-
geois Republic kept feminism isolated from the socialist movement,
despite socialism's theoretical commitment to the cause of women's
emancipation." Socialist feminists themselves disagreed about the
issue of class conflict and collaboration, and they faced the chau-
vinism of male socialists. The result was that "feminism and so-
cialism ultimately went their separate ways.'63
In 1892, for the first time an international congress of women
called itself "feminist." Aline Valette published Socialism and Sex-
ualism in 1893; she focused on the double oppression of women at
home and at work, and she held maternity in high regard. La Fronde,
the "first feminist daily" to be written, managed, and printed by
women exclusively, was established by Marguerite Durand in 1897.
In 1904, Paul Lafargue, leader of the Marxist French Labor Party
and husband of Marx's daughter Laura, set forth the Marxist theory
of the oppression of women in The Question of Women. Three years
later, in Socialism and Feminism, Lydia Pissarjevsky rejected the
Marxist equation of the oppression of women and the exploitation
of workers, expressing skepticism that socialism would result in dif-
ferent treatment of women by men. Also in 1907, married women
won the right to control their own incomes. In 1910, Auclert and
Durand tried for legislative office, without success. Six years later,
during the Great War, socialist and workers' organizations were
taken to task for their lack of sensitivity to the problems of women.
Anticipating the future, Helene Brion entitled her criticism The
Feminist Way: Women, Dare to Be! She was sentenced to prison in
1918 for spreading pacifist propaganda. In 1917, the year of Durk-
heim's death, Women's Voices was begun by Colette Reynaud. Nelly
Roussel described the paper as "feminist, socialist, pacifist and
From a contemporary feminist perspective, nonrevolutionary
French feminism and French sociology shared a common weakness.
By the early twentieth century, it was clear that French feminists



Revolutionary Feminism and Sociological Moralism

had not continued the project begun by their revolutionary sisters
of earlier times, namely, "to develop a new consciousness of them-
selves as women." McMillan has described them as confined in
"their aspirations to institutional reform and shackled to conven-
tional ideas about femininity and the family."65 Like the French so-
ciologists, as we will see, they were ideologically limited by deeply
rooted traditions concerning the "second sex," as well as by the
relative backwardness and uneven development of French capi-
talism. For the French tradition of sociology, from Montesquieu in
the eighteenth century to Durkheim and his disciples in the twen-
tieth, the social order was also the moral order. In this sense, much
of French sociology can be located in "the intellectual tradition of
the French moralistes, most specifically those who wrote about
political and religious matters with an eye to the 'decadence' of
existing society."66 Durkheim's description of the nineteenth cen-
tury as an age of "moral mediocrity" is indicative of the moralistic
conception of society in French social theory. In this, as in any
other conservative view of society, the family plays a crucial role in
the maintenance of society's morality.67 As a consequence, French
social theory was quite sensitive to the "woman question": the posi-
tion of women in the structure of the family and in society, and the
role of women in the division of labor. This stands to reason: French
feminism, as we have seen, originated with the French Enlighten-
ment and developed in the revolutionary tradition to which French
sociology-reaffirming the traditional doctrine of separate spheres
for men and women-was a conservative response.

The French Theorists

Nowhere are the characteristics of French sociology more evident
than in the writings of Frederic Le Play (1806-82). Le Play was not
a classical theorist but rather a classical sociological empiricist,'
whose work can be characterized as sociological familialism. For
Le Play, the working-class family, not the individual, was the bed-
rock of society.69 In contrast with the stability of the patriarchal fam-
ily of nomadic shepherd societies and the stem or stock family based
on primogeniture of coastal fishing communities, the working-class
family of industrial society approximated an "unstable" type, he be-
lieved. According to Le Play, industrial work and democratic laws
that weakened partriarchal authority concerning women and family


property were destroying the family, which in turn meant a degen-
eration of values and morality and, in Fletcher's summary, "an in-
stability and malaise in the whole nature of modern society.'70 As
Nisbet has observed, Le Play "made the conservative trinity of
family-work-community into a methodological framework."7' Varia-
tions on this theme are played throughout French social theory.

Alexis de Tocqueville
The Impact of Democracy on the Position of Women

The contribution of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) to a sociology
of women is to be found in the context of his observations of the
effects of democracy on the family, observations made by compar-
ing different kinds of families in democratic and aristocratic so-
cieties in his classic work, Democracy in America.72 Tocqueville
asserted that "in America the family, if one takes the word in its
Roman and aristocratic sense, no longer exists" (DA, 560); he noted
that "in aristocracies. the father is not only the political head of
the family but also the instrument of tradition, the interpreter of
custom, and the arbiter of mores" (DA, 562). Children and women
listened to him with deference, spoke to him with respect, and
feared as well as felt affection for him, Tocqueville said; democracy,
with its attention to the present, weakened paternal authority. "So
at the same time as aristocracy loses its power, all that was austere,
conventional, and legal in parental power also disappears and a sort
of equality reigns around the domestic hearth" (DA, 562). He con-
cluded that "democracy loosens social ties, but it tightens natural
ones. At the same time as it separates citizens, it brings kindred
closer together" (DA, 564). In the tradition of French classical liber-
alism, he argued that women shaped the mores of a free society:
"Therefore, everything which has a bearing on the status of women,
their habits, and their thoughts is, in my view, of great political im-
portance" (DA, 565).
Tocqueville believed that in Protestant nations, in contrast with
Catholic countries, "girls are much more in control of their own be-
havior"-especially in the United States, where the young woman
"thinks for herself, speaks freely, and acts on her own." Young Ameri-
can women were taught self-control to preserve chastity; they were
not cloistered. He felt this approach had its drawbacks because it
developed in women "judgment at the cost of imagination" and
made them "chaste and cold rather than tender and loving compan-



The French Theorists: Alexis de Tocqueville

ions of men," thus reducing "the charms of private life." Neverthe-
less, he averred, "A democratic education is necessary to protect
women against the dangers with which the institutions and mores
of democracy surround them" (DA, 565-67).
Young American women may have had a certain degree of inde-
pendence, but it only lasted until marriage, Tocqueville discovered:

In America a woman loses her independence forever in the
bonds of matrimony. While there is less constraint on girls
there than anywhere else, a wife submits to stricter obliga-
tions. For the former, her father's house is a home of freedom
and pleasure; for the latter, her husband's is almost a cloister.
(DA, 568)

America's Puritan beliefs and trading habits were the cause, Tocque-
ville claimed: "Inexorable public opinion carefully keeps woman
within the little sphere of domestic interests and duties and will not
let her go beyond them" (DA, 568). The young woman found "these
ideas firmly established" and could not depart from them without
threatening her personal and social survival; knowing the sacrifices
expected, American women did not enter into marriage lightly
(DA, 568-69).
Historical changes in the economic and social structures of so-
cieties determined, from Tocqueville's perspective, variations in
the "intensity" of the "reciprocal attractions of the sexes" and the
character of sexual morality. His view of relationships between the
sexes in aristocratic societies was as follows:

Among aristocratic peoples birth and fortune often make a
man and a woman such different creatures that they would
never be able to unite with one another. Their passions draw
them together, but the social conditions and the thoughts that
spring from them prevent them from uniting in a permanent
and open way. The necessary result of that is a great number
of ephemeral and clandestine connections. Nature secretly
gets her own back for the restraint imposed by laws. (DA, 571)

In aristocratic societies, the major purpose of marriage was to com-
bine property, not persons, and once the fortunes were united,
such an arrangement left "their hearts to rove at large" (DA, 572).
Those who attempted to cross the barriers of aristocratic inequalities


and defy the tyranny of custom and the wishes of family found them-
selves without family and friends. In Tocqueville's words, "The preju-
dice which they have defied separates them. This situation soon
wears down their courage and embitters their hearts" (DA, 572).
In democratic societies, social barriers between men and women
were swept aside, Tocqueville found. Thus "when each chooses his
companion for himself without any external interference or even
prompting, it is usually nothing but similar tastes and thoughts that
bring a man and woman together, and these similarities hold and
keep them by each other's side" (DA, 572). So love became the basis
of marriage and rendered "irregular morals before marriage very
difficult," he wrote, because it was difficult, the passions notwith-
standing, for a man to convince a woman that he loved her when he
was completely free to marry her but would not (DA, 571). After
marriage, he believed, men diverted their attention from love-
making to business. What did not change in a democracy was the
economics of sex roles: "Limited incomes oblige the wives to stay at
home and watch in person very closely over the details of domestic
economy" (DA, 573).
Tocqueville concluded his discussion of the impact of democ-
racy on the family and women in the United States with a chapter
entitled "How the American Views the Equality of the Sexes." Be-
lieving that democracy destroys or modifies social inequalities, he
posed the question: "May it not ultimately come to change the
great inequality between man and woman which has up till now
seemed based on the eternal foundations of nature?" He answered
in two parts: first, he agreed that democracy "does raise the status
of women and should make them more and more nearly equal to
men" (DA, 576); but, second, he dissociated himself from the li-
cense that "the crude, disorderly fancy of our age" took with the
subject of sexual equality:

In Europe there are people who, confusing the divergent at-
tributes of the sexes, claim to make of man and woman crea-
tures who are, not equal only, but actually similar. They would
attribute the same functions to both, impose the same duties,
and grant the same rights; they would have them share every-
thing-work, pleasure, public affairs. It is easy to see that the
sort of equality forced on both sexes degrades them both, and
that so coarse a jumble ofnature's works could produce nothing
but feeble men and unseemly women. (DA, 576)



The French Theorists: Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville believed Americans had quite a different, and correct,
view of equality of the sexes: "In America, more than anywhere
else in the world, care has been taken constantly to trace distinct
spheres of action for the two sexes" (DA, 577). He thought Ameri-
cans had applied to this realm the "great principle of political econ-
omy which now dominates industry," namely, the division of labor
and specialization of functions based on the belief in "great differ-
ences between the physical and moral constitution of men and
women." He noted in particular that in America women were never
found "interfering in politics," "managing a business," or doing a
mans "rough" job. "Nor have the Americans ever supposed that
democratic principles should undermine the husband's authority
and make it doubtful who is in charge of the family." American
women, he claimed, accepted their subordination (DA, 576-77).
In Europe, according to Tocqueville, "a certain contempt lurks
in the flattery men lavish on women," and while men made them-
selves women's slaves, they never sincerely thought women their
equals. American men, in contrast, thought "that woman's mind is
just as capable as man's of discovering the naked truth, and her heart
as firm to face it" (DA, 577). He warned of the consequences of
European male chauvinism:

It would seem that in Europe, where men so easily submit to
the despotic sway of women, they are nevertheless denied
some of the greatest attributes of humanity, and they are re-
garded as seductive but incomplete beings. The most astonish-
ing thing of all is that women end by looking at themselves in
the same light and that they almost think it a privilege to be
able to appear futile, weak, and timid. The women of America
never lay claim to rights of that sort. (DA, 577-78; emphasis

Tocqueville believed that the double standard for sexual behavior
was more prevalent in Europe than in America, and he found that
rape was treated more seriously in America than in Europe. Rape
was punishable by death in the United States, and no crime was
judged more heinous by public opinion, since Americans "think
nothing more precious than a woman's honor." However, in France,
penalties for rapewere less severe and conviction more difficult to
win from a jury. Tocqueville asked, "Is the reason scorn of chastity


or scorn of woman? I cannot rid myself of the feeling that it is both"
(DA, 578).
Tocqueville summed up by saying, "The Americans do not think
that man and woman have the duty or the right to do the same things,
but they show an equal regard for the part played by both and think
of them as beings of equal worth, though their fates are different"
(DA, 578). Then came the rub: "Thus, then, while [Americans] have
allowed the social inferiority of woman to continue, they have done
everything to raise her morally and intellectually to the level of
man. In this I think they have wonderfully understood the true con-
ception of democratic progress." So, although the American woman
was restricted to the domestic sphere, and further restricted within
it, the compensations were, in Tocqueville's judgment, that "no-
where does she enjoy a higher station." In true French fashion,
Tocqueville attributed "the chief cause of the extraordinary pros-
perity and growing power" of Americans "to the superiority of their
women" (DA, 578-79).
Whatever one may think of Tocqueville's attitudes toward wom-
en's position in the social order, I think his conception of the laws of
motion of democratic society and the dialectic of the past and pres-
ent can describe the emergence of the women's liberation move-
ment. A theme that pervaded Tocqueville's work on democratic so-
ciety was that equality cannot be restricted to one sphere. He
argued that "by no possibility could equality ultimately fail to pene-
trate into the sphere of politics as everywhere else. One cannot
imagine that men should remain perpetually unequal in just one re-
spect though equal in all others; within a certain time they are
bound to become equal in all respects" (DA, 49). Later he argued,
"There are certain great social principles [equality and inequality]
which a people either introduces everywhere or tolerates nowhere"
(DA, 561). The contradictions that emerge in historical processes
give rise to social movements for extending equality to oppressed
In the chapter "Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare,
Tocqueville, following Aristotle, postulated that revolutions are
always about the issue of equality, arising from a real and felt sense
of injustice. Tocqueville foresaw the likelihood of a revolution by
blacks if slavery were abolished but full civil rights denied by a
competitive society in which money and status were precarious-a
society in which majority opinion could seize upon differences that
appeared to be rooted in nature, namely skin color, to justify the



The French Theorists: Alexis de Tocqueville

exclusion of blacks and thereby protect the stake in the social order
of white men of middling property (DA, 610-20, 313-33).7 Such
an analysis could be extended to women, if, after being granted po-
litical equality by law, they were still denied their full civil rights;
Tocqueville could have as easily predicted a women's liberation
Tocqueville's descriptions of the effects of revolutionary tu-
mult-when equality is penetrating a society and "still fights pain-
fully against prejudice and mores"-on the relations of master and
servant (as a microcosm) could be used as an apt characterization of
the contemporary war between the sexes. Law and custom clash,
and traditional subordination becomes degradation because it is no
longer accepted as natural or divinely ordained. Men cease to en-
tertain those sentiments of protective kindness that are the product
of "long and uncontested power," and women see the men who give
them orders as unjust usurpers of their own rights; in such times
every home becomes a scene of internecine war. Things become "so
jumbled and confused that no one knows exactly what he is, what
he can do, and what he should do" (DA, 533-54).
In my judgment, Tocqueville's observations, from his value-
laden aristocratic perspective, can be employed to provide a clear
picture of the limits and contradictions of the position of women in
bourgeois, democratic societies; his theory has more heuristic value
than does liberal social theory. On the other hand, the limits of his
perspective on the condition of American women can be readily
grasped by comparing his analysis with that of Harriet Martineau in
Society in America (1837). She observed American society at the
same time, covered the same ground, and arrived at many of the
same conclusions that Tocqueville reached. However, despite her
judgment that American marriage laws were more favorable to
women than England's, her assessment of the condition of Ameri-
can women was quite different from his. She stated, "The Ameri-
cans have, in the treatment of women, fallen below, not only their
own democratic principles, but the practice of some parts of the Old
World." She added, in contrast to Tocqueville's moralizing, "While
woman's intellect is confined, her morals crushed, her health ruined,
her weaknesses encouraged, and her strength punished, she is told
that her lot is cast in the paradise of women: and there is no country
in the world where there is so much boasting of the 'chivalrous'
treatment she enjoys." She pointed out the similarity of the condi-
tion of women to slavery. She mentioned the role of women in the


abolitionist movement, expressed concern for working-class women,
and cited the Declaration of Independence as a basis for a feminist

Auguste Comte
Scientific Sociological Positivism on the Nature of Women

There is probably no better place to witness sociology's conservative
underpinnings than in the work of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who
coined the very name of the discipline. His purpose was to use sci-
entific sociological knowledge to help end the political upheavals of
his time, which he felt stemmed from moral and intellectual anar-
chy. To this end he offered his "positive philosophy" as an alter-
native to the negative, that is to say critical, philosophy of the En-
lightenment, with its belief in human perfectability, inalienable
rights, and natural equality.75
Comte's first major work, Cours de philosophic positive, was
published in Paris between 1830 and 1842. In volume 4 (1839), he
argued that society's "true social unit is certainly the family." He
believed that the family had two relational dimensions, "namely the
subordination of the sexes, which institutes the family, and that of
ages, which maintains it." The "revolutionary spirit" of the eigh-
teenth century had attacked marriage, he thought, because mar-
riage was infused with theology, like everything else at the time.76
However, Comte's assurances reveal his awareness of the revolu-
tionary criticisms of the patriarchal family in his own time:

When the positive philosophy shall have established the sub-
ordination of the sexes, and in that, the principle of marriage
and of the family, it will take its stand on an exact knowledge
of human nature, followed by an appreciation of social devel-
opment as a whole. and in doing this it will extinguish the
fancies by which the institution is at present discredited and

Contemporary philosophical fancies, Comte noted, mistook the
current phase of the family "for an overthrow of the institution."77
Comte offered the belief that the future conditions of marriage
"will be consonant with the fundamental principle of the institu-
tion-the natural subordination of the woman, which has reap-



The French Theorists: Auguste Comte

peared under all forms of marriage, in all ages." He believed the
principle was scientifically confirmed:

Biological philosophy teaches us that, through the whole ani-
mal scale radical differences, physical and moral, distin-
guish the sexes. Comparing sex with age, biological analysis
presents the female sex, in the human species especially, as
constitutionally in a state of perpetual infancy, in comparison
with the other.

Women were inferior to men intellectually, Comte wrote, but supe-
rior in their natural social sympathies. Women's "nature" made them
unfit for politics and extradomestic pursuits but fit them exactly for
the moderating function in the moral economy of the family and so-
ciety. Sociology would settle scientifically the debate over the
equality of women, according to Comte.

Sociology will prove that the equality of the sexes, of which so
much is said, is incompatible with all social existence, by show-
ing that each sex has special and permanent functions which it
must fulfil in the natural economy of the human family, and
which concur in a common end by different ways, the welfare
which results being in no degree injured by the necessary
subordination, since the happiness of every being depends on
the wise development of its proper nature.78

Such statements earned Comte the disapproval of his English
correspondents. In a letter (4 March 1844) to Mrs. Austin, a trans-
lator whose husband was legal philosopher John Austin, Comte
wrote to clear himself

of a charge which would distress me much, and which I be-
lieve I have never deserved, namely, the imputation of a ten-
dency to an insufficient appreciation of the worth of women in
general and your worth in particular. Though I am deeply
convinced that the social office of your sex must remain essen-
tially distinct from that of ours, in order to [secure] the hap-
piness of both, yet I think I have rendered to the moral and
even the intellectual qualities which belong to women an
exact fundamental justice, which will naturally be more ex-


plicit in the great special treatise on philosophy which I am to
commence this year.79

In that work, System of Positive Polity; or, Treatise on Sociol-
ogy, Instituting the Religion of Humanity, the first volume of which
was published in 1851, Comte argued that the restoration of orderly
progress required that the "proletaries" renounce violence in order
to improve their condition and that the positivist philosophers be
given control of (and adequate compensation for overseeing) formal
education in Europe.80 For the positivist program of regeneration
to be successful, Comte said, the cooperation of women was re-
quired. Comte's "new religion" of "Humanity" would only be com-
plete when all three elements of human nature were represented,
namely, reason (responsible for progress and represented by phi-
losophers), activity (responsible for order and represented by the
working classes), and feeling (responsible for love and morality and
represented by women, the "sympathetic sex") (SPP, 164-66, 168,
208). The first and third of these three elements, in Comte's view,
could only preserve their respective powers in this trinity by "keep-
ing clear of all positions of political authority" (SPP, 218); generally,
politics had to take second place to morality (SPP, 166).
He believed it would not be difficult to get women to join his
movement because "the social mission of Woman in the Positive
system follows as a natural consequence from the qualities peculiar
to her nature" (SPP, 169). Positivism would attract women, he felt,
because of its emphasis on the emotion of love; and, "happily,
women, like the people, judge. by the heart rather than by the
head" (SPP, 185). He viewed women as "less capable than men of
abstract intellectual exertion" (SPP, 180) and believed that prac-
ticality was what women had in common with the working classes.
"In the most essential attribute of the human race, the tendency to
place social above personal feeling, she is undoubtedly superior to
man" (SPP, 169). The "Positive principles" that rested "on scientific
laws of human nature or of society" demonstrated that the nature of
woman found its "highest and most distinctive sphere of work" in
the family (SPP, 187). In the family, the woman was the spiritual
power and the moral educator of her children and her husband,
who voluntarily submitted to her superior altruism and thus com-
pleted his moral education (SPP, 194-96); persuasion, not com-
mand, was appropriate to her role. Comte emphasized the role of
woman as wife and companion over her functions of procreation



The French Theorists: Auguste Comte

and maternity (SPP, 188). In Comte's summation, "Her function in
society is determined by the constitution of her nature"-that is, as
"the spontaneous organ of Feeling" (SPP, 204).
Comte argued against those who advocated equality for women,
especially "the Communists" (SPP, 184). He stated, "In all ages of
transition, as in our own, there have been false and sophistical
views of the social position of Woman" (SPP, 196). Comte's authori-
tarianism showed clearly in his belief that his views would find the
greatest sympathy among the working class, "the very class where
the preservation of the institution of the family is of the greatest
importance" (SPP, 197). To allow women to compete with men in
the occupational division of labor would subject "every occupation
to a degree of competition which they [women] would not be able
to sustain," and competition would destroy the affection between
the sexes. Men should provide for women and preserve "the essen-
tially domestic character of female life" (SPP, 199). Comte opposed
divorce and polygamy, the inheritance of wealth by women, and
professional education for women, although he was in favor of
equalization of noncoeducational secondary-school instruction. He
preferred that widows remain unmarried, and he accepted the pos-
sibility of platonic marriages because he felt that women were by
nature less sexual than men and that abstinence was character-
building for men (SPP, 198-202). He was sure that women found
contemporary proposals attacking marriage repugnant (SPP, 184-
85). He felt that history supported his views:

The continuous progress of Humanity in this respect, as in
every other, is but a more complete development of the pre-
existing order. Equality in the position of the two sexes is con-
trary to their nature, and no tendency to it has at any time
been exhibited. All history assures us that with the growth of
society the peculiar features of each sex have become not less
but more distinct. (SPP, 198)

Capping off Comte's positivist utopia was the private and public
worship of "Woman. the spontaneous priestess of Humanity."
In his conclusion, he maintained he had put the best of chivalry and
Catholicism on a scientific foundation appropriate for restoring so-
cial order to the modern world (SPP, 183, 205-11).
Raymond Aron's statement in Main Currents of Sociological
Thought coincides with the view Comte expressed in his letter to


Mrs. Austin, but it is difficult to find the basis for it in the foregoing
quotations from Comte's work.

Auguste Comte had, if you will, a sense of the equality of be-
ings, but it was an equality based on the radical differentiation
of functions and natures. When he said that woman is intellec-
tually inferior to man, he was ready to see this as a superiority
of woman, because by the same token woman is the spiritual
power, the power of love, which to the Comte of the Systeme
was far more important than the futile superiority of intelli-
gence. At the same time, in the family it is the men who have
the experience of historical continuity, who learn what is the
condition of civilization, who control the transmission of civi-
lization from generation to generation.8

Some insight into Comte's position on "womans proper place"
and his eccentric proposals may be gleaned from his personal rela-
tionships with women. His first wife, Caroline Massin, was an erst-
while prostitute on whom he vented his rage in recurrent psychic
breakdowns, during which he had to be physically restrained from
such acts of violence as throwing knives. For twenty years, Massin
stuck by him, finally leaving him after he completed his Cours de
philosophic positive in 1842; even later, however, she assisted him
with his personal difficulties by intervening with the Ministry of
Education, which allowed him to continue to lecture. In 1844, he
met a younger woman, Clothilde de Vaux, at the home of a disciple
and at once fell in love. She was an upper-class woman who had
been deserted by her husband, a petty official. The affair never
went beyond the platonic level (despite Comte's wishes). After her
death, Comte devoted his life to "his angel"; the System of Positive
Polity, which he worked on in the second half of the 1840s, is a long
memorial to his beloved. In that work, as described by Lewis A.
Coser, Comte "proclaimed over and over again the healing powers
of warm femininity for a humanity too long dominated by the harsh-
ness of masculine intellect."82 In the end, Comte in effect pro-
claimed himself the High Priest of the Religion of Humanity, the
Pope of the Church of Class Peace, and Clothilde its Madonna and
object of ritual worship of woman. In Comte's positivist utopia,
there would be no work, no aggression, and no sex. Birth would be
virgin, a curious intellectual projection of Comte's unrequited and
sublimated love for Clothilde.83 He may have learned more from



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