The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Feminism

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Edition of 1920. See also Feminism on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FEMINISM, from the French féminisme, Latin femina, woman: a word coined by the younger Dumas in a pamphlet entitled ‘L'Homme-femme’ (1872) to designate the so-called “rights of women” movement. An advocate of this movement is termed a “feminist,” though it must be pointed out that the definition, whether applied to a man or woman, by no means carries the somewhat derogatory sense of “effeminate” or “unmanly.” Indeed, many of the finest intellects among men have been — and are to-day — ardent feminists. Briefly stated, the tenets of the creed consist in a demand that women are entitled to absolute economic and social equality with men; that women have the right to participate in government as responsible citizens, and especially in framing such laws as affect their own lives. Hence, feminism includes woman suffrage, a stepping-stone to unlimited possibilities. Its foremost interpreters contend that woman has too long been regarded and treated as a mere adjunct of man; “a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species.” This was the argument of Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneer of the modern movement, in her celebrated ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ published in 1792. Although marred by numerous internal defects the ‘Vindication’ remains as one of the most powerful and truly prophetic statements of the woman's case against “man-made laws” and a “man-made world.” With merciless logic she flayed the miseducation of girls, ridiculed the generally accepted theories of “chivalry,” and mordantly attacked the double standard of morality. Yet she recognized, in true womanly fashion, that love and the attraction between the sexes was a cardinal fact in human nature, and “marriage as the foundation of almost every social virtue.” While she claimed that women should be treated as the friends and equals of men, and not as their toys and slaves, she did not demand for women intellectual, physical or moral equality with men. She did not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves. In her time a sickly delicacy was supposed to be an essential part of feminine charm, and cowardice, as well as physical weakness, was regarded as part of what every woman ought to aim at. How far Mary Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time may be judged from the fact that she advocated woman's representation in Parliament nearly 70 years before woman suffrage was heard of in the House of Commons, and she proclaimed that the practice of medicine was particularly suited to women 50 years before the first English woman doctor was qualified.

Plato, Aristotle, Euripides and Sir Thomas More propounded arguments and theories on the rights of women that are to-day being carried into effect in America, Europe and Australasia. We have traveled far since that Council of Mâcon, quoted by Bescherelle and Larcher, where some 300 ecclesiastics gravely discussed the question of whether women could or should be classified as human beings. In ages past theologians and learned men have wrangled about the etymology of the word signifying “woman” in their respective languages, and whether the particular word was derived from God or invented by man. The object of these erudite disquisitions appears to have been to fix the definite status of woman as compared with man. Sympathetic French writers have proved to their own satisfaction that Nature, in her thousand-fold activity, is feminine in essence and that woman, not man, is the “lord of creation.” Basing his argument on biological theory, Mr. George Bernard Shaw makes one of his characters say, “She [woman] knows by instinct that far back in the evolutionary process she invented him [man], differentiated him, created him in order to produce something better than the single-sexed process can produce,” and that “he is welcome to his dreams, his follies, his ideals, his heroisms, provided that the keystone of them all is the worship of woman, of motherhood, of the family, of the hearth” (‘Man and Superman’).

However futile and unnecessary such speculations may appear to the 20th century understanding, it is indisputable that in nearly all ages and among most peoples — ancient and modern — women have been more or less kept in a state of tutelage and dependence upon men. So far back as records exist do we find a constant stream of depreciation leveled against women, in theology, philosophy and literature. The old Chinese classics contain numerous disparaging references to women, such as “long is her hair and short her understanding,” despite the dictum of Confucius that “Woman is the masterpiece.” With deeper insight, Socrates remarked that “woman, once made equal to man, becometh his superior.” The contradictory absurdities of Rousseau were sufficiently answered by the tender profundity of Jean Paul. Lord Chesterfield ranked women as below men and above children; Tennyson says, “Woman is the lesser man”; Lessing wrote, “nature intended that woman should be her masterpiece,” and Herder called her “the crown of creation.” Sheridan states that “on the cultivation of the mind of women depends the wisdom of men,” a truism elaborated by President Garfield, that “the most valuable gift which can be bestowed on women is something to do, which they can do well and worthily, and thereby maintain themselves.” Horace Greeley expressed the opinion that nothing “will render the condition of our working women what it should be so long as the kitchen and the needle are substantially their only resources,” while the late G. W. Curtis declared that “the test of civilization is the estimate of woman.” That education must be the foundation stone of woman's rights was already realized in 1697 by Mary Astell, an English authoress, who published a work entitled, ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, wherein a Method is offered for the Improvement of their Minds.’ She propounded a scheme for a ladies' college, which was favorably received by Queen Anne and would have been carried out but for the opposition of Bishop Burnet. A noteworthy phase in the history of woman was the so-called “age of chivalry,” from the 10th to the 15th century, a time in which it was the duty and pleasure of every gentleman to be the slave of some lady. Though there can be little doubt as to the lax morality which accompanied it, that chivalry resulted in the modern idealization of women, and awakened in them the consciousness of their power and latent responsibility. But a formidable barrier of age-long custom and prejudice stood in the way — especially the “man-made laws.” An old philosopher once remarked that “nature had already invested woman with such tremendous power that the law, wisely, gave her less.” While it is true that, among some of the ancients, women exerted enormous influence in matters of state and inheritance of thrones and property, the vast majority of the sex were unaffected; distinctions fell to the favored few, either through lineage — relationship with men — or the natural gifts of intelligence and beauty. Homer sang —

“What mighty woes
To thy imperial race from woman rose

which leads to the conclusion that the heroines of antiquity were more absorbed in their private affairs than in those of the state or of their inconspicuous sisters.

The “Rights of Man,” born of the French Revolution, kindled a feeble but inextinguishable rushlight which was sedulously fanned for over a century by an ever-increasing army of pioneers before it burst into flame. The English Reform Bill of 1832 prevented woman suffrage by the insertion of the word male before person. The advocates of feminism met with the most strenuous opposition alike from clergy and laity, and particularly from “the man in the street.” There were those who prophesied the loosening of family bonds and the general collapse of human society if women were raised to a social and political equality with men. As was inevitable, the problem of sex became the predominant factor in the controversy. A strong grievance of the feminists was the stringency of the English divorce laws, at all times unjustly severe upon the woman. In 1854 the Honorable Mrs. Norton privately circulated a pamphlet entitled, ‘English Laws for Women in the 19th Century’ — a painful episode of personal history more weighty and pregnant in its simple details of much wrong and suffering than sheaves of subtle controversy. In July 1855 Mrs. Norton addressed a letter to Queen Victoria on the “Laws of Marriage and Divorce,” in which she laid bare her own domestic unhappiness. The letter was dissected and analyzed in periodicals and press, attracting sympathy both for the writer and the feminist cause. At that time a special act of Parliament was necessary in each case to annul a marriage. In 1869 John Stuart Mill's ‘Subjection of Women’ appeared, a work marked by generosity and love of justice. He made a most effective protest against the prejudices which stunted the development and limited the careers of women on no other ground than “the accident of sex.” Notwithstanding that it encountered much criticism, the book gave a strong impetus to the feminist movement throughout the world, being also translated into other languages. In 1867 Mill had introduced in Parliament a bill for female suffrage for imperial affairs, which was defeated by 196 votes against 73. Mrs. Mill wrote an able essay on ‘The Enfranchisement of Women,’ and numerous pamphlets and magazine articles spread the propaganda. In 1868 the Court of Common Pleas in London decided female suffrage to be illegal, and in the following year the State of Wyoming granted women the vote. By degrees the scope of women's activity widened in those fields for which their endowments peculiarly fitted them, in all that involved moral superintendence and personal administration — in educational, charitable, penal and reformatory institutions. From the original “emancipation” and “politico-social equality” stages the feminist campaign assumed a definite economic aspect. With the growth of population it became increasingly necessary to provide employment for women and girls. Hitherto there had been little or no choice for women to earn their living beyond domestic service, in factories, as governesses or teachers. Men resented the invasion of their spheres by women on the ground that the cheaper female labor would cause a lowering of masculine wages. To the male argument that “woman's place is in the home,” the feminists retorted that not all women had homes, husbands and children, and that a woman should be as free to choose her career as any man. Especially hard was the lot of the single woman and the widow left unprovided for in the days when there were so few avenues for female activities. Jules Simon, French philosopher and statesman, pointed out in ‘L'Ouvrière’ (1861) that woman is a being naturally fond of work, uneasy of inaction, and loving employment for its own sake. A woman writer of that period expressed this restlessness: “How many women are now waiting, with empty hands and longing hearts! Will not good men lend us their aid to bring us and our work together?” The numerous benevolent societies that were necessary in Great Britain during the early Victorian era for the relief of “distressed gentlewomen,” governesses and female invalids bore testimony to the pathetic helplessness and silent suffering of genteel poverty among single women and widows. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women labored to open out for them less thronged and footworn tracks than those of tuition and needlework, by directing their efforts toward printing and the semi-mechanical arts; above all, in facilitating emigration to the colonies by supplying agents to receive and protect them on their arrival overseas. The lack of educational opportunities was the severest handicap to woman's progress. “In imaginative strength she has been proved deficient,” wrote a critic; “she unfolds no new heaven, she breaks into no new world; she discovers, invents, creates nothing.”

After the repeal of the “combination laws” in 1825, British workmen gradually began to build up those trade unions which later became such a powerful factor in industrial life. Women were not slow to perceive that organization meant strength, political as well as industrial. Public meetings were arranged and the first meeting of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage was held in 1868, exactly 20 years after a similar convention — the first of its kind — had assembled at Seneca Falls, N. Y. In 1869 a Women's Club and Institute was opened in London, much to the surprise and consternation of the male element. The theory of “the weaker vessel” became an exploded myth. Nearly 200 years earlier, Anne Hutchinson had started the first women's club in America, and French women had formed themselves into clubs in Paris during the Revolution. The feminist movement gathered in strength and momentum among the English-speaking peoples. One barrier after another was broken down by indefatigable and determined women leaders supported by many prominent men. Women had played a most important part in the abolition of black slavery; they were now bent on destroying what the extremists called “white slavery” — their own emancipation. Quite a large number of women were unconvinced of the wisdom of the movement, forming “anti” societies and declaring that most women did not want the vote and had no desire to “mix in politics.” Not a few of these objectors were ladies of high station and titles. While fully agreeing that the deliverance of women from early prejudices and unnatural trammels was a necessity which the development of culture and the altered conditions of industrial relations were bound to bring about in time, they were “convinced that the pursuit of a mere outward equality with men is for women not only vain but demoralizing,” and that it led to “a total misconception of woman's true dignity and special mission.” It was pointed out that the question was pre-eminently one for the middle classes to decide. While the ladies of the “upper ten” stood aloof, it could have no interest for the women of the lower orders, whose right to help their husbands in providing a living was, unfortunately, but too well established. Particular stress was laid upon the danger of economic competition, of overflooding the labor market. “Women take the places of men for less pay,” wrote a lady anti-feminist 25 years ago; “the lower a man's earnings, the less is he able to make a home for a wife. Competition between men and women would but _ tend to still further lessen the ever-decreasing number of marriages. . . . And it is just this decrease in marriage . . . which is the sore point in woman's emancipation. The decrease in marriages first started the question of Woman's Rights.” The words quoted were written by Mme. Adele Crepaz and received the commendation of Gladstone.

The feminists, however, pursued their campaign with increasing vigor and persistence. They invaded not only innumerable trades and handicrafts, but also universities and colleges, carrying off degrees and honors in science, law, classics, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, art, music, literature and political economy. They opened women's medical colleges, hospitals and educational institutions. They founded great political organizations numbering many thousands of members; they held gigantic parades and demonstrations; and terrorized legislatures and statesmen by actual display of physical violence. Women were elected to education, municipal and trade union boards; to administrative positions on public works, and appointed as government inspectors, as police officers, and even as sheriffs. A woman scientist discovered radium; women have gained certificates as ships' pilots and aeronauts; women travelers have explored Africa and Asia; a woman rode on horseback across the continent of Australia, while in France women practise at the bar. In the United States the first woman has entered Congress. Most of this remarkable expansion of feminine activity has taken place within the period of a generation, though the hardy pioneers who laid the foundations of the “era of woman” did not live to see the completion of their work. If the amazing results obtained up to the summer of 1914 forced the conclusion that women, given the needful opportunities, were but little behind men in productive — if not creative — energy, the course of the European War must have removed the last doubts that still lingered in the minds of anti-feminists. It is no exaggeration to say that the war gave woman the greatest opportunity in history to display her mettle and capacity. There are, however, two widely divergent views as to the ultimate consequences or effects of the war upon woman's life. In all the belligerent countries — though to a less degree in America — the war has imposed a heavy burden upon the women. In the European countries women have replaced men in almost every sphere of activity. In the munitions factory, in the workshop, on the street and on the land, women are performing the most arduous tasks such as had never fallen to their lot. It is believed by not a few that this violent experience must alter the nature of those women; that those who have learned to be well paid for their labors will gain economic independence, become hardened, and lose their womanly attributes. Such a contingency, it need hardly be said, would be an unspeakable disaster. On the other hand, it is expected that the physical exertion involved will produce a stronger, healthier race. Doctors have observed a considerable decrease of nervous disorders among women in general, while the women of the wealthier classes were said to have “forgotten their ills by from one-third to one-half.” This was said to be due to the numerous war activities to which women devoted themselves, in Red Cross work, etc. One physician in New York stated that since the war “a breath of fresh air” had come over the physical habits of all women, especially improvement in the “fashionable slouch” walk, which he attributed to the unconscious influence of the military.

Another serious problem is the question of those girls and women who took the places in offices to relieve men called to the colors. Will these drift back into private life when the men return? Already entrenched in business positions by the invitation and acquiescence of man, woman's position must necessarily be strengthened in the business world and her labor become more indispensable as time passes. It is not impossible that in America as in Europe the situation will adjust itself with a fair degree of equity, the qualified woman holding her place and the qualified man holding his, with the unfit of both sexes automatically falling out of the ranks. In Great Britain, less than 2,000,000 women were employed before the war, mainly in textile mills. In June 1918 there were over 4,500,000 women and girls employed under the Board of Trade. Their devotion to the national cause has earned them the Parliamentary vote for which they had struggled in vain for many years. The suffrage bill passed the Commons by a vote of 385 to 56.

In France the feminist cult has never been strenuously practised; the professions did not appeal to French women. Satisfied to cultivate the domestic virtues, their highest aims were to be good housewives. During the war they proved themselves no less patriotic, self-sacrificing and brave than their men. While there is no demand for the vote, the war is expected to raise the political status of women, but, according to M. Stephane Lauzanne of the Paris Matin, “they will prefer to exercise it through their husbands and in their social life, rather than through the coarse medium of the ballot box.”

In Germany the feminist movement has not flourished. In her book, ‘Die moderne Frauenbewegung,’ Dr. Kaethe Schirmacher states that “the political training of the German man has not yet been extended to include the principles of the American Declaration of Independence . . . his respect for individual liberty has not yet been developed as in England; therefore he is much harder to win over to the cause of women's rights.” She says that “Every war, every accentuation and promotion of militarism is a weakening of the forces of civilization and of woman's influence.”

Despite the backward political and educational conditions obtaining in Russia before the war, the position of intelligent women was not without hopeful prospects. There were numerous female doctors and teachers, many of them trained abroad. In Austria-Hungary and Italy circumstances were less encouraging, woman labor being poorly paid, while in Spain the feminists nave been unable to attract much support. Farther afield, the leaven of Western influence is perceptibly operating in the Orient; female enlightenment is slowly penetrating into the harem and behind the purdah, smuggled through the barriers of antiquity by white women doctors and missionaries. Japanese and Chinese women who have visited the United States or Great Britain cannot fail to take home with them the new gospel of free and independent womanhood.

As mentioned above, it is in the English-speaking world that women have made the greatest strides toward the feminist goal of absolute economic, social and political freedom. The women of the United States, especially, have played a tremendous part in the creation and development of their country, a country which Europeans, not without justice, call “the woman's paradise.” How far is feminine influence in America responsible for the disconcerting mixture of idealism and practical sense, the shattering of conventions and ignoring of obstacles, that blind yet unerring faith in individual action, and that callous neglect of all those inhibitions which arrest wild impulses? This intellectual and spiritual activity, moreover, has been communicated to millions of immigrants from all parts of the world, of diverse races and nationalities. Whether the full participation of women in what was once regarded as exclusively masculine activity will evolve a “third sex” — as feared by the pessimists — remains to be seen. Man has struggled, fought and bled for religious, political and economic freedom during centuries, and modern woman has emulated his example. Her insistent demands for self-determination and self-expression have gradually and inevitably forced their recognition. See Divorce; Women In The Industries; Woman Suffrage.

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Henri F. Klein,
Editorial Staff of The Americana.