Thursday, May 13, 2010

Equal but Different - Women in the 1830s


Democracy in America is an interesting read, as America in the 1830s is examined through the eye of a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. It is intriguing to read about various aspects of our culture and government at that point in time, and to note how much has changed, or, in a few instances, stayed quite similar.

Chapter 41 in the book, "How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes," was of particular interest to me. Women and society's view of them weren't perfect at that time, just like they aren't perfect today. However, they are interesting to examine and learn from. Below are some quotes from the chapter.

"There are people in Europe who, confounding together the different characteristics of the sexes, would make man and women into beings not only equal, but alike. They would give to both the same functions, impose on both the same duties, and grant to both the same rights; they would mix them in all things - their occupations, their pleasures, their business. It may readily be conceived that, by thus attempting to make one sex equal to the other, both are degraded; and from so preposterous a medley of the works of nature, nothing could ever result but weak men and disorderly women."

This quite accurately describes what our culture has done; we didn't listen to this warning, and many weak men and disorderly women have resulted.

"The Americans have have applied to the sexes the great principle of political economy which governs the manufactures of our age, by carefully dividing the duties of man from those of woman, in order that the great work of society may be better carried on."

"American women never manage the outward concerns of the family, or conduct a business, or take part in political life; nor are they, on the other hand, ever compelled to perform the rough labor of the fields, or to make any of these laborious exertions which demand the exertion of physical strength. No families are so poor as to form an exception to this rule. If, on the one hand, an American woman cannot escape from the quiet circle of domestic employments, she is never forced, on the other, to go beyond it."

I wouldn't say that women should be restricted to the home and never be allowed in business or politics, for example. But it makes you think.

Our ancestors knew how to take care of women. We may now be "free" to do exactly what men do, but with that "freedom" has come the compulsion to do things we weren't made to do - and to be forced, by circumstances or society, to do these things.

But were these women weak wall flowers? I think not! They were strong, but always womanly.

"the women of America, who often and a many exhibit a masculine strength of understanding energy, generally preserve great delicacy of personal appearance, and always retain the manners of women, although they sometimes show that they have the hearts and minds of men."

How did the men treat the ladies? As subordinate creatures to be trampled upon? After all, aren't we taught that what will happen to a women who "just" stays home?

"their conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained . . . that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used, lest her ear should be offended by an expression. In America, a young unmarried woman may, alone and without fear, undertake a long journey."

A woman's natural modesty was guarded and protected. Society held her in honor, and this code of honor protected women. The men cherished them and were careful not to offend them; they could even travel alone, presumably because men all along the way (even strangers!) would be looking out for them.

"Thus, the Americans do not think that man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices, but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as beings of equal value."

Different in domain, but equal in value. Isn't that how God designed it?

But, if the women "just" tended the house and family, wasn't her lot useless? Shouldn't she have gone out into the world, to change it? Let early America be an example:

"although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is, in some respects, one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked . . . to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people out mainly to be attributed, I should reply, to the superiority of their women."

Would the same be said today?

5 comments:

Lexie said...

What a good breakdown for a book review there are some books I have read where they absolutely believe that working outside of the home or even college is absolutely out of the question if you are a Christian female. This I obviously disagree with because I truly believe while God has a purpose and a design for things he will sometimes put us on different paths in life and call us to different things to bring glory to his name. While I'm not slamming staying at home I really think some people forget that we are called in different directions in life sometimes.

Meghan said...

Wow. Great thoughts-I'm now going to look up that book at our Library. :)

Marlana said...

1830s was a long ways from Proverbs 31. In that chapter, the woman owned a vineyard and planted it. Then women in the 1800s could not own property, let alone use property to bring in income for her family. I'm thankful I can own real estate!!!

The Frenchman pointed out a lot of good, but I think the negative far outweighed the good. When Louis Mae Alcott was taught to budget her money rather than defer her finances to her father, that was considered radical and qualified her as a feminist. In fact, she was just awakening from an era were women were not even seen in public without a man.

I greatest tragedy today is not what has happened to women but what has happened to our young men. The birth control pill made it where they could blame a girl for getting pregnant. Video games has taken away their passion, ect.

Laura said...

I do not believe him when he says no family is so poor that women worked outside the home. What about minority women? What about the women who have cooked, cleaned, and looked after the children of the women with money in America and elsewhere for centuries. Not only did they barely get paid, they were practically invisible as this writing attests.

Anna Naomi said...

The quotes are interesting, but as some of you pointed out, they don't necessarily describe exactly how life was for women. You can't generalize everyone, and I'm sure some women had to work outside the home, as Laura pointed out. However, in general, it didn't seem to be true.

I'm not saying that this is how women should live now. I'm glad to be living in this time period, though it does have its problem, as other time periods did. However, it does give us something to think about, and causes us to examine our presuppositions.

Thanks for the thoughts!