From Wollstonecraft to Mill: What British and European Ideas and Social Movements
Influenced the Emergence of Feminism in the Atlantic World, 1792-1869?
Barricades in a Parisian Street, 1848.
Specter of European Revolution influenced Women Activists in Europe and the United States.
Source: L'Illustration, Journal Universel, 4-8 July 1848, p. 276.
Documents selected and interpreted by
students in Woman's Rights in America, an undergraduate seminar
taught by Nancy Hewitt, Rutgers University, Spring 2002:
Jaclyn Abruzzese, Allison Brayne, Julie Shastri,
and Rachel Sakofsky.
Revised by Kathryn Sklar.
Feminist ideas and social movements emerged in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States in an international context that promoted the migration of people and ideas across national boundaries. Between the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) ideas, social movements, and individual feminists migrated across land and sea, generating a powerful new context for the advancement of women’s rights. These documents illuminate that process.
In this era, the terms women’s rights and women’s emancipation were widely used to refer to what we today would call feminism. Although the term feminist did not appear until the late nineteenth century in France and somewhat later in Great Britain, the U.S. and other countries, we use it here to describe earlier women’s rights activists. These early feminists included both women and men who advocated greater equality for women in public institutions, such as the church and government, and in the family and household, and the equality of the sexes more generally. Some of the more radical feminists also insisted on a woman’s right to exercise control over her body, including the right to remain single, to develop sexual relations and to bear children outside of marriage. Almost all feminists in this period viewed women’s right to higher education as one of their most important demands.
Feminist ideas were fueled by major social, intellectual, political, economic and cultural transformations in Europe and North America. Socially, the expansion of literacy created greater and more equal access to knowledge among middle-class and working class-people. Intellectual changes known as the Enlightenment often challenged the authority of religion and worked independently of state-established churches, creating opportunities for feminists to do the same. Enlightenment thinkers valued experience and the evidence of the senses, emphasized acquired rather than ascribed traits, and raised fundamental (though unresolved) questions about traits ascribed to women. Feminists used Enlightenment ideas to emphasize women’s basic humanity and equality with men.
Politically, the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England set the stage for more far-reaching reforms in the following centuries. Revolutionary movements in the United States (1770s) and France (1790s), dominated by middle-class (or bourgeois) groups, overthrew monarchical orders that claimed to rule by divine right. In Europe and Great Britain socialist movements vigorously critiqued the new industrial order of the 1830s and 40s, and joined with middle-class and working-class movements in the revolutions of 1848 to extend popular rule. Advocates of women’s emancipation joined these movements and defended women’s right to participate in public life. Middle-class leadership won out when the revolutions triumphed, and they generally limited or denied women’s participation in the new European governments. When even these moderate republics were overthrown in the counter-revolutions of 1848-49, women lost any chance at meaningful political participation.
Economically, the industrial revolution and expansion of consumer markets transformed the production and distribution of goods, wealth, and services on both sides of the Atlantic. In the process, the home was reconstructed, ideally, as a place of middle-class child rearing, consumption, and leisure, rather than productive labor. Factories, shops and other public venues were now considered the primary arenas of production. Feminists insisted on women’s right to support themselves through meaningful work whether centered in the houshold or in the wider society.
Communication and transportation revolutions wrought by mail service, telegraph, railroads and steamships carried ideas and people further and faster than previous generations had dreamed possible. Feminists in the U.S., Europe, and Great Britain used these new forms of communication with prodigious effects.
Culturally, Romanticism generated new ideas and values that blended with older Enlightenment ideas and values to produce unprecedented optimism about human destinies and capabilities. Many radical Christian movements, working outside state-sponsored churches, also endorsed gender equality and added religious zeal to the momentum for change. Feminists insisted that women’s rights were God-given and should not be curtailed by human custom or law. They also robustly criticized traditional obstacles to women’s abilities to control their own lives and destinies.
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First and foremost among the British and European advocates of greater equality for women was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who, in a time when most people believed women were intellectually inferior to men, argued that the inequalities that marked women’s lives could be erased by equal access to education. Her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, became the cornerstone upon which many subsequent feminist writers constructed arguments that advocated the equality of the sexes. Arguing by analogy to the "Rights of Man" expressed in the American and French Revolutions, Wollstonecraft insisted that women were born equal to men. Their inequality was a social construction, she insisted, which could be reversed by providing girls with education and training equal to boys and women with employment equal to men (see Document 1).
Wollstonecraft’s views drew on her own experience as a daughter and a teacher. Her father wasted his inheritance in drink and ill-fated schemes, growing more abusive as he aged. Mary left home at nineteen to become the paid companion of a wealthy widow in Bath, where she learned to disdain the emptiness of upper-class women’s lives. Her life changed in 1784 when she founded a school for girls in Newington Green, North London. There she lived among and was strongly influenced by Dissenting intellectuals, especially Richard Price, who supported the principles of the then-in-progress French Revolution.
Through them she came to see the limitations in her own life--especially her inability to find meaningful work--as part of the systematic inequality of the sexes. The school dissolved, but Wollstonecraft distilled what she had learned there in her first publication Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). As she did later in Vindication, she used Lockean ideas to argue that human understanding was shaped by information derived from the senses, and that moral and ethical views were shaped by that understanding. In Vindication she made the additional assertion that these human qualities did not differ by sex.
Through Price and his group, Wollstonecraft established herself in an intellectual community and came to understand her own struggle for personal freedom as part of a larger struggle then being waged in England and Europe. In 1790 she wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, framed as a letter to influential conservative critic of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke. Arguing for a society based on principles of freedom and equality, she established herself as a political writer on the large questions of the day. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman extended those principles to women, and critiqued another eminent philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau--French philosophical radical whose views of women were quite conservative.
Yet Mary Wollstonecraft’s defense of the rights of women was never purely philosophical. Even before the publication of these three books, Wollstonecraft had became known as a woman capable of radical action--in her own words a "shameful incendiary"--when she rescued her younger sister from an unhappy marriage in 1783. Abducting her sister and her sister’s newborn baby, she brought them to live with her in Newington Green. Wollstonecraft fictionalized this experience and dramatized the oppression of married women in her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, published in 1788. Her book joined the cascade of female-centered fiction about seduction, betrayal, and unhappy marriage that shaped the emergence of the English novel between the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740 and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813.
This theme of women’s embodied inequality lent a radical edge to Wollstonecraft’s writings. Nevertheless, like most eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century feminists, she thought that greater equality for women would lead to greater tranquility in families and in society. As she put it: "Would men but generously snap our chains and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers--in a word, better citizens" (see Document 1).
Wollstonecraft’s personal life was more radical than her writings. In 1792 she traveled to Paris and became a participant/observer in the French Revolution, joining the group of idealistic British visitors who were affiliated with the Ironists--moderate republicans. At the height of Jacobin "terror" that year, many of her French Ironist friends were imprisoned and executed. Nevertheless, in her 1794 book, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, she defended the Revolution as a positive force in the historical long run. In Paris she met and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American speculator on the French financial markets; the relationship lasted long enough for her to become pregnant and bear a child, Fanny, with whom she returned to England in 1795. A colorful public figure, notoriously unmarried though a mother, she shifted the focus of her writings from political to personal topics, describing her tempestuous affair with Imlay in her novel, The Wrongs of Woman: or Maria. A year later she met William Godwin, an intellectual and successful author, whom she married a few months before the birth of their daughter, Mary. That birth claimed Mary Wollstonecraft’s life; she died of puerperal fever less than two weeks after the birth--the leading cause of maternal mortality before antibiotic drugs became available to treat postpartum infection.
In the conservative political climate that followed the French Revolution in England, Europe, and North America after 1800, Wollstonecraft’s reputation suffered from her identification with the excesses of that event and from her unorthodox personal life. Still, her Vindication of the Rights of Woman remained one of the most influential feminist texts in the first half of the nineteenth century. Historian Bonnie Anderson noted that "the feminist voice fell silent both in Europe and the United States from the 1790s to 1825," but in the 1830s and 40s French socialist Flora Tristan (see Document 8) praised Wollstonecraft and Mathilde Franziska Anneke (see Document 19) translated parts of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman for German readers.
Similarly, in the United States during the 1830s social movements developed around ideas that resembled Wollstonecraft’s views. Women abolitionists endorsed women’s rights in 1837, and in the 1830s the American Female Moral Reform Association launched their aggressive campaign against the sexual double standard and promoted women’s right to control their own bodies. Popular support for women’s access to higher education expanded women’s enrollments by 1880 to constitute one third of all students in institutions of higher education.
If Mary Wollstonecraft set the stage for debates about women’s rights during the nineteenth century, Charles Fourier (1772-1837) designed utopian communities that utilized women’s talents more fully. A salesman who wrote in his spare time, Fourier believed that future social progress would occur "in proportion to the advance of women toward liberty" (see documents 2A-2D). Extremely critical of the waste of talents and resources in modern society, Fourier believed the future belonged to "association" and cooperation. His communities were organized into "phalanxes," groups of about 400 families that lived cooperatively in phalanstères or common buildings. Although their economic base was expected to be agricultural, the communities were also intended to promote manufacturing and other commercial pursuits, mixing capitalism, cooperation and social control. Work and profits were to be shared. The communities embraced schools, library, and stores. And they provided for public health, pensions, and the regulation of trade.
Fourierist ideas inspired the creation of dozens of utopian communities in the United States in the 1830s and 40s, which historian Carl Guarneri estimates attracted 100,000 residents. The best-known phalanxes at Raritan Bay, New Jersey and Brook Farm near Boston drew writers, artists and reformers to their communities. After visiting the Raritan Bay community in 1852, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared, "All our talk about women’s rights is mere moonshine so long as we are bound by the present social system. . . . Woman must ever be sacrificed in the isolated household." Fourier’s criticism of marriage as an oppressive institution for women (especially under the Napoleonic Code instituted in France in 1804) and women’s subordination in society more generally inspired extensive contemporary debate and discussion in Europe and the United States. His ideas also influenced Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, who in the second half of the nineteenth century tried to develop more scientific and less utopian forms of socialism and communism. One of Fourier’s best-known followers was Robert Owen (1771-1858), who transformed New Lanark, Scotland, from a spinning mill town into a cooperative community. Emphasizing the community’s innovative educational institutions, Owen outlined his ideas in A New View of Society or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character (1813). In the mid-1820s Owen left New Lanark and founded other co-operative Owenite communities, the most famous being New Harmony, Indiana, in the United States (1825-1828).
Englishwoman Frances Wright (1795-1852) combined Wollstonecraft’s tradition of feminism with Fourierist social visions. During several visits to the United States, she also represented the new internationalism that connected feminists across national boundaries. Wright recorded her impressions of her first trip to the United States (in 1818) in Views of Society and Manners in America (1821), including very positive comments on the "condition of women" (see Document 3A). Returning to the United States in 1824, she visited Robert Owen’s community at New Harmony, Indiana, and decided to create her own settlement.
Having viewed slavery during a trip up the Mississippi, Wright published A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South, a pamphlet in which she proposed that the U.S. government create Owenite slave plantations where profits would go to purchase the slaves’ freedom. Wright established such a community near Memphis, called Nashoba, which never prospered, before retreating to England in 1827.
Returning to New Harmony in the summer of 1828, Wright delivered lectures that she expanded into a series and delivered in American cities, beginning in Cincinnati and ending in New York. In 1829 she bought the Ebenezer Church on Broome Street in lower Manhattan, remodeled it into a "Hall of Science" capable of seating 1,200, and lectured there. Adopting a radical perspective on topics of current interest, she promoted women’s rights, attacked the pro-slavery leanings of the American clergy, and broke the taboo against women speaking in public (see Document 3B). Walt Whitman, who attended regularly, later said she was "one of the few characters to excite in me a wholesale respect and love." Robert Owen lectured with her during visits to New York, and his son, Robert Dale Owen, helped her and labor activists in New York City launch the Free Enquirer, a newspaper that gave rise to a workingman’s political party, dubbed "the Fanny Wright Party." Between 1830 and her death in 1852, she crossed the Atlantic several times, dying in Cincinnati, where her lecture tour of 1828 had begun.
The first full feminist treatise after Wollstonecraft was written by William Thompson and his friend, Anna Wheeler, Appeal of One Half the Human Race, WOMEN, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, MEN, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery; in reply to a paragraph of Mrs. Mill’s Celebrated "Article on Government" (1825) (see Document 4). Born in Ireland, Wheeler (1785-1848) traveled to Dublin, London, France, and Scotland in 1820s, meeting Owen and Fourier and learning about the religiously-based Saint Simonian socialist communities in France. In Ireland she befriended William Thompson, wealthy socialist author of An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness (1824). Thompson’s Inquiry critiqued early capitalism and inequalities of wealth from the perspective of Robert Owen’s belief that all wealth springs from labor and that both the capitalist and the landlord exploit the laborer. Women would never gain independence in competitive capitalist society, the Appeal insisted. Only in socialist communities would women "cease to be dependent on individual men for their daily support" (see Document 4). Yet despite his economic radicalism, in many ways Owen’s views of women remained traditional, and Thompson and Wheeler’s Appeal went beyond him by viewing women’s oppression from women’s point of view.
The most radical feminist ideas of the 1830s were probably those of the Saint Simonians, a religiously-oriented socialist movement in France. Founded by Henri, comte de Saint-Simon, the movement promoted free love as a better foundation for marriage and called for marital bonds based on sexual or emotional inclinations rather than socio-economic needs. However women within the movement downplayed the free love idea and, after reading Fourier, advocated women’s economic independence. They founded a periodical, La Femme Libre (The Free Woman), which they published under first names only for fear of persecution. "Appel aux Femmes," originally published in La Femme Libre, was translated as "Call to Women" and reprinted in Robert Owen’s The Crisis (see Document 5). The author was probably Jeanne Deroin, a French schoolteacher of working-class origins who joined the Saint-Simonian movement of the 1830s and, in Paris during the Revolution of 1848, urged the new government to provide for the rights of women.
Other women authors also expressed new emancipatory ideas about women. The French novelist, Aurore Dupin Dudevant, writing under the pseudonym "George Sand," challenged traditional views of women in her life as well as her work. Born to a wealthy family, she married and had two children before leaving her husband and moving to Paris to live independently. Adopting the style of a romantic artist, Sand denied that she was part of a feminist movement, but she supported divorce and encouraged women to follow their heart. Her second novel, Indiana (1832), was viewed as an argument against marriage (see Document 6).
When anti-slavery radicalism fostered the emergence of a women’s rights movement in the United States, British writer Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) reported on that emergence. Her travels in the United States (1834-1836) occurred just as women moved to the forefront of the antislavery movement. Witnessing the courage of women whose meetings were attacked by pro-slavery mobs, Martineau became their avid supporter and received reports about their continuing struggle after she returned to England. Writing for English readers, Martineau completed two books on her American travels, Society in America (1837), and The Martyr Age of the United States (1839). The first commented on women in American society generally; the second documented the anti-slavery struggle. In the latter she highlighted the leadership of Maria Weston Chapman, president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (see Document 7).
Another woman traveler who wrote from a feminist perspective, Flora Tristan (1803-1844) grew up in France, the daughter of a Peruvian father and a French mother. Because her family was impoverished when her father died, Tristan married at seventeen and bore three children. She left her husband and children when she was twenty-one and went to England, where, like Mary Wollstonecraft forty years earlier, she supported herself by serving as a companion to a wealthy woman. After traveling to Peru in search of her father’s family, she wrote about the experience in a romantic memoir, Peregrinations of a Pariah (1838), which established her as an author. Like George Sand with whom she was sometimes confused, Tristan styled herself a romantic outcast and sympathized with the plight of women even though she did not think of herself as a feminist. Influenced by Fourier, Tristan critiqued British society from a socialist perspective in Promenades dans Londres (Walks around London) (1840). In a chapter on "Prostitutes" she described the brutality and early death experienced by London’s prostitutes, and blamed their plight on the sexual double standard, women’s lack of education and their limited employment opportunities (see Document 8).
An outpouring of feminist writings accompanied the growth of radical social and religious movements in Britain and Europe in the 1840s. Catherine Barmby’s "Demand for the Emancipation of Woman, Politically and Socially" (1843) led the way. Under the pen name "Kate" in 1835, Catherine Watkins (1817?-1853) began writing articles for the Owenite newspaper, New Moral World. In 1841 she married Goodwyn Barmby, a leader in the Chartist movement, which in the 1830s and 40s championed the political and economic rights of working people through "the People’s Charter."
In 1841 the Barmbys published a "Declaration of Electoral Reform." There, in the name of Mary Wollstonecraft, they called for the People’s Charter to be amended to include women’s suffrage, asking "how can we allow the political subalternity of woman when we advocate her social equality? If woman is not free, man must ever be a slave." Seeking a richer spiritual life than Owenite socialism or Chartism offered, soon after their marriage Catherine and Goodwyn Barmby founded the Communist Church. Although the church expired in 1849, in the mid-1840s it had more than ten congregations. Drawing on this mixture of Chartism, unorthodox socialism, and religious millenarianism, Catherine Bramby wrote "The Demand for the Emancipation of Woman, Politically and Socially" in 1847, published in the Barmby’s periodical, New Tracts for the Times. There, in addition to calling for the political and social emancipation of women, she also urged "the ecclesiastical emancipation of woman" (see Document 9).
The revolutions of 1848 created unprecedented opportunities for the expression of feminist ideas in France and Germany. These revolutions sought to expand political rights to middle-class and working-class citizens. In France the Revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic (1848-1852) established universal male suffrage, creating a strong opening for feminists to call for women’s suffrage rights. Jeanne Deroin (1805-1894) was a vigorous leader of that call. At the beginning of the revolution in February 1848, she left her husband, Saint-Simonian M. Desroches, placed their three children with women friends in Paris, and, using her own family name so as not to implicate her husband, entered the maelstrom of revolutionary political activism. Drawing on her involvement with Saint-Simonian socialism in the 1830s, her working-class background, and her experience in founding a working-class co-educational school, she wrote petitions and articles, founded clubs, journals, and economic associations, and tried to run for legislative office. As a staff member of La Voix des Femmes in 1848, she championed the political rights of women (see Document 10A). In 1848 she founded Opinion des Femmes, where in 1849 she published a series of articles on women’s rights and workers’ rights before the government forced her to stop publishing the periodical (see Document 10B).
British feminist Anne Knight described the Parisian revolution in a letter to Richard Cobden: "I heard the shout of the people-king, and the din of martial music and guns up the Champs Elysée from my window, and a man said, `Louis-Philippe is no longer king.’" Having emigrated to France in 1846, Knight participated in the revolution by circulating feminist demands. She and Jeanne Deroin co-authored letters to prominent male politicians calling for women’s rights, and Knight wrote letters that asserted women’s historic right to public assembly in Britain, France, and America (see Document 11A). In 1851 Knight returned to England, where she continued to promote women’s rights. Drawing on networks in the Chartist movement in the early industrial city of Sheffield, in 1851 she organized the Sheffield Female Political Association, the first such organization in Great Britain.
In Germany the Revolution of 1848-1849 produced similar uprisings on behalf of expanded civil, political, and economic rights, and there too women’s voices emerged to urge women to claim a place in public life. Louise Otto (1819-1895) illustrated that process in her weekly periodical, Frauen-Zeitung (Women’s Journal), which was the longest-running feminist publication of the era, beginning in 1849 and continuing to 1852. There she urged that "In the midst of the great revolutions in which we find ourselves, women will find themselves forgotten, if they forget to think of themselves!" (see Document 12).
Otto exemplified themes that were prominent in the lives of mid-nineteenth feminists. Prohibited from continuing school beyond the age of 15, she taught herself by reading contemporary literature. Recognizing the importance of political changes then underway, she wrote in 1847, "There is a vitality and a striving in our time which there has never been before." She traveled as a young woman, leaving her small town to explore the thirty-seven small German states as well as the two large ones of Prussia and Austria. She attended workers congresses and first gained a public voice by writing articles for workers’ newspapers. She married a man she met in the socialist movement, and joined a radical religious congregation that brought the authority of Christian religious traditions to her political activity.
Louise Otto’s writings reflected German political culture, especially its conservative views of women’s identities. Partly to make her writings more acceptable within that culture, Otto rejected the "femme libre" of Saint-Simonian socialism, rejected the term "emancipation" for German women, and insisted that female liberation did not imply sexual licentiousness (see Document 12). After the failed revolutions of 1848-1849, Prussia and other German states passed legislation prohibiting the participation of apprentices and women in political groups (Vereingesetz). Aspects of these laws were included in Prussia’s anti-socialist legislation of 1878, which prohibited women’s participation in political groups. Although the bans against socialist groups were lifted in the 1890s, those against women remained in force until 1908.
After the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848, European feminists began to view American feminists as the vanguard of the women’s movement. In 1851 this shift was evident in the letter Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland wrote from a French prison to an American woman’s rights convention, urging solidarity between women’s movements and workers movements (see Document 13). Maintaining their contact with Anne Knight, the imprisoned activists also wrote the Sheffield Female Political Association.
After her release Deroin continued to publish feminist writings in France, but when Roland died during reimprisonment in 1852, Deroin fled with her children to permanent exile in England. There she published Almanack des Femmes (The Women’s Almanac), an annual that reported on women’s issues and women’s movements in Britain, Europe, and the United States. She supported herself and her family by giving lessons and doing embroidery. Recalling her letter to the Worcester Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Deroin in London in 1882 and reported that "her face beams with intelligence" though she lived "in great poverty."
Exemplifying the reorientation of European feminism to America, Ernestine Potowski Rose (1810-1892) migrated to the United States with her husband in 1836. Born in Poland, the daughter of a rabbi, she embodied many prominent themes of European feminism. She was denied education equal to her brothers, and at age sixteen when her mother died and left her a substantial inheritance, her father arranged for her to marry. She rebelled and successfully obtained a court annulment. After migrating to Berlin and Paris, she settled in London for six years, where she found a spiritual home among a group of reformers that included Robert Owen. There she met William Rose, a jeweler and silversmith, whom she married in 1836. Once in the United States, by 1840 she was working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Paulina Wright on New York state legislation for married women’s property rights. She attended and spoke at many of the women’s rights conventions of the 1850s (see Document 14). Befriended by Susan B. Anthony, Rose became a prominent public speaker on behalf of women’s rights, antislavery, and temperance. In 1869 Ernestine and William Rose returned to England, where she continued to speak on reform issues of the day.
Regard for the American women’s movement deepened in the 1850s when European and British support for feminism expanded faster among the middle classes than among socialists. Rather than constructing utopias or achieving women’s equality by fundamental changes in the organization of society, most British, European and American feminists focused on improving women’s legal status in society as it existed. Married women’s property rights and women’s right to vote became feminists’ main rallying points even as they continued to demand equal opportunities in education, employment, the church and the family.
For example, Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), one of the most influential British advocates of women’s rights at mid-century, though familiar with and attracted to Owenite socialism, wrote about women’s legal, economic, and political rights in ways that accepted many more aspects of contemporary social organization than did most socialists. Addressing an emerging consensus of Anglo-American feminists, Taylor’s 1851 essay, "Enfranchisement of Women" introduced British readers to the women’s rights conventions then underway in the United States (see Document 15).
Taylor and other middle-class feminists did not rely on material and political considerations alone; they buttressed their arguments with ethical and religious values. For Taylor and many others those values were Unitarian. Founded by Joseph Priestly (1773-1804) in the 1790s, English Unitarianism attracted primarily a middle-class and upper-middle-class free-thinking constituency, who substituted a single rational diety for the mystical Christian trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. With the possible exception of Quakers, Unitarians embraced gender equality more readily than other Protestant groups.
Both Harriet Martineau and Harriet Taylor were raised as Unitarians, and in London in the1830s, the feminism of both women was supported by the Radical Unitarians, a group that met socially and considered themselves an intellectual vanguard. Taylor’s first publications appeared in the group’s Monthly Repository (1806-1838), which frequently contained articles advocating higher education for women. In the group in 1830 she met John Stuart Mill and formed a friendship with him that culminated in marriage in 1851. Married and the mother of three when she met and fell in love with Mill, rather than divorcing her husband, Taylor maintained a separate home where, with her children, she conducted a separate life and made room for her relationship with Mill. She married Mill soon after her husband died. Before and after their marriage, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill vigorously influenced one another’s ideas about women. They mixed her subjective perspective on the constraints on women’s freedom with his stress on the value of personal liberty and autonomy to achieve a new vision of the equality of the sexes.
Both Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill admired the women’s movement then emerging in the United States. Responding to newspaper reports about the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850, he wrote her, "it is almost like ourselves speaking--outspoken like America, not frightened & servile like England--not the least iota of compromise--asserting the whole of the principle and claiming the whole of the consequences." The influence went both ways. Historian Bonnie Anderson noted that Taylor’s article "Enfranchisement of Women," referred to by speakers at almost all subsequent American women’s rights conventions, was reprinted many times as a pamphlet and "became one of the best-selling tracts of the U.S. women’s rights movement."
Feminists needed a larger ethical framework to change laws about women--partly because those laws were deeply imbedded in contemporary ethical beliefs pertaining to marriage and family life. The emerging women’s rights movement in the United States provided European and American feminists with an ethical community that sustained their critique of accepted legal practices. Before writing a novel about the legal oppression of women, Sweden’s leading novelist, Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865), made a trip to the United States in 1849-1851. Her 1853 memoir, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, described her travels, which included encounters with the women’s rights movement and in the environs of New York City the last remaining Fourerist community (see Document 16A). Inspired by the relative freedom of women in the United States and by her own experience of legal exploitation in Sweden, Bremer’s first novel after her trip, Hertha or the Story of a Soul (1856), powerfully depicted middle-class women’s oppression under Swedish laws (see Document 16B). Bremer showed how women were literally saving their souls by asserting their rights when laws pertaining to family life violated their personal integrity and humanity.
In Britain and the United States growing middle-class support for changes in laws pertaining to women--including married women’s property rights, access to divorce, and child custody--fostered feminist careers like that of Barbara Leigh Smith (1827-1891), who entered public life with the publication in 1854 of A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women (see Document 17A). Written in the midst of great public interest in writer Caroline Norton’s decades-long struggle with her husband for custody of her children, Smith’s book was a popular success and was reprinted in 1856. That year Smith wrote a petition for the rights of married women, which was presented to Parliament with 24,000 signatures and eventually led to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. After an unorthodox upbringing (her radical father did not marry her mother, who died when Barbara was six), she married a French Algerian, Eugene Bodichon, in 1857. A few weeks after their wedding the couple journeyed to the United States where their travels included visits with Lucretia Mott in Philadelphia and the women’s rights movement in Boston (see Document 17B). In 1866 Bodichon launched the women’s suffrage movement in England by co-founding the Women’s Suffrage Committee, a group that organized a women’s suffrage petition that John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons. In 1873 at Cambridge, she co-founded Girton College, the first British college for women.
By the 1850s and 1860s, popular support for feminism was weaker in France than in Anglo-America. A low birth rate fostered conservative family values among liberal Protestants and socialists as well as the Catholic majority. Two books by liberal Protestant Jules Michelet--Love (1859) and Woman (1860)--viewed women as children and depicted men as the sole source of family authority. Conservative socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon expressed misogynist prejudices against women, openly endorsed inequality in marriage, and actively opposed women’s participation in the socialist movement. Such views could be found throughout Europe, Britain, and America, but in France they were held by intellectuals and socialists who might be expected to defend the equality of the sexes.
Replying to such denigrating characterizations of women, Jenny d’Héricourt (1809-1875) urged women to take action. In 1860 she published A Woman's Philosophy of Woman, or Woman Affranchised: An Answer to Michelet, Proudhon, Girardin, Legouvé, Comte, and Other Modern Innovators. "It is not to lament" women’s limitations, she insisted there, "it is to act . . . . form organizations, teach, write" (see Document 18A). Her priorities for action resembled those of feminists elsewhere in Europe and Great Britain and the United States. Soon after writing A Woman’s Philosophy of Woman, d’Héricourt emigrated to Chicago, where she lived for ten years in close association with Mary Livermore, editor of The Agitator, a women’s rights journal published during 1869. In The Agitator d’Héricourt published an autobiographical essay that described her French feminist activities for American readers. Jenny d’Héricourt spoke at the American Equal Rights Association meeting in New York City, May 12-14, 1869, where she was seated on the platform with such dignitaries as Ernestine Rose, Mary Livermore, Frederick Douglass, Paulina Wright Davis, Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and Amelia Bloomer (see Document 18).
Mathilde Anneke was also seated among these speakers in 1869. Part of the flow of German immigration to the United States after the failed revolution of 1848, Anneke, the author of a 1847 pamphlet, Das Weib in Konflikt mit den sozialen Verhaltnissen (Woman in Conflict with Social Conditions), fought with her husband on the side of the revolutionaries. Settling in Newark, New Jersey, in 1852, Anneke launched the first German-American feminist periodical, the Deutsche Frauenzeitung, (German Women’s Newspaper), and traveled widely among German-American communities to recruit women to the women’s rights cause. In 1853 she spoke at the New York City women’s rights convention, introduced by Lucretia Mott and translated by Ernestine Rose. She praised "the women of America [who] have met in convention to claim their rights."
I rejoiced when I saw that they recognized their equality; and I rejoiced when I saw that they have not forgotten their sisters in Germany. . . . The women of my country look to this [one] for encouragement and sympathy; and they, also, sympathize with this cause. We hope it will go on and prosper; and many hearts across the ocean in Germany are beating in unison with those here.
In this and other ways, the organizers of the1850s women’s rights conventions in the United States expressed solidarity with European feminists. The New York City convention of 1856 passed resolutions to encourage "the supporters of the cause of women. . . the worthy successors of Pauline Roland and Jeanne Deroin, who, in the face of imperial despotism, dare to tell the truth." This inclusive spirit within the American women’s rights movement continued in the Equal Rights Association convention of 1869, where Mathilde Anneke spoke passionately on behalf of women’s right to vote (see Document 19). The trajectory of growth in European and British feminism carried many women activists into interaction with women in the North American movement, where a robust convention movement was collectively advocating women’s rights in ways that had no precedent or parallel in Europe and Great Britain.
Yet at the same time that Anneke’s call for woman suffrage symbolized the integration of European feminism into the American women’s rights movement, it also revealed the narrowing of the goals of European and American feminism to focus on the right to vote. Two suffrage organizations emerged in the United States in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association in New York, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, headquartered in Boston. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, those two organizations and their equivalents in Europe and Great Britain were the chief advocates of women’s rights. Cross-national contact among feminists also became more institutionalized. The first international women’s congress, the Congrès international de droit des femmes, met in Paris in 1878, and the second met in Washington D.C. in 1888, when the International Council of Women was formed. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, sponsored its first international conference in 1876, and, with its endorsement of suffrage in 1881, became the largest pro-suffrage organization in the world.
These large national and international organizations contrast sharply with the movement of individual feminists across national boundaries that began with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1780s, increased greatly among socialists and utopians between 1820 and 1850, and persisted among writers and intellectuals in the 1860s. Nevertheless, links between early and late nineteenth-century feminists remain strong. Perhaps the best example of those ties was John Stuart Mill’s 1869 book, The Subjection of Women (see Document 20). Although Harriet Taylor Mill died in 1859, Mill drew on their joint writings and conversations. Arguing that the legal, political, and cultural limitations on women were part of a bygone era characterized by "command and obedience," whereas he found the modern era characterized by "equal association."
Mill’s book quickly became a standard reference point for late-nineteenth century feminists in the United States and Europe. In 1870, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke "On Marriage and Divorce" at a convention that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, she praised Mill’s emphasis on the importance of equality in marriage.
Will man yield what he conceives to be his legitimate authority over woman with less struggle than have Popes and Kings their supposed rights over their subjects, or slave-holders over their slaves? No, no. John Stuart Mill says the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal at the fireside, and here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the State and the Church; men are not ready to recognize it in the home.
Stanton’s reference to Mill in 1870 exemplified the international flow of ideas and social movements that carried a tradition of emancipatory writings about women forward from Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 to John Stuart Mill in 1869. While the socialist and utopian movements that fueled that tradition in the early decades of the nineteenth century did not persist as the main carriers of women’s rights, in the later decades of the century new movements emerged to take their place--and carried many of those early ideas into the twentieth century.
This project shows that the emergence and vitality of feminism in the Atlantic World between 1792 and 1869 arose from interactions across national boundaries and even across the Atlantic Ocean. British and European ideas influenced American feminists (see Documents 1, 2, 4, 6, 13, 20). And, as we have seen, British and European feminists found receptive audiences and supportive allies in the United States (see Documents 3A, 3B, 7, 14, 15, 16A, 16B, 17B, 18, 19). We now know that the history of that transnational and transatlantic feminist interaction is an integral part of the history of Western ideas and culture.
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