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White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

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This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women's rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women's rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for "primitives" while calling for its elimination among the "civilized." By exploring how progressive white women at the turn of the century laid the intellectual groundwork for the feminist social movements that followed, Louise Michele Newman speaks directly to contemporary debates about the effect of race on current feminist scholarship.


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This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women's rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women's rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for "primitives" while calling for its elimination among the "civilized." By exploring how progressive white women at the turn of the century laid the intellectual groundwork for the feminist social movements that followed, Louise Michele Newman speaks directly to contemporary debates about the effect of race on current feminist scholarship.

30 review for White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    Racism was foundational to the US feminist movement. Prior to the Civil War, suffragists like Cady Stanton argued that white women and Black men shared a similar struggle: Black men were made property by slavery and white women by marriage. White women made claims to the victimization of slavery, refusing to acknowledge the racial power they shared with white men and ignoring the fact that white women also held Black people captive. After the emancipation of slavery, the woman’s movement remaine Racism was foundational to the US feminist movement. Prior to the Civil War, suffragists like Cady Stanton argued that white women and Black men shared a similar struggle: Black men were made property by slavery and white women by marriage. White women made claims to the victimization of slavery, refusing to acknowledge the racial power they shared with white men and ignoring the fact that white women also held Black people captive. After the emancipation of slavery, the woman’s movement remained largely racially segregated. White women dismissed the concerns of Black women (segregation, lynching, racist sexual violence) as “race questions.” In 1884 renowned suffragist Susan B. Anthony remarked, “I have but one question, that of equality between the sexes – that of the races has no place on our platform.” During this period, the prevailing scientific idea was that sex and gender were race-specific. As William I. Thomas argued in 1897, “the less civilized the race the less is the physical difference of the sexes.” White male eugenicists believed that sex differences between males and females were the product of racial progress: confining women to the domestic sphere was seen as a civilizational accomplishment defined against the “savage” “matriarchy” of Indigenous peoples. Political rights for white women challenged the hierarchy of sexual difference on which white supremacy was based. White men feared that if women got the right to vote, society would degenerate back to “primitivism.” They justified denying women rights by claiming that they were biologically inferior and anatomically meant for reproduction, not political thought. In response, feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that white women’s biological difference was actually evidence that they shared in the racial superiority of the white race (as opposed to “sexually ambiguous” “lower races”). White feminists re-wrote sexual difference (a tool of sexism) as evidence of white supremacy. Leveraging racism to overcome sexism, white feminists argued that they exclusively deserved political rights because they had an essential role as “mothers of the race” and “conveyers of civilization” to the “savage” races of the world. Ironically, at the same time white women critiqued patriarchal gender relations in their own communities, they argued that domesticity was “necessary for the ‘advancement’ of ‘primitive’ women” (8). Black, Indigenous, and other racialized (BIPOC) women were not seen as ready for feminism because they had to first demonstrate that they were “true women” (pious, submissive, well-dressed). They become the yardstick by which white women measured their own moral status and social progress. In 1879 white feminists established the Women’s National Indian Association to reform Indigenous communities by gifting them patriarchy. White women infantilized Indigenous people as their children who needed them to become saved. They measured successful transformation by the adoption of Christianity, monogamous family structures, Indigenous women’s assumption of white women’s domestic duties, and adoption of white styles of dress and appearance. In the end, the main beneficiaries of this “civilizing” work were white women who gained increased political power in white society. White feminism is not feminism, it is racism. In responding to sexism with racism, white feminists exacerbated the struggles BIPOC women faced. Rather than rejecting the racist fiction of the sex binary, white feminists repurposed it for their own ends. Trans exclusionary feminism is a descendant of this project. From this history we can learn how white women were more invested in privilege than equality: seeking the right to oppress others, rather than imagining a more just world for everyone.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Stacy

    from the book: Page 18 ...it was not simply a question of one rhetorical strategy substituting for another: “nineteenth-century women protesting against male dominance...did not choose to argue simply on the basis of women’s human character (that is, likeness to men) or simply on the basis of women’s unique sexual character (that is, difference from men). Women voiced these two kinds of arguments in the same breath.”43In other words, arguments about expediency and the political benefits of maintai from the book: Page 18 ...it was not simply a question of one rhetorical strategy substituting for another: “nineteenth-century women protesting against male dominance...did not choose to argue simply on the basis of women’s human character (that is, likeness to men) or simply on the basis of women’s unique sexual character (that is, difference from men). Women voiced these two kinds of arguments in the same breath.”43In other words, arguments about expediency and the political benefits of maintaining woman’s sphere (which were racialized) coexisted throughout the suffrage debates with arguments about natural rights and equality (which were also racialized—more on this hereafter). From 1848 to 1920, the white woman movement affirmed (white) women’s racial similarity to (white) men because of the conviction that white women drew on the same evolutionary and racial heritage as white men. Yet, at the same time, white suffragists affirmed (white) women’s sexual difference from (white) men because they believed sexual differences formed the bedrock of whites’ civilization. This “functional ambiguity,” as Cott describes the tension, was not so ambiguous at the time: social evolutionary discourses specified quite plainly that white women were both fundamentally similar to white men (because of “race”) and fundamentally different from white men (because of “sex”). Page 23 Rather, it was evolutionist theories that made possible new social and political roles for white women as “civilizers” of the race, strengthening longstanding beliefs in (white) women’s moral superiority. Moreover, the emergence of a strong imperialist sentiment, the effort to establish the United States as an empire, and the extension of missions, both domestically and abroad, fundamentally influenced the direction and content of white feminist thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Page 32 The cult of true womanhood, as historian Barbara Welter has termed this enduring ideology, which lasted into the late nineteenth century, had both descriptive and prescriptive elements embedded in it, specifying that woman’s nature was characterized by four essential attributes: purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness.42As a prescriptive category, woman’s nature established the cultural boundaries of what was considered “normal” for a woman and set forth an ideal by which all groups of women were judged and to which they were supposed to adhere. Page 34 In 1897, William I. Thomas, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, specified with utmost clarity the concept of the evolutionary connection between sexual difference and racial progress: “The less civilized the race the less is the physical difference of the sexes.”48Or to put the same relationship another way around: the more civilized the race, the more the men and women of that race had to differ from one another... Evolutionist theories were used to argue that, as a result of Christian love, civilized women had changed physically, mentally, and morally to become more delicate, intelligent, moral, chaste, and refined than women of “lower races” because they had been protected and cherished by civilized Christian men... Theories of evolution thus gave scientific backing to missionary and women’s movements long underway, further encouraging large numbers of women, most of them white and middle class, to assume responsibility for bringing Christianity, civilization, and citizenship to peoples whom they considered their evolutionary and racial inferiors. Page 40 In the hands of U.S. commentators, theories of evolution offered explanations for how changes in human nature had occurred. Yet white women were hesitant to argue for encouraging further change in woman’s nature, even as they were strongly demanding alterations in women’s social roles. This was a tricky business—a logical contradiction, given that Spencer had posited that alterations in woman’s sphere would bring about changes in woman’s nature. As they moved toward advocating that women could potentially become more like men, white women knew they were threatening the hierarchy of sexual difference on which white civilization was based. Thus they had to find ways to reassure themselves that increasing the similarity of activities performed by themselves and (white) men would not bring about racial degeneration or undermine their own racialized conceptions of themselves as belonging to a superior race and civilization. Page 42 The greater power of the West was not just symbolized by the status of its women but was understood to be a direct consequence of its superior (patriarchal) gender system. Similarly, the powerlessness of the Orient was construed as the result of an inferior and perverted gender system. Page 119 Most white reformers in the 1880s and 1890s... initially had no doubt that civilization would improve Indian women’s lives; rather than have to do backbreaking labor while their menfolk loafed, they would experience the joys of domesticity; they would be protected from sexual exploitation within monogamous, nuclear family structures; and they would become citizens of a home-loving republic and receive the blessings of democracy, even without the vote. In short, Indian women were to be given the gift of patriarchy, with all the protection it afforded. Page 126 The custom of referring to Indian men as children or wards made it possible for the gender inversion that was necessary for white womento become rulers and protectors of Indian men.Casting Indians as children and wards also made it easier to placate white men who resented white women’s increasing political visibility, and to argue for the naturalness of white women assuming positions of authority and power. Page 134 Like Fletcher, Gilman believed that the key to uncivilized peoples’ racial advancement lay in their adopting the gender practices (the cult of domesticity, the separation of spheres, and the ideals of Victorian womanhood) that she, as a feminist, found oppressive in her own life and was determined to abolish from white civilization. Yet the contradiction, so apparent to us, was not visible to Gilman for the same reason that it was not visible to Fletcher: these women understood social evolution as an unilinear stage process. As each race proceeded from savagery through barbarism to civilization, the matriarchal structures of savage or primitive societies would be replaced with the patriarchal structures of civilization. Only after industrial civilization had been attained could a race become fully egalitarian in its treatment of women. Page 134 | Added on Friday, October 12, 2012, 10:44 PM What is imperative to grasp, however, is not simply the cultural ethnocentrism or racial prejudice of these early feminist thinkers, but the historical relationship between the simultaneous emergence of feminist ideology and assimilationism as two components of a culturally comprehensive racial politics. Both Gilman and Mary Roberts Smith Coolidge drew important lessons from the assimilation of foreigners and primitives as they articulated a new ideology that they and others explicitly, selfconsciously identified as “feminist.” If racial traits could be eliminated from foreigners and primitive peoples by their conformity to the gender roles of civilized society (enabling them to move up the hierarchy of evolution), then certainly the historically developed sexual traits of white women—now redefined as “primitive survivals” within Christian civilization—could be abolished as well. Page 136 To put this point another way, feminism and assimilationism were historical siblings, the offspring of a marriage between democratic liberal ideals that held forth the promise of equal citizenship for all who conformed to the gendered ideals of Anglo-Protestant civilization and contemporary evolutionist premises about the superiority of the civilized in relation to the primitive. Page 138 The assimilationist strategy of feminizing primitives to address their inferiority was reversed in Gilman’s mind; now the (white) woman was primitivized as a part of a critique of Western gender relations. Yet the biological inheritance of white women could be reformed by altering the prescribed social activities and duties of (white) women—first by removing the cultural restrictions that kept these women confined to their primitive (domestic) sphere. The “woman problem,” as Gilman redefined it, was that Anglo-Protestant women had been “denied time, place and opportunity” to develop those “race” characteristics that were part of every white woman’s shared racial heritage with white men but were now mistakenly referred to as “male,” when in fact they were “human” traits, potentially available to both white men and women. Page 151 The evolution from matriarchy to patriarchy—despite the decline in woman’s status and economic freedom that it produced—was, for Gilman, an example of evolutionary progress: she could not recognize nonwhite or non-Christian women as laboring agents, as this would have necessitated acknowledging their superior status in relation to nonlaboring white women, which in turn would have required a fundamental rejection of the civilization hierarchy that she was determined to support. Thus, although Gilman posited that “human labour comes by nature from the woman [and] was hers entirely for countless ages” and that “during all those ages of savagery the woman was the leader,” still she believed that it was a good thing that savage men usurped savage women’s labor. “Well it was for the human race,” Gilman declared, “that the male savage finally took hold of the female’s industry...[for] in the hands of the male, industry developed.”73As was the case for Fletcher, Willard, Stanton, Jacobi, and so many others in the woman’s movement, Gilman’s advocacy of Christian, AngloSaxon civilization prevented her from altering her presumptions regarding the higher status of (white) women in “civilized,” as opposed to “primitive,” societies. Page 159 Yet, while Mead challenged Anglo-Saxons’ beliefs in their inherent biological superiority to primitive peoples, she did not challenge their belief in the cultural superiority of Western civilization. Mead invoked primitive societies to critique U.S. gender relations, but at the same time she dismissed those primitive societies for lacking freedom and circumscribing individual choice. For Mead, primitive societies provided Americans with conceptual alternatives to reflect on, but she never advocated that the United States remake itself in the image of the primitive. Page 177 Mead offered a radical critique of evolutionary anthropology and its political corollary, assimilationism, but her dependence on liberal constructs of “choice” and “freedom” impeded her ability to critique domestic racism. Her work was implicated in the history of Western imperialism in ways that she herself refused to acknowledge. Page 181 Feminism developed in conjunction with—and constituted a response to—the United States’ extension of its authority over so-called “primitive” peoples, and feminism was part and parcel of the nation’s attempt to assimilate those peoples whom white elites designated as their racial inferiors. Page 182 Increased political power and freedom for white women was, in a material as well as ideological sense, dependent on asserting the racial inferiority and perpetuating the political subordination of nonwhite others. Paradoxically, elite white Anglo-Protestant women like Alice Fletcher and May French-Sheldon personally subverted the ideological juncture of domesticity and protection to escape the confinement of patriarchal homes themselves, only to export civilizationist patriarchy to those whom they racialized as primitives. In arguing for women’s higher education, protective labor legislation, temperance, suffrage, and missionary activity, white women drew on an entrenched patriarchal tradition that made moral claims valuing the domestic sphere as the locus of white women’s racial superiority. By century’s end, white middle-class women’s separate sphere, conceptualized initially as the antithesis of politics and a transcendent moral realm, had become synonymous with a political activism that was of critical importance to the nation in its efforts to colonize others. Page 182 Women’s social-biological role as mothers and homemakers, white woman’s rights activists often claimed, made women’s unique experiences indispensable to their communities, to society, to politics, to civilization, and, finally, to outposts of primitivism in newly acquired colonies. The argument was often phrased just this way, without reference to race, but the racial dimension of the claim was apparent to all: white women, by virtue of their social evolutionary development, asserted themselves as the best qualified to reform the nation so that colonizing need not be so brutal. Assimilation and civilizing missions were conceived as humane alternatives to the violence and coercion that male politicians had condoned in whites’ dealing with the so-called primitive groups of Indians, Chinese, Africans, and Filipinos. Page 182 Indeed, by asserting their authority to act as peacefulagents of civilization, white women contributed a discursive innovation that was useful to those calling for the United States to embark on a more ambitious imperialist project—to eliminate “savagery” not just within the borders of the United States but throughout the world. Page 183 Gilman reassured her audience that the abolition of sexual differences would not bring about white racial degeneration, since sexual differences were an archaic vestige of primitivism, not the product of civilization. Gilman’s insistence that (white) racial progress was not dependent on the maintenance of woman’s separate sphere freed white women to take part in those activities defined as “masculine” without having to fear that they were jeopardizing “the race.” This was indeed a radical critique of patriarchy, but one that placed responsibility for patriarchal oppression squarely on the primitive. Rather than subvert existing racial hierarchies that privileged white elites, Gilman strengthened them: she made the racial distinctiveness of civilized whiteness the foundation of her claim that whitewomen were the equals of white men.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea

    When I bought this book years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. I appreciated the critical nature of the title. Well, I recently finished it and was not disappointed. The first thing I caught myself doing was changing the subtitle of the book. I replaced "racial" with "racist." After reading Angela Davis' book that critically examines the early feminist movement, I was perhaps projecting that analysis. And while Newman does talk about white, middle-class, feminist racism, the real interesting p When I bought this book years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. I appreciated the critical nature of the title. Well, I recently finished it and was not disappointed. The first thing I caught myself doing was changing the subtitle of the book. I replaced "racial" with "racist." After reading Angela Davis' book that critically examines the early feminist movement, I was perhaps projecting that analysis. And while Newman does talk about white, middle-class, feminist racism, the real interesting part of the book for me was her analysis and research into the suffragist use of evolutionary theory coupled with imperialism and (white, binary) gender equality as the gold standard of equality. This, of course, with racism and forced assimilation of Black people and indigenous people (from what's called the US and abroad). I actually had to bust out my pencil and underline different sections because there was an eerie resonance for me with current movements for justice. For instance, the use of imperialist rhetoric to prove that women could "civilize" and "assimilate" non-white / non-Christian people into the american system as well as or better than white men, created conditions where white feminist women accrued authority and standing in the eyes of white men all the while casting those women who were non-white and non-Christian as victims--needing to be saved--of their own identities and "backwards" ways of living. This desire to "uplift" those not like themselves--to "assimilate" non-whites into the american system of domination made me think of the politics of respectability that I encounter where, in the case of Black people, one might hear a white person today say something like, "The Chinese can do it, what the heck is wrong with black people?" This condescension and arrogance emerge, at least from what I can see in Newman's work, from this confluence of evolutionary theory, imperialism, white-supremacy, and early feminism. Obviously, not all and not only. But it is one example of something that resonated with me today. Another imperfect analogy: some sections of the animal rights movement attempt to pair the institution of slavery as the same as the production of non-human animals as food for consumption by humans. While both systems were and are barbaric, pairing them as completely equal systems of oppression does disservice to both. This came up for me when Newman was elucidating the creation of a race discourse by early feminists that paired, as the same, the drudgery of white, middle-class women who were bound to their domestic sphere and treated as property vs. the actual institution of slavery. According to Newman, white women feminists in the 1880s argued that "women" and "slaves" were treated as property, both were denied political and personal rights, and both experienced conditions of subjection. Certainly, not the same thing. I doubt there is a direct link here, but both raised my eye-brows as I read. I'm not sure if Newman has written anything else on this subject or has expanded any on her initial offering, but I am curious. A scholarly work for sure, not always the most accessible, but very interesting nonetheless. Glad I got around to reading it.

  4. 4 out of 5

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  30. 4 out of 5

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