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The Myth of First-Wave Feminism

1,550 words

SuffragePoster [1]Was it oppressive to deny women the vote? Let me be clear up front: the subject of this essay is not whether women should have the right to vote now. My argument is one that hypothetically should be capable of convincing a pure egalitarian who believes that “human nature” at its core is a kind of interchangeable, uniform “stuff,” beneath its outward expressions, which are constrained by external circumstances. I can change the mind of someone who believes that men and women are not even psychologically different and who is perfectly happy with the equality that we have managed to achieve today. 

In the feminist narrative, the patriarchy’s denial of womens’ right to vote is often presented as the “original sin” — the most flagrant act of misogyny whose existence demanded a movement of women organizing as women in order to bring it to an end, setting in motion awareness of a whole range of other forms of patriarchal oppression that also required women organizing as women. It is important to keep in mind that whether you think it is good that women have the right to vote now, whether you think it is good that women achieved the right to vote when they did, and whether you think it was wrong for women to have been denied the right to vote when they were these are three entirely separate questions. The question I want to focus on here is neither the first, nor the second but the third. Women were denied the right to vote not in the 21st century, but in the 19th and 20th. And there are remarkable differences between these times.

The first relevant difference is in the type of labor that needed to be done. The second relevant difference is in the sources and kinds of information that were available. The third is the progress of science. To put it more plainly, 19th- and early 20th-century American society lacked three things that we take for granted today: jobs that women are physically equipped to handle as easily as men; television, Internet, and radio; and birth control.

In everyday life, there was simply no way for married couples to postpone childbirth. Unless couples abstained entirely from sex, children would be on the way. And most women then, as today, wanted children. By far the primary reason that people forego having children [2] is money. Meanwhile, the work required to make money in the factories was intensely physically demanding. Laborers would work for 12 or 14 hours per day, 6 days per week, with little rest. Running machinery generated tremendous heat; exposed and moving parts and the lack of safety regulations meant serious injuries. Even into the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had one of the top work-related fatality rates in the world.

To be clear, much of our picture of the supposed cruelties of the Industrial Revolution literally comes from Marxist propaganda—which, in turn, was adopted uncritically from the propaganda campaigns of rural landowners who were unhappy about losing workers as people voluntarily left the even more harsh life of the country in preference for industries in the city. Harsh as life in the factories was compared to the present day, countless people of the time obviously saw it as preferable to the alternatives actually available to them then. Capitalism and the Historians [3]contains five essays from five different economic historians, each of whom details the life of workers in the country, to produce a more realistic picture of what the Industrial Revolution would have actually meant to people alive at the time. In actuality, some women pursued work in factories too, because it was a better way to support their families than the country did. Still, to the extent that the division of labor brought men into these workplaces while leaving women in the home, this in and of itself was hardly oppression of women. Put it this way: the patriarchy in England did not pass laws prohibiting women and children from working underground in the coal mines [4] in 1842 just because men selfishly wanted to keep those luxurious jobs for themselves.

It was a perfectly natural division of labor — the most efficient way of achieving the actual preferences of real living individuals given the circumstances of this time — for most men to primarily concentrate on physical labor while most women primarily concentrated on having and raising children. Life in the 19th century wasn’t always luxurious for women, but it wasn’t exactly luxurious for men, either. Then, as now, the vast majority of people injured or killed on the job were men [http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm [5]]. And if that is what “patriarchy” is, then “patriarchy” was arguably a better deal for women than it was for men. How many people alive today would choose working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in a coal mine over raising children in the home, if they had the choice?

Now consider: what did government policy concern during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Essentially, government policy “governed” two things: the economy, and war.

Factories, that were predominantly slaved away in by men; war, that was exclusively engaged in by men.

And with no Internet or TV or even radio stations (the first radio new broadcast was actually aired just a couple weeks after women gained the right to vote in 1920), a woman who had no direct experience of factory work or war had no sources of information to guide her vote besides the newspapers. These conditions have obviously changed — most of us would say for the better. But given these conditions, does it make any sense for women to have a say in policies governing industries that most did not work in and wars that men alone fought and died in?  I believe the correct answer is “no.”

So, if it isn’t “oppressive” that the division of labor kept most women at home while it sent most men to the factories, because this was mostly a natural consequence of the sexes’ physical differences (primarily because women become pregnant and birth control did not exist); and if it wasn’t “oppressive” to send men but not women into war; and if it isn’t “oppressive” to restrict the right to vote to people who are most directly affected by the policies being voted on . . . then there was nothing oppressive about denying women the right to vote at all.

* * *

Of course, this story is oversimplified. Were there some women who worked in the factories and therefore had a direct interest in the policies passed on them, who had no say through voting? Sure.

But the picture of a world where women were simply denied the right to vote across the board until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 is grossly oversimplified, too.

Wyoming [6] had already granted women the right to vote a full three decades earlier, and Colorado [7] had followed suit just three years after. In fact, by the time the 19th Amendment was passed [8], women already had the full right to vote in almost all of the states west of the Mississippi River, and a few others: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, and New York. Arkansas and Texas gave women the right to vote in primaries; Nebraska, North Dakota, Illinois, and Vermont allowed women the right to vote in Presidential elections. And the first female candidate for President [9] actually ran even earlier — in 1872.

And at the same time, we seem to have forgotten that plenty of men were denied the vote all the way through to the late 19th century and into the early 20th century as well. Prior to 1918 in Britain, for instance, approximately 40% of all men were ineligible to vote [10]. And these men were mostly the same men forced to kill and die in wars they had no say in. If a few women working in factories without the right to vote on the economy was a form of oppression, then not allowing large numbers of potential soldiers the vote was an even greater one. At the very least, no one ever conscripted women to work in the factories on threat of imprisonment whether they wanted to or not.

But guess what? At the very same time that large numbers of men were indeed forced to kill and die in wars they hadn’t the slightest say in, the suffragettes campaigned to get the right to vote extended to women exclusively. I dare any feminist, or anyone who likes to critique feminism by saying “Well, it used to be a good, necessary cause, but now it’s turned into something else entirely” to find one statement from any suffragette who was genuinely upset by men dying in wars they had had no ability to vote on and who called for restructuring the entire voting system rather than simply extending the vote to women.

You won’t find it. Then, as now, feminists never asked for the same rights and duties as men. They wanted to acquire “equal” rights. But they never wanted to be equal to miners and soldiers. They only wanted to be “equal” to a select subset of privileged men. And while the clamored for rights, they never asked for the corresponding duties. Nor did they ask for those duties be lifted from men.