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Hard to believe–but there used to be feminists who didn’t whine about “white male hegemony”

December 10, 2014

My latest for the Library of Law and Liberty:

Feminism without the anti-male hysterics

The second she has derived from a powerful counterbalancing force, as embodied in the English philanthropist Hannah More (1745-1833). A mostly-forgotten evangelical Christian and abolitionist, More devoted her long life to the energetic production of books, pamphlets, poems, and didactic novels. Like the determinedly secularist Wollstonecraft, More championed education for women. But her reasons were different. She believed that the elite women of her time were encouraged to lead lives of idleness and frivolity when they could be devoting their energies to charity and improving the lives of those less fortunate.

More encouraged women to start orphanages, Sunday Schools, hospitals, and the voluntary societies of every kind, and these were a fixture of middle- and upper-class female life throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. She believed there was such a thing as a “special women’s sphere” (Sommers’s paraphrase) in which women could use their natural tenderness and nurturing instincts to help create a more decorous and civilized society for both sexes. Sommers credits More with the invention of what she calls “maternal feminism.” Most of today’s feminists deride More if they think of her at all. But she was vastly popular and influential in her time, appealing to women of every social class.

By contrast, Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian feminists, perceived as eccentric and hostile to the family, never had much of a following. Their pet cause, women’s suffrage, promoted in America by such egalitarians as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, went nowhere—until they joined forces with the maternal feminists, then led by the temperance advocate Frances Willard. Willard’s championing of marriage and domesticity (she coined the phrase “angel in the home”) made her one of the most popular women in America at the turn of the 20th century.

Only with “the great convergence” of liberal and conservative feminist strains, says Sommers, did votes for women gain crucial widespread support among women themselves.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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