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January 2016

Feminism and Liberty’s Emancipation Sequence

Feminism is part of an interlocking family of movements aimed at human liberation, and indeed helping to achieve it, albeit in fits and starts.

Key forebears of modern libertarian feminism ingeniously prosecuted freedom arguments, not just for the benefit of women, in ways which still resonate today.

Numerous social scientists have observed non‑deterministic patterns of discovery and articulation of ideas seeking to extend individual freedoms and rights along economic, social, and political dimensions, accompanied by a tendency toward their gradual (albeit imperfect) implementation through reformist political processes. In his book Freedom Rising, Christian Welzel depicts an “emancipation sequence” in which “the granting of rights to common people, the steady differentiation of these rights, and their continuous extension to new groups and territories becomes a major trend of development ‑ indeed a signature theme of modernity itself.” More recently, Steven Pinker in his The Better Angels of Our Nature similarly described a:

…cascade of reforms [which] tumbled out in quick succession, instigated by intellectual reflection on entrenched customs, and connected by a humanism that elevated the flourishing and suffering of individual minds over the color, class, or nationality of the bodies that housed them. Then and now the concept of individual rights is not a plateau but an escalator. If a sentient being’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may not be compromised because of the color of its skin, then why may it be compromised because of other irrelevant traits such as gender, age, sexual preference, or even species? Dull habit or brute force may prevent people in certain times and places from following this line of argument to each of its logical conclusions, but in an open society the momentum is unstoppable.

There was once a time, in our not‑so‑distant past, whereby women in Europe, North America and the Antipodes were not even deemed worthy passengers upon the escalating scale of individual rights and freedoms described by Welzel and Pinker, and this situation regrettably remains so in some parts of the world today. In the West prior to the twentieth century, women were generally regarded as somehow being incapable of signing a contract, inheriting property, maintaining custody over their own children, being able to hold public office, or voting in an election. The lack of basic rights even more severely affected married women, whose economic, legal, and political identities were seen to be essentially subsumed by their husbands—a position affirmed by William Blackstone at least in relation to English common law:

The husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.

It was against this background of sex‑based iniquities that the untiring calls for reform by feminists from about the eighteenth century ultimately served as a fundamental building block of the emancipation sequence, ennobling more people to more freely engage with each other in economic, social, and political situations.

Of great interest regarding the early feminist movement were its ingenious rhetorical methods elevating the cause of greater freedom for women as a moral imperative, alongside that other great liberty movement of the time: anti‑slavery. Analogising the lack of liberties afforded to women with the plight of African slaves in Europe and North America, feminists uncovered an ethically compelling lightning rod to promote their concerns.

In this context it is difficult to overlook the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759‑1797), having herself prepared a robust Vindication of the Rights of Woman based upon principles of individual self‑ownership. In her most famous work Wollstonecraft opined that “slavery of any kind is unfavourable to human happiness and improvement,” regarding the dependence of women upon men for their sustenance and upkeep as an insidious form of subjugation. Responding to the assertion that “woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so,” Wollstonecraft emphatically asked her readers, “is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them…only to sweeten the cup of men?”

Wollstonecraft portrayed women as natural equals with men, because women shared a capacity to judge and reason, yet the exclusion of women “from a participation of the natural rights of mankind” in effect reduced them to the status of “obsequious slaves.” Absent meaningful opportunities to acquire capacities to reason, say through a comprehensive formal education, women are reduced to a life of stifling domesticity which, in Wollstonecraft’s opinion, lends itself to an allowance merely for trivial concerns:

I have seldom known a good male or female servant that was not particularly fond of dress. Their clothes were their riches; and, I argue from analogy, that the fondness for dress, so extravagant in females, arises from the same cause — want of cultivation of mind. When men meet they converse about business, politics, or literature; but, says Swift, “how naturally do women apply their hands to each others lappets and ruffles.” And very natural is it — for they have not any business to interest them, have not a taste for literature, and they find politics dry, because they have not acquired a love for mankind by turning their thoughts to the grand pursuits that exalt the human race, and promote general happiness.

Arguing for greater freedom on a Lockean basis that each and every person has an inherent property in their own body, mind and labour, Mary Wollstonecraft challenged her readers to contemplate whether “when men contend for their freedom…it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women?” Many feminists were prepared to follow Wollstonecraft’s lead, and that of others, in drawing a connection between slavery and illiberal treatment of women, with this theme particularly resonant throughout the writings and speeches of American first‑wave feminists of the nineteenth century.

The Grimké sisters, Sarah (1792‑1873) and Angelina (1805‑1879), came to see that the struggles faced by women to attain liberty were synonymous with those faced by slaves held captive for roles as plantation workers, domestic servants, and the like, both writing passionately against keeping women in subjection along similar lines. In 1837 Sarah Grimké wrote in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, “I ask no favours for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.” Meanwhile, Angelina Grimké poignantly remarked that “I have found the Anti‑Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land – the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other.”

If nothing else, the vocabulary paralleling slaves’ emancipation and women’s liberation reinforced the fundamental libertarian notion that each and every human being has an inherent right to liberty. The ideal of liberty underpinning the emancipation of Africans and other peoples from the yoke of slavery equally applied to women, said the feminists; therefore if slaves are freed from domination there could be no sensible reason preventing women from also enjoying freedom as part of an extended emancipation sequence.

Another important feature of first‑wave feminism, especially in the United States, was that their liberal beliefs in the natural equality of all human beings encouraged many feminist figures to work closely with abolitionist groups. Quite apart from a demonstration in consistency of their pro‑freedom credentials, some of the main precursors of modern libertarian feminism acquired from involvement in the anti‑slavery movement effective campaigning techniques, civil disobedience strategies, and organisational insights often used in future campaigns.

A notable feminist within the American abolitionist movement was Lucretia Mott (1793‑1880), who played a key role in establishing the Philadelphia Female Anti‑Slavery Society comprised of women of different races, and participated in the deliberations of the American Anti‑Slavery Society. In addition to her practical efforts in opposing slavery, Mott housed fugitive slaves from the South as part of a network of secret routes and safe havens known as the “underground railroad.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815‑1902) was also an active campaigner against slavery in her earlier years, attending the World Anti‑Slavery Convention in London with Mott in 1840 as representatives of their respective abolitionist societies.

The London Convention is often marked as an important event in the early feminist movement, as it reignited matters originally raised by Mary Wollstonecraft concerning the participation of women in important public affairs. Despite their official delegate status, Stanton, Mott, and other female delegates were forced to sit in a cordoned‑off section of the convention venue away from the full view of male attendees, leading to several allied men (including the abolitionist and suffragist William Lloyd Garrison) joining the women in protest. This unbecoming scene contributed to the fracturing of the abolitionist movement over the so‑called “woman question,” and appeared to have had a profound effect upon some major feminist figures who directed more of their energies towards redressing gender‑based discrimination. As Stanton later recounted in her autobiography, for example:

My experience at the World Anti-slavery Convention, all I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences. It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step. I could not see what to do or where to begin—my only thought was a public meeting for protest and discussion.

A product of those frustrations was Stanton’s part‑organisation of the notable 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, with its Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming an inherent equality between women and men that refutes an historical background “of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

Slavery was eliminated in continental Europe and Britain, and a number of their colonies, during the first half of the nineteenth century, and then by the 1860s in the United States following the brutal Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. This development marked a new phase of the emancipation sequence which followed earlier links in the chain, at least argued for if not implemented, including freedom of conscience (Erasmus, Luther), freedom of expression (Milton, Mill), and the freedom to create economic value (Say, Smith). During the same era women experienced a favourable movement toward equal rights with men, even if political reform came in fits and starts and was often accompanied by immense pushback from groups striving to maintain an unfree status quo along gender lines.

It is readily granted there is a debate, continuing to this day, regarding the determinants of political change – including granting married women the economic right to own their own property, and enabling adult women the political right to vote in a general election – with varying accounts as to when and why reforms transpired in the ways they did. But it cannot be denied, and numerous scholars do not, that the influence of feminist arguments in the eventual attainment of greater freedoms for women was non‑trivial.

Adherents of modern libertarianism could do well to heed the lessons of their precursors – including first‑wave feminists of libertarian inclination – who arguably demonstrated a far greater inclination to craft ingenious moral appeals for liberty, forging social movements dedicated to extending the emancipation sequence. Making renewed calls for freedom wherever illiberal restrictions remain detected, and linking the need for liberty today with the precedents illustrated by hard‑won freedoms from yesteryear, the prospects are most promising that we, too, can succeed in strengthening the chain of precious liberties we presently enjoy.