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A Feminist Society is a More Virtuous Society

Richard Hildreth's Theory of Morals, Part Four

Hildreth attacks the set of social and behavioral double-standards set for men and women, concluding that more just societies respect women’s rights more fully.

Editor’s Note

Throughout much of his Theory of Morals, Richard Hildreth spends a good deal of argumentative energy noting that a practical ethics is not the same as a democratic ethics in which the actions of a majority of agents become the standard for all. Virtue is not necessarily popular, and people certainly do not always know which actions—let alone public policies—are in their own individual best interests. The earlier case of slavery suggested that property rights established purely on the basis of legal monopoly were no just property rights at all, regardless of the level of popular support for them. As Hildreth well knew, slavery was rooted in both the malevolent feelings of racism on the part of white southerners against black Americans and  the democratically supported legal institutions which created the category of property in slaves. The distinction between slaves and freemen could only be made under conditions of extreme malevolence, and once a society developed sufficient benevolence to counter the ill will, social institutions tended to liberalize to match. Though popular conceptions of the good cannot define the content of ethics, they do indeed shape institutions which reflect individuals’ moral codes. Therefore, benevolent individuals with good will toward all should work to help people understand and sympathize with one another. Should southerners look upon the slave with greater humanity and care, the institutional foundations for slavery would at once begin to crumble.

Likewise with the case of female liberation and cultural equality. In the portion selected below, Hildreth argues that popular ethics throughout the West treated the genders with vastly different and unjust standards of behavior in place. Through most of human history, men have taken advantage of their generally superior physical strength to force women into subjection. According to Hildreth’s interpretation, as men gained a firmed sentiment of benevolence toward the women under their control, men granted women greater regard and respect. Over time, this translated into institutions friendlier to women’s rights, liberties, and interests, but just as slavery persisted with lingering malevolence so too did patriarchy. Our author does not, however, attribute women’s advancement merely to men’s expanded sense of benevolence. Rather, women across time took greater advantage of every relative increase in their individual powers and often forced men in one way or another to recognize a greater equality of the genders. In the mists of historical memory, women were able to overcome men’s physical advantage by leveraging sexual and parental activity into the institutional protections of marriage. Married women were then able to use their position of household leadership to regulate male behavior and even influence the public sphere of life. In Hildreth’s own context, women had achieved a great deal of basic legal equality, though much work remained undone. Women’s liberation from the institution of marriage—itself still an example of compromise with patriarchy—required a more equitable cultural treatment of the genders, including the abolition of separate moral standards for behavior. 

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Theory of Morals: An Inquiry Concerning the Law of Moral Distinctions and the Variations and Contradictions of Ethical Codes (Excerpts)

By Richard Hildreth. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown. 1844.

Part Second. Solution of Moral Problems, and Conciliation of Ethical Codes.

Chapter V. Of the Unequal Burden of Duty Imposed on Women, and Herein of Chastity.

1. In attempting an explication of the variations and contradictions which exist in moral codes so far as pertains to the mutual and relative duties of men and women, and of the unequal burden of duty commonly imposed upon women, we must begin by recollecting that the opinion has almost universally prevailed, that woman is naturally inferior and subordinate to man, and, like other inferior creatures, rightfully to be used as an instrument for promoting his pleasure. 

The obvious inferiority of women in personal strength has led to the conclusion of a general inferiority.  This opinion of inferiority has naturally produced a certain degree of contempt; which has naturally operated to diminish the force of the sentiment of benevolence; and, therefore, to fix the standard of men’s duty to women below that of their duty towards each other.

2. Among savages who are struggling perpetually against hunger, at the same time that they are engaged in exterminating wars, the sentiment of benevolence is at the lowest ebb; and the wife is not so much the companion as the slave of her husband, purchased, indeed, of her parents, compelled to constant hard labor, and exposed to suffer personal chastisement.

Yet even here, beauty and the sexual sentiment so far reinforce the sentiment of benevolence, that, for the short time her charms last, the young wife of the savage is treated with a tenderness and indulgence which disappear as she grows older and less inviting.  However petted at first, she soon experiences the double mortification of finding herself a mere domestic drudge, and her place in her husband’s affections supplied by a younger and handsomer rival.  For, in savage and barbarous communities, every man is thought entitled to as many wives as he can purchase and maintain…

3. The increase of wealth, which constitutes one of the items of increasing civilization, of course delivers the women of wealthy families from the mere drudgery of servitude.  Yet they still remain slaves, and commonly purchased slaves, the great end of Whose existence is still esteemed to be, the pleasure of their husband and owner, which they are now thought most able to promote, not so much by hard labor as by elegant accomplishments and refinements in the gratification of the sexual appetite, — things of which the savage has very little idea.

Lest they might be withdrawn from the fulfilment of this duty, it is considered expedient and just to seclude them from all other society; to shut them up in a harem as the Greeks did and the Orientals do; or like the Chinese, so to mutilate their feet, as to make them almost incapable of walking abroad.  Nor do the women accustomed to this sort of treatment, and never having conceived of any other, as yet regard it as a hardship.  They rather glory in it as a mark of consideration, whereby women of the upper class are distinguished from those below them. 

4. Humanity, however, has, by this time, considerably increased; and the pain which women inevitably feel at finding their places filled, and their consequence and pleasures curtailed by younger and handsomer rivals, is so great and so obvious, that it begins to be deemed no more than just, to provide a remedy against this evil, — so far as it may be done, without trenching at all upon the pleasures of the husband…

5. So soon as society begins to be divided into ranks and orders, a distinction also springs up between those wives whose fathers are of the same social rank with the husband, and who are no longer sold, but given in marriage, and those wives who are of an inferior rank, — perhaps the husband’s born, or purchased slaves.  Those of the first class monopolize the title of wives, and compel those of the second class to be content with the inferior name and station of concubines, — a distinction presently made to extend to the children.

6. Parental affection on the part of fathers who have daughters to bestow in marriage, seconding the natural desire of women to have no rival in their husband’s house, and aided by increasing benevolence on the part of the men, gradually leads to stipulations that the husband shall take no other wife while the first lives.  He is allowed, as an indemnity, as many concubines as he chooses; but the increasing complaints of the wife, and increasing regard for her feelings, presently dictate, that these concubines shall no longer be kept in the same house; and, indeed, that their being kept at all shall be as little as possible brought to her notice.  What was at first a matter of stipulation, or of favor in particular cases, comes, presently, to be viewed as no more than ordinary justice towards the wife in all cases; so that, at last, open polygamy, or the living as a husband with two women in the same house, comes to be commonly regarded as an injurious, and, consequently, an immoral act.  Doubtless, the men were somewhat hastened in arriving at this conclusion by the inconvenience to themselves, the disorder, clamor, envy, hatred, and jealousy, so apt to prevail in polygamous households.

Such would seem to have been the steps, by which the doctrine of monogamy, or of the marriage of one man to one woman, came, in certain communities, to be established as part of the current code of morals.  This doctrine owed its establishment to an increased force, on the part of men towards women, of the sentiment of benevolence…

7. Such were the ideas and customs that prevailed among the Romans, and were communicated by them to the conquered tribes of Western Europe, and, subsequently, to the conquering tribes from the East and North who subdued the western portions of the Roman Empire; and “which thus have descended to our times, modified only by certain mystic opinions to be presently considered.”

Though in the progress above described women had gained much, they had by no means approached towards a social equality with men.  By the Roman law, the unmarried daughter remained in strict subjection to her father; and the husband had the same authority over the wife that he had over his children, that is, the superintendence and control of all her actions; and, throughout Christendom, the letter of the existing law is still much, the same.  The greatest act of justice on the part of the Roman Law towards woman, consisted in the admission of the daughters to an equal share with the sons, in the inheritance of the father; and, subsequently, in allowing the wife to possess property of her own, with which her husband could not meddle, —great advantages, which some modern codes, especially the English, have not conceded.

According to the letter of our modern current codes of morals, the wife is still held bound to obey her husband in all things; and no matter how obvious her physical or intellectual superiority, the reputation of being governed by her, subjects the husband to ridicule, and the wife to reproach.  Though she be allowed a certain liberty, yet there are many things held perfectly innocent in men, which she is not permitted to do; many places, which, under any circumstances, she is not allowed to frequent; and many more, to which she can go only under the escort of her husband, or some near male relative.  In all these respects, unmarried women are subjected to still greater restraints.

8. But the most remarkable distinction in modern forensic moral codes between male and female morality, relates to the indulgence of the sexual sentiment; indeed, almost all the other existing distinctions may be traced to that.  It is held that no possible circumstances can justify or excuse a woman, in the gratification of this sentiment, except with a husband.  Should she not obtain a husband, she is held bound to be content with a life of perpetual virginity. Indeed, unmarried women are required not to know or feel, at least, never to give any signs of knowing or feeling, that there is such a thing as sexual desire; and they are taught to regard the discovery in themselves of any such feeling, not as a natural emotion which prudence requires them to keep under control, but as a detestable and disgraceful vice, a ground of inferiority and self-reproach, a criminality to be expiated by tears and self-abasement.

Adultery in a wife is esteemed the most disgraceful of crimes, exposing her, even in communities in which divorce is allowed for no other cause, to degradation from her station of wife, if not to imprisonment or even death.

The crime of sexual indulgence in an unmarried woman is esteemed hardly less. If discovered, it subjects her to the utmost obloquy, delivers her up, without possibility of grace or repentance, to utter infamy, — an infamy which extends even to her innocent offspring, and condemns her, for the most part, to live by prostitution, and to die soon and wretched. 

So far is this idea carried, that, in current discourse, female virtue means nothing but chastity; an unmarried woman who has lost her virginity is familiarly said to be ruined, and, though it may have been taken from her by force, and against her consent, she is, nevertheless, irretrievably disgraced…

9. While such extreme severity is exercised towards women, current forensic morals, and in this all forensic codes ancient and modern seem to have agreed, allow to men, if not entire liberty, a very great laxity.  Even adultery and seduction — acts evidently so injurious, in the one case, to the husband, in the other, to an entire family thereby disgraced, and in both cases, to the woman whom these acts expose to such a combination of miseries — are still, for the most part, and except in cases of particular aggravation, looked upon, in a man, almost or quite, as permissible acts.  Even in communities which lay claim to the greatest strictness upon this point, a suspected adulterer, a more than suspected seducer, is not, therefore, incapacitated for the high stewardship of an Orthodox university, or the lord chancellorship, or other the highest trusts, of the realm; and in humbler life, though somewhat talked of and censured, such an offender, if rich, and possessing a certain station in society, is viewed with a sort of admiration, by which the disapproval of his conduct is very much modified; and among the women, who suffer most by him, according to a very current and probably not wholly baseless, opinion, he becomes at once a hero and a favorite…

10. The question at once presents itself, upon what ground is this very strong distinction made between the conduct of women and of men?  Why are acts, which in men are esteemed innocent, permissible, or, at worst, but slightly wrong, regarded in women as the height of iniquity?

The answer to this question is to be found, partly in the inferior and dependent position in which women stand; and partly, in the peculiar results, which, in their case, are liable to follow from sexual indulgence.

The woman, from her inferior position, and from the consequent admiration and love with which she is expected to look up to her husband, is held bound to a certain extent, indeed to a very great extent, to prefer his pleasures to her own.  The idea of sole possession is so gratifying to the sentiment of self comparison, that men naturally, everywhere, have held their wives bound to strict fidelity; and the wife’s intercourse with another man, without the husband’s consent, — which in most communities it has been esteemed disgraceful ever to grant, and which, elsewhere, has only been granted as a special mark of favor and friendship, — that is to say, adultery on the part of the wife, has everywhere, and at all times, been esteemed a high crime…

In savage and barbarous communities, women who owe no allegiance to a husband, are not held bound to any such strictness; but are allowed to indulge themselves at their pleasure…But the same feeling which demands fidelity in a wife, accompanied by a little more reflection, presently requires, that the wife should come a virgin to her husband’s bed ; and when this idea obtains currency, unmarried women are thenceforth required to pre serve their virginity for the honor and pleasure of the husband whom they may one day have.

With the progress of wealth and refinement, women of the upper class become more and more helpless; whence arises an additional reason, why the unmarried should not expose themselves to the risk of bearing children…For the most part, they are incapable of providing for themselves.  Even if they have the requisite talent and skill, they are excluded from following any lucrative occupation.  In some countries, as in England, they are greatly restricted even in their chances of acquiring property by inheritance; of course, they seldom have means of their own.  They are totally dependent, even for their own support, upon their fathers or other relatives; and it would be intolerable, if, for their own private gratification, in addition to the burden of supporting themselves, they should impose upon their friends the support and education of a family of children.  The same reason applies also to the case of married women. The husband is bound to support and to educate the children of his wife; and he reasonably desires them to be, not only legally but naturally his own.

11. The position of men is altogether different.  Even the married man, for the same reason of inferiority on the part of his wife for which he demands from her the sacrifice of her pleasures to his, holds himself by no means bound to reciprocate that sacrifice; or, for the sake of gratifying her feelings, to put restraint upon his own indulgences.  The unmarried man has nobody’s feelings to consult.  As men, married or unmarried, who become the fathers of illegitimate children, are legally bound to support those children, here is no burden imposed upon others, except that duty be fraudulently evaded, or the father be too poor to fulfil it; in which case, only an offence is committed of which the law takes note.  As to the mother, the very infamy with which she is overwhelmed leaves little room, in the vulgar mind, for sympathy for her; and the disgrace to her parents and other friends is disposed of, by ascribing the daughter’s ruin to the fault, on their part, of a bad education or insufficient watching…

13. Did these severities accomplish their object, that would afford a plausible argument in their favor.  But they fail, and always will.  While men constitute a licensed army of seducers, licensed because they cannot be restrained, can it be expected that women will resist the combined force of male and female desire?  The poets have admired and have celebrated the triumphs, of sexual love over all possible obstacles put in its way; and legislators and moralists might learn a lesson from the poets.  The only adequate security for the chastity of women is that also which can alone secure the chastity of men…

14. But, although women have everywhere been held in a degree of subordination greater or less, there have been and are societies in which they have made a near approach towards equality.  Of this sort were the saloons of Paris before the Revolution, and certain higher circles, then and now, in France, Italy, and Germany.  In these societies, the political degradation of the men (now partially removed, at least in France) operates to the advantage of the women, by bringing the men down to their level.  The drawing-room becomes the great theatre of action for both; and the women there, so far from inferiority, are in several points superior.   These societies, too, consist entirely or chiefly of a class of persons who follow no industrious occupation, but live upon an unearned revenue.  The wife, by her dowry, contributes her share towards upholding the establishment; and by an arrangement borrowed from the Roman law enjoys a separate and independent income.  Under these circumstances, the married women are encouraged and are able to demand, that, as upon other things, so upon the point of conjugal fidelity, they shall be admitted to an equality with their husbands.  They allege, what it is impossible to deny, that the restraint of fidelity is as hard on them as on the men; and that so far as mere personal suffering is concerned, and independent of artificial obloquy, which, being artificial, may be as easily done away as created, the misery of a faithless husband is even greater than that of an unfaithful wife; and these premises being conceded, the demand follows, that either husbands should submit to the same restraints imposed upon their wives, or that wives should enjoy the same liberty as their husbands.

15. Had marriages, in those communities, been unions of choice and affection, it is not to be doubted that both parties would have preferred the alternative of mutual fidelity.  But as marriage, in those ranks, was, in general, a mere matter of finance and family alliance, neither party found in it any adequate satisfaction of the sexual desire, which leisure, constant social intercourse, and all the arts of personal grace and adornment, kept always excited; and to the Satisfaction of which free choice and unforced preference are so absolutely essential.  Unwilling and unable, therefore, as the men were to surrender that prerogative of liberty which they had so long enjoyed, they were gradually induced, partly out of policy, partly out of justice, and partly for the sake of peace, to concede to their wives a nearly equal degree of freedom; and hence that system, in several parts of Europe, and especially in Italy, of allowing married women to choose their own lovers; a system which has excited mingled horror and indignation in the minds of many English moralists, who have yet regarded, if not with open indulgence, at least with silent disapprobation, a similar liberty on the part of the husband, — a liberty, which if not so generally exercised among the upper classes of Great Britain as elsewhere, is yet too common to be regarded as at all unpardonable.

This extra-marital commerce of love on the part of the married, was always condemned by the ascetic moralists, for reasons which will be explained in the next chapter; but in those countries in which it prevails, forensically considered, it has lost all its criminality, and has acquired, as far at least as opinion goes, a perfectly legitimate character.  Fidelity has there become a duty not to the husband, but to the lover; and hence, in those societies, the existence of such connexions, however contrary to our ideas of right and wrong, cannot justly be considered as implying any deficiency of moral sentiment on the part of those men and women who enter into them.

16. As the above reasons upon which the liberty of married women is founded, do not apply to the case of the unmarried; it is to be observed that unmarried women, in those same societies, are still subject to all the old restrictions; and, indeed, are more strictly guarded than elsewhere, lest they might be seduced by the example of the liberty allowed to the married.

17. As a counterpart to, and illustration of, the preceding observations, we may refer to the operation, in a very different state of society, of an approach towards equality on the part of the women.  In the more northerly States of the American Union, within the last thirty years, great pains have been taken with female education; and in point of intelligence and general information, the women, on the average, have been raised nearly, or quite, to a level with the men.  Many of the promoters of this scheme of female education are puzzled and alarmed to find, that this elevation of women has produced its natural effect; and that, no longer satisfied with that total absorption in their obtained or expected husbands which constitutes the Anglo-Saxon idea of female duty, they are beginning to put forward several embarrassing claims to a greater social equality…

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