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Chapter 6: A Moral Science of Women’s Rights

Chapter 6: A Moral Science of Women’s Rights 2017-05-18T16:04:46+00:00

AUDIO: “Sad Reflection” from human Stories by De Wolfe Music Library. Composer: Chris Salt

In Chapter One we met the 19th century Irish historian William Lecky who introduced the metaphor of the expanding moral circle in his 1869 book A History of European Morals. In his chapter on the “position of women” he postulated that the rise of monogamy and marriage were the primary steps in the elevation of women to a status closer to that of men, and he argues that the primary value of the marriage contract is in granting women equal rights, at least in the home (but, sadly, only in the home): “The utilitarian arguments in its defence are also extremely powerful, and may be summed up in three sentences. Nature, by making the number of males and females nearly equal, indicates it as natural. In no other form of marriage can the government of the family, which is one of the chief ends of marriage, be so happily sustained, and in no other does woman assume the position of the equal of man.”

This grudging admission that women are the equal of men, as long as they keep to their needlework and don’t set foot outside the parlor, is all the less impressive coming as it does almost 80 years after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and several years after John Stuart Mill’s call for the legal and social equality of women in his treatise (possibly co-authored with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill) The Subjection of Women. It also comes about 20 years after the very first women’s rights convention (held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York) in which the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, chiefly authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was ratified by 68 women and 32 men. The document was patterned after the Declaration of Independence and contained these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Clearly, Lecky felt this truth wasn’t self-evident in the least, as he opined:

In the ethics of intellect they are decidedly inferior. Women very rarely love truth, though they love passionately what they call “the truth”, or opinions they have received from others, and hate vehemently those who differ from them. They are little capable of impartiality or of doubt; their thinking is chiefly a mode of feeling; though very generous in their acts, they are rarely generous in their opinions or in their judgments. They persuade rather than convince, and value belief rather as a source of consolation than as a faithful expression of the reality of things.

Unfortunately this attitude was not atypical, and supporters of this uncommon modern notion of women’s equality and their right to vote were harshly scorned and ridiculed. Clearly men felt their comforts and privileges threatened; commenting on the 1848 convention, a reporter for the Oneida Whig had this to say:

This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity. If our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows? Where our domestic firesides and the holes in our stockings?

Where indeed.