Academic journal article Social Alternatives

On the Necessity for Gender Equality: Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson and 'Equality in Community'

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

On the Necessity for Gender Equality: Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson and 'Equality in Community'

Article excerpt

Agenuine community requires equality among its citizens. In 1825 Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson mounted a strong refutation of James Mill's argument against the enfranchisement of women in his Essay on Government. There was no rational basis for the subordination of women, but under the individualist dispensation of classical liberalism, marriage was tantamount to white slavery. Against the prevailing individualism they advocated cooperative socialism. Their work had implications for cosmopolitanism as they argued for a radical restructuring of society on the basis of full gender equality in the workplace and the home. In their view, this was the necessary prerequisite for all other forms of equality and the realisation of a free and just society.

Within and between cultures, across the generations, the 'quest for community' (Nisbet 1953) has occupied the thoughts of many a political philosopher. What sort of community is appropriate for realising human happiness? Should human happiness be the rationale for community? Irrespective of particular goals, how should an ideal community be organised? Are there necessary connections between particular goals and the organisational structures of a community? And so on. These questions are certainly familiar and feature prominently in writings speculating on what an ideal community might look like. Communities exhibit many characteristics and may be organised on the basis of any one of (or combination of) kinship, religion, race, gender, trade, conquest, revolutionary history or some other commonality around which people are willing to mobilise and establish a coherent identity that endures over time (Nisbet 1973: 1). However, the basis of and for a community is one thing, its characteristic features are another. At a minimum these characteristics should include 'a modest standard of living, [be] conservative of natural resources, [have] a low constant fertility rate and a political life based upon consent' and be successfully adapted 'to its environment and ha[ve] learned to live without destroying itself or the people next door' (Le Guin 1982: 96). This is a view of community as humanly inhabitable, and one that would be consistent with a cosmopolitan approach (e.g. Delanty 2009; Cheah 2006; Nash 2003; Beck 2002; Turner 2002; Archibugi et al., Held and Köhler 1998). Of course, not everyone would agree that a community need exhibit any or all of these characteristics, especially those who see communities in terms of rigid hierarchies and all-powerful authority figures (Nisbet 1973), and hence would deny a need for egalitarian social relations, consent based politics, human regulated fertility, and perhaps coexisting peacefully with its neighbours.

The principle of egalitarian social relations, in particular the goal of gender equality, has been a key concern in discussions of ways to realise humanly habitable communities. With a few notable exceptions men's dominance over women and the masculinist basis for social and political organisation has been taken as self-evident for most historically enduring communities. Indeed, the opening sentence of Nisbet's study of community and social philosophy notes that '[t]he history of Western social philosophy is, basically, the history of men's ideas and ideals of community' (Nisbet 1973: 1). To be fair to Nisbet, in the context of his academic heritage, his use of 'men' most likely was intended to be understood generically (as inclusive of men and women). It is unlikely that he was commenting on the masculinist basis for community or the masculinist biases within Western philosophical thought. However, his comment provides a useful segue to consider a remarkable work published in 1825 that provided a vision of a humanly inhabitable community within which egalitarian gender relations were at its centre.

The book in question was Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women: Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery; in Reply to a Paragraph of Mr. …

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