White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

By Louise Michele Newman | Go to book overview

3
The Politics of Patriarchal Protection

Debates over Coeducation and Special Labor Legislation for Women

For both sexes, there is no exception to the law, that their greatest power and largest attainment lie in the perfect development of their organization. . . . The physiological motto is, Educate a man for manhood, a woman for womanhood, both for humanity. In this lies the hope of the race.

Edward Clarke,
Sex in Education ( 1873)

DURING THE POSTBELLUM PERIOD, the woman's movement fashioned a politics out of protection that eventually made it possible for white middle-class women to become political actors and agents of the state, despite dominant cultural assumptions about sexual differences that characterized women as unsuited for these roles. Yet protection--which encompassed white men offering white women financial support, supervision, polite courtesies, and a general solicitousness that was not extended to other groups of women--was conceived as a "privilege" to be granted only so far as (white) women lived in conformity with patriarchal norms of middle-class domesticity. White women sensed that these kinds of protections would be withdrawn if they did not conform to their primary roles as homemakers and childrearers. Freeing themselves from the category of the protected and becoming protectors themselves was a difficult maneuver, yet it became, as I shall show, one of the most effective ways that white, middle-class women began to assume political power without transgressing culturally prescribed notions of womanhood and civilized gender relations.

In the 1870s, physicians accused middle-class women who aspired to college educations of willfully flouting motherhood and domesticity, and they castigated these women for any illnesses that later beset them. It was generally assumed that college women voluntarily brought reproductive harm upon themselves by removing themselves from the domestic realm of patriarchal protection so carefully constructed for their benefit. The same physicians were much more sympathetic toward women industrial workers, whom they cast as victims of the "disarrangement of economic forces in society," believing that these women worked only because the structures of patriarchal protection had malfunctioned. Dominant cultural prescriptions held that women employed in industry were not working out of "choice"--that they would

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