Commentary Magazine

The Better Half: The Emancipation of the American Woman, by Andrew Sinclair

Feminist Ideology

The Better Half: The Emancipation of the American Woman.
by Andrew Sinclair.
Harper & Row. 394 pp. $6.95.

Andrew Sinclair's book is another attempt to write the history of the American woman—a subject that has the same fascination for social historians that “the great American novel” used to have for writers. The Better Half, in spite of its title and in spite of its jacket, which displays the usual series of drawings showing woman's progress from bustle to bikini—as if “emancipation” were a matter mainly of shedding one's clothes—is not a confection but a serious, scholarly book; and if it is finally a disappointing book, that is not because Sinclair lacks the imagination or the energy necessary to explain the subject, but because the subject itself, as presently defined, seems to be uncommonly resistant to explanations of any sort.

Most histories of feminism either idolize the movement or wildly abuse it. Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle is a recent example of the first genre (the feminists were courageous democrats struggling for women's “rights”), and Marynia Farnham's Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, remains a classic of the second (feminism=penis envy). Sinclair is sympathetic, but he is also sensitive to some of the nuances of the feminist argument that tend to elude admirers. He is particularly sensitive to the way in which a demand for equality often shaded off into an assertion of the moral superiority of women. Indeed the contrast—some would call it a decline—between 18th-century egalitarianism and 19th-century sentimentality is one of the central preoccupations of Sinclair's book—I won't say one of his theses, because the book is more survey than argument. The title itself, which I objected to a moment ago as sounding more frivolous than the contents warrant, may be taken as an implied criticism of a recurring strain in feminist ideology (and, of course, in American popular culture as a whole)—the view that woman's “nature” inclines her to altruism, tenderness, and moral refinement, whereas men are selfish, aggressive, and uncouth. As Sinclair points out, this idea leads straight back to the cult of domesticity which the original feminists were attacking.

The concepts of the sexual equality of human reason and of the human soul have been discarded, particularly in America, for the concept of the biological and psychological differences of the sexes. If the first feminists used their ideals to protest against the worship of the mother in the home, modern feminists tend to use their lack of ideals and reliance on sociology to renew that worship.


Other historians of feminism have treated the movement simply as a demand for political rights, especially the vote. Sinclair avoids that pitfall. He makes it clear that the early feminists wanted not only the vote but education and careers. In short, they wanted women to be something besides wives and mothers. If these emphases tended to be crowded out of later phases of the movement in favor of the single demand for the vote—a development, incidentally, to which Sinclair might have given more attention—that merely offers another example of the way in which feminism eventually accommodated itself to the cultural and political climate of the United States, where a demand for “equal rights,” however irrelevant, made so much more effective an appeal than a challenge to the morality of domesticity.

In any case, Sinclair is right to emphasize the non-political components of feminism. He also senses the connection between feminism and certain quasi-feminist but essentially reactionary responses to the changing condition of American women, such as the “book-making propensities,” as he calls them, of the mid-19th century. But he does not see clearly what the connection is; and it is here that the general inadequacy of his conceptual scheme begins to reveal itself. Insofar as literary pursuits encouraged economic independence for women, Sinclair can see the importance of sentimental fiction for a study of the “emancipation of the American Woman.” But the content of this writing puzzles him; most of it reflects a cult of home and motherhood with which feminism, it would seem, had nothing to do. Thus he deplores the domestic novels of the period and describes Godey's Lady's Book, the leading woman's magazine of the 19th century, as “sentimental and fashion-conscious.” But according to Helen Papashvily's study of the domestic novel, All the Happy Endings, these books sometimes betrayed a latent hostility toward men which had some features in common with feminism. And Sarah Hale, editor of Godey's, was not an advocate but an indefatigable opponent of the “tyranny of Fashion,” for in her view, as in the view of other domestic moralists of the period, “fashion” signified an aristocratic penchant for conspicuous display that was quite incompatible with the demands of home and motherhood. Mrs. Hale grasped the important principle, later worked out in detail by Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Thorstein Veblen, that the leisure classes value women chiefly as objects of display; and she abhorred the “fine lady” as vehemently as any feminist. “The help that the feminists received from the mass magazines of Victorian times was small,” Sinclair says. Even a casual study of Mrs. Hale's writings for Godey's Lady's Book, however, turns up passages that might have been written by a feminist, in which Mrs. Hale inveighs against the “marriage market” and complains that girls are educated not in the practical subjects that would make them good wives but in the useless “accomplishments” that enable them to catch husbands. Mrs. Hale was objecting to the same thing feminists objected to, the treatment of women as expensive ornaments—from which followed the frantic pursuit of husbands by young girls. It is also useful to recall that Sarah Hale was an exponent of “female education.” She was not, of course, a feminist. On the contrary, she believed that marriage and motherhood ought to be the consuming business of a woman's life. But the point is that on an important issue—hostility to “fashion”—her views, and those of other domestic moralists, coincided with and reinforced those of the feminists.


Sinclair, like practically every other student of feminism, assumes that feminism and the cult of domesticity were radically opposed. In fact, however, they stood in an ambiguous relation to one another; and this ambiguity points to an even more important ambiguity in feminism itself. On the one hand, the feminists urged women to aspire to something better than domestic drudgery. Some feminists pressed their campaign against the bourgeois cult of the family to the logical conclusion of attacking marriage itself. Most of them were satisfied with advocating careers outside the home. All of them opposed the proposition that woman's place was in the home, and for that reason both the feminists and their detractors have interpreted the movement as an assault against the last stronghold of Victorian culture, the patriarchal family.

On the other hand, it becomes clear that the real object of feminist agitation, especially in its later phase, was not domesticity as such but the “parasitism” of women. If the later feminists tended to confuse the two, it was because the family itself, during the 19th century, had changed its emphasis from production to leisure-class consumption, as the middle classes more and more patterned their lives on what they took to be aristocratic models. It can be argued that this development, though it had nothing to do with feminism—was, in fact, profoundly disconcerting to feminists—at least partially freed middle-class women (for a time, anyway) from the narrow round of domestic duties to which they had been bound, especially from those associated with incessant child-bearing; for the middle classes now began deliberately to control the size of their families.1 But the feminists did not see these things as liberating. “Emancipation,” for them, meant not leisure but work, and it was at the very moment that emancipation, in the sense of enlarged access to the world outside the family, became something of a reality for women, that the feminists finally won a hearing for their case against the “fine lady.” The feminist critique of “fashion” now coincided with a growing national anxiety about the erosion of domestic values, a fact which may help to explain the victories—the somewhat ambiguous victories—won by the movement in the early years of the 20th century. In any case, there is good reason to interpret the later feminist movement, and perhaps the earlier stages of the movement as well, not as a force which undermined the family, but as a revival of the domestic virtues—notably the domestic virtue of work—in the name of sexual equality.


This view, if it proved to be sound, would explain more fully why modern feminism, as Sinclair notes, leads back to “the worship of the mother in the home.” Given the conditions of American culture, the mother remains a more appealing symbol of productive feminine labor than the career woman. The “woman question” is a function not so much of the Victorian cult of the “better half” but of the middle-class work ethic; and beyond that, of the 18th-century social and economic revolution which first broke the continuity between familial life and the world of affairs and thereby gave rise to the conception of the family—familiar to us, but novel and startling in view of what had come before—as an alternative to “the world.” These changes drastically altered the lives of women, but they also revolutionized the lives of men; and the great weakness of studies like Sinclair's is that they continue to treat what has happened to women as a special category of experience. The history of women, strictly speaking, cannot be written. What can be written, beginning with the 18th century, is the history of the family, of the emerging middle class, and of a social order in which the segregation of private and public realms of experience became the most characteristic feature, with consequences that are only beginning to be understood.


1 By far the best study of these developments—indeed the only coherent study—is the superb monograph by J. A. and Olive Banks, Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England.

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