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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Janelle Collett

Equality Through Difference

In American popular memory, women’s rights struggles are imagined to be founded on notions of equality and sameness between the sexes. The word "feminism” brings to mind activists who believe that differences between men and women are socially constructed, not biological. Though this notion is representative of a large number of women’s rights activists, there is another school of activism with a long and rich history in America.

During the Victorian era, there was a model of womanhood founded on ideals of domesticity. This model, True Womanhood, rarely held true for real women, but it nevertheless effected women’s lives. Women, particularly white middle-class women, often lived at least partially conforming to True Womanhood. They generally stayed in the home to devote themselves to their family, allowing their husbands to fulfill the male role of breadwinner. They remained sexually pure and devotedly religious. An important part of living this ideal was not interfering with men’s public affairs, remaining untainted from public life.

Despite the rigidity of True Womanhood in regard to staying in the home, the ideal contained the preconditions for uniting women’s rights struggles. As historian Nancy Cott has argued, when women begin to imagine themselves as a unified group, it is possible for them to take that notion to the next level: imagining themselves as a group that can shape its own destiny. (i) This process is precisely what happened in the late nineteenth century.

Maternalism is a concept created by historians to explain women activists who used the qualities they believed were inherent to females to fight for public causes. These activists believed that because women were more pious and pure than men were, they could aid the poor, bring about moral reform, and generally improve the lives of Americans. In other words, women took mothering outside of the home and into their communities, and, unlike True Womanhood, the ideology stretched across racial lines. In fact, black women often using maternalism as a basis for their struggles for racial uplift. (ii)

In addition to these moral reform efforts, maternalists frequently argued for women’s rights. Some maternalists even argued for suffrage on the basis of women’s differences from men. For these women, having the vote was a powerful tool to reforming the country. After all, if women really were more moral than men, they could remain disinterested from partisan politics and truly concentrate on what was best for the country.

While maternalism is generally thought of as beginning in the 1880s and continuing through the 1920s, the logic behind the ideology is still visible today. Not all feminists believe that men and women are the same, and some feminists believe that arguing for women’s difference from men is still a useful tool for reform. The struggle between the sameness ideology and the difference ideology in feminism is significant, but, in the end, the most important part of each idea is simply a commitment to women’s rights.

i. Nancy Cott, Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England 1780-1835. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.)
ii. Eileen Boris, “Black and White Women Bring the Power of Motherhood to Politics,” in Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander Major Problems in American Women’s History. (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.)

Works Cited
1. Boris, Eileen “Black and White Women Bring the Power of Motherhood to Politics,” in Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander Major Problems in American Women’s History. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.
2. Cott, Nancy Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

* This article benefited from the lectures of Dr. Robyn Muncy, professor of History at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected].


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