This is the first in a series about the myths and realities of feminist history.
False notions persist about the feminism of the past. Last fall, an article in the conservative web-magazine World Net Daily set up a predictable contrast between the “reasonable” feminism of the early 1900s and the unreasonable movement that took hold after the 1960s.
Author Hanne Herland claimed that “the early women’s movement fought for equal socio-political rights and respected the differences between the sexes.”
Because this early movement “was based on constructive realism rather than ideology,” she went on to claim, it “produced better results. We did not witness the breakdown of the family in its aftermath; marriage did not turn into a war zone. This type of feminism did not produce raging women who hate men.”
While it is true that prior to the creation of the welfare state and the birth control pill we did not see the mass breakdown of the family, everything else in the statement is wrong.
In fact, the early women’s movement not only produced raging women who hated men and made that hatred a central part of their ideology; it was largely conceived and promoted by such women, who consistently misrepresented women’s social position.
What emotion if not hatred was designed to be evoked by the Declaration’s central thesis that “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpationon the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
What should a free-born citizen feel about an “absolute tyranny” deliberately perpetrated through “repeated injuries and usurpation”?
This fire-breathing allegation is followed by a long list of dubious and sometimes outright false claims against men, including what today would be deemed “psychological abuse,” the claim that “He [man] has endeavored in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Remember that this statement was written at a time when many colleges had been established specifically for women’s education (contradicting another of the claims in the Declaration about “all colleges being closed against her”), and at a time many women made respectable careers for themselves as authors, educators, scholars, and businesswomen.
There is nothing in the document to mitigate the mass condemnation of men or to suggest that biology or circumstances played any role in the present social order. There is nothing in the document to suggest that men ever acted to protect or provide for women, or to respond to their needs.
The fact that men signed this self-condemnation—there are 32 male signatories—gives the lie to the document’s assertions about male tyranny and lust for power. The fact that the document is considered the beginning of the women’s rights movement in America and that it spawned many later women’s conventions demonstrates that both men and women of the time, and later, approved public expressions of fanatical anti-male animus.
Many of the claims in the document are flatly untrue, and yet have been allowed to stand as evidence of women’s legitimate grievances. The document states, for example, that “He [man] has not ever permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” This is simply not true. Voting rights legislation varied from state to state and depended on property and other qualifications, but women regularly voted in municipal and other local elections—simply not in national elections. Some states would soon expand the franchise to women for state-wide elections.
For enfranchised men, voting was a right understood to confer the corresponding obligation to defend their country during war even to the extent of sacrificing life (an obligation later codified in the Selective Service system for which men were required to register). Women never had the same obligation when they voted. Moreover, poll taxes, literacy requirements, and property qualifications further restricted the right to vote of poor white and black male voters alike.
The idea that all men had a free vote while all women were denied it is a simplistic misrepresentation forged in the Declaration of Sentiments and still believed today.
And the Declaration is filled with such simplistic misrepresentations. It claims, for example, that “He [man] has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.” Again, this was never true. Single women had the right to own property and keep their wages, and the Married Women’s Property Acts, which began to be passed in the late 1830s (ten years before the Declaration), guaranteed that womencould maintain ownership over any property they had brought intotheir marriage. A comprehensive Married Women’s Property Act was passed for that purpose in April of 1848 in New York State, just a few months before the presentation of the Declaration of Sentiments in the same state. The framers of the Declaration of Sentiments, intelligent and well-educated as they were, must have known that their claims, and many others in the Declaration, were untrue, yet they felt justified in asserting them in order to portray women as victims of male oppression.
It’s hard to see how such castigation of men could possibly have been agreed to by women who “respected the differences between the sexes” or did not seek to turn marriage into a “war zone.” The Declaration of Sentiments is essentially a declaration of war, using the same strategies of vilification found in war propaganda. In this case, the enemy consisted of women’s fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands. The impact of such a public assault on relations between men and women, signed by men themselves, has had practical as well as spiritual consequences that reverberate to this day.
Literal violence was the fruit of such declarations—as well as nearly two centuries of slander, opprobrium, and anti-male legislation. When they wrote the co-authored history of their movement (titled the History of Woman Suffrage), some of the same women who penned the Declaration of Sentiments, including Stanton and her friend and fellow activist Susan B. Anthony, characterized the relationship of women to men in the starkest manner possible. “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history,” they emphatically declared on the chronicle’s first page, tracing such alleged slavery to “the same principle of selfishness and love of power in man that has thus far dominated all weaker nations and classes.” It is striking that a time when human beings were actually enslaved in their country, these women could refer to themselves in such an exaggerated manner. The mischaracterization of women’s position was endemic to the movement’s leadership.
In Great Britain, a similar romanticization of the woman suffrage movement has concealed its dark origins. The English suffragettes of the early 1900s fully justified a phrase like “raging women.” They were an insurgent force determined to win their revolutionary aims through lawbreaking and the deliberate pathologizing of masculinity. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, their organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) distinguished itself by militant tactics that included vandalism and violent protests that endangered the women’s own and others’ lives.
Such radicalism was necessary, according to their leader Pankhurst, in a speech she made during her 1908 trial, because “the condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty even to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do so.”
In fact, Pankhurst was a wealthy woman whose life of ease and privilege stood in shocking contrast to that of the majority of her male compatriots, many of whom did not possess the right to vote and lived lives of hardship that she could not imagine and didn’t care about.
With the advent of the First World War, Pankhurst and some fellow suffragettes participated enthusiastically in the outrageous WhiteFeather Campaign to humiliate any men they saw on the streets of England who were not in military uniform.
A number of men, some of them soldiers home on leave, told of the effrontery of these women who used the power of sexual shame to coerce young men and under-age boys into hell of trench warfare, where hundreds of thousands were maimed and slaughtered.
|White Feather Campaign|
So much for their much-touted female compassion. British journalist Wilma Meikle, who in 1916 published a memoir provocatively titled Towards a Sane Feminism, reported on pre-war feminists’ hate-filled rhetoric and attitudes. These women did not merely object to the conditions or social structures that limited women’s opportunities. They objected to men themselves, depicting them frequently as slavers, exploiters, and lovers of bloodshed. Some such as Theosophist Frances Swiney developed theories of men as deficient non-females: in her 1907 book Bar of Isis, Swiney castigated “a selfish, lustful, diseased manhood” which “sought in woman only a body.” She characterized semen as a source of pollution.
Meikle’s memoir describes some of the feminists she had met as nearly maddened by their anti-male sexual disgust. She wrote scathingly of them: “These were the women who crammed their shelves with pamphlets on venereal diseases, who suspected all their male acquaintances of harbouring a venereal taint, who hounded the clergy to hold “purity” meetings in every big town, who collected stories of that White Slave Traffic whose truth is now buried fathoms deep beneath a surge of legends. These were the women who regarded the majority of men as conscious and wilful oppressors” (84-85).
Unfortunately, contempt for male humanity and adulation of feminist mania spread across the Anglosphere in the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mainstream newspapers regularly featured the ravings of anti-male ideologues. These included Toronto-based Flora MacDonaldDenison, who wrote a weekly column for a popular newspaper, the World, in which she portrayed feminist militants as glorious martyrs ushering in a new era of social justice; likewise, the popular essays of Canadian feminist leader Nellie McClung (In Times Like These, 1915) provide a fascinating window onto the acceptability of blatant anti-male slander. McClung repeatedly blamed masculinity for all the world’s ills, arguing that female political leadership would at last set national governance on a righteous footing. “The whole race is suffering from masculinity,” she asserted, “and men and women are alike to blame for tolerating it.”
Then as now, many men supported these unjust characterizations, internalizing the shame and contempt that feminists reveled in promoting. Male sexual guilt, self-loathing, and deference to womanly superiority have been passed down from mother to son for generations. Future videos and essays on this channel will explore the many texts and activists who promoted anti-male hatred.
In the modern insistence that only men are violent and that masculinity is disordered and pathological, contemporary feminism is the direct descendant of a centuries-old calumny. Feminism’s use of derogatory slurs such as “toxic masculinity” and its constant emphasis on female victimhood indicate the direct line that can be drawn between male-accusing First Wave feminists and their vicious progeny today.
It is quite a feat to advocate for equality on the ground that one side is morally superior to the other; or to declaim against the alleged bigotry of men while declaring one’s own bigotry openly—and to be able to get away with that and build significant political achievements on it not for a few years or even a few decades, but for at least a century and a half.
It remains to be seen how much longer we will be willing to allow public conversations to be dominated by an often admittedly female supremacist ideology—while still justifying and whitewashing its origins.