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LHMP #137l Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men II.A.3 New Women

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 07:42
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

II.A.3 New Women

I may need to get a new copy of this book. Extensive note-taking does horrible things to the spine. (Of the book, not me!)

The stirrings of a women’s rights movement was starting as early as the late 18th century, inspired in part by the ideals of the French Revolution, documented in books such as Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the mid 19th century, these ideas began to be put into practice with the opening of higher education to women (though sometimes it was necessary to create entire new institutions to do so, such as Mt. Holyoke College in America. By the late 19th century, one third of college students in the USA were women and most major European countries had at least some colleges that admitted women.

Some of the rise in feminism can be attributed directly to the gender-segregation of middle- and upper-class society which brought women together to discuss their concerns and grievances. But two other forces also drove it. One was the increasing industrialization of the economy, which affected women’s ability to support themselves as small private businesses were forced out of the market by large-scale industries that were highly sex-segregated in employment. Related to this was the focus among middle- and upper-class reformers on bettering the position of less fortunate women and creating wider opportunities for them. [I confess that the current critique of “white feminism” comes to mind as I read this--the image of relatively well-off white women swooping in to set up charities to better the lives of the virtuous impoverished.]

Organizations to promote women’s suffrage emerged in the USA, England, and France, although they had a long struggle to success. Demographics were a significant driver of feminism. Women significantly outnumbered men in both Europe and America either generally (in part due to wars) or locally (due to the differential migration of men to industrial centers and to colonial expansion movements. [OK, Faderman doesn’t say “colonial expansion”, that’s my phrasing.] This meant that many women who had been socialized to rely on marriage as a life path now found themselves needing to be self-supporting and yet cut off from both many of the traditional jobs for women (that had disappeared) and from the better-paying jobs created by the new economy.

Middle-class women began expanding their presence in intellectual and clerical work, such as teaching and office work, and found themselves agitating for equal pay in workplaces where they might earn one half to one tenth that of a man doing the same work. At the same time, we see the rise of what now are termed “pink collar” professions--jobs that were opened to women specifically because women had been socialized to accept limited working conditions for poor pay. At a more restricted level, women began demanding access to, and recognition at, professional careers such as medicine and academia.

When one surveys the women who did pursue advanced and professional studies, the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: a married woman would have less freedom to pursue such interests, as well as being subject to the time demands of motherhood. But also, women who had such ambitions may have recognized that marriage would be a distraction and roadblock. In contrast, many professional women did have close, supportive, long-term relationships with other women. Historical studies of the life-patterns of early feminists identify some clear prototypes: an only or oldest child whose father was supportive of her education and was the primary parental bond, and often a sense from the woman that she was serving as a substitute for the son her father would have preferred. This model for the “New Woman” matches fairly closely the stereotype later identified by psychoanalysts as a “cause” of lesbianism. Faderman speculates on cause and effect: was it that women who were attracted to other women responded more strongly to the opportunities of this sort of upbringing? Or did such an upbringing make the rejection of marriage and the expression of desire for women more attractive? Faderman notes, “Whether, as an independent, ambitious nineteenth-century woman, she began as a lesbian or as a feminist, it was very possible that she would end as both.”

This, then, suggests a context in which society turned from appreciation of close friendships between women to anxiety about them. And that anxiety was sometimes expressed as a perception that these close friendships were a new development, rather than a minor shift in a cultural practice that had existed for centuries.

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