The True Mothers of Feminism

Angelina and Sarah Grimké and America's other early defenders of woman's rights would have little in common with today's mainstream feminists.


The roots of American feminism are individualist. Observers of the contemporary scene may find this a startling claim. Whereas the emphasis of individualism is on individual rights to life, liberty, and property, mainstream feminism deemphasizes or even denies the rights of individuals in order to assert the rights of women as an oppressed class.

This distinct focus translates directly into a quite different attitude toward government. For the most part, today's feminist views government as a vehicle of protection and power. She may condemn the present government, but her main thrust is toward more government—new laws such as nondiscriminatory hiring laws, new policies such as pay-equalization policies, and new benefits such as government-subsidized daycare centers.

In contrast, the individualist feminist sees government as the problem, not the solution. It is government laws, says the individualist feminist, that have oppressed women directly and supported their oppression by other elements in the society. It is government policies that have kept women locked out of professions and activities. If women are to be free, the power of government must be rolled back, not increased.

Of course, this individualist voice is not part of the feminism that most people hear proclaimed. Nor will the reader of standard histories of feminism find traces of this view. What is the warrant, then, for the assertion that the seeds of American feminism were sown by individualists?

Feminism, as an organized force in America, dates from the antislavery abolitionist movement of the early and mid-1800s. Although there were important activists before this time (Anne Hutchinson, for example, in the mid-1600s was America's first woman anarchist), the phenomenon of an organized movement that systematically fought for woman's rights sprang from abolitionism.

Abolitionists were the radicals in the antislavery movement who pressed for an immediate end to slavery on the grounds that every man is a self-owner, that every man has moral jurisdiction over his own body. For feminists, the most interesting question put to these radicals who espoused the rights of slaves was: Do women have these rights as well?

The answer to this question among the general populace was, "Of course not." At this point in history, women could not enter into contracts without their husbands' consent; children were considered the property of the father; women lost all title to property or earnings upon marriage; they had no legal recourse against kidnapping or imprisonment by husbands and fathers. A long list of laws rendered women virtually the slaves of their husbands and parents.

Among antislavery abolitionists, the issue of woman's rights caused hot debate. Perhaps the most forthright advocate was the libertarian William Lloyd Garrison, who insisted that abolitionism was a struggle for human rights, not male rights. Interestingly, many of the abolitionists were not in principle opposed to rights for women but thought that this issue should be kept separate from slavery. They feared that it would alienate a great many people who had sympathy for slaves but disagreed that women should be legally equal.

Within this climate, it was some time before women were officially recognized as equals by the abolitionists. The American Anti-Slavery Society, for instance, did not admit women as members until three years after it was founded, even though women such as Lucretia Mott had been instrumental in its formation.

Eventually, however, women rose to positions of prominence in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionism, in fact, was the first organized, radical movement in which women played key roles. Angelina Grimké and her older sister, Sarah Grimké, were among these feminist abolitionists.

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792 and 1805 respectively. They were the blue-eyed, aristocratic daughters of a large plantation owner and a slave-holder. After their father's death in 1819, Sarah's hatred of slavery prompted her to leave home for Philadelphia. There she joined the Quakers, who were not only opposed to slavery but liberal with regard to women. Women were allowed to become ministers, to lecture locally, and to administer most of their own affairs. A few years later, Angelina also became a Quaker and joined her sister in Philadelphia.

Angelina's first encounter with abolitionism was in 1834, when she wrote a sympathetic letter to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's periodical. This letter was controversial not only because Angelina was a woman but also because one of her brothers was a leading advocate of slavery in the South. The letter brought her criticism from the Quaker church, which disapproved of such prominent activism. It also brought her to the attention of Theodore Weld, who later became her husband.

Weld enlisted first Angelina and then Sarah into the ranks of "The 70." The 70—who never actually numbered 70—was a group of radicals trained by Weld and Henry Stanton to tour the country preaching antislavery sentiment. This was a dangerous business. Even in the North, speakers were often pelted with objects from the audience and sometimes badly beaten. It was in this environment that Angelina became the first American woman to professionally tour and lecture.

At a time when a favorite Bible quote was St. Paul's "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence," it was a shocking occurrence for a woman to lecture in public. It was even more radical for a woman to speak before mixed audiences of men and women. Following Angelina, Sarah Grimké became the second American woman to do so. Abbie Kelly, another of The 70 and a staunch follower of Garrison, became the third.

These women insisted, over the objections of other abolitionists, on preaching woman's rights as inseparable from the rights of slaves. Angelina Grimké, for example, intermingled the issues in a speech before the Massachusetts legislature in February 1838 (thereby becoming the first woman to speak before an American legislative body): "Mr. Chairman, it is my privilege to stand before you…on behalf of the 20,000 women of Massachusetts whose names are enrolled on petitions.…these petitions relate to the great and solemn subject of slavery…and because it is a political subject, it has often tauntingly been said that women have nothing to do with it. Are we aliens because we are women? Are we bereft of citizenship because we are mothers, wives and daughters of a mighty people?"

Angelina, whom the popular press called Devilina, caused a storm of controversy on this same issue in 1836 with her pamphlet Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. The pamphlet was banned by the postmasters in the South (a common method of suppressing anti-slavery literature), and Angelina was barred from returning to her place of birth by threat of immediate arrest.

Sarah Grimké, although not as able a writer or lecturer as her sister, used largely the same tactics. In her 1837 pamphlet Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, she began by quoting Blackstone, a leading legal authority: "If the wife be injured in her person or property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband's concurrence, and in his name as well as her own." Sarah commented: "This law…is similar to the law respecting slaves, 'A slave cannot bring a suit against his master or any other person, for an injury—his master must bring it.'" She compared a Louisiana law stipulating that a slave's possessions belong to his master with the law stating, "A woman's personal property by marriage becomes absolutely her husband's which, at his death, he may leave entirely from her." Sarah pointed out over and over that, before the law, there was no difference between a slave and a woman.

Most of this advocacy was done over the protest of Theodore Weld, who thought that feminism was hurting abolitionism. He pleaded with the Grimké sisters to leave that issue until another time, but Angelina replied, "The time to assert a right is the time when that right is denied."

Angelina and Sarah Grimké made woman's rights a topic of debate throughout America. "The whole land seems aroused to discussion on the province of women, and I am glad of it," wrote Angelina. "We are willing to bear the brunt of the storm, if we can only be the means of making a break in that wall of public opinion which lies right in the way of women's rights, true dignity, honor and usefulness."

This was the root of organized feminism in America, and the roots were individualist. The emphasis was on self-ownership, equality under just law, and repeal of unjust law.

After the Civil War—which many of the abolitionists deplored, agreeing with Ezra Heywood's statement that "we are all negro slaves now"—the radical fervor that had been directed toward antislavery was turned elsewhere. Many of the abolitionists became involved in the free-thought and free-love movements that flourished in the late 1800s. With its condemnation of the marriage and sex laws that oppressed women, the free-love movement became the natural vehicle for abolitionist feminists.

The free-love movement sought to separate government from matters such as marriage, adultery, divorce, age of consent, birth control, and legitimacy claims. These matters were to be decided by the individuals involved. As the libertarian Josiah Warren phrased it: "Individuals are at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate without involving the persons or interests of others."

Free-love advocates were not in favor of promiscuity. Most were, in fact, quite puritanical in their views and behavior. The banner of Memnonia, an Ohio free-love community, proclaimed "Freedom, Fraternity, Chastity." The philosophy of this community was that sex was proper only in conjunction with intense spiritual affinity, in the absence of coercion, and for procreative purposes. It was the condition "in the absence of coercion" that defined the free-love movement and set it at odds with the society surrounding it.

An incident dramatizing this conflict centered around the libertarian free-love periodical Lucifer the Light Bearer, which led the battle in America for free discussion of sex, choice for women in sexual matters, and birth control. Lucifer had published two letters that were declared obscene under the Comstock laws. (Passed in 1873, these laws prohibited the mailing of obscene matter.)

The first of these letters, known as the Markland letter, concerned the legal inability of women to protect themselves against rape by their husbands. The letter read: "About a year ago F________ gave birth to a baby, and was severely torn by the instruments in incompetent hands. She has gone through three operations and all failed. I brought her home and had Drs. _______ and ________ operate on her and she was getting along nicely until last night when her husband came down, forced himself into her bed, and the stitches were torn from her healing flesh, leaving her in worse condition than ever." What legal redress there was for such an attack? asked the letter. Of course, there was none.

Eight months after the publication of the Markland letter, the editors of Lucifer, Moses Harman and E.C. Walker, were arrested for printing that letter and three others. The other three included: a debate on sexual asceticism, an anecdotal letter about a couple who thought the world was ending and so confessed to each other their improprieties, and a letter opposing contraceptives on the intriguing grounds that fear of having children was all that kept many men from constantly abusing their wives.

Although Moses Harman himself considered parts of these letters in poor taste, he stood firm on freedom of the press and the need for sexual matters to be aired. "Words are not deeds," he argued, "and it is not the province of civil law to take preventative measures against remote or possible consequences of words."

During the four years it took for him to be finally tried, Moses Harman continued his battle against the sex and obscenity laws by publishing, among other things, a letter in which a Dr. O'Neill detailed the sexual abuses to which some of his women patients had been subjected. This letter caused a furor, largely because it was one of the few 19th-century journalistic discussions of oro-genital sex.

Harman eventually served four months for the Markland letter, eight months for the O'Neill letter, and then was resentenced to one year of hard labor for the Markland letter. He was in his 70s at the time.

During Harman's imprisonment, Lucifer—which gave preference to articles and letters by women—had three women editors: Lois Waisbrooker, Lillie D. White, and Lillian Harman.

Ironically, when the deputy U.S. Marshall had come to arrest Lucifer's editors, Moses Harman and E.C. Walker, Walker was nowhere to be found. He was already in jail—along with his wife, Lillian Harman, the 16-year-old daughter of Moses Harman. They had been arrested and sentenced for their nonstate, non-church marriage of September 1886.

Through this widely publicized marriage, the couple had hoped to gain government tolerance of their union and so deal a severe blow to the institution of marriage. In their ceremony, Walker pledged: "Lillian is and will continue to be as free to repulse any and all advances of mine as she had been heretofore. In joining with me in this love and labor union, she has not alienated a single natural right." Lillian pledged: "I make no promises that it may become impossible or immoral for me to fulfill, but retain the right to act always, as my conscience and best judgment shall dictate." The ceremony concluded with Moses Harman declaring: "I do not 'give away the bride,' as I wish her to be always the owner of her own person."

The publicized marriage brought threats of mob violence to Harman's home town of Valley Falls, Kansas, and the officials, seeking to calm the situation, arrested Walker and Lillian Harman on the morning after their wedding night. The charge was unlawfully and feloniously living together as man and wife without being married according to statute. Walker was sentenced to 75 days in jail, Harman to 45. Upon being asked the customary question whether there was any reason why sentence should not be passed, Lillian answered: "Nothing except that we have committed no crime. But we are in your power, and you can, of course, do as you please."

In March 1887, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld this decision. In a contradictory ruling, the court held that common-law marriage was legal but nevertheless punishable for violation of the statute requiring a marriage license. In short, the couple had violated regulations designed to secure a record of their marriage. As Chief Justice Horton said, disregarding the central issue of the validity of their union: "The question, in my opinion,…is not whether Edwin Walker and Lillian Harman are married, but whether, in marrying, or rather living together as man and wife, they have observed the statutory requirements."

The Harman and Walker case was one of the earliest cases of imprisonment for violation of marriage laws and one of the most significant examples of civil disobedience aimed at securing woman's rights. Yet it has been all but ignored by feminists and feminist histories. While minor socialist figures have been examined in depth, Lillian Harman and the Lucifer circle have hardly even been mentioned. Is it any wonder, then, that many people have come to believe that feminism's roots extend to the early socialist movement? To believe this betrays a decided neglect of, if not prejudice against, the individualist origins of the struggle for woman's rights in the antislavery and free-love movements.

The sex and obscenity laws, the Comstock laws, were an effective litmus test for individualist feminism. The more respectable feminists, having taken up the cause of social-purity reform, tended to welcome the statutes that banned birth-control information from the mail on the grounds that it was obscene. Social-purity reformers concentrated on raising the age of consent, rehabilitating prostitutes, censoring obscenity, and promoting restraint as a means of birth control. Lucifer the Light Bearer was a disgrace to these mainstream feminists, and one of the pledges of the women candidates in the Kansas election of 1889 was that they would shut it down.

It was left to the individualist feminists to break the sexual laws over and over again in order to oppose censorship and assert individual self-ownership. While legislators and reform-minded feminists proclaimed themselves protectors of womanhood, the individualist feminists sought freedom for women. In stressing this, Moses Harman amended Robert Ingersoll's famous statement that women merit all the rights claimed by men, plus the additional right to be protected. "Woman," said Harman, "is entitled to all the rights accorded to man, including the right to protect herself against invasion by her so-called protectors."

An area in which women have been particularly victimized by their protectors is labor and the passage of protective labor laws. There was great disagreement among feminists on the issue of labor laws. It was almost universally agreed that women's working conditions were appalling. The government, however, denied the right to strike, picket, boycott, hold labor meetings, disseminate information, or engage in most other peaceful, noncoercive means of labor reform. Not surprisingly, the labor movement became dominated by those who advocated a countermeasure of coercive laws favoring workers.

Protective labor legislation was a particularly insidious form of discrimination, because many of its advocates sincerely believed that they were benefiting women. An 1875 report for the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that industrial work upset women's menstrual cycle, damaging the health, sanity, and fertility of women. In 1879, the first enforceable law regulating women's working hours was passed in Massachusetts.

The labor laws, of course, did anything but protect women. Women were flocking to industrial work simply because it was preferable to the other forms of labor available. It offered them a means of escaping the back-breaking domestic and farm labor that were their only other alternatives. Robert Smuts in his book Women and Work in America reports: "A factory had only to open its doors in any part of the rural United States to find itself besieged by girls and young women from miles around all eager for work."

Women were also, in the name of protection, effectively excluded from jobs requiring no manual labor whatsoever. They were prohibited from attending universities on grounds varying from the claim that studying caused blood to leave the sexual organs and rush to the brain, thus leaving women sterile, to the claim that dissection and biology classes violated women's sensibilities. But with government licensing of professions on the rise, there were more and more jobs that one could not obtain without a university degree.

Laws regulated how many hours a woman could work, whether she could work at night, what constituted excessive labor, the type of machinery she could run—there were myriad restrictions that gave men a tremendous competitive edge in the market; men even had a legal monopoly on certain professions. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of the exclusively or predominantly male unions supported protective labor laws, but this does not explain why many feminists supported them as well.

The situation is clearly parallel to the minimum-wage laws of today. They allegedly protect minorities but in fact guarantee increased unemployment for that group by increasing the cost of hiring. Yet many people who back this law are obviously sincere reformers who believe that government can and ought to reduce income inequalities and that an oppressed class has rights that supersede the rights of the individual.

Gertrude Kelly, an individualist feminist who worked as a doctor with the poor, was extremely critical of middle- and upper-class women who approached the labor issue with superficial knowledge. Commenting in Benjamin Tucker's Liberty on an article by Dr. Anne S. Daniel on women who did sewing jobs in their homes, Kelly wrote: "She draws a terrible picture of the lives of these women, of their wretched physical and mental condition…and then proposes a remedy—force. She says that of the six hundred women of whom she has statistics, one hundred and ninety-seven actually needed to work—that is, had no husbands to support them. She would have the married women prohibited from working at anything except their housework, so that they should not come into competition with other women."

Dr. Daniel, Kelly noted, was "a woman whose position would lead one to suppose that she was opposed to sexual slavery." But her proposed law would achieve the opposite, Kelly protested. "Another law added to this one, making the marriage-bond perpetual, would be all that would be needed to make women the absolute, abject slave of their husbands. Will this rule that a woman must not work after she is married apply to all women, professional and otherwise—women doctors for instance—or are we to have class legislation." That was exactly what we were to have.

The condemnation of protective labor laws was one of the main ways in which individualist feminists expressed their disapproval of governmental, collective means of solving social problems. Individualist feminism seeks to take power away from government, not to extend that power. Clearly, the contemporary feminist movement is not individualist. The prevailing ideology of mainstream feminism is political liberalism (in the modern sense). The emphasis is on "positive rights" (to equal pay, to professional positions, to day care centers, etc.) rather than "negative rights" (to be free of laws restricting activities, information, employment, etc.). Yet the roots of American feminism were basically individualist, and much of the nonpolitical feminist literature is individualist in its call for the independent, liberated woman—often standing in striking contrast to political demands for collective, paternalist means of improving women's lives.

Of course, individualism has suffered a general decline in the United States since the mid-19th century. Feminism was just one of many social causes that accommodated, rather than resisted, a shift toward statism. Today, if the early, individualist feminists are even mentioned, their ideology is ignored, while the most minor socialist figures are identified as socialists.

One can only hope that as individualist libertarian ideas are aired and applied to a widening array of social issues, a confrontation between the two ideologies will occur within the feminists' ranks. Then individualism may once again come to play a significant role in advancing the freedom of woman.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Cato Institute, 1982), a collection of individualist feminist essays. Portions of this article appear in her introduction to the volume.