Friday, August 18, 2017

Response: The Multiple Feminisms of a 19th Century Women's Rights Thinker

Paula Monopoli’s point in her recent review of my book Elizabeth Cady Stanton & the Feminist Foundations of Family Law,  is well taken.  She notes that “[t]he only arguable weakness in this book is that after the trenchant introduction, Thomas does not do much to connect back to the different strands of feminist theory per se.”

This actually was one of the earliest ideas I had for the book, and one that interested the editor the most in the original proposal.  But in looking back at it now, it seems that this part of the manuscript ended up on the cutting room floor. (Along with a background discussion of Protestant ideas of no-fault divorce which I still miss as it placed Stanton’s idea in greater historical and religious context).

The generality of the point of multiple feminisms survived in the book, challenging the characterization of Stanton as a simplistic thinker, a mere “first generation” advocate seeking to treat women the same as men.  (And Sue Davis makes a similar point in her book The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton about the multiple feminisms seen in Stanton’s political theory).

However, the specifics of contexts illustrating each type of feminism must be pieced together by the reader herself through the book. So let me try and explain better here.

Liberal feminism. This is the most known about Stanton, that she support a formal equality approach to treating women the same as men.  This meant reversing laws of coverture which denied women equal rights to property, inheritance, and child custody.  It meant giving women the same right to vote, hold public office, and enter the professions by college and work.  Women should be lawyers, reverends, and medical doctors.  Women should be able to own their own bank accounts.  She would have eliminated all instances where law created a separate rule based on gender, much like Ruth Bader Ginsburg advocated during her years of women’s rights work with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

Difference feminism.  However, Stanton did not only advocated formal equality between genders.  She also advocated specific legal and social rules for women only, for situations where women were differently situated.  Stanton advocated a maternal custody rule, giving child custody to women only.  She supported a widow’s exception for dower, tax and bankruptcy due to women’s different need.  And she advocated a women-only right to control sexual relations and procreation through abstinence, challenging the existing standard of male sexual prerogative. 

Her justification for these was an understanding that it was women who biologically bore children, and socially raised them.  She considered women’s role in raising children to be a powerful one.  Indeed, she argued that women should use this power to raise the next generation of children up with equal virtues and coeducation, so that women could transform society by their feminist parenting. 

While society used the maternal role to “protect” and restrict women’s rights, Stanton used maternity as a basis for power and a justification for right.  It’s not that men could not share in parenting, which she also advocated, but that they simply did not.  As such, women were differently situated and needed rights that corresponded to that reality.

Radical feminism.  Stanton also appreciated that the structures of law, society, and the family themselves were barriers to women’s full autonomy.  Like modern legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, she attacked the sexualization of women -- in romantic Victorian notions and revealing décolletages -- and advocated dress reform and coeducation.  Stanton endorsed an equal moral sexual standard, that idea of men as needing to indulge their sexual passions by affairs, adultery, and command of marital relations was wrong, and that men should be restrained and liable for consequences, and that women also entitled to sexual express and sexual control.  And she would also restructure marriage from hierarchy to joint partnership.  Not just that women would retain their own separate property earned or inherited, but that marriage would have joint property belonging to both partners regardless of where obtained. 

Finally, Stanton quite radically took on the structure of the church.  After fifty years of work for women’s rights, Stanton learned that the foundational sticking point was that the basis of social and legal gender norms of women’s subordination were based in religious teachings.  She took on the Christian church’s doctrines and teachings, reinterpreting biblical passages and deconstructing the male bias in those rules. 

Overall, Stanton’s use of feminist methodology of deconstruction, critical suspicion of seemingly objective rules, and understanding of male privilege allowed her to approach legal and social critique with an all-encompassing feminist theory that shows her to be an advance and radical legal thinker.

Monopoli concludes in her review, that “the main strength of the book lies in Thomas as legal historian pulling together the arguments out of Stanton’s own writings, making them available to us and linking them to Stanton’s surprisingly modern legal theories. This book should be included on reading lists for upper-level seminars in jurisprudence, family law, and legal history, in addition to gender and the law. Reading it will introduce students to a significant legal mind, albeit an informally trained one, not traditionally included in the canon of prominent American legal thinkers.”

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2017/08/response-the-multiple-feminists-of-a-19th-century-womens-rights-thinker.html

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