Democratic Womanhood--Tocquevillian Reflections
By Anonymous, September 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

In his Democracy in America, Tocqueville devotes two chapters solely to a discussion of woman in American life. While the first discusses the education of women during childhood, the second looks at women as wives. These two chapters elucidate the paradox of American womanhood.

First, Tocqueville observes that American girls are given great freedom while growing up, compared with the cloistered approach of educating European women. Rather than being completely innocent of knowledge of the world, American women learn how to protect themselves from its evils: “her morals are pure rather than her mind chaste.” According to Tocqueville, the American way of educating women has always been to “give arms to her reasoning powers,” rather than ensuring that she will never be in a position to need them. Such an approach depends on the assumption that “woman’s mind is just as capable as man’s of discovering the naked truth, and her heart as firm to face it.” The assumption of such moral and epistemological equality serves as the foundation for the American education of women.

In the second chapter, Tocqueville paints a portrait of the woman as she reaches adulthood and marriage. While childhood in America is more freeing for women than in Europe, adulthood brings “stricter obligations” than in Europe. Tocqueville attributes this to two facts of American life: its Puritan religious heritage and its commercial character. The latter of these requires some explanation. He indicates that Americans “demand much abnegation on the woman’s part and a continual sacrifice of pleasure for the sake of business.” The commercial economy of America means that a family’s fortunes are ever changing, from poverty to wealth, and the woman has to manage such changes in the domestic economy. In other words, the capitalistic commercial economy of America requires a carefully regulated domestic economy run by a frugal and savvy wife. Thus, Tocqueville observes, “the extraordinary prosperity…of this nation…is due to the superiority of their women.”

Tocqueville observes a tension for American women between the equal and liberating education of their childhood and the strict demands of running the household economy, which falls largely to women. I believe a version of this tension still persists for women today. Of course, today, women not only have “the manly habits inculcated by her education,” but are expected to use those “manly habits” by entering the work force and pursuing a successful career. On the other hand, women are still largely expected to run the domestic economy with the attention and frugality of a full-time job. They are also expected to be the primary caretakers of children—the inculcator of virtue, the planner of extravagant birthday parties on a shoestring budget, the head of the PTA, and the taxi service to endless extracurricular activities. They are expected to run the household, including their husbands, with all the precision and dedication of a benevolent dictator. The commonly held wisdom is that while both men and women can be CEOs, attorneys, and doctors, only women can be the omnipresent, omniscient, over-protective mothers.

While this tension may have been exacerbated by the various waves of feminism, Tocqueville reminds us that it has been present since the beginning. Being an American woman has never been easy business—either now or in Tocqueville’s day. It may in fact be that this tension is endemic to democracy itself. Thus, thinking more deeply about the problems of contemporary American womanhood should look further than the 1960s--back to the very beginnings of the American regime.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Sep 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Although Tocqueville may have seen this tension between their education and running the household, it seems to me that the choices that women face today are somehow fundamentally different due to feminist movement of the 1960s. For feminists, the choice is to do both and have society being able to support this dual endeavors. In other words, Tocqueville seems to have misread the role of women in American democracy, or, at least, his observations don't seem very helpful when confronted with the modern feminist movement.