Thesis: Has Feminism Enhanced or Destroyed Marriage and Family?

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Feminism Has Not Destroyed Marriage

Notwithstanding viewpoints to the contrary, the feminist movement (past and present) has not ruined the institution of marriage in America. Indeed, some feminists have challenged marriage as a valid tradition, and those challenges should be viewed as healthy to the ongoing dialogue. This paper delves into that topic and presents a variety of scholarly narratives in order to provide perspective and clarity.

Tocqueville / Lockean Views on the Liberation of Women

Looking into the Lockean view of women, the initial question arises, are the basic foundations of liberalism "fundamentally flawed" (Wolfson, 1996, p. 203) due to the fact that the Lockean social contract fails to include women? According to Jean Bethke Elshtain, John Locke's liberalism is "parasitic upon surviving patriarchal forms" because when he created his thesis on property rights the female gender in the population was "propertyless" and hence, Elshtain justifiably wonders how women could emerge simply by a grant of "formal rights" (Wolfson, 203).

Other feminist writers, including Zillah Eisenstein and Susan Moller Okin, allude to Locke's failures to include women in his liberalism mantra. To wit, Eisenstein refers to Locke's "patriarchal capitalism"; and Okin argues that because women were "saddled" with domestic roles that prevented them the opportunity of basking in "…full equality of opportunity in the public realm," they basically have been left out of Lockean doctrine (Wolfson, 203).

Of course there are always contrary arguments when an influential individual in history presents assertions that don't align perfectly with modern thinking, and there are also rebuttals to those arguments as a natural response from intellectuals and scholars. Wolfson takes issue with the assertions that Okin, Eisenstein, et al., offer, suggesting that since women are holding public office, are becoming leaders in the workplace and are active in the military -- Wolfson's article was published well before the Pentagon authorized women to step into combat roles -- the "fruition of Lockean principles" are in evidence to all who examine the contemporary realities for women.

As for Tocqueville, Wolfson explains that he does not reject the domestic roles that women play, but rather "…he encourages it" and he "…praises American women for resisting democratic equality" (204). In his writings Tocqueville has made a point of defending the more traditional gender roles, which relegate American women to "…the domestic sphere, where she willingly and proudly serves her husband…" along with giving up desires for personal achievement in order to assure the "well-being of her children" (Wolfson, 204). By taking the above-mentioned positions on the female role in the family, Tocqueville receives a literary tongue-lashing from Elshtain, who complains that he has "…glossed over" the lopsided relationship between men and women when it comes to women's "…political and social inferiority to men" (Wolfson, 204).

Delba Winthrop argues that Tocqueville is open for criticism because he is "…silent about natural differences" between males and females; "…why does Tocqueville not mention…the most obvious and relevant natural difference: namely that women bear children?" (Wolfson, 204). To that analysis, Wolfson retorts that while Tocqueville is indeed a bit "sketchy" on the natural differences, Tocqueville does believe that a woman's maternal instinct "…motivates," in meaningful ways, women's sacrifices, which can be seen as justification for their "…domestic subordination" (Wolfson, 204).

That having been said, Tocqueville clearly doesn't give a pass to the male gender in America, and in the process supports feminism to a degree. Indeed, the American husband typically is "…unfeeling and selfish" as he "sets coldly about" to pursue his "fortune" with not the slightest interest in romance, Wolfson writes, quoting Tocqueville (204). Using energy which is "cold," the American husband would never "…entrust his life or his future to the whims of chance" and most certainly he would not entrust his being to "the fate of a woman," Wolfson continues, paraphrasing and partially quoting Tocqueville (205). A woman marries into what Tocqueville refers to as the "…husband's vast egotism," and as a result the wife ends up giving a lot while receiving very little, according to Tocqueville (2005). And yet, given the challenges that an egotistic, unfeeling husband presents to the woman he married, the wife nonetheless "…displays a profound peace" which is reflected in her "natural, quiet determination" (Wolfson, 2005).

In Jerome Huyler's book Locke in America, the author discusses the benefits that the Revolution brought to American society. Huyler acknowledges that slaves and Native Americans were "…systematically denied the liberty, property and opportunity" that white settlers enjoyed (Huyler, 1995, 207). He adds that even if "…women generally were chained to traditional patriarchal patterns…" most of humanity enjoyed a freer form of existence (207-208). Huyler quotes from the Radicalism of the American Revolution, in which author Gordon S. Wood suggests that scholars should not delve on what the Revolution did not do, including the failure to "…abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women…" but rather the emphasis should be on the fact that the Revolution "…made possible the anti-slavery and women's rights movements of the nineteenth century" (208). Moreover, Huyler adds -- "in capturing the spirit of Locke" -- that Thomas Jefferson understood the serious flaws in the early American government but (quoting Jefferson) "…if man [or government] is not yet perfect…he [it] is at least perfectible" because there are "…natural laws in ethics" (208).

Those "natural laws in ethics" Jefferson alluded to did not make room for equality vis-a-vis the female gender in Puritan society, as author David Hall explains in his book Puritans in the New World: "…wives were to defer to their husbands. Wives could inherit property from their husbands or parents but were excluded from participating in civil and church government" (Hall, 2004, 163).

It apparently seemed correct to Locke -- in solidarity with Puritan values -- that one member of a marital union should be dominant and the other should be compliant. In M. Seliger's book, the Liberal Politics of John Locke, Seliger recounts that Locke believed that a "Conjugal society is 'made by a voluntary compact' yet is at once natural and artificial" (Seliger, 1968, 221). Furthermore Locke saw that while this voluntary association was initially "…one of equals" due to the "…necessity of placing the last determination in the hands of one of the contracting parties, subordination becomes an inescapable concomitant of the voluntary union" (Seliger, 221).

Men, Locke went on, answer the call to be dominant "…in accord with God's will"; men have a choice when it comes to partner choosing but men do not have the freedom "…to dispense with the institution…or with the dominion appropriate to it" (Seliger, 222). In other words Locke is asserting that God has chosen men to dominate women in conjugal arrangements, a rather bizarre assertion notwithstanding the age and era in which it was issued and the lack of Scriptural evidence in support of that assertion.

Women's Changing Roles -- What is Expected of Women -- a Review

In Nancy McWilliams' essay "The Worst of Both Worlds: Dilemmas of Contemporary Young Women," she touches on the dynamics relative to decisions young women made in the past and what they must decide in the current era, as they approach marrying age. Previous to the modern era, a girl could decide to become a wife and parent -- "and manage the domestic sphere the way her mother did" -- or she could become more independent and fill a role as a "spinster" (McWilliams, 1992, 28). And when the birth control pill arrived, women that came of age in the 1960s experienced "…a rebellion against prior constraints, and a shared sense of mission to raise the consciousness of the rest of the culture about women's appropriate rights, underestimated strengths," along with a more realistic understanding of women's value to the greater society (McWilliams, 28).

That having been pointed out, the economic realities for females today takes away some of the ebullience that was experienced following the sexual revolution that was launched in part by "the pill." McWilliams explains that "…the economic exigencies" in today's society force young women to come to terms with all the "…identity-related stresses that young men have faced for generations" and hence women realize they in fact have very little "…compensatory relief from the demands of their former roles as domestic specialists" (29). Meanwhile a woman (unlike a man) has a key decision to make with reference to her "biological clock"; to wit, if she would like to have a child, she has a limited time frame in which to bring a child into the world. Hence, she must either enter a career (to come to terms with the "economic exigencies" and create for herself financial independence in case nothing works out with a relationship) first or decide to have a baby and do the career dance later (McWilliams, 29).

Speaking of women, childbirth and marriage, McWilliams notes (29) that young women are "…acutely aware of the divorce rate" and they are smart enough and alert enough to understand they would "likely" be left with a single-mother parenting… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Has Feminism Enhanced or Destroyed Marriage and Family?.  (2013, May 4).  Retrieved March 26, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/feminism-enhanced-destroyed-marriage/9091707

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"Has Feminism Enhanced or Destroyed Marriage and Family?."  Essaytown.com.  May 4, 2013.  Accessed March 26, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/feminism-enhanced-destroyed-marriage/9091707.