150 Years Of The Atlantic June 2006

Women’s Empowerment

This is the fifth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie
Women’s Empowerment

One of the more disturbing newsreels of the early twentieth century—now, like the Zapruder film, easily found on the Web—shows Emily Davison, a militant English suffragist maddened by the injustices she felt had been done to women, throwing herself in protest in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913. In nine jerky seconds you see it all: a somersaulting horse, a woman down and lying motionless, men in boaters running onto the track. Jockey and horse survived; Davison, struck in the head, died without regaining consciousness. Fellow suffragists saw her death as a martyrdom. Davison, wrote Emmeline Pankhurst, no doubt believed that through her grotesque self-sacrifice she might “put an end to the intolerable torture of women.”

Like watching Davison’s suicide, perusing old Atlantic essays on the century-long female struggle for equal rights can provoke mixed feelings—especially in the erstwhile feminist. On the one hand, one is grateful for the fearlessness with which various Atlantic writers, male and female, have argued over the years on behalf of women’s rights. It’s hard not to rejoice at Samuel McChord Crothers’s eloquent defense of women’s suffrage, or Virginia Woolf’s surprisingly passionate assault on the exploitation of female domestic labor. My favorite blast from the feminist past here is the ferocious “Desperate Housewives,” in which Nora Johnson, two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, decries the exhausting work of child care as “the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork.”

On the other hand, in gloomier moods, I find myself wondering if true sexual equality—the kind Davison killed herself for—will ever be achieved. Women in Western societies now have the vote, of course, along with many other rights and protections. Yet women and men continue to collide in countless ways in modern life. In an essay here from 1997, Katha Pollitt itemizes the many fields (business, politics, media, science, religion, etc.) in which American women are underrepresented; the disparities persist in 2006. Women’s historic entry into the workforce, one fears, has yet to produce any net gain in human happiness; men continue to resent female competition (sometimes with good reason); women themselves struggle to combine careers with the demands of motherhood and running a household. Nor has the “intolerable torture of women” mentioned by Mrs. Pankhurst exactly come to a halt—not yet, at least, in some of the more barbarous places around the globe. One suspects we’re not quite done with it: the woman on the track, the king’s horse bearing down; the conflict, the pain, the waste.

Terry Castle

For the full text of these articles, visit The Atlantic's Ideas Tour site.

October 1914

In 1914, as the women’s suffrage amendment languished in Congress, Samuel McChord Crothers, a popular essayist and a Harvard Square–based Unitarian minister, made the case for equal suffrage. (The amendment did not pass that year, however; American women would not win the right to vote for another six years.)

Few subjects have of late been more vehemently debated than the extension of the right of suffrage to women …

Heretofore this has been a man’s world arranged for his convenience. Now Woman has appeared, open-eyed and armed, and all things are to be changed. Religion, the State, the Family, are to be reorganized according to a strictly feministic plan. If the ultimatum is not at once accepted we may look for that dreadful catastrophe, a sex war.

No wonder that the honest citizen awakened by the loud cry is not in the best of humor. And when he is called opprobrious names, like Victorian and early-Victorian, he is inclined to be surly. It is all so sudden. It appears that all the ideals of womanhood that he has revered are to be overturned and trodden under foot by cohorts of Amazons shouting, “Down with the Home” …

The essential thing is that many women are becoming conscious of what some women have always felt, that some of the limitations which have been accepted as natural are in reality only conventional, and so can be removed …

During the last generation some things took place which were really revolutionary. The entrance of women into the colleges and universities, and into business and the professions, marked an advance of great importance. This was a new departure, at least in our modern world. Those who believed in a definite “sphere” for women had reason to be alarmed at this new departure. It involved many social changes. But these changes did not involve political action, and so were quietly acquiesced in.

Now that the revolution has taken place, multitudes of educated women are in influential positions, moulding public sentiment and directing large institutions. All the functions of citizenship they actually exercise except that of voting at certain elections. We no longer find anything amusing in the term “strong-minded” applied to a woman. What are colleges for if not to strengthen the mind!

And when our daughters come back from school and college, where their minds have been strengthened and broadened by modern discipline, they naturally seek to use the power they have acquired. Why not?

Volume 114, No. 4, pp. 538–546

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