From the Past
"You do not see American women directing concerns outside the range of the family, or handling business dealings, or entering politics." … "Nor have Americans ever imagined that the result of democratic principle would be to overturn a husband’s authority or to introduce any ambiguity about who is in charge in the family." … "if I am asked how we should account for the unusual prosperity and growing strength of this nation, I would reply that they must be attributed to the superiority of their women."
- Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America
I was recently listening to a recorded message by Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, when he quoted some of De Tocqueville’s remarks about the women of America in the 1830s. Such quotes remind us of one of the prime reasons for studying history. History gives us a perspective from other times, with which to evaluate our own times.
We can be so focused on the "here and now" that we fail to consider that things have not always been the same. Many of the views of today that are almost universally accepted and held to be right, are actually quite recent in origin and originated from dubious sources.
Within this magazine we have examined many issues, especially ones related to family life (i.e. dating vs. courtship, marriage & divorce, home schooling, birth control, approaches to child raising, etc.), in which we have looked both to the Bible and to examples from other times and cultures to call into question the common practices of our time.
A Little About
Alexis De Tocqueville’s, Dem-ocracy in America, is a very famous book, but one that I had never read. It is a lengthy and remarkable volume. De Tocqueville visited America for about 9 months in the 1830s. He was a French aristocrat who was very interested in America’s democracy and hoped to compose a great literary work about it, and he succeeded! He carefully studied America and a diverse group of Americans with the intent of explaining this country to his fellow Frenchmen and Europeans. France’s attempts at democracy had clearly made many wrong turns in comparison.
De Tocqueville exhibits keen insight into the workings of America and the views and values of the American people. He often strikes interesting contrasts between American views and European views of the same time. He also had great insight into some of the future problems the democracy of America would face. Nevertheless, his work does suffer some shortcomings. He is perhaps a bit too idealistic about the America he saw, and he lacked the needed spiritual perspective to fully understand some of what he saw – he himself being the product of a French Catholic upbringing and greatly influenced by the skepticism of the Enlightenment period and the loose morals of his class and society.
Following are some further quotes about the respective roles and equality of men and women in America’s democracy of the 1830s.
"There are Europeans who confuse the various characteristics of the sexes and would make men and women beings not only equal but alike. To both, they attribute the same functions equally, impose on them the same duties and grant them the same rights. They would involve them both in everything – work, pleasure, business. It is easy to see that, in this ambition to make the one sex equal to the other, both are demeaned and that, from the crude mixing of nature’s works, will emerge weak men and immodest women."
"That is far from being the American view of the type of democratic equality which can be brought about between men and women." ...
"America is the one country where the most consistent care has been taken to trace clearly distinct spheres for the two sexes and where both are required to walk at an equal pace but along paths that are never the same. You do not see American women directing concerns outside the range of the family, or handling business dealings, or entering politics. Neither do you see any women forced to face the rough work of plowing fields, nor any of those heavy tasks which demand the exertion of physical strength. No family is so poor that it forms the exception to this rule." …
"If the American woman is not allowed to escape the tranquil sphere of her domestic duties, neither is she forced to leave it."…
"Consequently, American women who display a quite manly intelligence and energy generally maintain very delicate features and always remain feminine in their ways even though they sometimes show they have the hearts and minds of men."…
"Nor have Americans ever imagined that the result of democratic principle would be to overturn a husband’s authority or to introduce any ambiguity about who is in charge in the family." …
"Americans constantly display their complete confidence in the understanding of their wives and have a deep respect for their freedom. They esteem that her mind is as capable as a man’s of discovering the plain truth and that her heart is just as resolute in following it." …
"In America a girl can set out on a long journey alone and without fear."
"American legislators, who have softened almost all the articles of the penal code, still punish rape by death. And no other crime is prosecuted with the same relentless severity by public opinion. The explanation is this: since Americans have nothing they value or respect more than a woman’s honor and independence, they consider no punishment too harsh for those who deprive her of both against her will." …
"Thus Americans do not believe that men and women have the duty or the right to perform the same things but they show the same regard for the role played by both and they consider them as equal in worth although their lot in life is different. They do not give to a woman’s courage the same character or role as a man’s but they never question its strength; and, while they do not think that a man and his partner should always use their intelligence and understanding in the same way, at least they consider that the one has as sound an understanding and as clear a mind as the other."
"For my part, I say this without hesitation: although the American woman rarely leaves her domestic sphere and in certain respects is very dependent within it, nowhere does she enjoy a higher status. And now, as I come near to the end of this book in which I have recorded so many considerable achievements of the Americans, if I am asked how we should account for the unusual prosperity and growing strength of this nation, I would reply that they must be attributed to the superiority of their women."
How far we have come from what De Tocqueville observed! We have followed the paths that Europe was proceeding down in De Tocqueville’s day. His hope was to encourage Europe to imitate us, but the reverse has happened. We also have increasingly followed the views of the Enlightenment period and the humanistic philosophies that followed, over the counsel and examples of the Bible. Things were far from perfect in the 1830s in America, yet our forefathers seemed to be much closer to the "right course" in terms of family life and the relationship between the sexes.V