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  • Women, Equality, and the Family
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain (bio)

Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t miss much when he toured America’s fledgling democracy in the Jacksonian era. He saw the tremendous energy of the drive toward equality. He discerned the deep inner connection between democratic politics and religion. Indeed, he observed that religion performed the quite specific task of helping to chasten and purify the excessive, even exclusive taste for “well-being” that individuals acquire in an age of equality. Religion helps remind us of a brotherhood and sisterhood not reducible to merely instrumentalist or functionalist terms. To be sure, he was put off by the frenzies of evangelism (“Religious insanity is very common in the United States,” he remarked [II, 134]), but the connection between the congregation and the town meeting and the adaptation of Catholicism to democratic conditions he took in with alacrity and enthusiasm. He prophesied tragedy for American Indians and a likely war over Southern slavery: Here, too, he proved to be tragically prescient.

Yet on the subject of what used to be called “relations between the sexes” (before “gender” became the term of art), Tocqueville’s words are often dismissed as yet one more Frenchman’s cry of “vive la différence” and are deemed of little help in sorting out issues of women’s subordinate status in a democratic society. This has long struck me as rather shortsighted. For what Tocqueville offered is in fact quite [End Page 157] helpful, both in understanding the actual situation “on the ground” as seen through the eyes of a discerning foreigner and in reflecting upon America’s continuing turmoil over the question of what equality between the sexes means or requires.

Let us first turn to Tocqueville’s actual observations. Here a bit of background may help. Tocqueville’s experience had been that of a society dominated by the male heads of aristocratic families—patriarchalism, or one version of it. This grand hereditary family system, where wealth and power were based on land, possessed certain distinct virtues, including a capacity to stand against the rushing tides, whether of change or of reaction. This was possible because aristocrats had an independent power base and because their families were structured in part through powerful family stories and legacies. The paterfamilias in this scheme of things could well be a benign and munificent person, but his was the final say, his power modeled on that of the lordly king on his throne and the Heavenly King on His. Familial, social, and religious images and systems all served to reinforce one another.

The world of the ancien régime was shattered by the coming of the French Revolution (which nearly wiped out Tocqueville’s own family), the wanton destruction of traditional religion (with thousands of priests and nuns imprisoned, exiled, tortured, and executed), the establishment of state control over religion, and the installation of a kind of popular dictatorship, sustained by a new democratic nationalism and the levée en masse. All without distinction were to be mobilized to fight enemies within and without. Yet this form of so-called popular sovereignty bore very strange fruit. Embedded within the “civic republican” tradition was an emphasis on mobilization and the martial spirit. Women and families—indeed, domestic life in general—seemed pretty puny stuff in this spirited scheme of things. So despite the clamor for equality and the cries of “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” (and it was, after all, fraternity), it is arguably the case that women were shoved into the shadows by the French Revolution and its aftermath, rather than borne along into the glaring light of liberation (or, as the French liked to call it, “enlightenment”). Enlightened France did not give women the vote until after the Second World War, so powerful was the martial and masculine élan deeded by the revolutionary heritage. To a keen observer like Tocqueville, then, France surely seemed to have gone from an old-fashioned, aristocratic-monarchical-patriarchal order to a new republican-revolutionary order dominated by sons, an order that was far less open to the particular ethics and graces of domestic life and the virtues and verities associated with “the feminine” than had been...

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pp. 157-163
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