Liberty Matters

The Woman Question: The Fight for Higher Education and Economic Independence in the Nineteenth Century


In her letter to John Adams, dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) wrote: 
"Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation." 
Adams was reminding her husband, John Adams, as a representative of the new nation supposed to be founded on individual freedom, to remove those formal and substantial obstacles which had traditionally prevented women from entering the public sphere on equal terms with men. 
During the 19th century, the battle for equality between the sexes involved so many ladies (and a few men) that that period is known as ‘the first wave of feminism.' All of them are worthy to be remembered, but this note will be focused on the contributions of those ladies who specifically demanded access to higher education for girls as the most significant instrument which could provide them economic autonomy. They converged on the idea that economic independence was the most significant way to free women from being materially subjected to their husbands/fathers/brothers. The main consequence of their battle for women’s economic independence is that many activists for women’s rights started to read, discuss, and write about economic matters and political economy. 
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 –1762) was a forerunner of this attitude. She exchanged some letters with James Steuart about his book, An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), by inviting him to admit that if women were allowed to take part in the market the prosperity of their country would rise. 
Mary Wollstonecraft (1757-1797) opened up the early feminist tradition within British classical liberalism. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Women ([1792] 1994), Wollstonecraft replied to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile ou De l’éducation where the French philosopher proposed that a girl’s education should aim to make her supportive to her well-educated husband. According to Wollstonecraft, Rousseau’s attitude, grounded on the fact that privileged and educated men systematically denied education and autonomy, including economic independence, to women, may be regarded as the major enemy of women’s emancipation and of the prosperity of a nation. 
Wollstonecraft was against the ‘doctrine of separate spheres.' i.e. the traditional complementarity between the stereotype of an emotional, intuitive and tender woman, unable to manage material resources, and the stereotype of a rational, ambitious, and strong man, naturally inclined to materially provide resources for a family as well as to govern a business and a country. Furthermore, Wollstonecraft highlighted the fact that gender norms had constantly and systematically reinforced the doctrine of the separate spheres: for instance, marriage made women completely dependent on their husbands from a financial point of view by reinforcing their subjection.[1]
In her Letters on Sympathy, Sophie de Grouchy (1764-1822), the translator of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments into French (1798), described the relevance of the mechanism of sympathy in explaining the development of political and economic institutions by insisting on the fact that sympathy is a common element in individuals’ nature regardless of their gender. Hence, women are as good as men at bargaining and trading and their participation in market exchange would increase the wealth of a nation. In the same year and sharing the same attitude, Priscilla Wakefield (1751 –1832) wrote Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement (1798), which was aimed to promote women’s education in order to gain financial independence; her pamphlet was explicitly inspired by Adam Smith’s notion of division of labor as the main principle to be applied in a prosperous society.
Jane Haldimand Marcet (1769-1858) and Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) were deeply engaged in popularizing the principles of classical economic liberalism among women, and they both promoted an economic education for girls. In 1816, inspired by her reading of Smith, Marcet published her Conversations on Political Economy to educate the ladies about “the science of political economy [that] is intimately connected with the daily occurrences of life, and our ignorance may lead us into serious practical errors." The book was praised by Ricardo, Malthus, and Macaulay, who invited her to join the Political Economy Club where she was the only female member admitted.[2]
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was committed to an enlargement of economic education with a special emphasis on women. Between 1832 and 1834, she published her Illustrations of Political Economy in nine volumes to promote classical liberal principles through an economic narrative. In her book, women, who filled the role of reader of the Illustrations and character within its tales, were depicted as fundamental contributors to the economic process aimed to enrich a country. 
Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill (1807-1858) had a pivotal role in promoting gender equality and economic education for women. She insisted on the importance of married women to earn her own income and she supported women’s access to the labor market by insisting that their presence would have broken the male monopoly and increased the general level of competition within society. In her The Enfranchisement of Women (1851), she demanded: “education in primary and high schools, universities, medical, legal, and theological institutions; partnership in the labors and gains, risks and remunerations, of productive industry; and a coequal share in the formation and administration of laws--municipal, state, and national--through legislative assemblies, courts, and executive offices” (author’s emphasis). 
Influenced by Harriet Taylor, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) wrote Women and Work (1857) based on the principle that women and men share the same attitude and motivations which include necessity, self-fulfillment, and greed. She supported gender equal pay and she identified gender educational gap as the most determinant element for job discrimination and men´s monopoly over the most remunerative positions. Bodichon promoted her ideas by opening up her own school for girls and by founding the monthly periodical English Women Journal (1858-1864) in order to promote female employment. 
In the United States the battle for gender equality in education and in the economy was deeply interconnected with the fight for abolition. The condition of belonging to a double minority (to be a woman and to be a person of color) was determinant for many activists of the time who used to lecture in open debates and to publish in popular magazines. In 1832, Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was the first American woman who gave a memorable speech against slavery and chauvinism. In 1851, Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) delivered the well-known speech Ain’t I a Woman to strongly denounce the double discrimination she was facing as a Black woman (Gage 1863). Between 1849 and 1860, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) whose nickname was Moses, rescued dozens of slaves and constantly worked to provide crucial information in order to help other slaves to make their own escape from Maryland. 
In 1833 in Philadelphia, a group of women established the bi-racial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFAS). The group included Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) published a series of letters in the New England Spectator, later collected under the title Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837). In her letter to her sister Angelina (1805- 1879), she complained about the restrictions on the “miserably deficient” education imposed by the conservative American society on women, “[who] are taught to regard marriage as the one thing needful, the only avenue to distinction and to spend their live investing in fashionable world." The Grimké sisters passionately requested a broader education for girls than the usual knowledge of household affairs, in order to improve the general condition of society as a whole. They also denounced a persistent gender discrimination in the labor market as well as pointing to the gender wage gap as the inevitable consequences of women´s cultural subjection. 
The Grimké sisters influenced Ezra Heywood and Sarah E. Holmes, both pioneers in the battle for sexual liberation. Ezra Heywood (1828-1893), founded the journal The Word to scrutinize the woman question in a framework of sexual liberation against traditional marriage and in favor of economic independence of women. Sarah E. Holmes (1847-1929) published many articles in Benjamin Tucker’s journal Liberty in order to promote the idea that sharing domestic duties would have advantaged both partners.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was likely the most prolific activist and writer of the time in the United States who combined her commitment to the woman question with the urgency of introducing women to economic matters. In her Women and Economics (1898), she insisted on the necessity of women becoming independent from a material point of view from their male counterparts by arguing that financial autonomy would improve not only their personal conditions but also their position within marriage as an equal partner rather than as a subjugated wife. 
Perkins Gilman criticized the schools’ programs which reinforced the cult of domesticity for girls, and proposed to move household production to the market to benefit from greater specialization and economies of scale. This shift would have enabled women to choose their own work without being forced to cover traditional roles within families. She advocated some social reforms that included the professionalization of housework as well as the building of communal living spaces with public kitchens in order to prevent isolation and frustration among many women who were forced to stay at home. Moreover, she proposed some measures for an equal division of homework between men and women in order to strengthen the idea of sharing responsibilities between spouses, and she insisted on the necessity of educating people to consider women’s self-determination in their professions as a valid way to improve the society as a whole. 
The interconnection between the woman question and the economy was not relegated to the contributions of writers and activists. Women entrepreneurs of the time played a crucial role, which has been too often neglected, in promoting gender equality. Until the late 19th century, businesswomen were limited in their movements by social barriers; they were forced to use separate entrances and separate women’s departments in brokerage firms and banks; they were recommended only for moderate credit and discouraged in making investments. Furthermore, the mainstream press devalued and underestimated women’s entrepreneurial ambitions and barely recognized and often stigmatized women’s accumulation of wealth. This combination of prejudice and chauvinism forced many women in business to wear a male face, by using their husbands and sons’ names or by faking their gender identity.[3]
Things gradually changed in the late 19th century. Many women entrepreneurs emerged. Some of them founded new firms in ‘female sectors’ such as beauty. This is the case of Harriet Ayer (1849-1903) who started the first cosmetic company in the United States and Ellen Demorest (1824-1898) who launched a quarterly magazine, Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, and opened a women’s fashion emporium in New York, at 473 Broadway, where she employed both black and white female workers. Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919), aka Sarah Breedlove, became the wealthiest Black woman in the country by developing and marketing a line of beauty cosmetics and hair products for Black women through her ‘Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.' the cosmetic firm she founded in 1910 in Indianapolis. The first Black entrepreneur in the United States was Sarah Gammon Bickford (1852?-1931), a former slave, who owned the Virginia City Water Company in Montana beginning in 1890. 
The role of many businesswomen was fundamental in developing social activism: they often founded several organizations, schools, journals, and firms, which aimed to promote women’s education and participation in the labor market. In doing so, they transformed their financial success into political strategies to advocate women’s emancipation in the name of freedom rather than equality.
Bodichon B. (1857) Women and Work. London: Bosworth and Harrison.
De Grouchy S. (1798 [2019]). Letters on Sympathy: A Critical Engagement with Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gournay (de) M. (1622 [2002]) Egalité des Hommes et des Femmes. Arnould J., Berriot-Salvadore E., Bichard-Thomine M., Blum C., Franchetti A., and Worth-Stylianou V. (Eds.) Œuvres complètes. Paris: Honoré Champion.
Grimké S. (2010) “Letter VIII: on the Condition of Women in the United States." Barker D. and Kuiper E. (Eds.) Feminist Economics. Critical Concepts in Economics. London: Routledge, pp. 75-
Marcet J. (1816) Conversation on Political Economy. London: Longman.
Martineau H. ([1983] 2018) Illustrations of Political Economy.
Perkins Gilman C. (1898) Women and Economics. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co.
Taylor Mill H. ([1851] 1994) “Enfranchisement of Women." Robson A. and Robson J. (Eds.) Sexual Equality: Writings by John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor Mill, and Helen Taylor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 178-203.
Wakefield P. ([1798] 2015) Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement. Cambridge, MS: Cambridge University Press. 
Wollstonecraft M. ([1792] 1994) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin.
[1] Wollstonecraft’s legacy was central for Jane Austen (1775-1817): in Austen’s Persuasion, she perceived feminine traits (emotions, feeling and so forth) not as natural, but as the inevitable effects of social constraints. Furthermore, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the role of education for girls was a central vindication for women’s emancipation.
[2] The Political Economy Club was founded in 1821 to support the principles of free trade and it was promoted by economist Thomas Tooke (1774-1858), under the suggestion of David Ricardo. The first meeting, which took place on April 30, at the Freemason’s Tavern, was led by James Mill who also set the rules of the group. Each meeting was aimed to discuss topics of political economy based on opening speakers who circulated a printed synopsis of their arguments (Source: LSE Online Library).
[3] For instance, Miriam Folline Leslie (1836-1914) adopted her husband’s full name (Frank Leslie) to keep alive and productive their editorial and publishing business empire after her husband’s death.