Chivalry American-Style, ca. 1840

Now that I have your attention, a little reading matter. First, some Tocqueville, on what he saw when he visited the United States from May 11, 1831, through February 20, 1832, his purpose being to contrast the expression of democracy in America with that in contemporary France.

Here he is remarking on "How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes," having noted that "there are people in Europe who, confounding together the different characteristics of the sexes, would make man and woman into beings not only equal but alike." In his view, this attempt to make "one sex equal to another" by mixing them "in all things--their occupations, their pleasures, their business" would lead only to the degrading of both sexes. According to Tocqueville, the Americans had a rather better understanding of "the democratic equality" that might "be established between the sexes," by dividing their duties in much the same way as manufacturers divided the work in their factories. This division, he thought, had a number of happy results, which he observed:
It has often been remarked that in Europe [remember, he is talking about the 1830s here--FB] a certain degree of contempt lurks even in the flattery which men lavish upon women; although a European frequently affects to be the slave of woman, it may be seen that he never sincerely thinks her his equal. In the United States men seldom compliment women, but they daily show how much they esteem them. They constantly display an entire confidence in the understanding of a wife and a profound respect for her freedom; they have decided that her mind is just as fitted as that of a man to discover the plain truth, and her heart as firm to embrace it; and they have never sought to place her virtue, any more than his, under the shelter of prejudice, ignorance, and fear....
It is true that the Americans rarely lavish upon women those eager attentions which are commonly paid them in Europe, but their conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression. In America a young unmarried woman may alone and without fear undertake a long journey.
The legislators of the United States, who have mitigated almost all the penalties of criminal law, still make rape a capital offense, and no crime is visited with more inexorable severity by public opinion. This may be accounted for; as the Americans can conceive nothing more precious than a woman's honor and nothing which ought so much to be respected as her independence, they hold that no punishment is too severe for the man who deprives her of them against her will. In France, where the same offense is visited with far milder penalties, it is frequently difficult to get a verdict from a jury against the prisoner. Is this a consequence of contempt of decency or contempt of women? I cannot but believe it is a contempt of both.
Thus the Americans do not think that man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices, but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as beings of equal value. They do not give to the courage of woman the same form or the same direction as to that of man, but they never doubt her courage; and if they hold that man and his partner ought not always to exercise their intellect and understanding in the same manner, they at least believe the understanding of the one to be as sound as that of the other, and her intellect to be as clear. Thus, then, while they have allowed the social inferiority of woman to continue [NB Tocqueville does not say this is a good thing, and seems to imply rather the reverse--FB], they have done all they could to raise her morally and intellectually to the level of man; and in this respect they appear to me to have excellently understood the true principle of democratic improvement.
As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence [again, which he seems to imply is a bad thing--FB], I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.
--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols. (New York: Vintage, 1990), 2:211-14.
On a personal note, because I have been described in the recent Facebook thread as most definitely "not a feminist," I can only explain this by pointing to the women in my family, none of whom ever gave me the sense that I should be anything other than what Tocqueville here describes: the intellectual and moral equal of a man. My mother's brother told me this past Christmas that his grandmother on his mother's side (I think this is right) was the first woman to graduate from college in Arkansas. This would be in the late nineteenth century. All four of her daughters, my grandmother included, went to college after growing up in Arkansas. On my mother's father's side, the family came from a small town in the Panhandle of Texas, where my great-grandmother had moved with her family at the end of the century. Her husband was the town doctor. My grandfather and his three sisters were also all college educated--he met my grandmother through one of his sisters at college in Missouri. One of my grandfather's sisters became a librarian and trained at Columbia University, where I two generations later would earn my Ph.D. One became an orthodontist, married an orthodontist, and lived in South Bend. And one became a radiologist (she took her M.D. in 1936, two years before my mother was born), married a Sherman, and lived on the Upper East Side in New York, where my mother spent a summer when she was growing up and was inspired to become a radiologist herself. On my father's side, my grandmother was the first in her high school class in Alton, Illinois, and first in her college class in Classics, although she was not allowed to accept the honor because they gave it to a man. She became a high school English teacher, and taught both my father and his sisters, if I have the story right. My parents met in college in Houston, where my mother graduated at the top of her class, and my father went to medical school so as to be with my mother (he actually wanted to be an engineer, but he chose her career so they could go to school together). I was their first child, born in early 1965 while my mother was doing her internship in pediatrics. Oh, and she took her M.D. the previous year as the ninth in a class of 100. My father was number 10. So, no, I don't really think of myself as a feminist. I think of myself as an American woman, fully equal to any American man.

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