When is it too Much?

October 18, 2010
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In Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband, she wrote: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands…Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” While said in a joking manner, Abigail Adams, under her raillery, was concerned with married women’s helpless position under the limitations input by the English society. Her conservative outlook on the separate spheres of women and men was reinforced by Montesquieu, who expressed that, “women have never been wont to lay claim to equality, for they have so many other unusual advantages that for them equality of power is always situated for the worse.” If men reigned in the realm of politics and legislation, women wielded power in the personal and social realm. During the post- revolutionary period, women were governed by the notion of “Republican Motherhood,” an ideal in which, as Linda Kerber notes, “the model republican was the mother” whose service to her nation “was accomplished with the confines of her family.” The idea that women should exemplify, teach, and guard the spirit of the republic within the family imparted, for the first time , a political dimension to women’s roles.

One hundred and forty- five years later, this post- colonial notion of women’s rights was followed by a more radical movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, written by the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The Amendment was targeted at the plethora of state laws that obstructed women’s jury service, their rights to control property, and generally stigmatized them as inferior denizens. It was rigorously opposed by progressive reformer Florence Kelley and her followers in the National Consumers’ League, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the League of Women Voters. Kelley and other moderates feared that their decades of effort would be undermined by the utopian ideals of the militants. The preponderance of these laws, including the Supreme Court ruling of Muller vs. Oregon, limited the hours women could work each day and week, prohibited night work for women, and removed women from particular occupations altogether. Behind their argument was a fundamental disagreement over the meaning of equality. While the NWP favored total equality of opportunity, more tempered groups demanded modified equality that included the aforesaid protective laws. Despite moderates’ plea for the need of protective laws, the feminist movement would have never gained more ground towards equality without giving up this rather paternal affection from the government. It was an assiduous, but necessary trek towards the fusing of the two realms that Montesquieu tried so hard to distinguish. Women would have never achieved economic independence as long as laws treated them like children in need of protection.

But when does it get out of hand? It is when the demanded rights of these women interfere with others’. One distinct example occurred in 1972 with the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which would have obligated the government to take on greater financial responsibility for the nurture of many of the nation’s young through a broad program of educational and medical aid. Contrary to Nixon’s assertions that such provisions were “family- weakening implications,” proponents of the bill indicated that it was not the first in providing a “communal approach to child- rearing,” as Johnson’s administration’s Head Start Program offered remedial training for culturally- deprived children. However, there is one overwhelming distinction between the two programs: Head Start was focused on children while the Day Care Bill was conspicuously mother- centered. Such sentiment is portrayed by the New York Times journalist, Andrea Chambers in 1973, who posed the question, “It’s fine for Mother, but What about the Child?” As Nancy Wollock projects in “Women and the American Experience,” “the feminist agenda had been sabotaged at its weakest link, where family role and vocational role intersected.”

It gets to be too much when the “feminists” start to rebel for the sake of rebellion, when their movement starts to interfere with the rights of others, when what should be subjective becomes objective, and when the initial goal is muddled in chaos and craze. While a feminist at heart, I am also an ardent believer of “too much of anything is bad.” When the rights of the feminists start infringing on those of others, as the rights of children are breached in the Day Care bill, this is when they are taking it too far. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, the radical feminist and contemporary of Abigail Adams, cautioned that she had no desire to breed a “generation of unattached women,” but that she sought to develop wiser and more virtuous citizens. The goal of feminists should be to establish equality between the sexes, which in turn would be beneficial for the overall nation. While the literal connotations of “Republic Motherhood” are long past antiquated, the underlying tones are still valid. Women must be beneficial contributors to our country, promoting goals that not only reflect our ideas and desires, but also those of other sincere groups. Rather than continuing on the liberating path initiated by Abigail Adams and earlier feminists, some radical are, indeed, as Phyllis Schlafly put it, “imprisoned by [their] own negative view of [themselves] and of [their] place in the world.” Now that we, as American women, have attained equality, let us use this power to aid others and better this nation, and not to wreak more havoc for the sake of pure rebellion.

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