The Pathos of Politics – Feminism


The story of the human race begins with the female. Woman carried the original human chromosome as she does to this day; her evolution adaptation ensured the survival and success of the species; her work of mothering provided the cerebral spur for human communication and social organization. Yet for generations of historians, archeologists and biologists, the sole star of the dawn story has been man. ~ English author Rosalind Miles

Throughout history, almost all polities have been patriarchal. Only men could own property or participate in public affairs. Ancient Greece was exemplary. Participation in Athenian democracy was limited to property-owning men.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages European women did gain the slightest say, but male landowners remained the only ones with a political voice that mattered.

Husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband. ~ English jurist William Blackstone

Native Americans

In native American tribes, women typically had equal standing with men in community matters. Women elders voted on hereditary male chiefs and could depose them.

The Iroquois, like many indigenous peoples, had a matrilineal kinship system. Property inheritance went through the female line.

The reason is that women were superior contributors to their tribes’ well-being. They provided most of the food and created most of the crafts. Their healing skills were equal to those of men. Women took care of religious artifacts; a responsibility of the highest order.

Women had a right to divorce. Since they owned the lodge, a unworthy husband might find himself homeless, with only the horse he rode in on.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

English political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) wrote a variety of works. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued that women are not inferior to men but appear so due to lack of education.

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft suggested that women and men were both rational beings. She imagined a social order founded on reason.

The being cannot be termed rational or virtuous who obeys any authority but that of reason. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Burke’s conservatism and Wollstonecraft’s radicalism were diametric in the ideological spectrum. Wollstonecraft accused Burke of advocating “the maintenance of unequal property, and if necessary, of despotism and tyranny.”

She viewed Burke’s defense of traditionalism and patriarchal inheritance as impeding the progress of civilization. His description of women as “smooth, delicate, fair creatures,” was to Wollstonecraft the view of a strongly prejudiced mind.

Wollstonecraft described private property as “demonic.” She saw the church that Burke praised for upholding the sacredness of traditional values as fundamentally corrupt, having secured vast property rights from the poor and ignorant.

Wollstonecraft endorsed plans to better conditions for the working class. For Wollstonecraft, the French Revolution represented an expression toward general emancipation.

Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38, 10 days after birthing her 2nd daughter, Mary, who became an accomplished writer herself, as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818).

Wollstonecraft’s widower posthumously published a Memoir (1798) about her. In revealing her unorthodox life, especially her early romantic affairs, it inadvertently destroyed her reputation for nearly a century.

While alive, many of Wollstonecraft’s contemporaries had been critical of her personal life, worrying that it might hinder support for her public stance on women’s right. Wollstonecraft had been libeled as a “shameless wanton,” a “philosophizing serpent,” and a “hyena in petticoats.” Only with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century was the tarnish worn off Wollstonecraft for exercising personal freedom in her affairs.

There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride. ~ Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Astall

If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? ~ Mary Astell

Though her remembrance was strong, Wollstonecraft was not the first feminist in England. English writer Mary Astell (1666–1731) wrote one of the earliest tracts on women’s rights and their need for education.

Ignorance and a narrow education lay the foundation of vice. ~ Mary Astell

Astell asserted that men’s arrogance and pride were responsible for women’s subjection and oppression. Astell contended that patriarchal conjugal power was a product of force, not based on natural inequalities.

We ought as much as we can to endeavour the perfecting of our beings, and that we be as happy as possibly we may. ~ Mary Astell

Elizabeth Stanton & Susan B. Anthony

Wollstonecraft and Astell were the earliest feminists. They were well ahead of their time.

Consistent with liberal ideas regarding social justice and civil equality, concern over the political plight of women bloomed in the late 18th century. Feminism emerged as a protest against male domination.

It is sometimes better to be a dead man than a live woman. ~ American civil rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage

New York was home to 2 of the early leaders in women’s rights: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty. ~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Stanton helped organized the first women’s rights convention, in 1848, the same year that Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto.

Stanton and Anthony met in 1851, and became lifelong friends, working tirelessly to promote women’s suffrage.

The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history. ~ Susan B. Anthony

When they first began campaigning for women’s rights, Stanton and Anthony were harshly ridiculed by men, accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. Public perception changed dramatically during their lifetimes, but neither woman lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment of the constitution in 1920, which Stanton and Anthony wrote. The 19th Amendment explicitly denies the right to vote on the basis of sex.

The 2 women had opposed the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, both adopted by Congress in 1866 and ratified within a few years. Stanton’s and Anthony’s opposition to the 14th and 15th amendments caused consternation among many of their colleagues: creating a schism in the women’s rights movement which was only healed 2 decades later, in 1890.

The 14th Amendment grants “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens. The 15th Amendment specifies that a citizen’s right to vote cannot be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Before their ratification, Stanton and Anthony argued that the 14th and 15th amendments did not go far enough in clearly granting women’s suffrage. But, once ratified, they argued that the amendments were sufficient to give women the right to vote.

In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown, Rochester, New York; an act local voting officials had been persuaded to allow. She was convicted in a widely publicized trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, authorities declined to take further action.


The US was behind other sovereignties in allowing women the vote. The Isle of Man gave women property owners voting rights in 1881. New Zealand, a self-governing British colony, followed in 1893. Australia gave women the vote in 1902, but continued discriminating against aborigines, male or female.

Finland and Norway granted the vote to women before the 1st World War. Many European, Asian, and African countries demurred on women’s suffrage until after the Great War. Most Latin American countries adopted universal suffrage in the 1940s. Late adopters in Europe included France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952), San Marino (1959), Monaco (1962), Andorra (1970), Switzerland (1971), and Liechtenstein (1984).

 The Temperance Movement

Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul. ~ American educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist Frances Willard

As laws gave husbands complete control of the family and finances, temperance was another women’s issue in Stanton’s and Anthony’s day. A woman with an alcoholic husband had no legal recourse, even if he was abusive and his drinking left the family destitute. If a woman wrangled a divorce, which was difficult to do, the husband could easily end up with guardianship of the children.

The temperance movement began in the 1820s in both the UK and US. The movement culminated after the 1st World War with legal restrictions in Britain, while the US began its prohibition in 1920. Canada, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand also severely restricted alcohol consumption.

Booze became a bountiful business for bootleggers and a boon for organized crime. Public disenchantment with prohibition, which was supposed to reduce crime, ensued.

By the early 1930s, teetotaling countries were ready to get liquored up again. There is nothing quite like a Great Depression to make one want to whet one’s whistle. The US repealed its prohibition in 1933.

Birth Control

We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children, than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. ~ Annie Besant & Charles Bradlaugh

Early on, the women’s rights movement was not solely devoted to suffrage and economic issues. Women had to struggle for legal control over their own bodies, and social acceptance of their sexual freedom.

Birth control and abortion have been known technologies for millennia; well documented in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, and well known in ancient India and China.

Birth control became a political issue in Britain early in the 19th century. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), English cleric Thomas Malthus argued that sooner or later unchecked population growth would be checked by famine and disease. With decades, enthused Malthusians were actively promoting family planning and birth control.

Officialdom in Victorian England had trouble with this. Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were put on trial in 1877 for publishing American physician Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, which explained various methods for birth control.

Besant and Bradlaugh were fined and sentenced to 6 months in prison, but the judge relented, releasing them on bail. They were acquitted on appeal.

Beginning in the 1880s, birth rates dropped steadily in industrialized countries. Women married later, and urban life favored fewer children.

This trend was especially acute in England, where birth rates declined 29% from the 1870s to 1900. Victorian women knew effective contraception. While the rhythm method was not yet understood, rubber condoms and diaphragms were reliable and inexpensive.

America had its own convulsion over contraception in the 1870s. While contraceptives had been legal throughout much of the 19th century, the federal anti-obscenity Comstock Act of 1873 criminalized distributing anything sexual through the US mail, including contraceptives and information about birth control.

American social reformer Margaret Sanger practiced obstetrical nursing in New York City, where she saw firsthand the relationships between poverty, uncontrolled fertility, infant, and maternal mortality, and fatalities from illegal abortions. In 1912 she gave up nursing to devote herself to sex education.

No woman can herself free who does not own and control her own body. ~ Margaret Sanger

Sanger helped popularize the term birth control in 1914. The same year, Sanger was prosecuted under the Comstock Act for publishing her book Family Limitation. She fled to England until it seemed safe to return.

Sanger established a birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. It was shut down by authorities 9 days later, with Sanger being dragged out by police and arrested.

Sanger was again prosecuted. Her trial and appeal of her conviction generated the publicity needed to provide her funding and spark birth control activism in America. Sanger’s efforts were instrumental toward overthrowing the Comstock Act, though it took the nearly a century.

By mail-ordering a newfangled diaphragm from a Japanese physician, Sanger provoked US v. One Package (1936). A federal appeals court upheld the district court in ruling that the law could not be used to intercept shipments which originated from a doctor. It was not until 1970 that Congress removed references to contraception from federal anti-obscenity laws.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) arose in the context of a Connecticut Comstock law that had a blanket prohibition against contraceptives. A supreme court (SCOTUS) majority invalidated the law as a violation of the constitutional “right to marital privacy.”

The Bill of Rights makes no mention of a right to privacy. The supreme court simply found this right “lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees.”

In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), SCOTUS established the right of the US populace, regardless of marital status, to possess contraceptives.

The constitutionally protected right of privacy inheres in the individual. The rights must be the same for the unmarried and the married alike. ~ SCOTUS in Eisenstadt v. Baird

Despite SCOTUS overturning Comstock laws, some states retain statutes that proscribe education about contraceptives.

The next year, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the supreme court legalized abortion to a limited degree.

This right of privacy is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. ~ SCOTUS in Roe v. Wade

At the behest of the medical profession, supported by sexists, abortions had been criminalized in the US state by state, beginning in the 1820s. For physicians, it was largely a professional ploy, in seeking supremacy over midwives and other health care professionals.

Most of this crime of child murder, abortion, infanticide, lies at the door of the male sex. ~ Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1868

Each year during the 1950s, there were around 1 million illegal abortions in the US. Over 1,000 women per annum died as a result.

Unsurprisingly, poor black women ran the greatest risk. 75% of the deaths from illegal abortions were black women. 90% of the legal abortions before Roe v. Wade were performed on white patients.

In the years just before Roe v. Wade, 18 states had changed their abortion laws. 4 freely allowed abortions during early pregnancy. The other 14 states only allowed abortion in the instance of incest or rape.

Britain passed its first anti-abortion law in 1803. Such laws grew stricter as the century wore on. In 1967, Britain relented and legitimized abortion.

England was more lenient on proactive contraception than the US. The first permanent birth control clinic was established by English scientist and social reformer Marie Stopes (1880–1958) in London in 1921. Stopes was one of many British activists that strove for equal rights.

The fight by women for the right to control their own bodies has had similar histories in the US, UK, and other European countries, with one notable exception.

France passed a law in 1920 that criminalized dissemination of birth control information. Abortion was criminalized by the Napoleonic Code, and was a capital crime during the World War 2. Abortion become legal in France in 1975.

The Soviet Union was the exception. Gender equality was promoted there, including the right of contraception.


The greatest injury to women arose from theological laws that subjugated woman to man. ~ Matilda Joslyn Gage

The historic struggles for women’s civil rights are exemplary of the continuing problem of sexism worldwide, most notably sexual repression promoted by adherents of Christianity and Islam. In Christendom, the most significant opposition to birth control has been the Catholic Church.

Roe v. Wade remains controversial. Republican reactionaries want it overturned. They have made headway by imposing restrictions on abortions, such as requiring parental consent and mandatory waiting periods. 84% of all US counties have no abortion services.

Worldwide, 1/3rd of all abortions are illegal. Only 40% of the world population has access to legal abortion.

Of those with legal access, only 21% may do so for economic or social reasons. 79% face severe restrictions.

20 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, 90% in developing countries. Half of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion.

Other problems with women’s rights loom large in much of the world. In the 21st century, the right to have rape taken seriously has yet to be won. Worldwide, women remain 2nd-class citizens, subjugated by men, especially those with the disease of religion in their minds.

Hannah Arendt

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity. ~ Hannah Arendt

German political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) wrote about politics during a tumultuous time. She lived through the Nazi regime, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and student riots in Paris.

Today all these old verities about the relation between war and politics or about violence and power have become inapplicable. The 2nd World War was not followed by peace but by a cold war and the establishment of a military-industrial-labor complex. ~ Hannah Arendt

In her 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics”, Arendt noted how politicizing historical facts distorts them, as they are shaped into implements of justification for political decisions. This is a hoary practice.

From the 1960s, Arendt observed, political lies were increasingly being used in democracies; a practice that had previously been common only under despotic demagogueries.

This trend has been apparent in the United States. President Lyndon Johnson lied in 1965 to escalate the Vietnam War. President George Bush Sr. lied to justify the 1989 kidnapping of Manuel Noriega, Panama’s dictator, and install a pliant leader. Bush’s son, President George Bush Jr. lied to invade Iraq in 2003.

With deception as his stock-in-trade, President Donald Trump gave lying an unqualified presidential seal of approval by doing so on a daily basis. He went as far as assembling a team of dissemblers. Nothing from his administration could be taken at face value as fact.

It would be facile to observe that US politics had become more divisive and politicians dastardlier. American politics have been both base and polar at least since 1787, when the colonies contentiously crafted the constitution. What changed was sloughing off any moral posture for its pretense: Machiavelli morphed in Pinocchio.