The roots of feminism in democratic political theory, the first element in this framework, have long been recognized by historians. Since at least the eighteenth century, the shift from hierarchical rule by elites to representative government — based on the theory of the natural rights of man — has inspired demands for self-representation and full citizenship that extend these rights beyond the Western, propertied, white males who first articulated the ideal. Like movements to abolish slavery in the Americas or to emancipate serfs and Jews in Europe, arguments for women’s rights rested upon these democratic principles. As more European and American men gained the right to vote and run for office in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the exclusion of women from voting, office holding, and jury duty stood out as signs of incomplete democracy, vulnerable to feminist critiques. In other world regions, such as parts of Latin America, Asia, and postcolonial Africa, whenever educational opportunities exposed women to emerging democratic ideals, they too expected full citizenship. Thus, in the 1880s, when Kishida Toshiko resigned from her position at the Japanese empress’s court and began to speak in public about women’s rights, she joined a growing international movement to recognize the value of women’s lives, whether in the family or in public life. Kishida’s 1883 speech, “Daughters Confined in Boxes,” demanded educational and economic choices for women, whose horizons, she believed, should be “as large and free as the world itself.”4
But even burgeoning democratic societies resisted the extension of selfdetermination to women (Kishida, for example, was considered so radical that she was arrested and imprisoned). Keep in mind that both the European Enlightenment and the revolutionary ideas that gave birth to women’s longings for emancipation rested upon contradictory views. The movement for universal rights promised emancipation from the Old Regime of inherited status; simultaneously, however, the principle of natural law drew biological distinctions between the sexes and among races. In other words, in Enlightenment thought, the flip side of “natural rights” was “natural sex” and “natural race.” Thus, when women or Africans or Asians claimed universal rights, white male critics could respond that their biological differences disqualified them from inclusion as citizens. This contradiction in modern political thought, as historian Joan Scott has pointed out, required a dual strategy on the part of feminists.5 On the one hand, they emphasized universalism and demanded inclusion in the language of rights; on the other hand, they pointed to particularistic, biologically rooted female claims to political authority, which historians now refer to as “maternalism.”
The exclusion of women from the body politic, a staple of Western democracy since the classical era, required the use of these paradoxical strategies for achieving inclusion. How else could women claim full citizenship, when their reproductive roles in families created the kind of dependency that seemed antithetical to exercising democratic rights? Thus, a balancing act between universalism and particularism recurred throughout Western feminist history.
Historians have identified at least three dominant feminist strategies. In the first approach, beginning in the eighteenth century and increasingly in the nineteenth century, middle-class liberal feminists — whether in England, the United States, Chile, or Japan — emphasized women’s need for greater access to education, property rights, and jobs. In this vein, manifestos such as the Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in the United States called for the extension of the rights of white male citizens to women. Two other simultaneous frameworks addressed the dual concerns of women as workers and as mothers. Socialist feminism originated among European labor activists concerned primarily about the plight of wage-earning women, both in their families and in their jobs. In Germany, Clara Zetkin organized working women within leftist parties, while Alexandra Kollontai, commissar of social welfare in the early
Soviet Union, tried to address family as well as workplace dilemmas, decreeing free maternity care, for example. A third strain, maternalism, built upon women’s public authority as mothers to argue for social welfare policies, ranging from better schools to public child care to pacifism. Thus, Amanda Labarca of Chile reported to a U. S. women’s group in 1922 that she expected “a new feminist creed” to arise in the southern continent, one “more domestic, more closely linked to the future of the home, the family, and the children,” than that marked by the “exaggerated individualism” of what she called “Saxon feminism.”6 While liberal and Marxist feminists emphasized the integration of women into middle-class or working-class male politics, maternalists turned to women’s unique experiences in the family to justify female citizenship.
These identifiable strains, however, were never mutually exclusive, for demands for universal rights often rested on the particularistic needs of women. For example, when Mary Wollstonecraft called for women’s education in eighteenth-century England, she insisted it would help them become “sensible mothers”; Flora Tristan pressed for education for French working women in the nineteenth century in part “because women have the responsibility for educating male and female children”; in 1890, the Brazilian feminist Francisca Diniz wrote that the sanctity of maternal love and wifely fidelity proved women’s superiority rather than inferiority and required equal treatment by men. Early-twentieth-century American suffragists echoed these particularistic arguments when they insisted that women voters would insure a more peaceful and nurturing society. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, because life-giving women (preferably, in her view, those of Teutonic stock) would improve the man-made world, they deserved suffrage.7 Overlapping strands of feminist ideas about equal rights thus continually defied the long-standing Western political distinction between the private realm of the family and the public world of politics.