Marie Howland, 19th Century Gender Equality Pioneer

Howard H Aiken, a pioneer in computer engineering, has famously urged others to “[not] worry about people stealing [your] idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

Such reminders are especially useful when considering the various reasons that groundbreaking ideas don’t always achieve notoriety in history textbooks or mainstream culture. Marie Howland, a passionate advocate of women’s economic independence in the nineteenth century, is an apt exemplar of Aiken’s claim, for although she was a woman of revolutionary ideas, she is hardly a household name. As a white working-class woman, Howland was among the first of her class and gender to publish a novel in America and to participate in the women’s rights movement, challenging fundamental social conventions that limited the influence of women to domestic sphere. In alignment with authors like Jane Austen, Howland was deeply troubled by the way social conventions served to reinforce the systemic economic dependence of women on men. This has hardly been resolved: “equal pay for equal work,” one of the cornerstones of Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign, is merely one example of the work that remains to be done towards Howland’s goal of achieving economic equality among genders. What is most compelling about Howland, then, is how relevant her ideas for the economic equality of women continue to be today.

A concise summation of Howard’s worldview would be to say that she wished to see opportunities for women to achieve financial independence; this idea, however, necessarily challenged traditional boundaries separating the domestic and public spheres. Whereas a man might have many opportunities for different kinds of paid work outside of the household, a woman’s work was restrained to the household, where economic value was not so easily quantified. It was this distinction that, early on, led Howland to embrace the writings of French intellectual Charles Fourier. She admired Fourier’s idea that women ought to be empowered to select their work – primarily in a communal setting (phalanx) with other women – and be materially compensated. It is important to distinguish here that while many women in working-class families were, in fact, compensated for employment outside of the household, Howland recognized that this did not absolve them of traditional household duties; women, in many cases, worked a “second shift” on the home front and remained relatively imprisoned by this economic and social model. As Cliff Cobb states in his introduction to a special issue on Marie Howland in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “The only way to let women out of [their domestic] prison[s] was to knock down the walls that have separated the oikos (household) from the polis (public arena), the domestic and the non-domestic spheres” (74.5, 859).

 

Woman @orking at Texaco Refinery
Port Arthur refinery, The Texas Company via photopin (license)

 

The Fourierist model remains relatively obscure when compared to other alternatives to capitalism, such as Marxism, and might best be characterized as the combination of the communal elements of socialism with a view of humanity as an evolving subject striving towards a state of universal harmony in accordance to God’s will. Fourier believed that the divine model for social evolution required a move toward communal living, reducing the inefficiencies of individual households by consolidating and redistributing the work required by the community. Notably, domestic work such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare was included in this model. By normalizing domestic work within the community marketplace, Fourier’s plan for community living also implies a redistribution of power that has traditionally separated the genders, privileging white males above everyone else. It was Fourier’s hope that, by altering domestic work and power in this way, it would facilitate the sharing of power in other spheres.

Late in life, Howland would reside in the Georgist community of Fairhope, Alabama, which was founded on the ideas of American political economist Henry George. These ideas, implemented both in the United States as well as abroad, have yielded enormous economic opportunities. Not surprisingly, Howland found these ideas compelling and even necessary for realizing a more egalitarian world.

 

Fairhope, Albama.
Fairhope, Albama. By Stratosphere (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, none of this demonstrates that the core of Howland’s vision regarding the economic liberation of women cannot be better adopted by our contemporary society. If Aiken’s words are to be believed, we might argue that Howland’s ideas continue to pose challenges so significant that they are resisted by mainstream culture. The virtues of Howland’s ideas lay principally within the uncomfortable questions they pose. It is interesting, for example, to consider the widespread negative perceptions that persist regarding “feminism” as a disruptive – rather than restorative – social influence. The myth of an America offering equal opportunity to all regardless of gender, race, and other disadvantaged identities persists. Should continuing inequality be recognized, which groups stand to lose ground, and what type of social and economic justice, as envisioned by Howland, ought to be pursued? The idea of great disparity as a necessary evil (social Darwinism) remains an economic theory so deeply ingrained in our national narrative that it is often revered as unassailable, forestalling conversations that might otherwise pose promising alternatives but that have the potential to revise our current economic paradigms.

If there is anything we can learn from Howland’s ideas, it’s that justice in work relations cannot be achieved within the current capitalist system, nor can they be achieved by simply redistributing property. To secure a just system for women, said Howland said, the caretaking duties that women are often burdened with also need to be redistributed.

Cover Image: Ironing Day- vintage stereoscope card via photopin (license)

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