Marie Howland, 19th Century Gender Equality Pioneer

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

This reminder is useful when considering the reasons that groundbreaking ideas often do not make it into mainstream culture or history textbooks. Marie Howland, a passionate advocate for women’s economic independence in the nineteenth century, is an apt exemplar of Aiken’s claim. A woman of revolutionary ideas, she is hardly a household name. Howland, a white working-class woman, was among the first of both her class and gender to publish a novel in America and to participate in the women’s rights movement by challenging fundamental social conventions that limited the influence of women to the household and domestic sphere. Like other authors such as Jane Austen, Howland was deeply troubled by the way social conventions served to reinforce women’s systemic economic dependence 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 issues that remain to be addressed 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 statement of Howard’s philosophy is that she wished to see opportunities for women to achieve financial independence. This idea necessarily challenged traditional boundaries separating the domestic and public spheres. Whereas a man might have various opportunities for wage-earning work outside of the household, a woman’s work was typically constrained to the household and its value not so easily quantified. Early on, this distinction led Howland to embrace the writings of French intellectual Charles Fourier. She admired Fourier’s suggestion that women 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 homefront, remaining trapped 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, “[T]he 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.”


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


The Fourierist model, which remains obscure relative to other alternatives to Capitalism such as Marxism, might best be characterized as a combination of the communal elements of Socialism, with a view of humanity as an evolving entity striving towards a state of universal harmony in accordance to God’s will. Fourier understood the Divine model for social evolution as requiring 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 communal living also implies a redistribution of the power dynamics that have traditionally separated the genders, privileging white males above everyone else. It was Fourier’s hope that altering domestic work and power in this way would facilitate the sharing of power in other spheres.

Late in life, Howland resided in the Georgist community of Fairhope, Alabama, which was based on the ideas of American political economist Henry George, favoring land value taxation rather than taxation on improvements or property. These ideas, implemented both in the United States as well as abroad, have yielded enormous economic gains. Not surprisingly, Howland found these ideas compelling and even necessary for realizing a more egalitarian world.


Fairhope, Albama.
Fairhope, Albama. By Stratosphere (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


To be clear, none of this demonstrates that the core of Howland’s vision for economic liberation of women could not 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 minority identifications persists. Which groups stand to lose ground should continuing inequality be recognized, and what type of social and economic justice, as envisioned by Howland, ought to be pursued? The economic theory of great disparity as a necessary evil (social Darwinism) remains 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 alter our current economic paradigms.

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

-Elizabeth Smith

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


4 thoughts on “Marie Howland, 19th Century Gender Equality Pioneer

  1. I respect fully disagree with the thrust of this article, and suggest that it misrepresents Georgist ideas and should not appear on a site funded by the Schalkenbach Foundation, whose charter requires that you propagate Georgist ideas as you seek discussion and intellectual exchange. If you read any of the lives of Henry George, you do not get the slightest intimation that either he or his wife saw her as lacking in equal rights because she was “burdened” with making a home for him and their children, which was her first and freely-chosen priority for her entire life, although they did have some domestic help and she also participated in his campaigns and Single Tax work. He considered her his closest confidant. It is an insult to women, their husbands and their children to state that their “care-taking duties” are “burdensome” to them, simply because they do not receive monetary payment . This author is materialist and limited in vision; George was spiritualist and far-seeing in vision. To adopt for a moment the abrasive style of my late friend, Yisroel Pensack, this article is, in my humble opinion, pure garbage.

  2. The way this website begins has nothing to do with the Georgist message. Does equal pay for equal work relate to LVT? Only ethics joins them–desirable factual sociological changes do not.

    Many aspects of LVT are not included here and it seems to me that the way we try to present the subject of how to share the opportunities offered by “the earth” lacks many of its most attractive features, see below. And incidentally, if ramming it down anybody’s throat is the way to make progress, then there is a good risk for it being regurgitated rather than being safely digested.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Four Aspects for Government:
    1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it should replace them.
    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all and who owns each is public knowledge.
    3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national affairs.
    4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below). The speculation in and withholding of unused land is eliminated, see item 7.

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:
    5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax. Urban sites provide the most usefulness and resulting tax. Big rural sites have less value and can be farmed appropriately to their ability to provide useful produce.
    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large proportion of the present ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not used).
    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices because the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.
    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites become available, the competition for them is less fierce.
    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
    10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below, items 12 and 13).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:
    11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:
    14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this national extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks– LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
    15. previous bribery and corruption for gaining privileged information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
    16. The improved use of the more central land of cities reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.
    17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs because their production costs are reduced. Then untaxed earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly and fully introduced as a single tax, it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics.

  3. I’m editing my first comment, and apologize for its rude ending. Though “gender equality” is a popular theme today, IMO those who espouse it often don’t understand Georgism, usually because they haven’t heard of it! Georgism fully applied would raise wages and open employment opportunities to such an extent that both men and women would be in better, more secure financial positions. Wages would again be high enough that one person’s income could support a family, including an affordable rent or mortgage for land parcels freed from speculative withholding. The Georgist reform would in effect replicate conditions from much of the first 200 years of our country’s history, when land was cheap relative to population. (These were the sadly-lost years when our democracy was strong and we were quite “exceptional” compared to the rest of the land-monopolized world.) But the question then becomes would mothers want to put their children in daycare simply in order to pursue a career of their own and obtain “equal pay for equal work?” My guess is largely no, seeing how young children (with good developmental reasons, IMO) hate that daily separation from parents, and parents hate to inflict that suffering on their kids; but in today’s economy they have no choice. Some would try to stay at home when kids are young and then re-enter the workplace later, even though that may be easier said than done. But, after raising happy kids, it is possible to contribute to society’s knowledge, culture, or business structures without necessarily being highly paid for it, and that might better fit into many women’s (and men’s) value systems. As I see our current conditions, much “feminist” thought effectively tranquilizes women into thinking they are free and having better lives, careers, etc. than their stay-at-home predecessors, when in fact the opposite is true. Those doing the tranquilizing don’t realize that as long as a society venerates private property in land, the current economic and social decline for men, women and their children is inevitable.###

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.