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.”
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.
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.