Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Little Perspective on Family Life by Tocqueville

Any attentive reader (or even not so attentive reader) of this blog will soon notice that of the three main God-given social institutions - family, church, and state - my interests lie primarily, though not by any means exclusively, with the first two. This post concerns the family. I hope we will love God enough to conform our lives in this area to his Word.
Since we as Americans tend strongly to conform our faith to our social norms, we are usually asleep at the wheel when it comes to assessing how much we have imbibed our cultures' mores concerning the roles and relationships of men and women, and of family life in general. Sometimes a peek at a different time period can provoke us to open our drowsy eyes to what the Scripture actually says about these things. With that in mind, I offer this intriguing assessment of the relationships of American men and women in the 1830's by Alexis de Tocqueville.
"There are people in Europe who, confusing the diverse attributes of the sexes, intend to make man and woman into beings not only equal, but alike. They give them both the same functions, impose the same duties on them, and accord them the same rights; they mix them in all things - labors, pleasures, affairs. One can easily conceive that in thus striving to equalize one sex with the other, one degrades them both; and that from this coarse mixture of nature's works, only weak men and disreputable women can ever emerge.
"This is not the way Americans have understood the kind of democratic equality that can be established between woman and man. They have thought that since nature had established such great variation between the physical and moral constitution of man and that of woman, its clearly indicated goal was to give a diverse employment to their different faculties; and they have judged that progress did not consist in making two unlike beings do nearly the same things, but in getting each of them to acquit its task as well as possible. Americans have applied to the two sexes the great principle of political economy that dominates industry in our day. They have carefully divided the functions of man and woman in order that the great social work be better done.
"America, among the world's countries, is the one where where they have tatken the most continual care to draw cleanly separated lines of action for the two sexes, and where they have wanted them both to march at an equal pace but on ever different paths. You do not see American women directing the external affairs of the family, conducting a business, or indeed entering the political sphere; but neither do you encounter any of them who are obliged to engage in the rough work of plowing or in any painful exertions that require the development of physical force There are no families so poor as to make an exception to this rule.
"If the American woman cannot escape from the peaceful circle of domestic occupations, she is, on the other hand, never constrained to leave it.
"Hence it is that American women, who often display a manly reason and a whole virile energy, generally preserve a very delicate appearance and always remain women in their manners, although they sometimes show themselves to be men in mind and heart.
"Neither have Americans ever imagined that democratic principles should have the consequence of overturning marital power and introducing confusion of authorities in the family. They have thought that every association, to be efficacious, must have a head, and that the natural head of the conjugal association is the man. They therefore do not deny him the right to direct his mate; and they believe that in the little society of husband and wife, as well as in the great political society, the object of democracy is to regulate and legitimate necessary powers, not to destroy all power.
"This is not an opinion particular to one sex and fought by the other.
"I did not remark that American women considered conjugal authority as a happy usurpation of their rights, or that they believed they were debasing themselves in submitting to it. On the contrary, it seemed evident to me that they made a sort of glory for themselves out of the voluntary abandonmnet of thir wills, and that they found their greatness in submitting on their own to the yoke and not in escaping from it. That is at least the sentiment that the most virtuous women express: the others are silent, and one does not hear in the United States of an adulterous wife noisily claiming the rights of woman while riding roughshod over her most hallowed duties.
"It has often been remarked that in Europe a certain scorn is disclosed in the very midst of the flatteries that men lavish on women: although the European often makes himself the slave of woman one sees that he never sincerely believer her his equal.
"In the United States women are scarcely praised, but it is shown daily that they are esteemed....
"Thus Americans do not believe that man and woman have the duty or the right to do the same things, but they show the same esteem for the role of each of them, and they consider them as beings whose value is equal although their destiny differs. They do not give the same form or the same employment to the courage of woman as to that of man, but they never doubt her courage; and if they deem that man and his mate should not always employ their intelligence and reason in the same manner, they at least judge that the reason of one is as sure as that of the other, and her intelligence as clear.
"...If one asked me to what do I think one must principally attribute the singular prosperity and growing force of this people, I would answer that it is to the superiority of its women" (Democracy in America, Vol 2, Part 3, Chapter 12).
So, what think you? Assuming Tocqueville's assessment is reasonably accurate, were Americans in those days operating according to a fairly biblical model in their views of men and women? Be sure to use Scripture to support your answer.


Anonymous said...

That was written in 1830??

Jason Parker said...

Interesting, isn't it? Old ideas do have ways of reforming and resurfacing.