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Forgotten Feminisms: An Appeal Against ‘Domestic Despotism’

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery/Bridgeman Images
Walter Langley: But Oh for the Touch of a Vanished Hand, 1888

Women have long understood the iniquity of their degradation and lack of basic human rights, and written about it. Until relatively recently, however, their observations couldn’t build on one another to create a body of thought in the way, say, Western male political philosophy was able to do. Feminism (a coinage just over a century old) lacked continuity. It progressed through the centuries much as the Dodo ran the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland: it took a step, stopped, forgot where it was, ran around in a circle, and started all over again. Books or essays or letters were written, read, then disappeared, and their authors disappeared, too. Maybe they had insisted on anonymity, or published under men’s names. Only in the past fifty years or so have scholars of feminism begun to excavate women’s political investigations to restore them to their places in what we can now call a feminist canon.

But not all historical feminists who warrant a chapter (at the very least) in the anthologies have been given one. That’s not necessarily because they were less brilliant than Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, and others you’re likely to spot on Intro-to-Feminism syllabuses. A better explanation for their obscurity is that there’s a lot to read and we haven’t fully recognized the value of it all yet. In some cases, texts are still being discovered; in others, they are known but overlooked. And, on occasion, what has been forgotten is not the feminist herself (or, less often, himself), but her lesser-known ideas. We may be familiar, for example, with what Elizabeth Cady Stanton had to say about suffrage, but she also had important insights into women’s poverty and suggestions for how to alleviate it. Her reflections on that subject were influential in their time, but are rarely read today.

In this series (of which this essay is the first installment), I will write about forgotten feminisms, early and late, that I think deserve more attention than they’re getting now. I begin with a book written in 1825 by a woman, the activist Anna Doyle Wheeler, and a man, an economist named William Thompson. Both led extraordinary lives and they collaborated on a tract that is so forthright and angry, and has such smart things to say about issues we still argue over today, that I guarantee you will wonder why you’ve never heard of it before.

—Judith Shulevitz


In 1825, William Thompson, a socialist economist, and Anna Doyle Wheeler, a writer and speaker on women’s rights, published a book-length tract with a title that is so strongly worded—Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretension of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery—that the modern reader may feel the need to flip back and check the publication date. This was the boldest attack on the patriarchy since Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which had come out some thirty-three years earlier, in 1792. John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which appeared forty-four years after the Appeal, in 1869, is generally thought to be the next important entry in the feminist canon after Wollstonecraft. But the Appeal belongs squarely between the two. If the criterion for canonization is elegance of style, it rivals both. If the criterion is contemporary relevance, it outshines them. And yet, hardly anyone reads the Appeal anymore. The copy I borrowed from the library at Columbia University, which has a thriving women’s studies program, had a smattering of due dates stamped in the back. It took two days to arrive from Princeton, New Jersey.

The Appeal is so far ahead of its time that our own is just barely catching up to it. The insight that makes it feel most of our moment has to do with what we now call the “motherhood penalty,” which Thompson and Wheeler see as a—perhaps, the—primary cause of women’s social inferiority. They had a precocious critique of equality feminism. Even in a society in which women had access to all the same educational and professional opportunities as men—a society that had never existed when they were writing and is today only partially realized—women would still fall behind, they said. Mothers performing unremunerated reproductive labor would inevitably incur a pecuniary loss: “Were all partial restraints, were unequal laws and unequal morals removed, were all the means and careers of all species of knowledge and exertion equally open to both sexes; still the barriers of physical organization must, under the system of individual competition, keep depressed the average station of women beneath that of men.” (Here, “physical organization” means “reproductive capacity” and “competition” means “capitalism.”)

Neither Wollstonecraft nor Mill seriously considered the economic implications of motherhood, or saw it as a barrier to equality. When Wollstonecraft advocated emancipation, she did so in the name of motherhood—as long as it was “rational” and “natural,” that is, informed by a good education and not deformed by the enfeebling feminine ideals of the age. Mill said that when a woman married, she chose as her profession “the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call on her exertions.”

Thompson and Wheeler, by contrast, perceived that motherhood intrinsically disadvantaged women, at least under capitalism, since capitalists profited from women’s free labor and weren’t likely to start paying for it. Thompson and Wheeler also weren’t keen on the gendered geography (as we might say today) that trapped women in the home and made them financially dependent on men who were free to go out and earn. They called the domestic sphere “the eternal prison-house of the wife.”

How did Thompson and Wheeler arrive at such modern ideas? The Appeal was written to rebut an essay by James Mill, John Stuart’s father, a prominent Utilitarian philosopher. In that tract, the Essay on Government (1820), which is still taught today, Mill argued for an extension of the franchise—but only to a broader swath of men. In a throwaway line, he said that women didn’t need political representation because their fathers or husbands represented their interests well enough.

*

That assertion infuriated Wheeler, and it helps to know a thing or two about her to understand the intensity of her feelings. Born in 1785 in County Tipperary, Ireland, into an educated family of Anglo-Irish generals and statesmen, Wheeler was a free-spirited, maybe even wild-spirited, beauty. A nobleman spotted her at the races and, at the age of fifteen, she married him, against her mother’s strong wishes. She should have listened to her mother. Francis Massey Wheeler, a coarse man once described by his daughter as coming from a long line of fools, spent his fortune on horses, fox-hunting, and drinking while his vast estate in County Limerick fell apart. He forbade Anna to leave it. He beat and raped her regularly, and she bore him six children, only two of whom lived past infancy.

Somehow, in the middle of all this, Wheeler “stretched out on her sofa,” as that same daughter, Rosina, later wrote, “deep in the perusal of some French or German philosophical work that had reached her via London.” Rosina was no fan of her mother, either, at least not for the first half of her life. She also said Anna had taken in the “pernicious fallacies” of the French Revolution and was “strongly tainted with the corresponding poison” of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication.

After twelve years of marriage, Wheeler had a fairy-tale-like reversal of fortune and escaped in high style. She and her daughters snuck off to the coast and her brother sailed them to Guernsey. Her uncle, who was the island’s governor, lived in splendor in the gubernatorial mansion. He retained a French governess and teachers who taught his niece along with her daughters, and he introduced her to dukes, diplomats, and European émigrés. Charmed by her intelligence, they helped her cultivate the arts of repartee and debate. One duke, a cousin of the future king of France, courted her for twelve years, ignoring the fact that she was still married (until the death of Massey in 1820). It didn’t hurt Anna’s cause that she had matured into a beauty, with pale skin, gently curled chestnut hair, grey-blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a mouth that was, according to her uncharacteristically complimentary daughter, “the most beautiful I ever saw, teeth dazzling as a row of oriental pearls; her smile most enchanting. Anna’s voice was low and sweet,” wrote Rosina, “the most excellent thing in women.”

After Anna’s uncle returned to England, she left the island, too. One of her son-in-law’s biographers—Rosina married the bestselling novelist and politician Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton—says that when she left, nearly everyone on Guernsey gathered on the beach to say goodbye. She moved to Caen, France, where she became, according to her grandson, “the bel esprit of a little group of socialists and freethinkers, to the support of whose doctrines she devoted both her purse and her pen.” These were the Saint-Simonistes, named after Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, a French aristocrat turned philosopher who proposed the formation of collectivist communities of industrial workers; his followers later developed a strain of eroticism (evident in Saint-Simon’s writings) that landed many of them in jail.

Trading Caen for London, Wheeler became a friend and correspondent of Robert Owen, the founder of Co-operativism, the leading British socialist movement at the time. Co-operators, also known as Owenites, were dismayed by the combined ravages of industrialization and increasing inequality, and envisioned a classless, communitarian world. This would be brought about, initially, by communities of mutual association, voluntary and democratically-governed settlements in which the fruits of all labor would be distributed to laborers (think: early kibbutzes). When industrial workers realized the advantages of self-sufficiency, Owenites reasoned, they’d abandon the factories and, with them, industrial capitalism. They’d also become happier and more benevolent, thus proving one of Owenism’s central tenets, that human character was formed by circumstance, not nature—a belief that made Owenism particularly appealing to women.

On a visit to Paris, Wheeler took up the as-yet-unknown François Marie Charles Fourier, who would become an important utopian socialist himself, and introduced him to Owen. She translated their correspondence, published articles in Co-operative periodicals, and gave “well-reasoned” lectures that “attracted considerable attention,” according to the prominent Owenite editor George Jacob Holyoake. After her husband finally drank himself to death, she grew close to the other eminent Utilitarian of the age, Jeremy Bentham, and began frequenting his home, a gathering spot for social reformers and philosophers. That’s where she met William Thompson.

*

Thompson was a strange and brilliant man, the son of a rich landowner in Cork, a teetotaler, and a proto-vegan: he lived off vegetables, roots, and seeds. When he inherited his father’s property, the wretched conditions of its tenants shocked and radicalized him. He began by teaching them more efficient agricultural methods, built schools for their children, and ended up as a leading figure in London reformist circles. He turned out to have a genius for political and economic analysis. Holyoake once said that though Owen deserves credit for launching Co-operation, Thompson was its sharpest thinker and most systematic writer.

Thompson’s masterpieceInquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness, which came out a year before the Appeal, is a pioneering work of economic theory. Though it is largely forgotten now, scholars regard it as a precursor of Karl Marx’s Capital, begun around forty years later. The similarities between the two are striking. “Both writers adopt the labour theory of value and postulate that labour is the sole source of wealth,” writes the British academic Richard Pankhurst, Thompson’s biographer. “Both consider exploitation the fundamental of Capitalism and believe that the basic function of economics should be to analyse the distribution of wealth between the productive and exploiting classes.” Moreover, both build their system on the concept of “surplus value”—a term Thompson invented, though Marx gave him no credit.

Thompson was also a disciple of Bentham, who is known for the position that moral action is that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number (the famous phrase doesn’t quite do justice to the complexity of Bentham’s thought). Radical in its time, classical Utilitarianism is today dismissed as conservative—indifferent to the oppressed, too accepting of the status quo. But Thompson and Wheeler weren’t classical Utilitarians; they were keenly aware of those left out of the aggregate good. Happiness, they said, should be “brought home to every individual of every family. There is no such thing as a general, abstract, happiness” (their italic). By “happiness,” they meant not only pleasure (another Utilitarian term), although they stated repeatedly that women need and deserve sexual enjoyment. They had in mind something more like the ability to exercise “capabilities,” as defined by the “capabilities approach” promoted in our time by the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Thompson and Wheeler would have liked Sen and Nussbaum’s phrase “human flourishing.” That’s what they were after, too. And as they saw it, that’s what women’s unpaid reproductive duties prevented them from achieving.

In its attack on James Mill’s claim that husbands could represent the interests of wives, the Appeal focused on the early nineteenth-century doctrine of marriage, couverture (or coverture), which denied legal personhood to married women. Under couverture, a wife’s property belonged to her husband, even if it was hers before marriage. So did anything she earned during the marriage. She couldn’t sue, be sued, enter into a contract, or make a will without his permission (and he could revoke it at any time). She lived only where he chose to live, went out only by his leave, and invited over only guests he approved of. All their children belonged to him, and if he died, guardianship went to the nearest male relative.

Her husband, meanwhile, could beat her “with a stick no thicker than his thumb,” and was free to cheat on her without penalty. Infidelity on her part was cause for divorce and withdrawal of all financial support. In short, said Thompson and Wheeler, a law that submerged a wife’s interests into a husband’s treated wives no better and perhaps worse than—in a comparison that James Mill had made to argue against women’s suffrage—“children and idiots” (the law at least disapproved of the raping of children and idiots). 

A wife was a slave, they said. Wollstonecraft and others had used the same analogy—in an age of burgeoning abolitionism, it was something of a cliché—but Thompson and Wheeler went further, claiming that a woman’s slavery was more degrading than the slavery of Africans in the West Indies, because it was sexual in addition to everything else. Here, the writers reveal a deplorable, upper-class obliviousness to chattel slavery, in which enslaved women were raped to increase the owner’s stock. But what Thompson and Wheeler were trying to say in their obtuse way was that women were said to enter into a state of sexual subjugation freely, out of love, when in truth many did it for a lack of other options.

At the risk of sounding “presentist,” let me list some other ways the Appeal anticipates new-fangled feminism. They pointed out that patriarchal power harms men as well as women: “A mole cannot enjoy the ‘beauties and glories’… of the visible world; nor can brute men enjoy the intellectual and sympathetic pleasures of equal intercourse with women, such as some are, such as all might be,” they wrote. (“John Stuart Mill was perhaps the first philosopher to acknowledge the concept of desires deformed by patriarchy,” states the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Wrong again.)

In the age of #MeToo, I can’t leave out their views on marital rape. They took on the issue a century and a half before our immediate feminist foremothers were able to do so, though Thompson and Wheeler defined marital rape far more broadly than a twentieth-century feminist would have done since they were dealing with much grimmer marital conditions. Sex within marriage was rape by definition, they said, because wives were contractually required to service their husbands. Wives are the “instruments” of male “voluptuousness,” said Thompson and Wheeler, forced into “kissing the rod of domestic despotism.” They went as far as to call marriage, for a woman, functionally indistinguishable from prostitution: “This is the fate of the many, nay, of all your sex,” they write, in a passage directly addressed to women, “subject only to those shades of difference arising from very peculiar circumstances or the accident of independent fortune.”

What would free women from bondage, rape, isolation, and economic disadvantage? Socialism, said Thompson and Wheeler, meaning, of course, Owenism. In a Co-operative community, the maximization of collective well-being would require the efforts, training, and talents of every member, regardless of gender. Women would be released from the burden of child-care if their skills lay elsewhere—in other words, there would be day care. Everyone would be supported to the degree that they contributed their labor eagerly. (Marx would rephrase this as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”) Thompson and Wheeler wanted to eliminate private households, which they considered reduplicative and wasteful. Members would pool the chores of daily life. When women no longer depended on men for their means of existence, they could give their love freely; it would “be earned, be merited, not, as now, bought or commanded” (their italics). At long last, men and women could “salute each other with a real and mutual modesty, founded on mutual benevolence, on a just estimate of your several characters… not, as now, with an air of superiority and condescending bounty on the one side, and on the other with downcast eyes, the willing and ignorant slaves of men’s pampered and brutalizing appetites.”

*

The Appeal’s association with Owenism may explain its obscurity, at least in part. The movement flourished for a few decades in England, France, and above all in America, where the reform-minded greeted Owen with enormous enthusiasm and Owenite communes were founded all across the country, from New York to California. But most Co-operative communities collapsed within a few years, though a handful of American ones persisted for decades—one lasted until nearly the turn of the twentieth century. There was too little capital to get the enterprises off the ground; the intellectuals had no idea how to farm; power struggles broke out among people who had barely known each other before they signed up to live together. Collectivism didn’t eliminate class differences. The elites avoided “servile labor” and condescended to “common” workers.

Sexism undid the movement, too. Too many Owenites subscribed to the “Cult of True Womanhood,” which glorified women as morally superior to men and argued that they should exercise their improving influence on children and husbands in the unsullied sphere of the home. In her study of American Owenite communities, Women in Utopia, historian Carol A. Kolmerten describes how even those male Co-operators familiar with the tenets of socialist feminism at best paid lip service to it. Owen himself lost interest in women’s rights in his later years. Female Co-operators were expected to cook, clean, do laundry, look after or teach the children—and toil in the fields. Today, we’d say they worked a double shift. In many communities, they had no voting rights, or could vote only on “domestic matters of their own concern.” Often enough, it was wives who talked their husbands out of joining the communities, or, if they had already joined, talked them into leaving.

A few decades later, Karl Marx lampooned Co-operativism as impractical and naive, and generations of Marxists followed his example. The movement never recovered. His predecessors, said Marx, had understood neither the principles of “scientific socialism,” which substituted strategy for grand social visions, nor the need for a revolution of the proletariat, which Marx envisioned as an army of working men. By that time, labor organizations were becoming increasingly sexually conservative. Owenism had retreated into London clubs made up of secularist freethinkers, communitarian socialists, and feminists whose meetings, Marx said in a letter to a friend, were “full of follies and crotchets.” (The misogynistic undertow of “crotchet”—which here meant a susceptibility to caprice or whimsy—is unmistakable.) For Marx, feminism was “an eccentricity, which diverted the energies of revolutionary-minded men,” in the words of Stan Shipley, a historian of mid-Victorian socialism.

Thompson’s and Wheeler’s reputations were in no shape to survive the decline of their cause. When Thompson died in 1833 at fifty-seven, the London papers mocked him. He had attacked the Church, private property, the idle rich, and marriage; he had promoted free love and birth control. His relationship with Wheeler was unconventional, to say the least. Historians still don’t know whether they were lovers or just dear friends, but in any case, they both opposed marriage, at least in its then-existing form.

In his will, Thompson left a one-hundred-pound annuity to Wheeler and the rest of his estate, worth between fifteen and sixteen thousand pounds, to the Co-operativist movement. He requested, among other things, that shares in Co-Operative communities be given to “industrious persons, particularly young females” who couldn’t otherwise afford to join. Thompson’s sisters challenged the will on the grounds that Thompson was insane. Their lawyers read extracts from one of his books (not the Appeal) aloud in court: in it, he called marriage “irrevocable despotism,” argued that people should have sexual intercourse with whomever made them happy, and suggested that childbearing and rearing be the responsibility only of “those women whose organization was best adapted to it.” A quarter-century later, the sisters won their case, though there wasn’t much money left by then.

When a posthumous edition of the Inquiry came out in 1850, it had been bowdlerized. The editor had cut most of its controversial passages, including almost everything having to do with women. One reason Marx could steal from Thompson with impunity is that much of what he used had already been excised. (It has been established that Marx read the original edition and took copious notes on it.)

Wheeler was forgotten along with Thompson. After all, most historians of radicalism were men. Worse, her chroniclers were her daughter Rosina and Rosina’s husband Edward Bulwer Lytton, and their biographers. Their accounts of Wheeler aren’t pretty. The couple once had young Benjamin Disraeli over to dinner, after which he pronounced Wheeler “not so pleasant… very clever but awfully revolutionary.” The Bulwer Lyttons’ marriage failed; he cheated on her, but his biographers have tended to blame Anna for having raised such an intolerable daughter. (Rosina came around to her mother’s point of view after she and Edward separated and he took their children and began a campaign of vilification against her in the press. In 1858, he had her kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum while he ran for political office, though she was released after three weeks. In 1857, Rosina even published her own Appeal, although hers mostly just defended herself against her husband.)

Contributing to Wheeler’s near-invisibility is the fact that the Appeal came out under Thompson’s name alone. The two may have thought that the public would take the book more seriously that way. It does seem as if Thompson wrote the bulk of the book; on the whole, it evinces his calm, orderly style. Thompson, however, insisted that book was a genuine collaboration. In his “Introductory Letter to Mrs. Wheeler,” he writes that he owes to her the book’s “bolder and more comprehensive views.” In a touching premonition of the contemporary acknowledgment of privilege and cultural appropriation, he declares that he hesitated to write them down because, “thanks to the chance of having been born a man,” he had never experienced the bitter realities of having been born a woman. But in the end, he said, Wheeler lacked the “leisure and resolution to undertake the drudgery of the task.” Nonetheless, the book has occasional eruptions of high sarcasm, as well as direct exhortations to women (“Women of England! Women, in whatever country ye breathe—wherever ye breathe, degraded—awake!”) that sound a lot more like Wheeler than Thompson.

*

Thompson and Wheeler’s Appeal left its mark mainly on the female thinkers and speakers who succeeded Wheeler in the Owenite movement, and then on John Stuart Mill. A great many ideas attributed to Mill originated with Thompson and Wheeler. All three were social constructionists, questioning the link between biological sex and supposedly female character traits like submissiveness. Echoing their phrasing, he spoke of the “perverting influence” and “despotism” of marriage and the family. He, too, worried that male power over women deformed men’s characters; he envisioned a more egalitarian version of companionate marriage. Historians and philosophers—including the late twentieth-century feminist philosopher Susan Moller Okin—have argued that Mill never read the Appeal, but it’s almost inconceivable that he didn’t. He had moved in Utilitarian circles since he was a child. The book directly attacked his father. He took part in public debates about Utilitarianism with Thompson and wrote that he knew Thompson well and admired him.

When socialism re-emerged as Marxism toward the end of the nineteenth century, the project of remaking the world in such a way as to allow women to develop, flourish, and be sexually fulfilled, had gone underground, though it cropped up here and there in various, even more obscure books. Thompson and Wheeler’s crystallization of Owenite feminism would not reemerge until 1954, when Richard Pankhurst, grandson of the Suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, discovered Thompson and wrote his biography, along with a short essay on Wheeler.

Over the past half century, a few feminist history classics—Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution (1981)—have devoted a line or two to Thompson and Wheeler; and Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem (1983) has a short section on Wheeler. A now-retired scholar at the Royal College of Surgeons in Cork, Ireland, Dolores Dooley, wrote an excellent study of the Appeal called Equality in Community (1996), but it is not widely read. In short, Thompson and Wheeler remain more or less as obscure now as they were in 1954. One reason may be that, until very recently, mainstream feminists focused more on old-boy sexism in the workplace than on the systemic causes of women’s poverty. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Hillary Clinton’s glass-ceiling-obsessed campaign dwelt on male-female pay inequity without noting that the pay gap is much bigger between mothers, who make 79 cents on every dollar a man makes, and unmarried non-mothers, who make 96 cents.

But as the world of opportunity that Thompson and Wheeler were able so remarkably to imagine continues to materialize for women, then slip out of their reach, people are catching on as to why. It is becoming ever more evident that the market economy and the unpaid labor of love and care dovetail with each other to “keep depressed,” in Thompson and Wheeler’s excellent phrase, “the average station of women beneath that of men.” Today, Thompson and Wheeler deserve the credit they’re due for their prescience on that score, and on all the others, too.