Leeds History First

Tocqueville’s American Women

In 1831, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville went on a celebrated voyage to America. He was one of many European observers who believed that America promised a hopeful model for a new, modern, democratic world. Tocqueville returned to France in 1832 to write Democracy in America, a book that has often been considered as ‘at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.’ In one of his most controversial chapters called ‘How the Americans Understand the Equality of Man and Woman,’ Tocqueville recommended that American women ought to remain in sole charge of the domestic sphere. Yet, in the same breath, he argued that if he had to attribute one cause behind the prosperity of democratic America, it would be the ‘superiority of American women.’ How could the world’s most renowned prophet of democratic rights support the political, social, and economic non-existence of half of the democratic population? According to Tocqueville, how were American women at once inferior and superior? This dissertation achieves three objectives. It assesses the meaning of Tocqueville’s seemingly contradictory theory by situating it within his wider political philosophy and the development of ideas concerning sexual equality. It then determines whether Tocqueville’s theory of American women was accurate and fair, by comparing his theory to a wealth of primary source accounts written by other European observers and American women themselves. Finally, it examines the relevance of Tocqueville’s theory in light of the commencement of organised feminism in 1848.

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This entry was posted in 18th-19th Century, Cultural History, Gender and Women, HIST3500, North America, Undergraduate dissertation, USA and tagged , , .

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