The Changing Face of Female Dignity

In a series of articles written for Salvo Magazine over the years, I have contrasted the outlook of modern feminism with what female writers in the past have written about female dignity. What has emerged from this research is a stark juxtaposition about the meaning of female dignity.

Consider that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many female thinkers defended their sex precisely by asserting, maintaining, and celebrating appropriate sexual distinctions. For example, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Wordsworth once noted that “in an ideal state of society we never lose sight of the womanliness of women . . . why should it be considered a compliment to any woman to be told she writes, paints, sings, talks, or even thinks, like a man?”

Even more progressive female thinkers who challenged conventional feminine virtues and roles still took it for granted that there was a connection between biological sex and innate gender distinctions, and that such distinctions were a source of one’s dignity. For example, Abigail Adams (1744–1818), who is considered a pioneer of early feminism, wrote to her sister praising Thomas Jefferson’s daughter for “so womanly a behavior.” Similarly, in the works of eighteenth-century female novelists who are now celebrated as proto-feminists, we find examples of women asserting their female dignity precisely by glorying in their inherent womanliness.

By contrast, twentieth and twenty-first century feminist writers have seen themselves as defending their sex precisely through their attempts to neutralize the sexual polarity. For them, it is no longer acceptable to emphasize the womanliness of women, as Elizabeth Wordsworth and Abigail Adams did, but neither is it acceptable to praise women for being like men. Feminism of the twentieth-century questioned the very category of womanliness and turned toward androgyny and egalitarianism.

I have explored this further, along with some of the implications, in the following articles: