Mark Francis
Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Spencer's feminism was lit by the pure flame of middle-class radicalism, a light that was modified by his subsequent work in psychology, biology and sociology but never extinguished. Even his later suspicion that socialism was a doctrine designed to attract female voters could not totally undermine his beliefs that women were important as the carriers of the torch of civilization. He always remained faithful to the idea that modern society should rely on moral energy rather than muscular power, and that women would ultimately take the leading role in social transformation.

In his Social Statics (1851), Spencer had boldly rejected gender as the basis on which one should assign rights. He argued that sexual differentiation could no longer be the basis on which political power was determined in either government or family. Power should be underpinned by the law of equal freedom. This law was not to be overturned by 'differences in bodily organization, and those trifling mental variations which distinguish female from male.' Spencer believed that arguments based on sexual variations were insubstantial. He was especially hostile to the idea that the 'woman's mission' was an exclusively domestic one that precluded her from taking a role in public affairs. This attitude was simply political sentiment masquerading as a scientific fact: there was, according to Spencer, no universal truth determining woman's place in society. It was not necessarily subordinate: among the Pawnee or the Sioux, women were treated as beasts of burden, while in France they held clerkships, cashierships and other responsible positions.

Spencer not only rejected the dogma of the mental inferiority of women as false, he also held that its absurd implications made it inadmissible in political argument. It suggested, by analogy, that men of lower than average ability were not entitled to rights. To Spencer this was more than a reductio ad absurdum; it pointed to the very core of what was wrong with the male arguments that denied women's rights. These arguments were equivalent to saying that a woman who had weaker faculties and who, therefore, was in need of protection, should not be allowed to exercise even those necessary claims to security. This ran against the sensible common idea that rights served to constrain the power of the strong.

Without limitations on dominance Spencer believed that there would be an absence of justice, because social norms would encourage the mistreatment of women. In some societies this had been extreme: offending Circassian maidens were thrown into the Bosphorus by the Turk, and Athenian women were sold by their brother or fathers. Even in Spencer's Britain there was a statute allowing a man to beat his wife—with moderation—and to imprison her within any room in his house. Spencer believed that such abuses could be stopped if rights were assigned to women; if they possessed claims to equal consideration then their mistreatment would cease. Spencer's early views on the connection between the public powerlessness of women and their private subordination superficially resembled those of later Victorian feminists such as Arabella Shore, but his views were not products of suffragette politics. He did not have a feminist political platform in 1851; his beliefs were merely a belated advocacy of the position of the National Democratic Union, which saw equality as a magical potion that would cure all ills. Women's rights were simply a special application of the general egalitarian rights possessed by everyone. Spencer should not be classed as a pioneer of woman's suffrage as he was unconcerned with how women would actually achieve political power.

However, despite Spencer being undeserving of a place in a pantheon for suffragettes, his approach to women's rights is theoretically interesting in that he insisted that rights not be limited to the exercise of political suffrage. To him rights in the domestic sphere were as important as political rights. He was determined to rectify power imbalances in the home as well as in the public arena. Spencer's own experience as a child watching his father hector his mother echoes through the prose of Social Statics. He had a profound personal interest in overturning arguments that claimed that there was a sound psychological basis for inequality. Opponents of women's rights had argued that if one put a husband and wife on equal footing, this would provoke antagonism as the two equals would then vie for supremacy in the household. Nevertheless, watching the behaviour of his father and uncles, Spencer had concluded that the exercise of supremacy within a household was not caused by the struggle between equals, but by the inherent masculine desire to dominate the weak. He deprecated this as a primitive urge, and looked forward to a time when society had become sufficiently civilized to recognize equality of rights between the sexes: 'when women shall have attained a clear perception of what is due to them, and men to a nobility of feelinq which shall make them concede to women the freedom which they themselves claim.' The fact that Spencer, an inveterate opponent of the aristocracy, unconsciously appealed to nobility in this passage highlights his passion on this subject. His vision of a future sexual equality was not an idyll, but an unsettling and gripping insistence that social justice should be enforced in the home before it could be effective in governance of the nation. Social Statics argued that increased social justice was dependant on a prior improvement in domestic relations. Only then would the desire for supremacy slacken. Political life would remain in turmoil until the perpetual squabbling of married life ceased. As long as a husband asserted his claims without consideration of his wife's, there could be no self-sacrifice in domestic or in political relations. Both the domestic and the political spheres were to be reformed the same way by Spencer's advocacy of moral reform. In Social Statics Spencer expounded the belief that if individuals learned to avoid selfishness then the desire to exploit the weak would disappear. This was a speculation in moral psychology that avoided conventional discourse about politics: Spencer did not speak of the representation of interests, of the balance of power, or of duty, but only about a psychological drive for power that might be restrained by the institution of moral rights.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.