Hannah Mather Crocker on Groveling Minds and Women who Shine
By Jayme Lemke
In a recent post, I shared some background on Hannah Mather Crocker’s Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818) and thoughts on why it has been so overlooked by history. Although there aren’t a lot of quotables from Crocker that are likely to take Twitter by storm, she was an avid defender of women’s intellectual and moral capabilities. Further, she made arguments from within her time that defended women taking on advisory, religious, and civil leadership roles. I’d like to share just a few of those here.
Crocker was critical of those “few groveling minds who think woman should not aspire to any further knowledge than to obtain enough of the cymical art to enable them to compound a good pudding, pie, or cake, for her lord and master to discompound” (p. 18). (On second thought, maybe I will try to get that one trending on Twitter.) What these “groveling minds” miss, according to Crocker, is that although it may not “suit the female frame or character, to boast of her knowledge in mechanism, or her skill in the manly art of slaughtering fellow-men,” (p. 17) it is a loss to family, to community, and to the nation as a whole when women are not permitted and encouraged to educate themselves to the greatest extent possible.
Although Crocker does believe that women are not well suited to some careers, including military and political leadership, she defends women’s equal right “to form societies for promoting religious, charitable and benevolent purposes” (p. 19). She adds later that “women shine preeminent in most of them, and have an equal right to establish schools of industry and economy, which must have a happy effect on the community” (p. 67). Despite the fact that Crocker explicitly denies that she would encourage women to enter the political sphere, institutional and public choice economists—most famously, Elinor Ostrom and Jim Buchanan—have written at length about the extent to which clubs and other civic societies are forms of governance. So whether Crocker really did believe women didn’t belong in politics or merely felt like she had already pushed her argument as far as it could go in 1818, her proposed view of women’s capabilities was in actuality supportive of the civic activities that would prove to be spaces where women participated in local public governance in profound ways.
Crocker also advocates for equality in “family government” (p. 54), by which she meant the management of both the practical and religious life of the household. However, she touches only obliquely on the matter of how married women—who at this time do not have enforceable property rights over any family property except for their own clothes and small personal items—are expected to take on this equal role. Can we believe disagreements will be resolved fairly when one party has all the property and legal power? The condition that makes household equality possible, in Crocker’s view, is mutual friendship based on “mutual confidence and benevolence” (p.61) such that both parties in the relationship feel comfortable leaving their hearts and wallets open. However, Crocker fails to address later women’s rights advocates concerns about domestic violence and whether or not women will be able to protect themselves if such a strong friendship is not maintained.
A particularly interesting passage in Crocker’s work foreshadows later writings in political economy by suggesting that a liberal government cannot be maintained in an illiberal society. She writes that America’s fledgling liberal democracy requires openness to and contributions from all corners of the society it proposes to govern if it will survive: “It is almost impossible that those, who reside under a despotic or monarchical government, can imbibe as liberal sentiments as those, who reside under the more temperate zone of a free, federal republican government, which admits of free discussion of sentiments among all classes of the citizens. Such a government requires more sense and judgment to preserve it from disorder and disunion; therefore the union and right understanding of the sexes will have a tendency to strengthen, confirm and support such a government, and common sense must allow women the right of mutual judgment, and joining with the other sex in every prudent measure for their mutual defence and safety” (p. 67). In short, the cultivation of women’s intellectual capabilities are important not just for the maintenance of family and community, but of the liberal order itself.
This is only a sample of what I suspect may be found in future to be a more important work in the intellectual history of women’s rights than is currently acknowledged. But only time and further deep-dive historical inquiry will be able to tell us how important Crocker’s arguments were to the dramatic changes in both women’s actual economic opportunities and in ideas about women’s economic capabilities that took place over the course of the 19th century.
Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.