Tocqueville argues for the political importance of the condition of women, given that their realm is that of morals, which are essential to a free community. Protestantism promotes women’s freedom far more than Catholicism, he says, and in America these doctrines, mixed with political liberty, promote women’s freedom and independence.
Here and throughout the chapter, Tocqueville’s arguments about the place of women are both remarkably ahead of his time, and still quite foreign to our own world: for instance, he never questions that the woman’s role is a “moral” one.
Tocqueville observes that American girls speak, act, and think for themselves from a young age. They encounter the world’s vices and dangers frankly and openly, but are able to face them with confidence in her own strength. They aren’t childishly timid or innocent like European young women. Tocqueville was surprised and almost frightened by the confident, bold demeanor of young women in America: they are mistresses of their own actions and pleasures.
Throughout this chapter, Tocqueville will argue that the very nature of women in America is different than in Europe; implicit in this distinction is an argument that it’s education and environment, rather than inherent qualities of birth, that affect how women act.
Tocqueville contrasts the French model—limiting the education and experiences of girls until the moment when they are abandoned to society as adults—to the American model, which assumes that it’s better to teach women the art of checking the passions of the heart that are so ubiquitous in a democracy (rather than pretending they don’t exist). Americans instruct women in the exercise of reason, revealing the world’s corruptions so that she can defend herself.
Again, Tocqueville emphasizes the importance of education in shaping both the place of women and their very nature in America as opposed to in France. As a proponent of democracy and political education for all, Tocqueville admires the extension of such advanced pedagogical practices to women.
Tocqueville acknowledges the dangers of such an education—its capacity to create cold, virtuous women rather than affectionate, agreeable wives—but he thinks a democratic education is worth the dangers.
Even as Tocqueville nods to the sexist expectations of his contemporaries, he continues to embrace women’s education and independence.
Tocqueville adds, though, that the Puritanical streak and commercial spirit of America require a women’s sacrifice of pleasure in favor of duty far more than in Europe, keeping women circumscribed within domestic affairs. Their education and instruction, however, encourage them to accept their duties without a struggle. The American woman freely enters into the bonds of marriage, which happens relatively later in America, once her understanding is mature. The same education has taught women to accept their husbands’ risks and vagaries of fortune with grace and energy. They often accompany their husbands in their treks to the West, and remain unbroken by the harshness of life there.
Even as Tocqueville points to women’s relative independence in America, he also argues that precisely because they have been educated and encouraged to think for themselves from a young age, they can better embrace the submission to a husband that—and Tocqueville never questions this standard—constitutes a natural division of roles and duties in a marriage. Still, the freedom to choose one’s own husband, which Tocqueville praises, was far from a given in Europe at the time.