Tocqueville argues that democracies will eventually make women and men (like master and servant or father and son) equals of each other. Some Europeans, he notes, imagine equality between the sexes as a society in which each sex has the same functions, duties, and rights—but Tocqueville thinks this would degrade both sexes through disorder and confusion.
Tocqueville proposes a society in which women and men are “separate but equal,” to use a term from the later Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the United States; it never seems to occur to him that separation itself is unequal.
In America, Tocqueville counters, people have accepted the natural differences between men and women, and instead have chosen to encourage each sex to engage in its respective tasks with as much freedom as possible. Indeed, American equality has consisted in stricter separation of spheres than elsewhere. Women never manage a business or engage in politics, but are also never forced to labor in the fields. They are confined to domestic economy, but never have to go beyond it. Though women are independent and knowledgeable, they retain delicate appearance and manners. Americans have also accepted the need for the husband to direct his wife, just as political democracy seeks to regulate, not subvert, power. American women are proud of this voluntary surrender of their own will, he notes.
Even as Tocqueville points to what he sees as the greater independence and freedom of women in America—a condition that he praises and admires—he sees such a situation as resting on what we, today, would probably think of as profound inequality, that is, the separation of men and women into different spheres. To what extent, then, were women in nineteenth-century America really as free and independent as Tocqueville claims they were? Or was such separation of spheres less pervasive than he argues?
Tocqueville contrasts America to the situation in Europe, where men often fall under the tyranny of women, who are in turn considered seductive but depraved. Virtuous women, then, take pride in being the opposite: feeble and timid. In America, men simply treat women with respect and assume they are virtuous—even allowing young unmarried women to travel alone, for instance. Rape is one of the only capital offenses in America, where a woman’s honor is prized above all else—whereas the French difficulty of convicting rapists stems from the contempt of decency and of women, he thinks.
Precisely because the stereotype of a typical woman in Europe involves her being overly forward, Tocqueville argues, virtuous women don’t have the same freedom as American women to be independent and speak their mind. For him, the strict punishment of rape in America is not just positive because it shows women are listened to, but also because it reflects Americans’ championing of their “honor.”
Tocqueville concludes that while Americans keep the duties and rights of men and women separate, they show equal respect for both sexes. Though women in America are confined to domestic dependence, he’s never seen women occupying a loftier position, and he thinks that American prosperity and strength is largely due to its women.
Repeating himself on the existence of separate spheres for the sexes in America, Tocqueville concludes what seems from a contemporary perspective a paradoxical emphasis both on women’s dependence and their freedom.