U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Only Paradoxes to Offer" in a USIH course

Yesterday I offered my USIH class some thoughts about Jane Addams. This was the first time I had had an opportunity to study her in any kind of depth and I, unsurprisingly, found her fascinating.

One theme that popped up a couple of times in the articles I read* was that Jane Addams expanded the boundaries of the domestic sphere rather than challenging its existence. (My attempt to check out books was foiled when the library catalog died. Yes, I could have looked up the books in another university’s catalog, but I didn’t think of that till I’d already left. I was hoping to get Louise Knight’s book, based on her comment on this thread.)

I decided to make the two central themes of the class period Addams’ pragmatism and this question of agitating for women’s rights based on difference or equality. I was thinking here of Joan Scott’s Only Paradoxes to Offer. Let me quote the publisher’s synopsis,

When feminists argued for political rights in the context of liberal democracy they faced an impossible choice. On the one hand, they insisted that the differences between men and women were irrelevant for citizenship. On the other hand, by the fact that they acted on behalf of women, they introduced the very idea of difference they sought to eliminate. This paradox–the need both to accept and to refuse sexual difference in politics–was the constitutive condition of the long struggle by women to gain the right of citizenship. In this new book, remarkable in both its findings and its methodology, award-winning historian Joan Wallach Scott reads feminist history in terms of this paradox of sexual difference.

Rather than explaining the paradox, however, I posited it as an either/or choice to get students to talk. I started off the class by asking what were the differences and similarities between men and women (in general). They didn’t want to touch that with a ten foot pole at first, but eventually they started making suggestions. We share common features, but there is some scientific evidence that we have different thought processes and that women use more words in a day. One student suggested that women hold grudges longer. They were reluctant to name similarities until a student in the military suggested that we are both violent. Another suggested that we both have intellect and ambitions. I pointed out that this latter point would not have been the case in Jane Addams’ time.

After having lecture/discussion on Jane Addams’ life, we returned to the issue of whether it was better to agitate for women’s rights based on equality or difference. For the first ten minutes, only male students spoke. Several argued that it was better to go for difference, in part because men would never see women as the “same” (I think a lot of them are thinking about women being equal in rights, but different in personality). One student brought up Comte, in a similar way to LD’s comment yesterday (well, he argued for difference based on Comte. I wondered what class he had learned that in?). It was very interesting to watch the conversation unfold, though I didn’t understand why no women participated. Finally, the last comment was given to a woman who suggested that in Jane Addams’ time, difference meant unequal, and so perhaps it was better to fight based on equality.

I’m going to bring in an example of a woman fighting on the basis of equality on Thursday, to give them another example and perhaps stretch their thinking about the impact of fighting based on difference a bit more (see LD’s comment).

*One of these articles was from the 1970s, so the author felt acutely the importance of this discussion.  J.O.C. Phillips, “The Education of Jane Addams” History of Education Quarterly 14.1 Spring 1974, 49-67.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. oddly enough I’d argue that for women of Addams’ era difference did mean equality. they wanted an ‘equality of difference” not “sameness” in that they wished not to sacrifice that which they valued, and was labeled feminine” simply to obtain rights, which were labeled male. However, I’m with Scott on the paradoxical aspects of sameness v difference rhetoric. Irreducible trap in our U.S. rhetorical context. Sometimes I give them the text and assign them to argue one side against the other, mandating that they must all speak!

  2. While significantly later in time, Margret Mead would examine the similarities and differences between men and women in her book Male and Female: A study of the Sexes in a Changing World (1949). While some of Mead’s scholarship and methods have been called into question in recent years, it was still a work that triggered a lot of discussion and research in the anthropological field. It could be used as a jumping off point for student discussion.

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