Monday, November 28, 2005

Race and Progressives

At Regions of Mind, Geitner Simmons has a post on the attitudes that people in the women's suffrage movement had about immigrants and minorities:
The women'’s suffrage movement passed through a curious period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that time, suffragists often criticized extending the franchise to immigrants and racial minorities.

It is ironic that a social movement associated with progressive thought would embrace such prejudice. Still, this isn'’t news. It's long been understood, since at least the pioneering analyses by historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s, that racism was a powerful undercurrent in the Progressive movement in particular. ...

The suffragists'’ turn toward elitism is explained well in Alexander Keyssar'’s well-conceived book "“The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States" (Basic Books, 2000). He writes:

"By the 1901, the aging Susan B. Anthony, a witness to a half century of struggle, concluded that one of the three '“great obstacles to the speedy enfranchisement of women' was '“the inertia in the growth of democracy which has come as a reaction following the aggressive movements that with possibly ill-advised haste enfranchised the foreigner, the negro, and the Indian.' "

Keyssar points to a cultural change in the suffragist movement several years later, as voices arose to challenge such thinking:

"The turning point for NAWSA [National American Woman Suffrage Association] came at its 1906 convention, at which child labor reformer Florence Kelley sharply attacked the movement's class and ethnic prejudices. '“I have rarely heard a ringing suffrage speech which did not refer to the '‘ignorant and degraded' men, or the '‘ignorant immigrants' as our masters. This is habitually spoken with more or less bitterness. But this is what the workingmen are used to hear applied to themselves by their enemies in times of strike.' " ...

The mixture of seemingly antithetical positions reminds me of a recent article on August Forel on the occassion of the centennial of the publication of his book, Die Sexueulle Frage. Forel has been celebrated, especially in his native Switzerland, as an advocate of sexual freedom and attacking the foundations of moral laws and regulations (including over same-sex marriage.) He said,
The state cannot forbid a person from exercising mastery over his own body without feigning the role of the advocate of G-d.
Erwin Haebele describes his position:
But which were these abominations that Forel wanted legalized? They were, first of all, the complete legal equality of the sexes and the formal recognition that female house work was just as valid as male work outside the house. In addition, he demanded the decriminalization of concubinage and all mutually consentual sexual relations among adults, including incest and all "perversions" as long as they did not violate the rigths of others. In the case of homosexuality, he even regretted that marriage between men was prohibited, since it would be "quite harmless to society". Moreover, Forel demanded the free availability of all contraceptives, and he even wanted abortion to be allowed in cases of rape, danger to the mother's health, mental illness and similar contingencies. It goes without saying that, at the beginning of our century, such a program, proposed by a renowned scientist, had the character of a provocation.

Despite his desire for openness, Forel was also a leading proponent of eugenics and forced sterilization "for the betterment of the race." He approved of the euthanasia of deformed births and criticized the use of "the healthy" to fight wars.

Both examples show an odd entanglement with the Victorian mentality: revolt against its morality but its obsession with the health of race and nation. There is less of a break from the world of the nineteenth century than an attempt to resituate it more solidly within rational, scientific knowledge that could be just as exclusionary as what preceded it.


At 7:58 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Ah, this is one of my favorite features of this blog--highlighting the swirling shades of gray around the edges of progressive vs. reactionary tides, not just in the eddies and bayous of boundary rivers.

Over the weekend, talking with my historian brother, we both bemoaned our shared certainty that every well-intentioned action (or righteous restraint) has at least as great a chance of achieving negative results as positive ones, and vice versa for actions (or inaction) that seem ill-intentioned at the time.

Africa, his regional specialty, seems extra rich in examples of good intentions gone awry in the postcolonial era, and even many cases of racist colonial intentions yielding some positives. Pacification, often brutally achieved during the colonial era, seems to have given way to brutality without pacification in many former colonies. I know some old-timers in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons can wax nostalgic about more peaceful colonial times. Public policy is nothing but moral quagmires. It's so much safer to be a historian.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

This is an interesting subject that I wish I had more clarity about. Part of the problem is obviously that the progress with which 'progressive' thought is concerned is often just local: progress along this or that line. When people talk about progress, we really should always ask, "Progress for whom?" But it seems that it would be difficult to account for it all in this way. I've sometimes thought that part of the problem with our current debates over abortion is that both pro-life and pro-choice sides have inherited part of an earlier progressive tradition that, while apparently consistent at a given level of vagueness, turned out to be more problematic at finer level of discussion. I sometimes worry that this is a problem endemic to all progressive thought: that it is only coherent to a certain level of specificity, and becomes incapable of reconciling its claims at a level of greater specificity.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger eb said...

One of the ways I've seen of understanding the relationship between racism and Progressivism - which involved more ideological diversity than the name implies: there's been a long-running debate over whether or not Progressivism can be seen as a coherent movement - is to look at it in the context of the increasing organization, bureaucratization, rationalization, etc. going on at the same time. Given the growth of scientific racism and the belief that society should be organized on scientific principles, segregation, for example, could be understood as the application of those principles. I'm not quite sure if people at the time understood it in those terms, though. And of course this doesn't specifically address the relationship between woman suffrage and racism.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Africa is certainly a place where good intentions end in disaster. I've noted that in the past, European socialist (especially Emile Vanderwelde) would criticize political and economic imperialism, but that they offered no solutions for Aricans themselves except further industrialization/integration into trade.

Progressive tendencies, I guess, don't make a progressive movement. Brandon, as well as eb, is probably right--the context of one's advocacy tends to be narrow, sometimes local or personal. Progressivism does not translate well from one movement to another. This still happens. For example, the groups that criticize militarism and expansion of state power who also tend to undermine the case for intervention in genocides (such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur.)

Modernity, nonetheless, seemed to be caught up in processes of normalization (somewhere in here there is a critique of Enlightenment.) Race was but one aspect of an arena in which people debate the healthy nation and society. Furthermore, the notion of 'progress' was not used by only one side of the political spectrum, as the American left uses it now. Perhaps the problem, if it could be called that, is how current political movements position themselves as part of a progressive tradition that is truly unfamiliar to them.

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