An in-class timed writing about radical feminism in the 1800s and how it related to the connotations of marriage
In the 1800s, before unions, feminism, and civil rights, people were trapped by their situations. That came from wage slavery, marriage, being deported as it happened to Emma Goldman, an anarchist that fought for women’s rights, or being killed by militia in strikes for workers' rights. In these times, people were just realizing that they didn’t have to live under awful conditions, that they could protest these and make their lives better. As said by Emma Goldman in her transcripts from the book Red Emma Speaks, “True emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts/ It begins in a woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts.” That is what people were trying to do, emancipate themselves from 10-hour workdays and 17-year life spans. Similarly, women were trying to gain even marginal independence from the absolute control that their spouses had over their conditions. Laws, however, were not working in favor of married women or workers. Women were mortgages to married men and workers were chattel to the industries, but both were treated most unfairly by the lack of laws guaranteeing their protection and safety.
Marriage is commonly referred to as a contract but in the eyes of some radical feminists, women were trapped by the fear of independence. In a writing by Emma Goldman titled Marriage and Love, she states, “the institution of marriage makes a parasite of woman, an absolute dependent. It incapacitates her for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralysis her imagination, and then imposes its gracious protection, which is, in reality, a snare, a travesty on human character… Marriage prepares the woman for the life of… a dependent, helpless servant, while it furnishes the man the right of a chattel mortgage over another human life.” Although she was a radical feminist and anarchist, her view of love and marriage was not that extreme. Marriage in the 1800s was a contract. It was a promise of protection and dependency from a man and along with it, the signing away of all individual rights of a woman. This financial and physical dependency is similar to how wage slavery worked during that time. Wage slavery happens when an employer has complete control over salaries with no oversight and no enforcement of a minimum wage. A common occurrence during this time was in coal mines where workers could be paid 50 cents per day contradictory to the minimum wage during that time which was 22 cents per hour. This happened because huge industries like coal and textile employed thousands of people at a time. In these conditions, people turn into numbers: wages to give out, profits to turn in. They lose their humanity and become something that doesn’t need safety regulations or a reasonable income. Without unions, they can’t demand better conditions.
A person needs income to survive, this much is indisputable, the question is at what lengths is a person willing to go to survive. In the article The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Nicholas Schliemann makes the point that “‘so long as we have wage-slavery, it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it.” An income is necessary, a job is necessary, and if the only ones available are dangerous, it doesn’t matter. The first concrete law and enforcement of safety regulations came in the form of the Massachusetts Factory Act of 1877. Domestic Violence became illegal in 1920. The laws in the 1800s were not used to protect people, they were used to encourage the profit of the industrial revolution. The system of this time was to give people no choice, either work your body broken or starve. In the radically feminist magazine Mother Earth, Voltairine de Cleyre responded to questions of autonomy by saying, “”Why don’t the women leave!” Will you tell me where they will go and what they shall do? When the State, the legislators, has given to itself, the politicians, the utter and absolute control of the opportunity to live: when through this precious monopoly, already the market of labor is so overstocked that workmen and workwomen are cutting each others’ throats for the dear privilege of serving their lords.” Cleyre is saying that even though women, and all people for that matter, have free choice, they do not actually have many options in order to survive. A person cannot up and leave their children, and that is what would be asked of a women in marriage, to give up property, wealth even if it is of her own making and her children. The options are similar to the working class, either give up your house, your access to food and clothing or continue working under unsafe conditions for a barely livable wage. When presented with the choice to have independence or the ability to survive, it is not a choice at all, it is a prison.