Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes|
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LOOKING BACKWARD: SYNOPSIS / CHAPTER NOTES
Doctor Leete argues that the twentieth century reformers went wrong in theorizing that women and men should be treated the same. He finds profound differences between the genders. He is horrified that the nineteenth century provided no employment to women except that in “unnatural rivalry with men.” He adds that men have given women a world of their own and that women are happy in it. He compares the happy women of the twentieth century to the sickly and unhappy women of the nineteenth century. He notes that in this time, women marry out of love, not out of economic necessity, and they are therefore more capable of making men happy.
Julian West wonders if careers keep women from marrying. Doctor Leete assures him that women still like to marry. In fact, only women who have been married and have had children are allowed to enter the higher positions in the industrial army.
Doctor Leete also notes that women are issued credit cards of the same amount as anyone else. Women are not dependent on their husbands, and children are not dependent on their parents for financial support. All individuals receive support directly from the state, not through any intermediary. He exclaims over the lack of dignity and humanity of the old system that made people rely on their relations to survive.
Julian West admits to being complicit in the nineteenth-century subjection
of women. However, he then adds that the condition of women could not
have been improved until the general economy was improved. To change women’s
economic dependence on men, the state had to change the mode of social
organization. Doctor Leete tells him that the change in the relations
between women and men has been significant, especially in courtship. Now
there is no guile or coquetry. Doctor Leete goes on to explain that since
there are no economic constraints on marriage choices, the principle of
natural selection is in place and the species has improved both mentally
In Chapter XXV, three chapters from the end of the novel, Bellamy finally addresses women’s position in the new society. Women’s rights and their equality with men are not a central concern for Bellamy. In the discussion of women’s new position, Julian West asserts that the women’s rights reformers of his day would never have been able to succeed because the social system had to be changed before women’s positions could be improved. This argument holds that women should wait until “after the revolution” to ask for their rights. The revolution usually refers to a major change in the distribution of wealth. For Bellamy, as well as for many political reformers, economic justice should precede questions of social and political justice.
As has been the case throughout the book, Julian West voices the opinions of the average reader of the novel, the nineteenth century person. It is quite interesting to trace the questions which Julian West raises as a measure of the nineteenth century’s anxiety over women’s rights. First, he assumes that without the burden of housework, women of the twentieth century must be spending all their time developing their charms and beauty. Thus, it appears that people of the nineteenth century could imagine only two functions that women could serve: domestic servants or ornaments.
His second question is also based on an assumption. He assumes that upon marriage, women must stop working. This assumption reveals the fact that for nineteenth-century people, marriage and work were mutually exclusive occupations for women, and the former always has priority over the latter. His third question has to do with women’s rank in the industrial army. He objects to the idea that women would be ranked and disciplined under the same category as men. Part of the anxiety about women entering the work force in the nineteenth century was the notion that they would compete for the same jobs men wanted, and the distinction between women and men would be blurred. Julian West is assured that the new society keeps women and men strictly separate in relation to work.
His next question concerns women’s motivation to marry. Since they are not required to marry for economic reasons, Julian West worries if women would even want to marry. Again, he is assured by Doctor Leete that women will always want to marry men, no matter what their economic position. In fact, in the new society, women who do not marry or raise children are barred from entering official positions. Compulsory marriage is therefore the same in the twentieth century as it is in the nineteenth century. Finally, his last questions concern women’s pay, and he is astonished to find out that women earn equal pay to that of men.
The answers to all these questions reveal the extent to which a nineteenth-century thinker like Bellamy could go in envisioning women’s equality. All the anxieties of those of the nineteenth century who were against women’s rights are soothed. The distinctions between men and women are maintained. Women do not become “mannish,” a major concern of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Men do not lose any of their economic or political privileges. Women are given such rights only within “their own world,” where they can enjoy them. This realm that does not interfere with the men’s world. Finally, women still want men as marriage partners, even when men are not supporting them economically. The women who do not want men as marriage partners are never given the power to rule.
The dominant message here is of women’s autonomy, but the language retains a patriarchal hold over power. In Doctor Leete’s language, women are permitted to work. Men maintain control over the power to give and take the rights of women. Also, men are best suited to discuss women’s rights. Instead of going to a woman to find out about her position in the new society, Julian West goes to a man, and he is told that women are very happy under this new organization. Women are not given their own voice.
The reader probably also questions the logistics of this delay in discussing
women’s work. While Doctor Leete is retired, nothing has been said of
whether Mrs. Leete is retired. Edith Leete is at the age of service for
the women’s industrial army. But she has apparently not been going to
work since Julian West’s arrival, otherwise he would already have learned
that women work, too.
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. 09 May 2017