The women founders of sociological theory made it possible for women and members of other marginalized communities to gain access to the rights and privileges their white male counterparts enjoyed for centuries. In particular, the incredible lives of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett allowed new avenues of academia and social change that had not previously been conceivable. Although they used different approaches and their theories focused on different aspects of the society in which they lived, a common thread ties them together in the history of feminist thinkers: their passion for social and economic change for women. Their contributions laid the groundwork for the modern day struggles for civil rights, in particular the fight for fair treatment and equality of undocumented immigrants.
Gilman and Wells-Barnett did not gain admiration for maintaining the status-quo, which is exactly why it is important to apply their methods of research and analysis to the fight for the equality of undocumented immigrants. This paper focuses on the revolutionary theories Gilman and Wells-Barnett are most known for, and discusses the potential implications the application of these theories might have when applied to undocumented immigrants. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860 and died by suicide in August of 1935. Despite her unfortunate death, the contributions Gilman made to the feminist movement are still considered to be unparalleled, so much so that has been judged “the most original and challenging mind which the woman movement produced” 1.
In her most famous work, Women and Economics, Gilman separated herself from other feminists of the time by boldly stating that the integral cause for sex-distinction and the inequality facing women is the dependence on the husband in the family unit for all money making activities. Her bold and unapologetic prose highlighted the “sexuo-economic relationship” between married men and women, dating back to prehistoric times 2. According to Gilman, women must rely solely on their sexuality to attain even their most basic needs.
Unlike men, who have endless opportunities to gain their desires, young women are left with only their bodies as a means for material and social well being, because “all that she may wish to have, all that she may wish to do, must come through a single channel and a single choice. Wealth, power, social distinction, fame- not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter-all, must come to her through a small gold ring” 3.
Woman’s dependence on men economically not only hurts women financially, socially, mentally, and intellectually. This dependence of married women on their husbands for virtually all aspects of their well being also has a negative effect on the economy. Gilman blames the “androcentric culture” for societies ills, using the term specifically to refer to the institutions and social norms defined by the capitalist patriarchy men and women are taught to live in beginning at a very young age. This phenomenon, coupled with the inability for women to compete with men in society, is causing great intellectual waste as well as economic ramifications. Until women could have the same freedoms as men to pursue economic independence, they would remain subjugated and forced to live their lives without freedom and confined by social norms perpetuated by the capitalist patriarchy of male domination.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett made her mark in feminist sociology not only for her work in the field of sociology but also as a social activist who challenged the status-quo of American society. She used a unique blend of research and social activism to challenge the racism she and her fellow African Americans faced every day in the United States, particularly in the South. Wells-Barnett collected information from newspapers, journals, and other media outlets to uncover the ways African Americans were represented in the media and the negative effect this had on the lives of people of color and the poor across the country. For example, in her autobiography, Wells-Barnett describes one incident which resulted in a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad.
When she refused to leave the “ladies” car, two conductors had to physically remove her, during which she bit one conductor on the arm and refused to let go. She explains “”the white ladies and gentlemen in the car even stood on the seats so that they could get a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand.”4Together with other theorists like Julia Cooper, Wells-Barnett developed a theory of domination that explained why white men of power continued to dominate American institutions and perpetuate the cycles of racism and poverty. Specifically, Wells-Barnett focused on the violent behaviors, such as lynching, that dominant members of society used when they felt their position of authority was being threatened by someone or some group they deemed subordinate in society.
Historian Ula Taylor explains the many ways Barnett used these tools: “She challenged the myth that all White women were chaste, all Black women were without virtue, and all Black men were rapists by unleashing a massive international campaign against lynching. She documented the economic realities of lynching victims, the possibility that a White woman could be attracted to a Black man, and finally the fact that Black women were violated and abused at alarming rates. Barnett advocated self-help activities, but she also fought against Jim Crow facilities with economic boycotts and was not above armed resistance”.
The focus of Wells-Barnett on the subordination of women was unique in that it looked at the problem not only through the lens of sex, but of race, class and geographic location. Undocumented immigration, commonly known as “illegal immigration”, is a hot button topic in American politics today. In the last ten years candidates for political office, political parties and interests groups have used this issue to gain support for their cause, resulting in a heated ongoing debate that affects the estimated 20 million undocumented immigrants that live and work in the United States today.
What has become lost in the majority of these discussions is the diminished quality of life these immigrants are forced to endure due to failed social policy of US lawmakers, as well as the many positive contributions immigrants from all countries have on the economy and culture of the United States. Advocates for undocumented immigrants are faced with similar challenges faced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Both women fought for equality for those who did not have equal status in society and in the institutions that make up American government. The application of their theories to the plight of undocumented workers provides a unique lens in which to study these women and to test whether their theories can still be successfully applied to modern-day issues.
The fight for the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States today is being fought with many of the same tools used by Wells-Barnett during her fight for civil rights. These tools include economic boycotts, marches, policy advocacy and media coverage that highlight the injustices being endured by millions of men, women and children across the country. For example, in 2004 a documentary entitled “Farmingville: POV” told the story of two murders in the suburban town of Farmington, New York6.
Two undocumented workers from Mexico were brutally murdered by the hands of white men because of their ethnicity and legal status. According to Wells-Barnett, these vicious murders occurred because of the pathology of the white men. The violence was a reaction to the dominant members of the society feeling their status in their community was being threatened by those they considered beneath them. The similarities in legal status of African Americans during the lifetime of Wells-Barnett and present-day undocumented immigrants is strikingly similar.
Undocumented workers, like African Americans of that time, have different legal rights than their “American” counterparts, and legally they are not afforded the same rights and liberties as those considered “legal”. As she did in her studies of lynching of African-Americans, Wells-Barnett would also look at media representation and instances of racism within the police force and other law enforcement agencies as proof of her theory of domination.
For example, she could cite an article recently published in Los Angeles, California in which Ernesto Cienfuegos boldly stated: “murderous ogres are today getting away with the horrific killings of undocumented Mexican immigrants due in part to uncaring and often racist USA law enforcement agencies. Anti-immigrant hysteria, once the purview of fringe vigilante groups, has now afflicted some in the mainstream media and this has fanned the flames of anti-Mexican bigotry throughout the nation resulting in a series of heinous murders of undocumented immigrants that have included women and children”7.
The language in this article reflects the beliefs held by Wells-Barnett concerning the rape, murder and other brutality faced by African Americans before and during her lifetime. The theories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman could also be applied to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Specifically, her assertions concerning unspecialized labor in the workforce. In “The Waste of Private Housekeeping”, Gilman explains her belief that because women are forced to be housewives and therefore cannot pursue their intellectual potential:
“Neither the labor of the overworked mother, nor the labor of the perpetual lowgrade apprentice, can ever reach high efficiency. This element of waste is inherent in domestic industry and cannot be overcome. No special training can be applied to every girl and produce good results in all; no psychological gymnastics can elevate housework when housework, in economic status, is at the very bottom of industrial evolution”.
Gilman argued that because women were kept to working inside the home they were not able to develop intellectually at the same level or rate as men. Because undocumented workers face deportation and other punishments because of their legal status, they also are often forced to remain in jobs in the service industry and as maids cleaning up and looking after the children of other families. They depend on the companies that hire them and the families that pay them for their income, and therefore have no choice but to work in deplorable working conditions with wages often lower than the federal minimum wage. The argument can also be made that many undocumented women are kept economically dependent on men because they are brought into the United States for use in the sex industry, and often kept as slaves.
Without the necessary skills, education, or legal status these women cannot escape their terrible situation, and therefore remain dependent on men for their basic needs in return for work around the house and sex. Without Gilman and Wells Barnett it is hard to know what these women would think about the plight of undocumented immigrants. It is important to take into account the different time periods these women lived and worked in.
For example, Wells-Barnett focused on African Americans because they were legally enslaved by slaveowners for centuries in the United States, and there were laws in place that protected these slaveowners from being held accountable for inflicting harm on any of their slaves. Undocumented immigrants, however, are afforded some basic rights that African Americans were not even after the abolishment of slavery, which Wells-Barnett might be quick to point out. While it can probably be proven that the media gives less attention to the murders and violence towards undocumented immigrants, the severity and social stigma involving lynching of African Americans in the South was certainly much different.
Gilman’s theories are often criticized for their racist and xenophobic undertones, as she believed America was the best country in the World and Americans were morally superior to citizens of all other countries9. Might she then condemn undocumented workers and treat them with the same racism she afforded African Americans? In conclusion, the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett is anything but limited to sociological theory. Both their lives impacted women around the world, and without their vision, intellect and passion for social change the status of women could not be where it is today.
The lasting impression these women made on society is proven when their theories are applied to the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States today. These women are responsible for the tools marginalized members of society use to gain access to the freedoms we as Americans strive to achieve. Although criticisms can and have been made against the theories of both women, their positive contributions to critical social theory far outweigh the negative. Because of these women’s passion for social justice and equality they too would join the fight for immigrant rights if they were alive today. I am honored to have been able to study and analyze their works and will carry the knowledge gained from this experience for the rest of my life.