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The Us Woman and Society in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

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In his survey of American society in the early 1800’s, Alexis de Tocqueville spares a few chapters to describe the American woman as he sees her. Obviously, from our more modern view, Tocqueville’s claim that women and men in America enjoy a certain equality clashes with the reality of the conditions at that time, and Tocqueville cannot give enough evidence to convince us to the contrary. More interesting, however, is the parallel between the “little society of husband and wife” and the “great political society” (574) that he describes. With that as a starting point, we can see that the requirement for a particular type of education for democracy to be feasible parallels with Tocqueville’s description of the education of the American woman. Even more notable is that the situation of the American woman parallels the tyranny of the majority – or the mild despotism Tocqueville describes as a fearsome possibility of democracy. That said, Tocqueville is noticeably inconsistent in his views toward such a despotism as it applies to women.

Tocqueville’s argument that women enjoy a certain equality with men is hardly convincing, especially given the lack of supporting evidence. In America, he claims, women and men enjoy equal respect but in different spheres, in order to better facilitate the running of society. Women are not praised, but “they are esteemed” (575). Women can “show themselves to be men in mind and heart” (574), and men respect their courage and independence. Americans have “elevated woman with all their power to the level of man in the intellectual and moral world” (576). That is to say, women are as smart and as good as men.

However, these principles fail to challenge traditional structures of “marital power.” Tocqueville writes that “the natural head of the conjugal association is the man. Americans therefore do not deny him the right to direct his mate; and they believe that in the little society of husband and wife, as well as in the great political society, the object of democracy is to regulate and legitimate necessary powers, not to destroy all power” (574). Thus, while women live under the “natural” tutelage of their husbands, accepting an argument for equality of the sexes is difficult. The strongest example Tocqueville gives of women being esteemed and respected in America is the fact that rape is punished with death. In Europe, rapists are often subject to milder penalties or not convicted at all; this, he argues, is indicative of Europeans’ lack of respect for women. However, punishing rape with death does not necessarily equate to respecting a woman’s honor and independence; it could very well be respect for her as the property of her husband or father. To assume that women are “virtuous and delicate,” to respect their chastity, and to have confidence in their strength is in its own way a type of prison. This kind of esteem or respect can be a daily reminder of what a woman would forfeit should she misstep: “public opinion is inexorable toward her faults” (569).

Comparing the fate of the American woman in her “little society” with Tocqueville’s description of the “political society” of American democracy brings to light an interesting parallel: the necessity of a democratic education in order for democratic habits to be sustainable. For a democracy to succeed politically, its citizens must be educated in the democratic way. In Tocqueville’s description of American society and the American woman, the democratic education is no less necessary. In Volume One, Tocqueville makes the startling and relevant observation that “The states where citizens have enjoyed their rights longest are those where they know best how to make use of them. One cannot say it too often: There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom” (229). Freedom is sweeter when one has had it longer, precisely because one knows how to use it and does not run away with it wildly. In the custom of marriage, Tocqueville makes a similar argument. In defending the free choice of marriage partners to aristocratic European readers accustomed to arranged marriages, Tocqueville notes that when European men and women marry for love, “One cannot be surprised that they make a bad use of their free will the first time they use it, nor that they fall into such cruel errors when they want to follow the customs of democracy in marrying, without having received a democratic education.” (570). Thus, American women who have had a democratic upbringing know how to appropriately exercise their free will and will choose their mates properly. Tocqueville’s observation that the longer people have been democratic, the more successful their democracy is, begs the question of how democracy (politically or socially) could ever be possible in Europe, with its long tradition of monarchy. Tocqueville does not offer a satisfactory answer, admitting instead that, while America is an interesting example and case study, he himself is “very far from believing that we ought to follow the example that American democracy has given and to imitate the means it has used to attain that goal by its efforts” (302). Democracy must be grown slowly.

Even more troubling than this vague road-map to democracy is the sharp inconsistency in Tocqueville’s views toward women and toward political society. In the political society, Tocqueville fears the possibility of tyranny, but in the “little society” of husband and wife, he accepts it without censure. Tocqueville’s greatest fear for a democratic state is the mild despotism that he describes near the end of his work. Despotism is particularly dangerous in democracy since there “what is arbitrary does not appear fearful” (197). Because magistrates and political figures are supposedly elected by and responsible to ordinary people, their power is not frightening as it would be in a monarchical state. Thus, in America “magistrates can post the names of drunkards in taverns and prevent inhabitants from furnishing them with wine under penalty of fine” (197), a serious intrusion into individual private lives that Tocqueville implies would be unthinkable in France. Furthermore, he describes how in reconciling “the need to be led and the wish to remain free,” people would choose and create a unique all-powerful tutelary power, then “console themselves for being in tutelage by thinking that they themselves have chosen their schoolmasters” (664). However, this tutelage is no less powerful for being supposedly chosen by the people, and Tocqueville fears its oppression would be all the more tolerated for it.

The situation of the American woman is strikingly analogous, although Tocqueville praises rather than censures her situation. Once women marry, their freedom is inescapably confined. From the woman is exacted “a self-abnegation and a continual sacrifice of her pleasures to her business that is rare to demand of her in Europe” (565). Moreover, nobody is sympathetic of her sacrifices. The woman has chosen her husband of her own free will, and “In a country where a woman always exercises her choice freely, and where education has put her in a state to choose well, public opinion is inexorable toward her faults” (569). Earlier, Tocqueville writes: “She tolerates her new condition courageously because she has chosen it” (566).

Leaving aside for the moment the idealism of the notion that every woman might have complete free will to choose her husband, one must note that her free choice of husband is exactly like the free choice of the democratic peoples to choose their despot. Because husbands are chosen with eyes open and despots are elected by the majority, wives and citizens must submit without murmur to their rule, their only comfort lying in “thinking they themselves have chosen their schoolmasters.” While Tocqueville fears democratic despotism, he shows no such reservations about the system of marriage. Perhaps this parallel escaped Tocqueville; perhaps his failure to see the parallel is an extension of the old-world view that it is natural for women to submit to their husbands. The “most virtuous women” are the ones who make “a sort of glory for themselves out of the voluntary abandonment of their wills” (575). There is truly no choice in Tocqueville’s America. Either one is virtuously married and happily without free will, or one must remain “silent” (575), either unhappy or un-virtuous.

Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s arguments for equality between ruler and ruled in the little society may shed some light on the nature of despotism in the great political society. The so-called equality between the sexes in courage, will, intellect, and morals may be a consolation for a woman and the basis for glorifying her own sacrifice. She may be subjected to her husband’s rule and to strict societal expectations, but at least she undergoes this with a manly courage that puts her on a par with her husband. In some way she may even be able to claim a moral high ground in that it might be more difficult to sacrifice oneself to another’s will than to follow one’s own will. To extend that analysis to the “great political society,” one could argue that the equality in a democracy between the governors and the governed is only a consolation or a balm for those who are governed. They may have less power, but at least they are equal in their rights and in a myriad of other social characteristics. Thus, the notion of equality can perhaps be seen as a dangerous tool to reconcile people to the idea of being ruled.

Tocqueville’s description of the American woman is most interesting when it intersects with his description of American politics and society at large. Where there exist parallels between “the little society of husband wife” and the “great political society,” significant insights can be gained. Most notably, Tocqueville’s fear of majoritarian tyranny and despotism does not carry over into family life, despite the close parallels in structure. The notion that a certain equality might exist between men and women in the face of such tyranny suggests the notion of equality in greater political society might be preserved for similar reasons – namely, as consolation. Finally, the necessity of a democratic education for free will to be properly exercised in both the choosing of a mate and the choosing of magistrates poses an as yet unsolved problem, insofar as the establishment of democracy or freedom of choice for women is concerned, for women in societies where other traditions have long held sway.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Mansfield, Harvey and Delba Winthrop(tr). Democracy in America. University Of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002.

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