Tocqueville's Individualism: Women and Men in Tom Wolfe's America
33 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 18 Sep 2009
Date Written: 2009
Tom Wolfe has devoted considerable thought to the character of American women in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Wolfe is known chiefly for his examination of American manliness, through his portraits of test pilots and mercury astronauts with the right stuff, bond traders who thought themselves masters of the universe and the Charlie Croakers of the world who applied their manly potency to the construction of American cities, like Croaker’s Atlanta. But Wolfe, whose writing is largely dedicated to the study of American manners, status structures and styles of life, has also reflected seriously on the circumstances of women, whom he considers the arbiters of fashion and, like Alexis de Tocqueville, morals and manners, in American democracy. Wolfe’s judgment is in accord with Tocqueville’s observation that the high status of women in America has accounted to a very great degree for the regularity of morals and manners, the habits of heart and mind, which provide the order and stability required to hold together a dynamic, commercial society. Tocqueville’s women, though socially inferior, are intellectually and morally equal to men in America. 1 He anticipated that the force of equality of condition in the United States would inevitably lead to the greater equality of women with men in every way, however, he observed with approval that Americans, noting the different “physical and moral constitutions of man and woman,” had divided the functions of men and women between the public commercial and political realm from the private and domestic activities of women (DA, II 3.12, 574).Nevertheless, Tocqueville’s prediction of greater equality implies some doubt that this division could endure against the tide of democratic equality. Wolfe’s discussion of women suggests that he agrees with the analysis that gives women influence over mores but Wolfe, of course, confronts the question of what happens when full equality between men and women becomes a reality and transforms the relations between the sexes so that they do acquire the same duties and rights and commercial responsibilities.
This reality is the context of Wolfe’s analysis of the circumstances of women in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America. Wolfe chronicles the establishment of this equality of conditions between men and women in real time. This paper begins with a full discussion of Tocqueville’s observations of how the character and activity of women provide a moral foundation for American democracy. Then, the paper turns to consider Wolfe’s own observations and interpretation of events. Wolfe sees that freedom and wealth have contributed to greater democratization in every aspect of American life, including, as Tocqueville seemed to anticipate, the status of women. Wolfe, like Tocqueville, a student, and in many ways a fan of American democracy, realizes that it is impossible to understand contemporary America without comprehending the impact of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. Wolfe’s women are sometimes celebrities and society women, and often wives, ex-wives, mistresses and trophy wives, or, in the case of Charlotte Simmons, a college student, but his curious observation is that, despite the wealth and freedom they possess in contemporary American life, they are still not always happy. To understand this apparent paradox, Wolfe seeks to examine the full implications of the radical changes that full equality introduces both for men and for women: when women assume the same rightsand duties, as well as commercial and political responsibilities, in a democracy what is the result with regard to democratic morals and manners? How are marriage and the family transformed under such conditions of equality? Do women, in seeking the same power as men in democratic society, relinquish another kind of power that was beneficial to themselves and perhaps democratic society as a whole? In other words, are there unintended consequences for American mores hidden in the establishment of equality between men and women in American democracy, according to Wolfe? The final section of the paper considers Wolfe’s Tocquevillian morality tale of women in American democracy in I Am Charlotte Simmons. This account of American women begins in the mountains of North Carolina with Charlotte’s devout, traditional and spartan mother who keeps her on the upright path to academic excellence and moral rectitude, and culminates with the unqualified freedom, sexual equality and licentiousness implied by coed dorms at Charlotte’s university. How does Charlotte’s odyssey tell Wolfe’s story of women in contemporary America?
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