The Thinking 

Dostoevsky on Feminism

August 2, 2013




The issue of “women’s rights” was almost a century old when Nietzsche cut it to the quick with a five word response: “Feminism: the uglification of Europe.” For years, I found nothing to match its bite until I recently came across the following reminiscence in The Dostoevsky Archive: Firsthand Accounts of the Novelist from Contemporaries’ Memoirs and Rare Periodicals (1997). The account is taken from the memoirs of a Prince Vladimir Meshchersky (St. Petersburg, 1898), a friend of Tchaikowsky’s and the grandson of Nikolai Karamzin, the 18th and early 19th-century historian, whose volumes on Russian history became classics in their time:

At the parties I gave, Dostoevsky showed himself to be a charming person. He told his stories, and he displayed his wit and humor, as well as his unusual and original way of thinking. As a new person entered the room, however, Dostoevsky became silent for a moment and looked like a snail retreating into its shell, or like a silent and evil-looking pagan idol. And this lasted until the newcomer produced a good impression on him…. If the stranger engaged Dostoevsky in conversation, one generally heard him make some rude remark, or saw a sour look on his face.

Dostoevsky was opposed to the so-called “Women’s Question.” At that time, this movement took the form of eccentric behavior and attire on the part of some women, such as very short haircuts, dark blue spectacles and other fads. Among other things, these ladies did not notice that Dostoevsky disliked them, and they revered him as their teacher.

Several times, I was present at such meetings. A contemporary woman entered the room. She failed to notice the forbidding expression on Dostoevsky’s face. She did not hear his cold tone of voice or his formal question, “What do you want?” This lady, filled with her own motives, began to tell her story, with animated and shining eyes and flushed cheeks.

Dostoevsky listened to her attentively. His expression became very nervous, and I saw that every feature of his face had become very tense, as if he had a volcano burning within. I sensed that he was restraining himself. As soon as this woman finished her discourse on the Women’s Question, she waited for a word of support from Dostoevsky. At this point, the resolute enemy of the Women’s Question put to her his own question. “Have you finished?” “Yes, I have finished,” replied the lady with the short haircut.

 “So, listen to me. My speech will be much shorter than yours. I want to tell you this: all that you told me now was very stupid and banal. Do you understand me? It was stupid. It would be better to dispense with you, in this matter, but your family, your children and your kitchen cannot survive without a woman … a woman has only one main purpose in life: to be a wife and a mother … there is no, there was no, and there will not be any other ‘social purpose’ of a woman. This is all stupidity, senseless talk, and gibberish. All that you have told me here is nonsense, do you hear me? It was nonsense, and I am not going to say anything else to you.”

This was the conversation I witnessed, and which I remember. He was equally strict and uncompromising with regard to all other fashionable, liberal, social questions, and he hated these issues because he considered them to be false.

— Comments —

Stan writes:

I’ve read the anecdote about Dostoevsky posted by one of your readers. Frankly, the only thing that it shows about Dostoevsky is that he was no gentleman. His response to the feminist could only have been intended to humiliate her. It’s of zero intellectual value. Setting aside the rudeness and crassness of telling a person who disagrees with you that what she is speaking is “gibberish,” I doubt that anything of what the feminist had told Dostoevsky was more banal than Dostoevsky’s observation that children need mothers, as if that proved something, or more repugnant than his presumption to dictate to the woman what her only purpose in life must be!

Yes, Dostoevsky is quoted as saying that a woman’s purpose is to be, not “only,” but “mainly,” a wife and a mother. But this is either an evasion on Dostoevsky’s part or an error on the translator’s. His real meaning is clear enough: the question is, or rather was, not whether women shall be allowed to be wives and mothers but whether they shall have a choice to be much else. The feminists of Dostoevsky’s time asked only that women should not be denied at the outset, qua women, the same opportunities that men had. This was before such things as affirmative action, discrimination lawsuits, the disparate impact doctrine, or “diversity” as compelling interest of the state, had been dreamed of.

Those who oppose even that kind of feminism have the burden to show that constricting the opportunities of women, by social and government coercion, because they are women, is both good for society and compatible with justice.

 Laura writes:

Dostoevsky’s comment that there is no other “social purpose” of a woman than the role of mother and wife is extreme, but he does also say that is a woman’s “main purpose,” suggesting there are other purposes, and one could argue that the other fields in which women traditionally excelled, such as teaching and nursing, were extensions of these roles.

There is a case to be made that Dostoevsky was rude. He was attending a party and perhaps he shouldn’t have been so vehement. However, your comment that he only “intended to humiliate her” is simply not supported by this description. How do you know that was his intention? Meshchersky makes it clear that Dostoevsky disagreed with what this woman was saying. His intention was seemingly to express his disagreement. If what she said (we are not told what exactly she said although we can guess) was truly stupid and banal then his comments did have “intellectual value.”

While we don’t know what the woman said exactly (she was probably dressed in the deliberately ugly, masculine way described in the preceding paragraph), we can surmise that in her absorption with the “Women’s Question” she spoke of the equality of men and women, which in feminist terms meant at that time the interchangeability of men and women and their sameness. It’s simply a myth that 19th-century feminists merely wanted a few more opportunities. They believed in an historic male conspiracy against women. As the Seneca Falls suffragettes said in 1848, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

These early feminists sought to open fields to women without ever acknowledging that the main reason women were excluded was because men had the responsibility to care for women. While it is true that feminists of that time often acknowledged that women were mothers and wives too, and even sometimes spoke in glowing terms of the roles of mothers and wives, they simultaneously showed their disdain or disregard for these roles by seeking, as the 18th century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft put it, “the confounding of the sexes.” They showed contempt for male authority and believed the male provider was a misogynist. While they lauded the mother they typically disdained her partner in life and sought the loosening or abolition of the institution of marriage. Russian feminists were part of a general movement of intellectuals who exalted science and rationality, as described by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons. Equality for women was part of a utopian program to remake society and discard tradition. It is safe to conclude that the woman Dostoevsky was addressing was this kind of revolutionary.

Women in Russia possessed civil equality, with property rights and the right to education, long before Dostoevsky’s time and noblewomen had long been free to pursue learning. Professions once closed to them, such as medicine, were becoming open to them early in the second part of the 19th century. However, the pursuit of freedom for women to pursue certain careers was not feminism. If non-feminists pursued this avenue they would have done it while also respecting the masculine right to primacy in the economic sphere and the right of women to male support, the very things upon which motherhood and wifehood in their fullest sense depend. (Women in pre-feminist societies in the West pursued many non-domestic roles, as businesswomen especially, teachers and, in medicine, as practitioners of certain specialties, such as midwifery. They didn’t need feminism to liberate them or to pursue activities outside the home. This happened naturally. All societies depend on the labor of women. The question is how this labor and how the diverse talents of women will be channeled so that it does not undercut the ability of women to do what they generally value most and does not turn them or men into slaves.) Feminism sought equality and sadly was all too successful in Communist Russia, making the average woman a drudge who worked at a job full-time and then spent the rest of her life doing domestic work. Here is Clara Zetkin on Lenin and the “Women’s Question:”

Comrade Lenin frequently spoke to me about the women’s question. Social equality for women was, of course, a principle needing no discussion for communists. It was in Lenin’s large study in the Kremlin in the autumn of 1920 that we had our first long conversation on the subject.

“We must create a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis”, Lenin began. “There is no good practice without Marxist theory, that is clear. The greatest clarity of principle is necessary for us communists in this question. There must be a sharp distinction between ourselves and all other Parties. Unfortunately, our Second World Congress did not deal with this question. It was brought forward, but no decision arrived at. The matter is still in commission, which should draw up a resolution, theses, directions. Up to the present, however, they haven’t got very far. You will have to help.”

I was already acquainted with what Lenin said and expressed my astonishment at the state of affairs. I was filled with enthusiasm about the work done by Russian women in the revolution and still being done by them in its defence and further development. And as for the position and activities of women comrades in the Bolshevik Party, that seemed to me a model Party. It alone formed an international communist women’s movement of useful, trained and experienced forces and a historical example.

Now the “Women’s Question” did not simply pop out of Lenin’s head. The way was prepared for it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hail to the working woman! Russia subsequently experienced what is probably the most severe demographic breakdown of any civilization in history as a result. One child was enough. There is no greater proof that when women are considered “equal,” society regresses.

Finally, I disagree that Dostoevsky’s comment that children need mothers is banal given the modern denial of this obvious truth. And I sincerely wish there had been many more men who had spoken up to defend women as he did at the risk of humiliating a few misogynist revolutionaries.

Alex writes:

Dostoevsky didn’t kowtow to a stupid man-hater?! How dared he!!!!

See how it works? Liberals can do and say the ugliest things, but we can’t respond with anything that could possibly be as much as considered impolite – by them, of course. No wonder they always win.

Stan writes:

Those who oppose even that kind of feminism have the burden to show that constricting the opportunities of women, by social and government coercion, because they are women, is both good for society and compatible with justice.

That’s how liberals always get us. We acquiesce to the first seemingly innocent step in a major push of theirs – making women into men and consequently men into women, normalizing sexual perversions, etc., etc. – and then the snowball, once rolling, grows until it is unstoppable. Is that a winning tactic or what? Surely Stan realizes that affirmative action, discrimination lawsuits, the disparate impact doctrine, or “diversity” as a compelling interest of the state are logical and inevitable consequences of these first steps.

Also, notice how it’s always us who have the burden to show that not changing society to their liking is “both good for society and compatible with justice.” Another no-fail winning tactic.

And “compatible with justice”? What does this even mean?

Laura writes:

Alex writes:

Surely Stan realizes that affirmative action, discrimination lawsuits, the disparate impact doctrine, or “diversity” as a compelling interest of the state are logical and inevitable consequences of these first steps.

I’m afraid the vast majority of thinking people do not realize that the principles of the 19th century feminists led with logical inevitability to affirmative action and “queer” children.

Mr. Kogan replies:

Stan writes that Meshcherky’s “anecdote,” as he calls it, “only” shows that Dostoevsky “was no gentleman.” Zeroing in on Dostoevsky’s response to the “Women’s Question,” Stan reminds me of the woman herself, who is “filled with her own motives,” as he is in disregarding what Meshchersky actually says by way of introducing the scene: “At the parties I gave, Dostoevsky showed himself to be a charming person. He told his stories, and he displayed his wit and humor, as well as his unusual and original way of thinking.”

His so-called ungentlemanly faults? A deep-rooted anxiety in the presence of newcomers at social gatherings, a refusal to suffer fools gladly, and the need to speak his mind freely about any issues “he . . . considered to be false.” Three transformative events in Dostoevsky’s life have a bearing on these traits: a sentence of death for participating in a socialist circle in his youth, followed by a mock execution and four years at hard labor in Siberia chained in leg irons day and night. He revered the memory of the wives of the Decembrist revolutionaries who followed their men to Siberia, and the following from The Dostoevsky Archive sheds light on why he despised “all fashionable, liberal, social questions”:

“In the most terrible periods of my life, when everybody left me, there was only one Being which supported me all the           time. This Being was God. He never rejected me in His support. I feel from my own experience that there is nothing worse than atheism or the lack of faith. To all people who want to make sure that this is true, I suggest to them to go to prison. . . “

AUGUST 5, 2013

Eric writes:

Thank you for writing about this topic. I was unaware of Dostoevsky’s history regarding socialist ideologies. This was still early in those movements. From the source, the tactic of using a “question” as an intellectual argument seems similar to how leftists prefer to make arguments today. For those unaware about proper argument, questions can’t be disproven. They are a cheap way to attack by directing the frame. As a question is asked, the underlying assumption is assumed. Once the opponent buys into arguing against the question on its own terms, he implicitly assumes the asker’s underlying premise, changing the tone of the argument, forcing himself into an uphill battle.

Today, we would use the term frame control. The proper way to respond to someone trying to set their frame is refuse to buy in. As Dalrock says, “never be tricked into responding to a reframe with an intellectual argument.”

 Laura writes:

Good point.

To accept the idea of a “Women’s Question” is to embrace the underlying premise that women have been rendered without purpose or meaning.

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