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John Muir and the Feminist Movement

by Ron Limbaugh

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1994)

Was John Muir sympathetic toward the 19th century feminism? Did he view the rights of women in the same light as the rights of animals? Until recently it was not possible to explore these questions because of the lack of primary resources. Before 1970 the subject of Muir and his relationship with women was delicately side-stepped by scholars who were unable to win the confidence of Muir's heirs. Since then a new generation of heirs opened the papers, and the result has been the emergence of new lines of critical inquiry. Stephen Fox's book, John Muir and His Legacy , first critically analyzed Muir's relationship with Jeanne Carr and Elvira Hutchings. Muir biographies by Michael Cohen and Frederick Turner also delved into personal history, yet neither addressed the questions I have asked above, questions that surfaced repeatedly during my research on the origins and evolution of Muir's dog story, " Stickeen ."

Darwinians in the late Victorian era raised three troubling issues of special interest to Muir: the ethical relationship between humans and animals, the nature and extent of animal intelligence, and the status of the soul in higher animals. Of less direct impact on the dog manuscript, but still influential in shaping Muir's thinking during the long Stickeen gestation, was a fourth question that grew out of the debates on the other three: did all sentient beings, including women, have fundamental rights men were bound to respect?

As Muir worked on the meaning of Stickeen he saw the logic of extending the equality argument to women. But on general questions of feminism his heart and head were divided. Though sympathetic to the legal and moral plight of women, his was a masculine world where language and culture and tradition defined gender roles. Suffragettes might have a point, but his "fellow creatures" had a higher priority. Torn by countervailing forces Muir remained ambivalent. Not so his friend Henry S. Salt. As the women's movement surged in the wake of Darwinism, Salt made friends with feminists. Drawing parallels between animals, slaves and women, he conceived of a grand coalition, a union of activists for the promotion of both human and animal rights. Middle class compassion for the downtrodden had fed the fires of antebellum reform in America, and Salt counted on this universal capacity for sympathy, "the very essence of the human," to promote "a wide sense of brotherhood with all sentient beings." [1]

Drawing a connection between women's rights and animal rights was nothing new. The relationship dates from the beginnings of the Romantic era with its broad emotional and moral appeals to protect the innocent victims of immoral society. Ethicists today see the nexus as part of a larger picture, a "continuing struggle" over the last two centuries "to enlarge the boundaries of moral community." [2] But for most of the 19th century linkage was a definite liability both to feminists and animal sympathizers. Opponents of moral reform drew absurd analogies between women and animals in a perverse attempt to discredit the women's movement through ridicule. The derision surfaced as early as 1793, a year after publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's pioneer suffragist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Women . If women achieve the right to vote, asked the anonymous author of A Vindication of the Rights of Beasts , "why not cats and dogs?" [3] The same forces that held women in moral bondage to men also kept them from asserting the rights of animals.

Reformers also had to contend with the more traditional approach to animal protection led by conservative animal shelter organizations like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the half-century since its founding, the RSPCA and its American counterparts had been led by upper-class elites who found humanitarian appeals preferable to revolutionary polemics on the rights of animals. "Radicals" were purged from the English SPCA -- meaning Jews, vegetarians, feminists, and anyone else that might be unconventional or too liberal. Americans simply avoided them. In both cases the remaining leaders were safely orthodox Christian, masculine, and upper-class.

SPCAs generally did not engage in rhetorical debates over the nature of animal rights. The backbone of their support came from status-conscious middle-classes who looked to the elites for leadership and models. SPCAs also siphoned off most Victorian women who felt pangs of conscience for both animals and other "brutes", including the impoverished lower classes seen in ever greater numbers as industrialization spread across the western world. Humanitarian sentiment toward the downtrodden animals was a safe and reassuring act of Christian love that avoided disturbing ideological or philosophical issues. The primary objective was to eliminate the worst abuses and educate the abusers -- usually the lower classes -- on the Christian virtues of kindness and sympathy. SPCAs in America and England, by and large, became safe havens for upper classes and their middle class allies who felt they were doing something to improve society while not threatening its basic values [4] .

By the latter part of the 19th century a revived feminism threatened to undermine the conventional approach to animal protection as well as the old SPCA power structure. The confrontation between feminists and reactionaries now took on a new Darwinian twist. Opponents of women's rights used evolution theory to argue that suffrage would violate the laws of nature. Natural selection, they said, demonstrated "that the highest forms of life were most specialized. Therefore, the proposal that woman invade man's sphere must be retrogressive rather than progressive." [5] By the same reasoning a New York physician concluded that women were inferior to men because of their "comparative indifference to pain." His deduction was based on a common 19th century presumption that the "higher classes and nations are more sensitive to physical suffering than the lower classes and barbarous tribes," and that "in all grades of civilization the men are more sensitive than the women." But feminists could play the same game. Turning the learned doctor's syllogism on its head, one indignant woman retorted that since men are stronger than women, and since brute strength characterizes savage societies, therefore men are savage brutes [6] .

On the West Coast the resurgent women's movement penetrated the inner circles of power, including humanitarian organizations like the Bay Area SPCAs. While John Muir worked on his Stickeen text in Martinez, just 20 miles away some of his friends debated the meaning of evolution for both humans and animals. One was Sarah J. McChesney, an Oakland housewife who loved animals. Twenty years after Muir had boarded in the McChesney household while writing up his Sierra glaciation theories, Mrs. McChesney became a director of the Oakland SPCA, defying the traditional subordination of women members [7] . Not reticent to speak out on the implications of Darwinism, she said evolution had reversed Cartesian logic. If souls were necessary for sentience, then "most assuredly" animals had souls. The remark of course had religious implications, for orthodox Christianity denied that animals were immortal. On that question both McChesney and Charles B. Holbrook, secretary of the San Francisco SPCA, boldly asserted that dogs and other sentient animals had a rightful place in heaven [8] .

That same logic could also be used against anti-feminists who denied that women had souls. This was simply a religious extension of Cartesian theory, based on the pre-Darwinian premise that souls were necessary for sentience and that women were less sentient than men. Mrs. McChesney's reported remarks stopped short of challenging the conventional western religious view of women, but another Muir friend was more outspoken. Mary McHenry Keith, a San Francisco attorney and wife of Muir's closest friend William Keith, played a prominent regional role in the cause of women's rights [9] . She was also an animal rights activist, asserting, with Sarah McChesney, that animal sentience no longer could be disputed. In response to a reporter's inquiry she boldly linked the cause of women and animals. Both were sentient beings with immortal souls. Mary Wollstonecraft had been vindicated at last! Mrs. Keith even suggested western Christianity could learn something from Hindu teachings on the "transmigration of souls" after death [10] . As we have seen, Muir had explored the idea earlier and had even mentioned it in his final draft of Stickeen, but his editor had tossed it out as a "digression."

If Muir liked some feminist views on animal rights, on the role of women in society Mary Keith's outspoken opinions must have troubled him. He had friends on both sides of the issue. The Keiths themselves were divided -- the landscape artist refused to take his wife seriously, perhaps in retaliation for her refusal to take an interest in his Swedenborgian views. He was a notorious tease, poking fun at the feminists, even playing the fool dressed as Susan B. Anthony at a gathering of friends. Presumably he was polite when Anthony herself visited the Keiths at their Berkeley home on her West Coast tour in 1895 [11] .

William Keith was a light-hearted anti-feminist, but another Muir acquaintance took a harder line. Joseph LeConte, geology professor at the University of California and a radical Darwinist [12] , was outspoken in his attack on the suffragettes. Recalling the Wollstonecraft lampoon a century earlier, he said if women should vote so should children, and if children voted so should horses and dogs. Once more evolution theory came to the service of the Social Darwinists. The "intelligence of man & beast differs only in degree," he asserted, presumably meaning man in the generic sense. Within the human species, however, male dominance simply confirmed the inexorable consequences of natural selection [13] .

Muir pondered these anti-feminist remarks and found further opposition in his readings. He noted that Thoreau had reported conversing with a feminist but found the experience unenlightening. "You had to substitute courtesy for sense and argument," he wrote. "The championess of woman's rights still asks you to be a ladies' man.... I fear that to the last woman's lectures will demand mainly courtesy from man." [14] Parkman was even more blunt, writing in exasperation after listening to a "noise party in the cars": "Is not a half educated vulgar weak woman a disgusting animal? Where there is no education at all and no pretension, the matter is all very well -- where high education and good sense are united is very well indeed; but the half and half genteel -- damn them!" [15]

But for every nay-sayer there were positive voices. Muir was impressed by the outspoken views of John Stuart Mill, who had fought for women's suffrage in the House of Commons. "He disliked to think that there were any fundamental differences in mind and character between the sexes," said Richard T. Ely in a review Muir thought worthy of notice [16] . Nearer home, Ina Coolbrith and Katherine Graydon, both close friends of Muir, took prominent roles in the Bay Area suffrage movement [17] . Like some Civil War families, on the women's issue friends and relatives stood divided. One of the friendly critics was Theodore Hittell, who mocked Carrie Chapman Catt at the same party that Keith mimicked Anthony. However, his daughter Catherine, nicknamed "Kittie," was an active feminist in San Francisco. Both Hittells corresponded with Muir and visited him occasionally [18] .

How much Muir was influenced by these conflicting opinions is impossible to measure. His journals and notes reveal no discernible pattern to his thinking on the women's question. Perhaps he consciously tried to avoid taking sides for the sake of his family, for even in his own household there were voices of discord. Muir's wife Louisiana, or "Louie" as she was universally known, is a reclusive figure in the Muir story. Presumably she followed her husband's views, but his eldest daughter Wanda was influenced by her Berkeley boarding school experience. Later she attended the University of California for at least two years, although not long enough to graduate. Muir opposed sending Wanda off to school. He believed women should be educated at home -- in contrast to the views of his next-door neighbor and friend John Swett, one of the fathers of public education in California [19] . Whether this conservatism extended to the suffrage issue cannot be directly determined from the paltry evidence left behind, but Wanda's independence in matters of education and marriage caused at least a temporary rift in the Muir household and may have been rooted to more basic differences on the matter of women's rights. The fact that Muir chummed with some outspoken anti-feminists lends credence to this view. On the other hand he stood with the feminists on fundamental philosophical questions, rejecting anti-feminist dogmas based on the presumptive inequality of sex or species. Regardless of how he felt personally, his frequent contacts with activists on both sides of the issue provide an intriguing backdrop for further study. The story of Muir's outlook on the feminist movement has more chapters to come.


  1. Henry S. Salt, "The Rights of Animals," International Journal of Ethics , 10 (January 1900), 215-216.

  2. Ethics and Animals , p. 5.

  3. Ibid., p. 5.

  4. Turner, Reckoning with the Beast , 39-59; Gerald Carson, Men, Beasts and Gods: a History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, c1972), 53-55; 96-105.

  5. Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement , 1890-1920 (New York & London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), 21.

  6. New York Times , March 28, 1897, p. 16, col. 5.

  7. Women were minority members and only occasionally officers until after the turn of the century in both the Oakland and San Francisco SPCAs. The San Jose branch, however, apparently had a much larger female contingent by the mid-1890s than other humane societies in the Bay Area. San Francisco Call , July 19, 1892, p. 8, c. 2; August 28, 1896, p. 11 c. 2; March 19, 1897, p. 9, c. 5; July 19, 1898,p. 7, c. 4.

  8. "Have Animals Souls," newspaper clipping from San Francisco Chronicle , Sunday Supplement, May 26, 1901, p. 31, in the unfilmed John Muir Papers, Series VI, UOPWA.

  9. San Francisco Call , May 6, 1896, pp. 10-11; May 21, 1896, p. 13, cs. 3-4; The History of Woman Suffrage , Ida Husted Harper, ed. (National American Woman Suffrage Association, c1922), v. 4, pp. 480, 483.

  10. "Have Animals Souls," JMP UOPWA. Another controversial woman leader in both feminist and animal causes was the wife of Charles Holbrook, the San Francisco SPCA Secretary. In 1903 anonymous accusations were brought against both Holbrooks, he for "neglecting his duty in order to visit theaters and music halls," she for conducting herself "in an unladylike manner in the society's offices," "being generally disagreeable," and, on her absentee husband's behalf, having "administered the affairs of the charity during his absence." A majority of trustees, however, recognizing Mrs. Holbrook's outstanding efforts to educate school education on the proper treatment of animals, supported her and her husband and dismissed the charges. San Francisco Call , February 22, 1903, p. 27, c. 2.

  11. Brother Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1942), v. 1, pp. 349-353, 373-374. After the turn of the century Keith became more sympathetic toward the suffragettes, even donating paintings to help his wife raise money for the cause. Upon his death in 1911 the National American Woman Suffrage Association included his name in memorial resolutions adopted for "prominent suffragests who had died during the year." The History of Woman Suffrage , v. 5, p. 320.

  12. Joseph LeConte, "From Animals to Man," The Monist , 6 (April 1896), 356-381.

  13. Keith: Old Master of California , 356-358.

  14. Henry D. Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau . Journal, III (Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 168, in JML UOPWA.

  15. Charles H. Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1902), 113, in JML UOPWA.

  16. Richard T. Ely, "John Stuart Mill," in [ A Library of the World's Best Literature ], v. 25, p. 10011.

  17. San Francisco Call , May 6, 1896, p. 11, c. 1; The History of Woman Suffrage , v. 4, p. 479.

  18. Brother Cornelius, Keith , v. 1, pp. 349-352.

  19. Shirley Sargent explores Wanda's educational experiences and the family rift in Dear Papa: Letters Between John Muir and his Daughter Wanda (Fresno, CA: Panorama West Books, c1985), pp. 69-80. The information on Swett is from an interview with Mrs. Margaret Plummer (John Swett's granddaughter), Martinez, California, March 28, 1988.

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