What Did Tocqueville Really Say About American Women?

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Mr. Richard Reeves alleges that Tocqueville “thought American women were docile” (“If Tocqueville Could See Us Now,” June/July issue). Tocqueville never used the word docile about American women, and he actually wrote the exact opposite about them.

Here is what he really wrote: “She thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse. … She is full of reliance on her own strength. … It is rare that an American woman, at any age, displays childish timidity or ignorance. … I have been frequently surprised and almost frightened at the singular address and happy boldness [of] young women in America … an American woman is always mistress of herself”—quoted from the chapter “Education of Young Women in the United States” in Democracy in America .

Tocqueville wasn’t very consistent in his observations about American women. He was impressed with the forthrightness of young single women, as Mr. Maass notes, which made him doubly surprised at the meekness and dependence that women readily adopted when they married. It was in a letter to his sister-in-law from America that Tocqueville specifically referred to the docility and placid subservience of American wives, but he mentioned this radical transformation from maid to matron in Democracy in America too.