The very engaging production of A Doll’s House at Boston’s Huntington Theater got me thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s essay “The Solitude of Self.” Stanton was the primary organizer of the Seneca Falls convention on the rights of women in 1848, and more or less the brains behind the movement that followed. “The Solitude of Self,” published in 1892, presents the philosophical rationale for women’s rights with succinct eloquence.
A Doll’s House was first performed in 1879, so there is no way Ibsen could have ready Stanton’s essay, yet in many ways the play illustrates Stanton’s arguments. “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes,” Stanton says, and then, “to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands.” This is exactly Nora’s predicament. With the best of motives, she has taken a significant financial risk–for the sake of her husband–yet lacks the education either to understand the liability she faces and the property rights to discharge it. She is almost completely dependent on her husband for money, and is put in the position of constantly begging for money. The two of them cannot have a serious, honest conversation about their financial situation because he regards her not as a human being who is his equal, but as a doll, a bird, a squirrel–charming and amusing, beautiful and entertaining. The reality is that he owes her his life, but she knows that such knowledge would destroy him.
Stanton says that “The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, and to conquer.” Nora faces moral choices; her husband assumes he knows what is best for her without knowing anything about either her situation or his own. When the play ends with the famous slamming of the door, Nora has left to do exactly what Stanton argues is essential, for although Thorwald is affectionate to Nora, he does not really know her, and “in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens” because he does not recognize her as an independent human being who faces moral judgments. As Stanton says, “no one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown.”
This, of course, is also the powerful argument for pro-choice. Women are ultimately responsible for their own moral decisions, just as are men. No one else, male or female, can determine whether or not a woman should continue a pregnancy, because no one else knows the circumstances that led to the pregnancy or to a woman’s ability, in the fullest sense of the word, to care for a developing creature, even for the period of time that it is in her body.
Thus it is, that as long as men or even other women, attempt to legislate the moral choices women must make, doors must continue to slam.