Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 25 | Summary



Julian West comments in this chapter that from their first meeting, he admired Edith Leete's "serene frankness and ingenuous directness," qualities that he finds in his experience more masculine than feminine. He wonders if these qualities are unique to her or evidence of some "result of alterations in the social position of women" in the 20th century. He asks Dr. Leete if women's sole role is now "the cultivation of their charms and graces," because they are rid of household labor through the collectivization of such duties. Dr. Leete explains the role of women in the industrial army as that of "an allied force [rather] than an integral part of the army of the men." He says that men would be happy to allow women their equal credit for the "ornament" they provide to society.

But, because women wish to contribute and because some amount of work is healthy for body and mind, the nation has "given them a world of their own" with work "best adapted to" their abilities. These jobs are different from the ones of men because women are "inferior in strength to men, and further disqualified industrially in special ways." Women also have shorter hours, more vacation, and lots of time to rest as needed. Though women do not leave work when they marry, they do so when they have children, although they may return if they desire. Dr. Leete explains that the women's workforce is governed by a hierarchy of women that is organized similarly to that of men. The highest ranks are reserved for "only ... women who have been both wives and mothers, as they alone fully represent their sex." Women also judge other women in cases that go to the judicial system.

Dr. Leete goes on to explain that because women receive the same credit as men, they are no longer financially dependent on them. This dependence on men in Julian's day led to women "selling" themselves into marriage for support, coquettish and insincere interactions between the sexes, and humiliation for women. Julian recognizes that independence from financial worry means marriages may now be "matches of pure love!" Dr. Leete adds that it also means women practice "the principle of sexual selection, with its tendency to preserve and transmit the better types of the race." Dr. Leete claims that only two or three generations were needed to accomplish the physical changes and also "a mental and moral improvement" he calls a "race purification." Women take this responsibility very seriously, seeing to it that "the attributes that human nature admires are preserved, those that repel it are left behind."


Edith Leete's unique frankness reminds Julian West more of a boy's than a girl's character, and inspires him to ask Dr. Leete about the role of women in the new society. Here, two thirds of the way through the novel, the author addresses the role of women. Julian presumes they do nothing more than "cultivate their charms and graces," and Dr. Leete agrees that men would be happy to allow women to do nothing more. But it is actually the women themselves who wish to do more, to work. It turns out that women do indeed work, although they are not allowed to work the same jobs as men or as many hours. They are considered weaker, and there are ambiguous "special ways" in which they are "disqualified industrially." Only women who were "wives and mothers" were qualified to the highest leadership positions because they alone had achieved the feminine ideal. Modern readers may find such claims sexist and even misogynistic, especially within the framework of men providing women with a separate and not equal sphere in which to exist, what Dr. Leete calls "their own world," all while men create the rules and regulations for it.

Today's feminists may have a hard time understanding why 19th-century feminists and suffragettes were generally fans of the author. However, 19th-century feminists were largely in favor of the feminism described in the novel, which they recognized as quite radical in their own time. Consider that the author proposes women earn equal pay as men (something not even always achieved in America today) as well as the right of women to work even after marriage. Women are free from household drudgery. They are free to marry or not marry as they choose. They can assume leadership roles, although not over men. These were rights and opportunities women in the 19th century did not enjoy, so however antiquated the attitudes toward women in the chapter may seem to modern readers, it is useful to note that it would have struck many 19th-century readers much differently.

The author confirms what readers suspected in Chapter 19: the human race has evolved morally as well as physically. This chapter adds to that claim by explaining that women are behind the change. By selecting mates who exemplify the best traits of humanity, women ensure that only the fittest pass on their genes to successive generations—another indication of the influence of social Darwinism. Contrary to what readers may know about the length of time most evolutionary changes may take, according to Dr. Leete it has only taken a few generations to drastically improve the mental, moral, and physical traits of nearly all members of society. The phrase "race purification" may unfortunately remind readers of Nazi and other pseudo-scientific racial theories, even if the novel was written half a century prior to the Nazi eugenics program. It is useful to note the ways in which ideas such as sexual selection and social Darwinism were, in a sense, precursors to such later developments.

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