Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to study its prisons, but ended up documenting nearly every facet of American life. With journalistic curiosity, the French aristocrat scrutinized America’s religion and government, its society and industry. He wanted to know what allowed the United States to surpass Europe as the world’s political and economic superpower.

His conclusion? Women.

The women Tocqueville saw were not CEOs or celebrities, politicians or professional athletes. They were largely confined to the home: cleaning, cooking, taking care of children. But to the young political historian, no position seemed more important. “There have never been free societies without morals, and…it is the woman that molds the morals,” he wrote. Tocqueville saw American women as the keystone of the family, the ones who held everyone else together.

By taking primary responsibility for the home, American women allowed their husbands to fulfill their roles as providers and protectors, and they both worked toward a common goal: strengthening the family. These traditional roles of men and women, maligned today as harmful “gender stereotypes,” are precisely what helped to make America exceptional in Tocqueville’s eyes.

Gender: Not a Fluid Social Construct

American humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson wrote, “It is impossible to read Democracy in America without feeling a powerful sense of loss.” This is especially true on the issue of gender relations in the United States. A trending topic in the media is raising “feminist” children—training kids to rebel against normative differences between men and women. A recent CNN article warns parents to censor the shows their children watch, not to protect them from viewing pornography, but to shield them from seeing “a superhero’s big muscles or a princess’ long hair.” In “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” The New York Times urges couples not to let their children see mom doing a majority of the cooking or dad always mowing the lawn, lest they internalize divisive stereotypical behavior.

While it’s difficult to imagine Tocqueville’s reaction to today’s feminist dictum, he did offer a startlingly relevant rebuttal to those who would obscure the differences between women and men:

There are men in Europe who, confusing the different attributes of the sexes, claim to make the man and the woman beings, not only equal, but similar. They give to the one as to the other the same functions, impose the same duties on them, and grant them the same rights; they mix them in everything, work, pleasures, public affairs. It can easily be imagined that by trying hard in this way to make one sex equal to the other, both are degraded; and that from this crude mixture of the works of nature only weak men and dishonest women can ever emerge.

The “men in Europe” to whom Tocqueville referred were Frenchmen like Joseph-Benjamin Buchez, who argued that differences between men and women were largely the result of education and socialization, not of divine nature, or Barthelemy Prosper Enfantin, who believed that sexual equality would be achieved by a socialist utopia. They were members of the Saint-Simonians, which began as a socialist French movement pushing for equal representation of women in the public square, and ended as a religion that embraced infidelity as virtue and viewed reproduction as a function of the state rather than of the private family. By making the contributions of women to the “social well-being” similar to those of men, the traditional family as a barrier between the state and the individual began to break down.

Tocqueville recognized a distinct contrast between the societal turmoil that ensued from the Saint-Simonians and others, and the civil society of America, which was thriving.

In America, the realm of the man was business and the reign of the woman was the home. But Tocqueville didn’t consider this separation a subjugation of one sex to the other. He argued that traditional roles were a matter of political economy, divided so that the greater work of society could be accomplished most effectively. “Progress,” he wrote, “(does) not consist of making almost the same things out of dissimilar beings, but of having each of them fulfill his task to the best possible degree.”

Traditional Roles as a Foundation for Respect

The men and women Tocqueville observed had different roles, but their focus was the same: filling the needs of the family. The same principle could be applied to a soccer team united by a winning strategy or an orchestra perfecting a symphony. Specialization of the members results in a coherent, functioning whole. Just as we would not expect a flute player to indignantly demand to fill the role of a violinist, or a goalie to insist on leaving the net mid-game to play offense, Tocqueville would likely be surprised at women who consider the role of homemaker degrading. The exercise of traditional roles he witnessed did not indicate a lack of respect, but rather served as its foundation.

Contrary to prevailing feminist dogma, the men Tocqueville observed did not view women as less than their equals:

American men constantly exhibit a full confidence in the reason of their companion, and a profound respect for her liberty. They judge that her mind is as capable as that of man of discovering the naked truth, and her heart firm enough to follow the truth; and they have never sought to shelter the virtue of one more than that of the other from prejudices, ignorance or fear.

Feminist historical inquiry often focuses on whether or not women are respected (usually concluding that they aren’t) but from Tocqueville’s writings, we see that respect for women preceded the suffragettes and the sexual revolution. The question to be examined, then, becomes what traits inspired that respect.

The men with whom Tocqueville interacted valued women for their reason and moral judgment. American men believed that, since women were just as capable of finding and following the truth, they didn’t need to be sheltered from the world. Rather, American girls were trained to view the world with what Tocqueville called a “firm and calm eye.” They were taught principles of virtue and then trusted to discern between right and wrong. This moral judgment is what Tocqueville believed brought men and women on equal grounds more than anything else.

However, the Americans did not believe in pure egalitarianism. Believing that every effective association should have a head, Americans did not deny the man the final say in familial affairs. Tocqueville justifies this by explaining that the purpose of democracy is not to destroy all power, but rather to make power legitimate. The patriarchal authority of father over children was weaker than that in Europe, allowing adult children to operate independent of familial constraints. Yet, the role of American fathers as the heads of their households remained undiminished. Since the birth of self-government resulted in the abolition of arbitrary dominion, it is reasonable to infer that the roles of father and mother, wife and husband, were not considered arbitrary. Rather, they were divinely authenticated.

Matrimony and Motherhood: Strength, Not Weakness

As if anticipating a modern feminist critique, Tocqueville explains that this view is not “particular to one sex and contested by the other.” In other words, American women did not begrudgingly accept their role as wives and mothers. On the contrary:

I did not notice that American women considered conjugal authority as a happy usurpation of their rights, or that they believed that it was degrading to submit to it. I seemed to see, on the contrary, that they took a kind of glory in the voluntary surrender of their will, and that they located their grandeur in bending to the yoke themselves and not in escaping it.

Tocqueville describes women in France who fell into matrimony and childbearing ignorantly, often at a premature age. American women, by contrast, courageously shouldered the mother’s role because they freely chose it. And they chose it because of their democratic education, which Tocqueville discloses so movingly earlier in the work as an education focused on the development of reason and the discernment between truth and error. It is from the practice of independence, Tocqueville argues, that American women drew the strength to be wives and mothers.

The aristocratic societies of Europe allowed well-to-do women time to pursue pleasure. They lavished praise on them for their decorative accomplishments and their sex appeal. “In the United States,” Tocqueville notes, “Women are scarcely praised. But it is seen every day that they are respected.” American women working in the home did not enjoy the accolades of European women, but by embracing their role as nurturers of families, they raised womanhood to a plane higher than mere sexuality. The queenly grace with which they fortified their homes deeply impressed Tocqueville. He declared that women were the primary source of America’s strength and prosperity.

Examining the Present

It’s common to talk about returning to our founding principles, reflecting on the unique brand of politics and economics that turned America into the world’s freest and most prosperous nation. It is less common to examine the social fabric that allowed those principles to flourish. A respect for future generations requires that we consider not only the progression of our government, but also the progression of the family, as they drift ever further from the Founding Era.

Tocqueville attributed chaos in Europe to a misappropriation of equality and a misunderstanding of gender roles. He recognized the strength of America in men and women who were equal, but not similar. But his whole argument for the family hinges on choice: men and women must freely choose to follow their distinct but equally valued roles. Unbound by the aristocratic patriarchal tradition of Europe, the American family survived because men and women actively chose to support it by the way they lived their lives. The question of our age is whether we will do the same.

Maddie Mehr is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. You can find more of her work at @MaddieMehr