Women of Liberty: Gertrude Himmelfarb
Religion & Liberty Online

Women of Liberty: Gertrude Himmelfarb

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

What does the Victorian era have to do with contemporary culture and society? Quite a bit, in the mind and work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian who called her own work “the history of ideas.” Himmelfarb has been criticized for her call to the return of traditional values (like shame, personal responsibility and self-reliance) by an academic community that prefers what they believe is a “value-neutral” method of teaching and research.

Himmelfarb wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton, which she later published as Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Himmelfarb found Lord Acton’s ambivalent blend of liberalism and pessimism, ideas of progress, and notions of human sinfulness, as well as his advocacy of a “judicious mix of authority, tradition, and experience, to be highly relevant for the post World War II world.” Even in this early work, she discerned a connection between the modern neglect of personal moral character and the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, including the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.  (Gertrude Himmelfarb: Jewish Women’s Archive)

Himmelfarb believes that Victorian society offers a moral code that can inform the modern era and address many ills faced today. In January of this year, Himmelfarb wrote a piece entitled “Compassionate Conservatism: properly understood“. In it, she addressed remarks made by Paul Ryan concerning compassion and its place in government and society. She referred to burgeoning private charities of Victorian London, created to address social ills such as unsuitable housing for the poor.

The societies and institutions were privately organized and funded, focused on specific causes, and supervised to make sure that the efforts produced the desired results. They all relied, for their moral as well as financial support, upon the other resources of civil society​—​individuals, families, friends, and religious missions of all denominations. And they all shared a common ethos. As help was given voluntarily, as a charity, not a tax, so it was received voluntarily, as a gift, not an entitlement.

Himmelfarb goes on to say that charity must be de-sentimalized:

Properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), compassion is a preeminently conservative virtue. It dignifies the individual (the donor of charity as well as the recipient); it thrives in a free and sound economy where the individual can “better himself”; it nurtures a spirit of independence rather than fostering the dependency that is too often the result of misguided entitlements; and it finds expression and fulfillment in civil society more often than in government. This is not to deny the validity or utility of safety nets and entitlements in principle, only to define and limit them in practice. Nor is it to deny any role to government, only, again, to define that role more precisely and to limit it more severely.

Himmelfarb’s work stands as a clear-eyed analysis of both history and modernity, and even those who disagreed with her know her work to be elegant, engaging and formidable.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.