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Salutory Oration

Priscilla Mason

May 15, 1793 — Year-end Ceremony, Philadelphia Young Ladies’ Academy, Methodist Church, Fourth Street, Philadelphia PA

 

Venerable Trustees of this Seminary, Patrons of the Improvement of the Female Mind; suffer us to present the first fruits of your labours as an offering to you, and cordially to salute you on this auspicious day.

Worthy Principal, Tutor, Friend and Parent, all in one! when we recollect our obligations to you, we feel, and would speak, but delicacy forbids.

The stern republican and polish’d citizen, will certainly join e’er long, to banish the barbarous custom of offering open adulation in such a place as this.

We therefore content ourselves with simply saluting you; and wishing the events of the day may speak your praise, in language suitable to your feelings.

Respected and very respectable audience; while your presence inspires our tender bosoms with fear and anxiety, your countenances promise indulgence, and encourage us to proceed. In the name of myself and sisters, therefore, I cordially salute you, and hope you will pardon the defects of an attempt to please you, defects arising in some measure from due respect.

A female, young and inexperienced, addressing a promiscuous assembly, is a novelty which requires an apology, as some may suppose. I therefore, with submission, beg leave to offer a few thoughts in vindication of female eloquence.

I mean not at this early day, to become an advocate for that species of female eloquence, of which husbands so much, and so justly, stand in awe, — a species of which the famous Grecian orator, Xantippe, was an illustrious example. Although the free exercise of this natural talent, is a part of the rights of woman, and must be allowed by the courtesy of Europe and America too; yet it is rather to be tolerated than established; and should rest like the sword in the scabbard, to be used only when occasion requires. — Leaving my sex in full possession of this prerogative, I claim for them the further right of being heard on more public occasions — of addressing the reason as well as the fears of the other sex.

Our right to instruct and persuade cannot be disputed, if it shall appear, that we possess the talents of the orator — and have opportunities for the exercise of those talents. Is a power of speech, and volubility of expression, one of the talents of the orator? Our sex possess it in an eminent degree.

Do personal attractions give charms to eloquence, and force to the orator’s arguments? There is some truth mixed with the flattery we receive on this head. Do tender passions enable the orator to speak in a moving and forcible manner? This talent of the orator is confessedly ours. In all these aspects the female orator stands on equal, — nay, on superior ground.

If therefore she should fail in the capacity for mathematical studies, or metaphysical profundities, she has, on the whole, equal pretensions to the palm of eloquence. Granted it is, that a perfect knowledge of the subject is essential to the accomplished Orator. But seldom does it happen, that the abstruse sciences, become the subject of eloquence. And, as to that knowledge which is popular and practical, — that knowledge which alone is useful to the orator; who will say that the female mind is incapable?

Our high and mighty Lords (thanks to their arbitrary constitutions) have denied us the means of knowledge, and then reproached us for the want of it. Being the stronger party, they early seized the sceptre and the sword; with these they gave laws to society; they denied women the advantage of a liberal education; forbid them to exercise their talents on those great occasions, which would serve to improve them. They doom’d the sex to servile or frivolous employments, on purpose to degrade their minds, that they themselves might hold unrivall’d, the power and pre-eminence they had usurped. Happily, a more liberal way of thinking begins to prevail. The sources of knowledge are gradually opening to our sex. Some have already availed themselves of the privilege so far, as to wipe off our reproach in some measure.

A M’Caulley, a Carter, a Moore, a Rowe, and other illustrious female characters, have shown of what the sex are capable, under the cultivating hand of science. But supposing now that we possess’d all the talents of the orator, in the highest perfection; where shall we find a theatre for the display of them? The Church, the Bar, and the Senate are shut against us. Who shut them? Man; despotic man, first made us incapable of the duty, and then forbid us the exercise. Let us by suitable education, qualify ourselves for those high departments—they will open before us. They will, did I say? They have done it already. Besides several Churches of less importance, a most numerous and respectable Society, has display’d its impartiality. — I had almost said gallentry in this respect. With others, women forsooth, are complimented with the wall, the right hand, the head of the table, — with a kind of mock pre-eminence in small matters: but on great occasions the sycophant changes his tune, and says, “Sit down at my feet and learn.” Not so the members of the enlightened and liberal Church. They regard not the anatomical formation of the body. They look to the soul, and allow all to teach who are capable of it, be they male or female.

But Paul forbids it! Contemptible little body! The girls laughed at the deformed creature. To be revenged, he declares war against the whole sex: advises men not to marry them; and has the indolence to order them to keep silence in the Church — : afraid, I suppose, that they would say something against celibacy, or ridicule the old bachelor.

With respect to the bar, citizens of either sex have an undoubted right to plead their own cause there. Instances could be given of females being admitted to plead the cause of a friend, a husband, a son; and they have done it with energy and effect. I am assured that there is nothing in our laws or constitution, to prohibit the licensure of female Attornies; and sure our judges have too much gallantry, to urge prescription in bar of their claim. In regard to the senate, prescription is clearly in our favour. We have one or two cases exactly in point.

Heliogabalus, the Roman Emperor; of blessed memory, made his grand-mother a Senator of Rome. He also established a senate of women; appointed his mother President; and committed to them the important business of regulating dress and fashions. And truly methinks the dress of our own country, at this day, would admit of some regulation, for it is subject to no rules at all — It would be worthy the wisdom of Congress, to consider whether a similar institution, established at the seat of our Federal Government, would not be a public benefit. We cannot be independent, while we receive our fashions from other countries; nor act properly, while we imitate the manners of governments not congenial to our own. Such a Senate, composed of women most noted for wisdom, learning and taste, delegated from every part of the Union, would give dignity, and independence to our manners; uniformity, and even authority to our fashions.

It would fire the female breast with the most generous ambition, prompting to illustrious actions. It would furnish the most noble Theatre for the display, the exercise and improvement of every faculty. It would call forth all that is human — all that is divine in the soul of woman; and having proved them equally capable with the other sex, would lead to their equal participation of honor and office.

 

 

Source:  “The Salutatory Oration, Delivered by Miss Mason,” in The Rise and Progress of the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia: Containing an Account of a Number of Public Examinations & Commencements; The Charter and Bye-Laws; Likewise, a Number of Orations Delivered by the Young Ladies; and Several by the Trustees of the Said Institution (Philadelphia: Stewart & Cochran), 1794, pp. 90-95.

 

Also: Women of America: A History, eds. Carol Ruth Berkin and Mary Beth Norton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1979, pp. 69–87.