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Home and Its Foundations

May 1893 — Congress of Women, Women’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


We can afford to lose all but the ideal; to part with all that we have if only there be left to us that which we have not, which fills us with such longing as the poet hints may help to make us immortal. Not that which is of most value to man, but that which ought to be and so is to be —becoming the star of promise that goes before all seekers of the ideal. It is fancy and not fact, such fact, perhaps, as Browning calls “facts’ essence,” that rules in the poet and prophet’s world, the only world worth living in.

The worship of the Real has neither poet nor prophet. Literature, religion, art, song — these all are gifts of the ideal. Song dies and languishes in the realm of that which is for want of atmosphere. Civilization itself is the gift of the ideal, if it be as one has declared, the sum of those institutions which are shaped out of the best inspirations of mankind.

Because this is so, I affirm that we might well afford to loose all the rich heritage of knowledge which scientific investigations have given us in the last fifty years; we might dispense with all the inventions and appliances which make human life safer, more comfortable, more varied in resources for pleasure; all that skill in medicine and surgery which has taught man how to resist for a lengthening term of years the foes of the body; all the marvelous achievements of man’s intellect and the triumphs of his handiwork which make of this generation the most knowing, most skillful and most luxurious that this old planet has ever borne upon her bosom — all these things might better fall away from us than that we should lose the vision of the ideal in human life and destiny, which is the very life-breath of progress. The question is still as pertinent as when it fell from the lips of the Great Teacher, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose himself?”

I need hardly say that I would speak of home, not as it has been or is, but as it may be, ought to be, as you and I help to make it. The homage we shall pay to the ideal home is not at all incompatible with a brave look at the actual home upon which it is based in its origin. The family relations which make the home have a physical basis — “first, that which is natural; afterward, that which is spiritual.” This fair flower which is at once the perfect fruit and the life-bearing seed of civilization, finds its root in that dependence of the sexes upon each other for completion of life which runs through all the forms of life, animal and even vegetable. Marriage is the foundation of home, marriage and the long continued infancy and helplessness of man. In the lair of the beast, the hive of the bees, the nests of the birds, home had its beginning. We see it struggling up through the promiscuous and temporary unions of savage men, evolving slowly and painfully one form after another of sexual relationship, until at last some form of marriage grew stable enough to determine relationship with at least one of the parents. That was the birthday of civilized society. From this time the family struggles up through the miasmatic regimes of polygamy and polyandry in the various forms until the ideal form of a monogamous marriage emerges, that ideal which is still so poorly realized among the most cultivated nations.

These considerations move us not only to gratitude for our heirship of the ages but lead us also to ask whether the family relations, as we have them today, are not capable of further improvement at our hands and those of future generations. Some claim that the family as we know it is a fleeting form of human development, a passing lesson in the divine art of living together. Nobody can claim this unless he is able to forecast the future and declare what shall be. There is a wonderful reach in Christ’s teaching on this point when He challenges the claims of His family upon Him thus, “Who is my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother and sister and mother.” Did He mean to teach that spiritual relationships are the only real and enduring ones — that oneness of spirit and purpose is a stronger tie than that of blood? It is, however, beyond our purpose to speculate as to the future form of human society. The foundation of the family, as we know it today, is monogamous marriage, and home is the result of the long continued infancy and helplessness of the young of man. When childhood had come to extend over a period of dozen years, a period more than doubled where several children were born in succession to the same parents, then the blessed relationship of the home grew up. “A little child shall lead them.”

This is the historical foundation of the family. Has it an ethical foundation? Does it subserve the highest ends of society? Is it in line with progress, and is it capable of producing a higher type of man? It can not be doubted that a single affection and a life union of man and woman has borne thus far the best fruits of civilization, has given the highest and purest pleasure to mankind, and has afforded the best preparation of the young for life and for service to the race. How shall the coming generation actualize this ideal so as to make it yield greater blessings to humanity? I will indicate a few lines in which progress may be sought.

First. The recognition of the entire equality of man and woman as complementary parts of humanity — of one humanity. The complete dependence of man and woman, and their entire inter-dependence. This would mean equal opportunities for education on all lines to both sexes; the free use and development of all their powers; the sharing of by men and women in the great labor, in the results of which they have an equal interest, of framing, interpreting and executing the laws of society; equal advantages and protection under these laws, and equal representation in the government. 

Second. The recognition of manhood and womanhood as more excellent than fatherhood and motherhood. How all chivalric souls of men leap to declare that these things are done. Done in them, perhaps, done ideally, sentimentally, but not actually. Not yet has the world at large acknowledged the woman’s right to life as large as her talents, an education which shall take account of her natural bent, and a financial prosperity commensurate with her ability and her labors. Not ten years ago a learned theologian said: “God foreordained man for the field and woman for the hearth.” This is the free translation: “God has foreordained man to breathe oxygen and woman carbonic acid gas.” The man for the harvest field, the orchard and the vineyard, and woman for the laundry and kitchen. From the opposite pole, the setter of this world’s fashions, the fiat went forth: “It must be every woman’s supreme aim to be beautiful.” Out of this low ambition have grown the tortures of the body for women in all ages and in all climes. Lord Bacon says that true friendship is only possible between equals. How much more true this is of the close friendship of marriage — of married companionship, intelligent, sympathetic companionship in all the varied interests of life, in the highest joy of existence; this companionship is only possible between equals in culture and opportunity. 

Who is to blame that this equality of the sexes is not attained? Nobody. This is one of the hardest truths for human nature to accept. Given an evil, an abuse, something contrary to present light, and the mind takes this as a challenge to find somebody to blame; and when the curse is rolled off, even on to a serpent, the mind experiences a sense of relief, just as when the unknown quantity in an algebraic problem is found. Nobody is to blame. This is one of the problems to be worked out; it is a stage in the evolution of the spiritual man. Men are as much interested in it as women. The complete emancipation of women will be as one has said, the regeneration of man.

Nothing is more unworthy of us, in the working out of this problem, than an appeal to the conduct of life in the orders of animals below man, to prove either the equality or the inequality of male and female in humanity. We know the argument: The male bird sings louder and sweeter than the female; therefore woman can not be a poet. In most mammals the male is stronger, more vigorous, more beautiful, and the female has the chief care of the young; therefore a woman can not understand politics. Why not collect data on the opposite side? The male of the American ostrich sits on the eggs, hatches them out and takes principal charge of the young. A species of spider has been discovered of which the female devours her consort when he is of no further use to her. These things prove nothing. Our progress is away from nature. What is natural in this sense is not the best.

When women are wholly persons and not property, when they seek freely the development of all their gifts and powers, then marriage will not be barter and home will not be a place of escape from the world to the woman, but it will be the highest product of men and women at their best and purest.

I have emphasized the rights of women in this ideal family, but there is a right of man which needs a fuller recognition from this generation–the right of a man to be as virtuous as a woman.

I deprecate the emphasis laid today upon woman’s work, woman’s faith and woman’s enthusiasm for humanity. Does it not point to a day when the sexes may be arrayed against each other, not on the old basis of strength versus subtility, of brains versus no brains, but on the basis of religion versus materialism, of spirituality versus animalism. If the old order, the pagan ideal, of such antagonism between the sexes as made of the man a tyrant and of the woman a toy, a slave, was fundamentally wrong, and held the race down, surely an antagonism which makes of the woman a worshiping, spiritual being, and of the man a money-making, prayerless machine, is equally fatal to the hopes of that crowning race which shall arise when the ideal man shall be mated with the ideal woman, like perfect music set to noble words. Have I over-stated the danger? In whose hands are the benevolence of our churches, their missionary work, their prayer-meetings? We talk timidly of giving woman the ballot. Let us beware lest she monopolize all that makes human affairs worth voting about. There is no man’s cause that is not woman’s; there is no woman’s cause that is not man’s. “If either be small, slight natured, miserable, how shall the race grow?” It is time for men and women to realize that the home, the church, the state and the world are theirs, that they must rise or sink together, “dwarfed or godlike, bond or free.” The children of the ideal home must not only boast of the precepts of a godly mother, but of the example of a godly father. To this end the ideals of manhood must be made high like those of womanhood. There must not be two standards of conduct in the home — one seemly for the little boy, unseemly for the little girl. The same social verdict must be pronounced against sinners, against purity, man and woman, closed doors to vice in either sex, open doors of help to repenting sinners of either sex.

But the last and best characteristic of the ideal home will be the realization by its makers and members that it is not an end in itself. The fire of the family, the soul-culture gained in the duties and affections of the home, these must be as fuel to the flame which is kindled on the hearthstone to give light and heat to the darkness and cold of the world without. There is no fire for the warming of a home like the fire of zeal for the service of humanity. A family bound together by mutual love, levying a tax upon the bounties of nature and the arts of man to make the abode beautiful, delighting in one another’s peace and comfort, but with no thought or hope or effort for the world outside, is a case of arrested development. It is just here that so many of us make our fatal mistakes. We imagine that personal happiness is large enough as an aim for beings created in the image of God–the Eternal Giver.

The supreme essential, then, for the attainment of the ideal home, is the serving of some large ideal for the world. This is the characteristic of the ideal which we can ingraft upon the actual in our hands. We can not bring about, in a moment, the changes in the minds of men and women which will give women equal opportunities with men in the culture and use of their powers, nor compel men to receive those ideals of personal purity which shall issue in a nobler type of manhood; but the great aim, the service of the world, this is for us all. Make your home great by great aims.

The family is the most important social institution of mankind only because it affords the finest opportunities for the production and rearing of a higher social being, who shall be able to nobly discharge his duty as a responsible member of the social body.

Home is the gift of the child to civilization. Shall not the home return the gift to the race by sending forth men and women who have learned the art of living together in so Divine a fashion that they shall be able to practice it in the school, the shop, the market, the nation and the world?



Source: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham (Chicago: Monarch Book Company) 1894, pp. 612-615.