Address to the Women of Ohio
April 19, 1850 — Hickside Friends Meeting House, The Ohio Women’s Convention, Salem OH
How shall the people be made wiser, better and happier? is one of the grand inquiries of the present age. The various benevolent associations hold up to our view special forms of evil, and appeal to all the better feelings of our nature for sympathy, and claim our active efforts and co-operation to eradicate them. — Governments at times manifest an interest in human suffering, but their cold sympathy and tardy efforts seldom avail the sufferer until it is too late. Philanthropists, Philosophers and Statesmen study and devise ways and means to ameliorate the condition of the people. Why have they so little practical effect? It is because the means employed are not adequate to the end sought for. To ameliorate the effects of evil seems to have been the climax of philanthropic effort. We respectfully suggest that lopping the branches of the tree but causes the roots to strike deeper and cling more closely to the soil that sustains it. Let the ameliorating process go on, until evil is exterminated root and branch; and for this end the people must be instructed in the Rights of Humanity; not in the rights of men and the rights of women, the rights of the master and those of the slave, but in the perfect equality of the Rights of Man.
The Rights of man! whence came they? what are they? what is their design! How do we know them? They are of God. Those that most intimately affect us as human beings are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their design is happiness. The human organization is the charter-deed by which we hold them. — Hence we learn that rights are coeval with the human race, of universal heritage, and inalienable, that every human being, no matter of what color, sex, condition or clime, possesses those rights upon a perfect equality with all others. The monarch on the throne, and the beggar at his feet, have the same; man has no more, woman no less. Rights may not be usurped on one hand, nor surrendered on the other, because they involve a responsibility that can be discharged only by those to whom they belong, those for whom they were created; and because without those certain inalienable rights, human beings cannot attain the end for which God the Father gave them existence. Where and how, can the wisdom and ingenuity of the world find a truer, stronger, broader basis of human rights?
To secure these rights, say the Declaration of Independence, “governments were instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to substitute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The government of this country, in common with all others, has never recognized or attempted to protect women as persons possessing the rights of humanity. They have been recognized and protected as appendages to men, without independent rights or political existence-unknown to the law except as the victims of its caprice and tyranny. This government having therefore exercised powers underived from the consent of the governed, and having signally failed to secure the end for which all just government is instituted, should be immediately altered or abolished.
We cannot better describe the political condition of woman, than by quoting from a distinguished Lawyer of our State, Prof. Walker, in his Introduction to American Law, says:
Of Husband and Wife — “W e have a few statutory provisions on the subject, but for the most part the law of husband and wife is common law, and you will find that it savors of its origin in all its leading features. The whole theory is a slavish one, compared even with the civil Jaw. I do not hesitate to say, by way of arousing your attention to the subject, that the law of husband and wife, as you gather it from the books, is a disgrace to any civilized nation. I do not mean to say, that females are degraded in point of fact.
I only say, that the theory of the law degrades them almost to the level of slaves.
We thank Prof. Walker for his candor. He might have added that the practice of the law does degrade woman to the level of a slave. He also says:
“With regard to political rights, females form a positive exception to the general doctrine of equality. They have no part or lot in the formation or administration of government. They cannot vote or hold office. We require them to contribute their share in the way of taxes for the support of government, but allow them no voice in its direction. We hold them amenable to the laws when made, but allow them no share in making them. This language applied to males, would be the exact definition of political slavery; applied to females, custom does not teach us so to regard it.”
Of married women he says:
“The legal theory is, that marriage makes the Husband and wife one person, and that person is the husband. He the substantive, she the adjective. In a word there is scarcely a legal act of any description she is competent to perform. If she leaves him without cause,” (legal) “he may seize and bring her back, for he has a right to her society which he may enforce either against herself or any other person.”
“All her personality in regard to property becomes the husbands by marriage, unless the property has been specially secured to her. If the property be not in his possession, he may take measures to reduce it to possession. He can thus dispose of it in spite of her. If debts were due to her, he may collect them. If he was himself the debtor, the marriage cancels the debt. If she has earned money by her own labor during marriage, he may collect it. — In regard to realty (real estate) he controls the income, and without her consent he cannot incumber or dispose of the property beyond his own life.”
Women, married or single, have no political rights whatever. While single, their legal rights are the same as those of men. When married their legal rights are chiefly suspended.
“The condition of the wife may be inferred from what has already been said. She is almost at the mercy of her husband; she can exercise no control over his property or her own. As a general rule, she can make no contracts binding herself or him. Her contracts are not merely void- able, but absolutely void. Nor can she make herself liable for his contracts, torts or crimes. Her only separate liability is for her own crimes. Her only joint liability is, for her own torts committed without his participation, and for contracts for which the law authorizes her to unite with him. She has no power over his person, and her only claim upon his property is for a bare support. In no instance can she sue, or be sued alone in a civil action; and there are but few cases in which she can be joined in a suit with him. In Ohio, but hardly anywhere else, is she allowed to make a will, if haply she has any thing to dispose of.”
Women of Ohio! whose cheek does not blush, whose blood does not tingle at this cool, lawyer-like recital of the gross indignities and wrongs which government has heaped upon our sex? — With these marks of inferiority branded upon our persons, and interwoven with the most sacred relations of human existence, how can we rise to the true dignity of human nature, and discharge faithfully the important duties assigned us as responsible, intelligent, self-controling members of society?
No wonder that so many of our politicians are dough-faced serviles, without independence or manhood; no wonder our priests are time-serving and sycophantic; no wonder that so many men are moral cowards and cringing poltroons, without self-respect. What more could be expected of a progeny of slaves? Slaves are we, politically and legally. How can we, who it is said are the educators of our children, present to this nation any thing else but a generation of serviles, while we ourselves are in a servile condition, and padlocks are on our lips? No! if men would be men worthy of the name, they must cease to disfranchise and rob their wives and mothers; they must forbear to consign to political and legal slavery their sisters and the daughters; and would we be women worthy companionship of true and noble men, we must cease longer to submit to tyranny. Let us rise in the might of self-respect and assert our rights, and by the aid of truth, the instincts of humanity and a just application of the principles of equality, we shall be able to maintain them.
You ask, would you have woman, by engaging in political party bickerings and noisy strife, sacrifice her integrity and purity? No, neither would we have men do it. We know that the natural tendency of the constitution of society is to this end, but it is wrong, disgraceful and wicked, and destructive of human happiness. We want to revolutionize the constitution of society by the application of the principles of eternal truth, right and justice. — We hold that whatever is essentially wrong for a woman to do, cannot be right for man. If deception and intrigue (the elements of political craft, be regrading to woman, can they be ennobling to man? If patience and forbearance adorn a woman, are they not equally essential to a manly character? If anger and turbulence disgrace woman, what can they add to the dignity of man?
Nothing, because nothing can be morally right for man that is morally wrong for woman. Woman, by becoming the executioner of man’s vengeance on his fellow-man, could inflict no greater wrong on society than the same done by man; but it would create an intenser feeling of shuddering horror, and would, we conceive, rouse to more healthful activity man’s torpid feelings of justice, mercy and clemency. And so also, if woman had free scope for the full exercise of the heavenly graces that men so gallantly award her, truth, love and mercy would be invested with a more sacred claim. But while they continue to enforce obedience to arbitrary commands, to encourage love of admiration and a desire for frivolous amusements; while they crush the powers of the mind by opposing authority and precedent to reason and progress; while they arrogate to themselves the right to point us to the path of duty, while they close the avenues of knowledge through public institutions, and monopolize the profits of labor, mediocrity and inferiority must be our portion. Shall we accept it? or shall we strive against it?
Men are not destitute of justice or humanity; and let it be remembered that there are hosts of noble and truthful ones among them that deprecate the tyranny that enslaves us; and none among ourselves can be more ready than they to remove the mountain of injustice which the savageism of ages has heaped upon our sex. If, therefore, we remain unemancipated and degraded, the cause may justly be traced to our own apathy and timidity. We have at our disposal the means of moral agitation and influence, that can arouse our country to a saving sense of the wickedness and folly of disfranchising half the people. Let us no longer delay to use them.
Let it be remembered, too, that tyrannical and illiberal as our government is, low as it places us in the scale of existence, degrading as is its denial of our capacity for self-government, still it concedes to us more than any other government on earth. Woman, over nearly half the globe, is now and always has been but a chattel. Wives are bargained for, bought and sold, as other merchandise, and as a consequence of the annihilation of natural right, they have no political existence. In Hindostan, the evidence of woman is not received in a court of justice. The Hindoo wife, when her husband dies, must yield implicit obedience to the oldest son. In Burmah, they are not allowed to ascend the steps of a court of justice, but are obliged to give their testimony outside of the building. In Siberia, women are not allowed to step across the foot-prints of men or reindeer. The Mahomedan law forbids pigs, dogs, women and other impure animals to enter a mosque. The Moors, for the slightest offence, beat their wives most cruelly. The Tartars believe that women were sent into the world for no other purpose but to be useful, convenient slaves. To these heathen precedents our Christian brethren sometimes refer to prove the inferiority of woman, and to excuse the inconsistency of the only government on earth that has proclaimed the equality of man. An argument worthy its source.
In answer to the popular query, Why should Woman desire to meddle with public affairs? we suggest the following questions:
I. Is the principle of taxation without representation less oppressive and tyrannical than when our fathers expended their blood and treasure rather than submit to its injustice?
2. Is it just, politic and wise, that Universities and Colleges, endowed by government, should be open only to men?
3. Is it easier for government to reform lazy, vicious, ignorant and hardened felons, than for enlightened, humanity-loving parents to “train up a child in the way it should go”?
4. How can a mother who does not understand and therefore cannot appreciate the rights of humanity, train up her child in the way it should go?
5. Whence originates the necessity of a penal code?
6. It is computed that over ten millions of dollars are annually expended in the United States for the suppression of crime. How much of this waste of treasure is traceable to defective family government?
7. Can antiquity make wrong right?
In conclusion, we make our appeal to our sisters of Ohio to arise from the lethargy of ages, to assert their rights as independent human beings, to demand their true position as equally responsible co-workers with their brethren in this world of action and responsibility. We urge you by your self-respect, by your love of your off-spring, by every consideration of regard for the human race, to arise and take possession of your birthright to freedom and equality. Take it not as the gracious boon tendered by the chivalry and gallantry of superiors, but as your right on principles of justice and equality.
The present is a most favorable time for the Women of Ohio to demand a recognition of their rights. The organic law of the State is about undergoing revision and alteration. Let it not be our fault, if the rights of humanity, and not alone those of “free white male citizens”, are recognized and protected. Let us agitate the subject in the family circle, in public assemblies and through the press. Let us flood the Constitutional Convention with memorials and addresses, trusting to truth and a righteous cause for the success of our efforts.
Source: Ohio Women’s Convention, Held at Salem, April 19th and 20th, 1850, with an Address by J. Elizabeth Jones (Cleveland: Smead & Cowles Press), 1850, pp. 26-28.