The Wrongs of Women
April 19, 1850 — Hickside Friends Meeting House, The Ohio Women’s Convention, Salem OH
There is not, perhaps, in the wide field of reform, any one subject so difficult to discuss as that of Woman’s Rights. I use the term “Woman’s Rights,” because it is a technical phrase. I like not the expression. It is not Woman’s Rights of which I design to speak, but of Woman’s Wrongs. I shall claim nothing for ourselves because of our sex — I shall demand the recognition of no rights on the ground of our womanhood. In the contest which is now being waged in behalf of the enslaved colored man in this land, I have yet to hear the first word in favor of his rights as a colored man; the great point which is sought to be established in this, that the colored. man is a human being, and as such, entitled to the free exercise of all the rights which belong to humanity. And we should demand our recognition as equal members of the human family; as persons to whom pertain all the rights which grow out of our relations to God, and to each other, as human beings; and when this point is once established, the term “Woman’s Rights” will become obsolete, for none will entertain the idea that the rights of women differ from the rights of men. It is then human rights for which we contend.
But tho’ woman has no rights peculiar to her sex — none which belong to her because she is a woman; yet she has wrongs, great wrongs, which are peculiar to her-wrongs political, wrongs social, aye, and wrongs religious. It is more difficult, I repeat, to exhibit those wrongs, and to awaken interest on this question, than on almost any other. — When we speak of American Slavery, we exhibit the literal chain that binds the captive, we show the iron collar that has galled his flesh, we bring to view the cutting lash dripping with gore, and with these emblems before us, no one dare deny that oppression exists. We speak of the mother who has been robbed of her little ones, and left in loneliness and desolation of heart; we show how man has been degraded by his brother, how he has been driven from the abodes of men and forced to take refuge in the dens and the caves of the earth, and we never fail to excite sympathy in their behalf.
So on the subject of War; we speak of strong men laid low on the battle-field, of the wail of the dying, of the piercing shriek of the wounded, of surviving friends searching among the mangled bodies of the slain for a father, a son or brother who has fallen; and all the sympathies of those who listen are awakened in relation to such a fearful sacrifice of human life.
Then again in regard to Temperance; we have but to depict the evils, the brutality, the deep degradation growing out of this vice, and we awaken emotions of lively interest that result in energetic action.
But not so with the political, social and domestic wrongs of woman. She appears not before the world as a sufferer. Her very name is associated with happiness and hope, with freedom and love and beauty. She appears in public assemblies with a proud and lofty bearing, and scarcely any one can be made to believe that she is a victim of oppression. We meet her at her own fireside, and she seems, perchance, as happy, as buoyant and as free as tho’ there were no clouds and no chains in existence. We see her in the social gathering, and men reverently bow at her shrine, and do homage to her surpassing loveliness. So invincible is her power, and so irresistible her influence, that she is often deemed the most favored of all the beings God ever created. Such, to a very superficial observer, appears to be the real condition of woman; and it seems perfectly absurd, little less than nonsense, to such observers, to speak of the wrongs that she endures. It would be almost as easy to convince them that the birds of the air are fettered, and completely under the dominion of man.
Hence, when we speak of the injustice that is done her, of the disabilities under which she labors, we are met with incredulity, perchance with sneers and sarcasm. And the difficulty of advocating her cause is enhanced by her own protestations, for she assures us that she has all the rights she desires — she would exercise no more if she had them.
Of all the opponents to the agitation of this question, the most bitter that I have ever seen, have been women who had the appearance of enjoying entire freedom, but whose condition in the family relation was little better than that of slaves. Woman will sometimes submit to any sort of wrong, her spirit will daily wither under the restrictions of her husband, and then she will not only carefully conceal the secrets of her prison-house, but will ridicule the idea of woman’s oppression. Do not misunderstand me: I am very far from considering it proper to expose all our domestic matters for the inspection of the curious and the gossiping world; we have a right to conceal all we choose to conceal; but we have no right to play the hypocrite and pretend to despise an enterprise whose success we well know would benefit the race. Why, the very fact that all the wealth of the family is in the hands of the husband makes her a mere dependent — it places her in the most absurd and slavish position. She cannot even replenish her own wardrobe or that of her children, without asking her husband for the means to do so. Should she desire to feed the hungry or clothe the naked, she must ask her husband for the means to enable her to do it. Should she desire the services of a seamstress or a nurse, she must ask her husband for the means to enable her to employ them. Is the babe of her bosom sick unto death, and she desires to secure the services of a skilful physician, she must ask her husband for the means to enable her to do it. If the cause of peace, temperance, or anti-slavery has her warmest sympathies and earnest prayers, and she desires to give pecuniary aid to these enterprises, she must ask her husband for the means to enable her to do so. Mrs. Kirtland very justly remarks, in relation to this matter:
“The Turk does not lock up his wives with more jealous care than the Christian husband his strong box from her whom he has formally ally endowed with all his earthly possessions. To this lock there is ever but one key, and that the master carries in his pocket.”
This is no fancy sketch; on the other hand, multitudes could be produced that would tell you this is only a faint shadow of the evil. And yet, woman has all the rights she desires! I have seen so much deception in regard to this matter, that when I hear a woman say that she has all the rights and privileges that she wishes to exercise, I strongly suspect she living under the rule of a tyrant.
Let me say before I proceed further, that I do not mean to make any invidious comparisons between men and women. When I say that man acts the tyrant, I do not mean to deny that woman in similar circumstances would be as great a tyrant as he. Indeed I have known women who ruled the whole household with a rod of iron, as it were; and cases are not unfrequent in which the wrongs of man, rather than the rights of woman, should claim the sympathies of the philanthropist. I am very far from arrogating any degree of perfection for my own sex. Neither do I believe that men are any more to blame for the present degraded condition of woman, than the women are themselves. I cannot tell how it was in the beginning, but at the present time, there is on the part of a majority of women a passive yielding up of all their rights, a desire, I might say, to lose their individuality, and merge their existence into that of their husbands. It is feminine to feel dependent, to need protection; it is poetical to be like the clinging vine, unable to sustain one’s self; it is very romantic to be weak and helpless, and have the gallantry and chivalry of man extended to us! We have not acted as though we were rational and accountable beings; we have tried to step aside from the battle-field of life, and rid ourselves of the responsibilities of an individual existence. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that man has taken the power into his own hands; no wonder that he has taken entire possession of the ‘strong box’; no wonder that he has blotted the legal existence of the married woman from the statute book. Man is not naturally more of a usurper than woman; but power is corrupting. You know how it was with Nero; his heart was once as timid, and tender, and shrinking as was ever that of woman; but by the corrupting influence of irresponsible power, he at length took pleasure in deluging Rome with human blood!
The present relation between man and woman, so far as rights are concerned, is like that which some slaveholders maintain towards their slaves. I speak of those who have never gone out and reduced the free man to bondage, but who received by inheritance the power over the liberty, life and happiness of certain slaves, which slaves submitted their necks uncomplainingly to the yoke of a new master. But no matter what the circumstances were in respect to the enslavement of any human being, we say to the slaveholder, you have no right to exercise this power — no title-deed to your fellow-man was ever issued from the Court of Heaven! You are a tyrant, for you take away the liberty of your brother! you are a robber, for you deprive him of his property, and of his right to himself! No matter if the work of degradation be so completely that he desires to be a slave, we still say to the slave-holder, you are verily guilty in the sight of God and man, for maintaining the relation of master. So we say to man, no matter if certain of our sex are satisfied with their chains, you are none the less guilty for having forged them. The very fact that woman does not rebel, that she does not rise and demand her rights, is the strongest argument that can be adduced in favor the agitation of this subject. What of all the aspects of Southern slavery gives you the deepest abhorrence of that institution? Who of all its victims gives you an idea of the deepest injury? Is it he who rises in the strength of his manhood, casts aside his fetters, and struggles for his liberty? Is it he in whose bosom the fires of liberty burn brightly, who is ever longing and ever wishing to regain his lost manhood? No! no! It is that man whose upward aspirations have all been crushed-that one in whose bosom there is no love of liberty, no hatred of slavery. I believe there are such. There are those who heed not the bolts and the bars that confine them; there are those who submit to the rule of others without even a thought of their own rights. These are the victims upon whom slavery has done its perfect work, and when the abolitionist beholds them, he ever renews his vows at the altar of liberty — he resolves never to leave the warfare till slavery shall cease to be.
I say the fact that woman does not know that she is robbed of her rights, shows the extent of herenslavement; it shows that a long train of abuses and usurpations has completed the work of degradation — has blinded her to a sense of justice and of equal rights. The opinions and feelings that prevail among women in regard to this subject are, of course, very various. There are those weak and dependent souls, of whom I was speaking, who have such a passion for gallantry that they would not think of taking their rights if offered them. Then there are those to whom I have referred, whose spirits are daily crucified by the rule and dominion of man; yet fearing to expose their own situation, vigorously oppose all efforts to destroy the rule and dominion. There is another class who feel, and feel very deeply, the wrongs of woman, but the fear of appearing masculine, the great dread of seeming to be out of their sphere, the unpleasant remarks, perchance the ridicule and sarcasm, which they expect to meet, prevent them from giving utterance to their real sentiments. Then again there are those who have no sense of injury, because they have never felt it in their own persons. All their wants have been duly supplied; fathers, brothers, husbands, perchance, have done all that could be done to render them happy; for there are husbands, not a few, who acknowledge the equal right of the wife in all domestic relations; consequently the attention of this class of women has not been called to this subject, and we do not have their aid and their influence. There is yet another class — those who labor for a mere pittance because they are women; they suffer oppression little less than absolute slavery, and they feel it too; their prayers and their voice we shall ever have in favor of our enterprise.
Now with all this diversity of opinion and feeling on the part of women themselves, and being in this limited sphere which we have chosen, and which man now says we must not leave, it is very difficult to prosecute this reform. But without going into the whole question of woman’s responsibilities and accountabilities, and disabilities, we will consider the question which this Convention was called together to discuss; viz, the political and legal condition of woman.
If we turn to the history of this nation, to the commencement of the contest between this and the mother country, we shall find standing prominent among the grievances of which the former complained, the wrongfulness of taxation without representation and from that day to the present time, taxation without representation has been theoretically abhorrent to every American Statesman. And we find also in the “political bible” of this people, the declaration that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But what, I ask, is the political condition of every woman in the land to-day? She is taxed without representation; and the government to which she is compelled to submit under penalty of death, hesitates not to exercise powers to which she, as one of the governed, never consented. It is true, the official tax-gatherer does not come and demand a percentage of that which a father or a husband had doled out to her-for the revenue of the general government, at least, is raised by duties on imports — but when she expends that money, she pays a tax upon every pound of tea, or yard of imported cloth, which she buys: and yet she has no voice in the regulation of the tariff by which that tax is imposed. Women, even those who are most interested in the success of this enterprise, are constantly asserting that they want nothing to do with the government, and perhaps it is very unfeminine for any one to demand the right to assist in imposing the tax which she has to pay. But I must say that when women better understand the equality of the sexes, and the interests of the body politic, they will learn and feel that the regulation of a tariff even is a matter that concerns them as much as it does their fathers and husbands. Does any one say this tax is so small, and affects us so little, that we will not contend against it? If so you are unworthy descendants of the fathers and mothers of ’76. Three pence on a pound of tea was not much for them to pay, but there was a principle involved in the taxation, and there — for they fought against it. But besides this, there is the unmarried woman who has property, that is taxed directly and the married woman too, who in certain cases and by a certain statue of Ohio holds real estate; but unlike man, they are not allowed to choose a representative to attend to their interests. Does any one fail to see the injustice of this course?
The very first act of this nation was to deprive a majority of those whom it claimed the right to govern, of any lot or part in the government — its very birth-cry was a denial of woman’s equality, and out of this denial — originated by other governments and perpetuated by our own — has proceeded all the political wrongs which woman is compelled to endure, and which are alike disgraceful to the statute-book upon which they are recorded and the community by which they are sanctioned. Let us consider for a few moments the common law concerning the relation of husband and wife. The law, according to Blackstone, declares,
“the very being or legal existence of the wo- man is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection and care she performs every thing.”
When I brought up the condition of the slave to illustrate the condition of woman, I dare say some of you thought it was very absurd, and I do not wish now to be understood to say that she is, by any means, so deeply degraded and injured as is the slave; but so far as political rights are concerned, there is a very close analogy. In the law I have just quoted, the wife is completely absorbed in the husband, just as the slave is absorbed in her master.
“All contracts made with her, like those made with the slave by her owner, are a mere nullity”, except the contract be for the bare necessaries of life suited to her condition.
Again, “If the wife be injured in her person or property, she can bring no action for redress without the husband’s concurrence, and in his name as well as her own; neither can she be sued without making her husband a defendant. In criminal prosecutions, the wife may be indicted and punished separately, unless there be evidence of coercion from the fact that the offence was committed in the presence, and by the command of her husband. A wife is excused from punishment for theft committed in the presence and by the command of her husband. A woman’s personal property, by marriage becomes absolutely her husband’s, which at his death, he may leave entirely away from her.” —
Here arc four points laid down by Blackstone as law, — and I might quote many more of a similar character — and which are sanctioned as such by the community in which we live. I will briefly recapitulate. Ist, Woman, by marriage entirely loses her legal existence. 2d, She cannot bring an action at law against the robber of her property, the defamer of her character, or the assaulter of her person; and yet, in the 3d place, she may be punished separately for her own wrong doings, unless the husband assumes the control of her moral responsibility, as he has of her person and property, 4th, the husband may will away the property he received by his wife, and leave her and her children to beggary. The convict who is immured in the Penitentiary, loses to a certain extent the rights of citizenship, when the prison doors close upon him, but not more wholly than does woman lose her legal existence when she enters the married state. Her name, her person, her property are no longer hers; the law gives them to another, and like the slave of the South “she can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what belongs to her master.” The institution of marriage I regard as in harmony with the perfect law of our being, as calculated to promote the highest interests and happiness of our race; but human enactments strive to degrade every woman who marries, and a corrupt public opinion attaches odium to the name of every woman that does not marry. Is not the married woman degraded when her legal existence is stricken out — when the law ceases to regard her as an independent being? And is it not the inevitable tendency of such a course to destroy the self-respect of the victim? You heard of the drunkard as he was staggering home from his midnight revels: — “Now,” said he, “if my wife has gone to bed, I’ll whip her for it; for what business has she to go to bed before I get home? — I want a comfortable fire and a warm supper.” After musing awhile he broke out again, “Now if my wife is up I’ll surely chastise her, for what business has she to sit up till this time of night? She ought to go to bed and not meddle with my affairs.” So the woman was to be beaten in either case; and this is a good illustration of the condition of the sex. If we suffer ourselves to be absorbed by marriage, to have our individuality destroyed, we are of course, debased; and if we choose to maintain a separate existence, why, then we are accursed, at least by public opinion.
If the slave of Carolina is robbed by another than his master, of any property he may hold by sufferance, he has no redress at law for he has no legal existence; but his owner may enter suit and have the robber punished; and it is so with the married woman of Ohio, for the law says it is in her husband only she lives, and moves and has her being. If foul-mouthed calumny assail her reputation, if the brightness of that which should be dearer to her than life becomes dimmed by the slanderer’s breath, she may not demand an investigation of the charges before the legal tribunals of her country, for they recognize not her existence. If she approaches the courts and demands redress, she must do so, not as a wife, having equal rights, with her husband, not as a woman, not as an independent being; but as one whose being is absorbed by another in whose name, by whose permission, and through whose authority she can alone there speak. She can demand redress for no outrage whatever, unless the husband shall first grant her permission to appeal for justice to the courts, and consent that his name shall be used in the prosecution.
This is law; the law of a nation which professes to stand higher than all others in the scale of morality and republicanism; law in a so-called free and Christian country, and when the noon of the nineteenth century is shedding its meridian light; but is it equity? is it a recognition of the great doctrine of human equality upon which is founded every true system of religion, every sound theory of government? We must not forget the exception — the one instance in which the existence of the married woman is recognised; for though she may not herself sue at law, yet in all criminal prosecutions, she may be separately indicted, tried, convicted and punished — it is only in the infliction of suffering that the law recognises her existence as separate from that of her husband. In the meting out of penalties, it is true, it takes into consideration the question whether certain crimes — theft, for instance or murder, — were committed in the presence, and by the command of the husband, and if such was the case, the woman is held guiltless; her accountability as a moral being, in the eye of the law, ascending not to God her Creator, but to her husband — her lord and master in a legal point of view. To thus divest woman of a portion of her moral accountability, necessarily degrades her in public estimation, obliterates the stamp of equality from her brow, and marks her as an inferior.
The American people are said above all others to love money. Having no hereditary nobility in the land, no peers of the realm, they have sought to build up an aristocracy of wealth, a democratic nobility, whose power of gold shall compensate for titles and coronets. It would be too barefaced a robbery to take from the unmarried woman her property, so man waits until her legal existence is absorbed in that of a husband, and then, in the name of affection, shamefully filches that to which he has no moral right. If a woman who is about to marry contemplates securing for her own use, while the law permits it, the means at her disposal, the world frowns upon her-she is told that her course evinces distrust, that she is practically impeaching the honor and the integrity of him who is about to become her husband. And thus is she duped by public opinion and debased by law. She is ashamed to maintain her rights before marriage, and she cannot maintain them afterward. Legislation has aimed to place the wealth of the nation in the hands of man; and in the right to hold property, as in many other things, to make the woman a mere cypher.
And not only does the law permit man to entirely control his wife’s personal property and her daily earnings, but it declares, that to a great extent, the will of the dead husband is more to be regarded than the necessities of the surviving wife. By a stroke of the pen, he can reduce his wife from the opulence she enjoyed as his companion, to comparative poverty. And although the statute law of Ohio secures to her, at his death, a life-interest in one third of his real estate — and mark it, a life-interest only, no actual, bona fide right of property, the right to sell, to will away, or otherwise dispose of, even though it came through her hand — although, I say, it secures her this, he may by will dispose of the two thirds, even though it be upon the wanton, who, perchance, robbed her of a husband’s love, and make provision for the final disposal of the other third after her life interest in it ceases. And the wife dies with the bitter consciousness pressing heavily upon her, that of all the property which was the gift of a father’s love, there is none she can leave her children to save them from destitution.
But I will not dwell longer upon the points enumerated. Such is man’s law — such are some of the evidences of his reverence for woman — such the spirit of chivalry upon which he prides himself! The fact that some men are better than their laws, that there are those who repudiate all legal rights not based on exact justice, who treat their wives as equals, as rational beings, does not lessen the injustice of the laws, or my abhorence of the spirit that prompted them.
The entire course of man’s legislation, not only in this country but in others, betokens an almost entire forgetfulness of the fact that woman has rights that should be respected, rights that belong to her by virtue of her humanity.
The common law, of which I have been speaking is in force every where, as I understand it except where there is a statute law, a special provision for the benefit of the wife. Such provision exists in Ohio. I have already intimated that preliminary arrangements may be made to obviate the helpless and dependent condition in which a woman is placed as soon as she is married.
“Jointures and settlements may be made for the benefit of the wife. A jointure is a separate provision made by the husband for the wife’s support. A settlement is the separate provision made by the parents of the wife for her support. These may be made after marriage, but they are usually made before. The method is to place the portion set apart for the wife, under the control of trustees, who manage it independently of the husband for the benefit of the wife.”
Under the control of trustees, mark you! another assumption of incapacity on the part of woman to manage her own property.
“But if this precaution for her own benefit be not taken, then by marriage all the wife’s personal property becomes his absolutely. If not in 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 the marriage, he may collect it. Thus her personal property is entirely at his control. In respect to real estate, he may not encumber or dispose of it without her consent, but he has control of the income.”
“On the other hand, the only claim the wife has upon her husband’s property, is for a bare support” — just the necessaries suited to her condition. If she has brought him uncounted heaps of gold, she has a legal right only to enough for a bare subsistence.
I have taken the above facts from Walker’s Introduction to American Law.
Then again, the same author says:
“If the wife manifests a disposition to squander or destroy property, he may use the means necessary to prevent her.”
But how is it on the other hand? He may squander to any extent he sees fit, he may take bread from his children and sell it for rum, and she cannot restrain him. And again, the law gives him a right to her person; if she thinks he is too gross, and rude, and austere, and brutish to live with, and consequently leaves him, he can seize her and bring her back and compel her to stay with him. Such law needs no comment; it is a disgrace to any civilized people.
Let us fix the following points indelibly in our minds. Woman, married, or single, has no political rights whatsoever. While single her legal rights are the some as those of man. When married, her legal rights are chiefly suspended. When she becomes a widow, those rights revive, and some provision is made for her support. She has a life interest in one third part of the real estate, owned by her husband. If there be only personal property, she has a certain share after creditors are satisfied, in case he has not willed it away from her.
I have said that the first act of those who formed this government was, to deny to woman the right of the elective franchise. All lot or part she has in the government is, to be counted in the Congressional representation; an honor for which we — the free women — ought to be very grateful, seeing that each of us is counted as one, while the slave is counted as only three-fifths of a being. No governmental offices of honor, trust or profit are accessible to us. The Executive chair, Legislative hall, and Judicial bench are not for woman. The duties and the salaries pertaining thereto belong exclusively to men. All the official honors that woman can hope to enjoy must come through her husband; his light alone must be like the self-created brightness of the sun.
So far from having access to the Judicial bench, she cannot hope to enter the jury-box; and there is not a woman in the land, who was ever brought before a court for trial, whether she was guilty or not guilty of the charges alleged against her, that has ever had such a trial as she had a right to claim. First, a body of men prefer a charge against her; then another body of men are sworn to try her. All the officers of the court, from the tipstaff with his stave to the Judge upon the bench, are men. Her prosecutor is a man, and the lawyer who defends her case is a man. Now all this is wrong. Where a man is to be indicted, tried and sentenced, if he prefers it, let it be done by men; but when a woman has violated the law, I claim that she has a right, if she so chooses, to be indicted — if indicted at all-by women, and also to be tried by a jury of women. Who, I ask, gave man the exclusive right to sit in judgment upon us? Who gave him the exclusive authority to condemn and punish woman?
In very many trials, where women are arrained as criminals, it is manifestly more in accordance with what the world calls propriety, and would better answer the ends of justice, if none but women were officially connected with them. But we must not hope for such a state of things, or for any material improvement in our condition, either legal, social or religious, while woman is content to be the mere plaything and toy of man, receiving from him fair speeches and prettily turned compliments in lieu of the acknowledgment of her God-given equality. Never did an Esau exchange his birthright for a poorer mess of pottage.
The occasion that has brought us together at this time is of no mean importance. The organic law of the State — the Constitution of Ohio, which imposes upon those of us who have property, in our own right, taxation without representation, which establishes laws for our government without our consent, either express or implied and threatens us with death if we resist them — this organic law is about to be revised, and it is hoped, corrected and improved. The Convention, to whose members this labor has been entrusted, will assemble on the 6th of May, and tho’ the time for action on our part is short, it is long enough for us to express our opinions in regard to our own wrongs, and to exercise one of our few remaining rights, by petitioning for a redress of grievances. The very manner in which that Convention is to be constituted is a sufficient commentary upon the inferior position of woman. When a new form of government is to be framed, when the question is to be discussed and settled as to who are to comprise the government, who shall be admitted to the elective franchise, and who denied, why should it be left only to the voters under the present Constitution to decide who shall be the delegate to that Convention? This is a subject that deeply interests every inhabitant of the territory over which the new Constitution is to be established. For those who constitute the government to decide that they and they alone shall be represented in that Convention, is simply tyranny, and manifests a strong desire to retain in their own hands the power they have grasped.
But whatever may be the character of that Convention, whatever may be its decision upon those questions involving the rights of humanity, we know that the opinion and the action of those I am now addressing will, if conceived in a liberal spirit, enunciated with firmness, and unshrinkingly maintained, produce an effect upon the hearts of the people, and lead them to see, in a higher and truer light, the rights and the responsibilities that belong to us.
What then do we ask at the hands of the State Convention? Simply a recognition of our equality, a practical adoption of the doctrine, that as in Christianity, so in true Democracy, there is neither male nor female. If governments are necessary for the protection of mankind, if laws are essential to the well-being of society, we ask that our right to share in the formation and administration of governments be acknowledged; and that the laws to which we are compelled to submit shall emanate not from a favored class, but from the whole people. If universal suffrage be the safeguard to liberty — and we are assured it is — we ask that it be in truth universal, open alike to woman as to man. And should the Convention see fit to refuse compliance with our requests, we should demand of its members a sight of the charter, which gives man the exclusive right to rule. Let them meet the question fairly; let them tell if they can, what better right men have to establish a government, and deny women the right to participate in it, than women have to establish a government and deny men the right to participate in it. I desire that the question be settled by argument; and until it is thus settled, I, for one, shall not cease to aid in its agitation. Let us not be like children that can be pacified with toys, or like silly girls whose heads can be turned by a compliment; but let us act like women, rational reflecting women, who know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain them.
The divine right of kings to rule over their subjects, though now measurably exploded, was once universally believed; and so when the now received doctrine of the divine right of man to rule over woman, is examined and tested by the touch-stone of truth, the latter will be found to be as absurd, as baseless and as tyrannical as the former.
I am aware that many objections are urged against the propriety and expediency of woman participating in the affairs of government. I may not exercise my right so to do, after it is accorded me; indeed all who know my sentiments in relation to Constitutions and governments, know full well that I would not participate in a government, and you, Madam President, may not, and all whom I address may not; but that is no reason why others should judge for us, of the propriety and expediency of our so doing; that is a right I insist upon exercising for myself, and these “Daniels” who have “come to judgment,” have me-thinks, assumed an air of wisdom, as foreign to their own characters as it is derogatory to us.
If woman has a certain sphere, if there are certain bounds beyond which she may not pass, but which man may overstep with impunity, it is not unwise to conclude, that her Creator has given her sufficient intellect to enable her to keep within her proper orbit; or has else endowed her with the same instinct he has bestowed upon beast and bird, and which keeps each in its appropriate sphere? So in case either conclusion is correct, it is a work of supererogation for man to define how far she may go, and where she shall stay. Man has become so accustomed to rule and control woman, telling her what she may do, and what she must leave undone, that he speaks about her appropriate sphere with the utmost nonchalance, and its boundaries appear to be as well defined in his mind, as are the great divisions of the globe in the mind of the young student.
As there has been so much talk about woman’s appropriate sphere, it would seem that we ought to hearsomething about man’s appropriate sphere; but this is a forbidden subject to woman — it would be like a heathen entering the holy of holies. Should we intimate to them that the burning of women for witchcraft; that the hanging of women for Quakerism; that the flogging of women at the cart’s-tail for faithfulness to their convictions of religious duty; that the banishment of women for their belief in the Baptist creed, all of which were perpetrated in former days by the men of New England; or come down to a more recent time that the murdering of women for no other reason than because they were Mexicans; that the seducing and betraying of women who were before spotless and pure; that the buying and selling of women from an auction block, compelling them to endure the vilest insults and the grossest outrage — drivng them along the highway likebeasts to slaughter, — forcing them to unrequited toil under a burning sun and a cutting lash-robbing them of the children of their love, and crushing out their very heart’s blood under the iron heel of slavery — I say, should we intimate that this is not precisely man’s appropriate sphere, we should doubtless be told we were meddling with matters we could not comprehend. Oh, the wrongs of woman are piled heaven high. No wonder that Mrs. Hemans exclaimed,
“Her lot is on you, woman’s tears to weep,
And patient smiles to wear thro’ suffering’s hour,
And sumless treasures from affection’s deep,
To pour on broken reeds a wasted shower;
And to make idols, and to find them clay,
And to bewail that worship, therefore, pray!”
It is painful to know how very much many women are influenced by the dread of doing something that man will pronounce unfeminine — a departure from her appropriate sphere. Every woman ought to know and feel, as strongly as she feels the movings of the soul within her, that God defined her appropriate sphere when he spoke her into being — that it is limited only by her accountability to her Creator — that it is as extensive as the bounds of moral responsibility. And whenever any man or body of men, political, social, or religious, attemptto circumscribe its limits, she ought to feel that the authority thus assumed, is
“Authority usurped from God, not given,
He gave man only over beast, fish, fowl
Dominion absolute; that right he holds
By God’s donation; but man o’er woman
He made not Lord, such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free.”
Although the condition that woman occupies the world over, in nations that are savage as well as those which are civilized, is one of inferiority, there has been some improvement within a few centuries; the relative position of the sexes, however, has not been very much changed, but the advance of the age has changed her condition somewhat, and should encourage us to labor in faith for a still greater change. I know of no better way to effect this, than to continually claim our rights — assert our equality, and let our lives give evidence that we are not naturally inferior beings. And let us remember that to do this is no child’s play. It is a stern duty — a duty which we owe our sex, whose character we should vindicate, a duty which we owe our God, whose impartiality we should make manifest. Those of us upon whom the burden of female oppression sits least heavily, are not to be excused from this duty. If within our home reigns the equality that should every where prevail, if we feel that our condition is preferable to the mass of legal non-existents, then arc the demands upon us for the proper employment of our one, or our ten talents, even more imperative. Or that those who have talents and influence, would but vindicate the character of their sex, repelling the charge of natural inferiority, which has been so falsely made — a charge which has been converted into a means of oppression, robbery and degradation — a charge which is so universally adopted by those who have the wealth and power, that every woman in the land, who is obliged to earn her own living, feels that her energies are blighted by it and her wages lessened sometimes to one half.
What is the reason that female schoolteachers, who perform the same amount of labor as males, and do it as well, if not better, receive a far less compensation? Because woman is regarded as an inferior. — What is the reason, that at some, and perhaps all of the manual labor schools, the labor of the girls is valued at only one half of that of the boys? Because woman is inferior. What is the reason that in factories, in printing offices, in book-binding establishments, and in other places where the labor of females is sometimes employed, that they are expected to work for less than a man would receive for the same amount of toil? Because woman is inferior. What is the reason that that large class of women in our cities who “work, work, work, stitch, stitch, stitch,” from early dawn till the midnight hour, should be of all others the poorest paid? Because they are women, and woman is inferior. In view of their misery and degradation, no wonder they exclaim, in the language of the inimitable Hood:
“Oh, men with sisters dear,
Oh, men with mothers and wives,
It is not linen you are wearing out,
But human creatures lives,
Its O, to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work.”
The pittance gained by these women is often insufficient to keep starvation from the door; so they must die of hunger in this Christian land, or else adopt the last resort for such as they — a life of infamy.
Whence, but from the idea of inferiority, arises the difference in the education of boys and girls? The boy must receive a far more finished and comprehensive education than the girl, because it is assumed that he is superior, and his appropriate sphere is limited only by the boundaries of his own will. He must be classically educated, must be made acquainted with many sciences which the girl must hardly know by name. And for this purpose colleges are built, professorships are endowed by private wealth or public bounty, and almost every facility offered that gold can purchase or intellect command.
When the girl’s education is completed, if she wishes to earn her livelihood, she must choose among the few less profitable kinds of business in which it is considered proper for her to engage. She may be folder to a book-binder, a seamstress, a washer-woman, a factory operative, hired help in a family, or in some places a clerk in a store; but to these occupations, or such as these, must her ambition be confined, unless she is willing to risk the odium of wandering from her appropriate sphere, with the faint hope of so far overcoming the prejudices of society, which likes to see every one in her proper place, as to secure a reasonable share of public patronage. Not so with the man. Does he wish to become a physician, a lawyer, a minister, a mechanic, a sculptor or a painter? he has but to choose, and books of medicine, law or divinity are placed in his hands, and competent preceptors stand ready to give him instruction; the shop of the artisan unfolds its doors for his admission; the studios of the artists are opened to him; his eye is pleased and his taste matured by living amid the productions of the old masters, or becoming familiar with the matchless statuary of other times. Does he incline to statesmanship? The course is open before him, and it is no departure from his appropriate sphere to pass through all its gradations, from that of the bar-room politician to President of the United States. Does the pursuit of literature most please him? he has but to stretch forth his hand and grasp its rewards. And the history of man’s connection with every calling in which wealth may be realized, or fame or honor won — from the peaceful one of commerce to the bloody one of war — is the same; he has monopolized the lion’s share and woman must be content with the jack-all’s portion.
I do not wish to be understood to say that woman has not, in a few rare instances, been bold enough to overstep the bounds of what the world calls female propriety, and claim the laurels which man regards as his exclusive property. But these instances are the exceptions, and prove the rule. We now and then hear of a Douglass, a Bibb or a Brown, who has been reared under the crushing influence of Southern slavery, rising superior to his condition, and astonishing the world with the manifestations of his intellect and his genius. Such instances are but a foreshadowing of what the colored man might become if allowed an equal opportunity with his white oppressor. And so of woman. — There have been female artists, the productions of whose pencil have compelled universal admiration. There have been female astronomers, whose fame shines as brightly as the orbs they studied. There have been female rulers, who, history tells us, ruled wisely and well. The name of a HEMANS, a LANDON, a SIGOURNEY and a HOWITT are not unknown to the lovers of poetry. A MARTINEAU has taught the people political economy. A SEDGWICK and a CHILD have done much to refine and exalt the literature of our land, and render it subservient to noble ends. A FREDERIKA BREMER, by her simple yet graphic descriptions of life in Sweden, has become, as it were, a guest in every household; and a FANNY KEMBLE has, by the power of her magical genius, called back the spirit of Shakespeare, and without the aid of scenic decorations or stage effect, presented the thoughts and depicted the passions of his characters, as though they were themselves present, and thus thought, and spoke and felt. Nor is the pulpit eloquence of females an unheard of thing. Those who have listened to the calm, mild tones of LUCRETIA MOTT pleading in gentleness and love, and enforcing by her speech, as in her life, the beauty and simplicity of practical righteousness, must have felt that they had rarely listened to one so gifted in intellect and in spiritual good. Then again, who has made the fires of freedom to burn more brightly in our land, and created a deeper hatred of slavery and all its baneful results, than MARIA CHAPMAN and ABBY FOSTER, by their fervent appeals and faithful denunciations? What Magazine is more worthily popular than that of which MRS. KIRKLAND is one of the editors? What newspaper is more eagerly sought than that of MRS. SWISSHELM? What young physician is better read, more thoroughly versed in the healing art, and more truly worthy of success in his profession than ELIZABETH BLACKWELL? Many others might he mention,who have distinguished themselves even when public opinion has been opposed to their winning and wearing honors. But these, after all, are the few exceptions to the universal law of woman’s inferiority. And it is against this position of inferiority that every woman, who has a proper respect for herself, is bound emphatically to protest.
Though the politician may sneer at us, because we wish to have our rights acknowledged our right to share in the government to as full an extent as he does — because we object longer to endure taxation without representation, because we desire to have a form of government instituted which shall derive its powers from the consent of the governed; let us not be moved from our position. And though in the social circle the finger of scorn may be pointed at us because we aspire to a wider field of action, to live a higher and a larger life — because we wish to show that a woman may not only give ample attention to the wants of her family, but also cultivate her mind even as man cultivates his; let us not be moved from our position. And tho’ we may be laughed at because we insist that our business relations with the world should be different — that woman should be left as free as man to choose an occupation for herself, and that when she performs her labor that she should be paid for it, without any reduction in price because of her sex; let us not be moved from our position. And tho’ the church — while professing to believe that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, but that all are one — declares that it suffers not a woman to teach in public, assigns her an inferiorplace in its membership and in its councils, and thus in the name of religion sanctions the legal disabilities and the social wrongs which now oppress her; let us not be moved from our position.
‘We but ask that our equality in point of rights be acknowledged; we ask that none shall strive to obliterate or deface the image and superscription our Creator stamped upon our souls. I am aware that the great mass of women in this country have no sympathy with the views I have expressed. I wish it were otherwise. I wish they could be led to see their true position, and be made to understand that the gallantry and devotion of man is offered them in lieu of a recognition of their rights, and that it is only in a few rare cases he approaches and converses with them as equals, as being as fully rational, intelligent and morally accountable as himself, endowed with the same rights and clothed with the same duties.
But I will not further extend my remarks. I have already said enough to secure the disapprobation which is always bestowed upon a woman who thinks and speaks for herself. I have said more that enough for those women who are contented with their rose-covered chains and gilded prison-bars; and I could hope that I have said something to encourage to earnest action those of my sex who feel that no length of legislation can sanction and sanctify the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them; that no social usages, however time-honored, can justify the oppressions they have been compelled to endure; that no religious creed, however sanctimonious its supporters, can find the least excuse for the inequality in the church.
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. 52-62.