Woman’s Rights and Dangers
February 28, 1865 — The Plymouth Church, Brooklyn NY
[Miss Dickinson began with an anecdote about Madame De Staël, who when asked by Napoleon why women meddled with politics, replied: “Sire, while you behead women, we will ask the reason why.”]
So to-night, if she were asked why she spoke on this subject, she would say that, while women starve, body and soul, and sink into untold depths of degradation and despair, she would ask the reason why.
The toiler is a person to be envied. The laborer is one to be admired and honored. But society says it is right for a man to work, but wrong for a girl to work. Suppose a boy and a girl starting in life. The boy may labor, may achieve, and society cries, “Bravo.”
But suppose a girl goes out and works — it may be she works for an old mother, or a sick sister. Does society urge her on, and praise her? No, it says she has lost all her chance for a comfortable settlement in life.
But suppose she lives in a tolerably comfortable house, and her father is tolerably well off. She may have a liking for comfortable things, an “infinite hankering after all manner of pleasant things,” and se may desire to earn money to obtain them.
Society warns her that it is not proper; and if despite that, she still persists, and obtains a fine house with nice furniture, society sees and smells all over it the stain of work, and they put their hands into their husbands pockets, and say how much better if this girl had been satisfied with the life she was living, and waited until she got married.
There is no place nobler or happier for a woman that that of a wife and mother. But there is one unmarried girl to one unmarried man the world over, and there are thousands of these that prefer to go out and labor instead of staying at home to starve.
A man is paid twice or three times as much as a woman for his labor. Take the schools of Philadelphia, for instance. The male principal of the male grammar school receives $1,600 per year, and the female principal of the female grammar school passing the same examination, receives $800 per year.
[Miss Dickinson referred to an incident in her own history, when she was teaching school in Western Pennsylvania. She had applied for to teach in a neighborhood place, and every thing was satisfactory until they told her that they had been paying $28 per month for a male teacher, and proposed now to pay her $16 per month. She scouted the offer. That winter she went home, doing nothing, with others depending up on her, to some extent, for support; and she had not enough money to spare to buy a two-shilling handkerchief; but she would have swept at the street crossing rather than have taken that school at a less price than a man would have received for precisely the same work. The speaker referred to the availability of girls instead of young men as clerks for stores, and especially in dry-goods stores, where the men know nothing about the goods they are dealing in, and the women do.]
Still, it is true, women do not receive the same education for their work that the men do. The woman purchasing, treats the the young lady clerk with rudeness and insolence, where she would treat a young man with respect, and so the young lady clerk returns the rudeness and insolence. One-half the girls get married now-a-days for a home. If they are able to support themselves, then a young man and woman would get married because they loved each other, and couldn’t hep it.
This matter rests in woman’s own hands. Never yet did a woman determine to do a thing than that she did it. Never did she make any rule of society than that it would become a law. You women of wealth say that this is disagreeable, but do you not know that your influence in this matter is omnipotent. It may be, you say, a mater of no moment to you; but it may be the life or death, honor or shame, to thousands and tens of thousands of other, women to-day, and, who knows? It may be such to your child to-morrow.
Women will often oppose this work; possibly they will oppose more hatefully and persistently than men. Men, too, will oppose young men who are not yount men at all, but merely vegetables — forked radishes; and other men with old prejudices, and other men; of whom we may pray that their sons may not be brutes like their fathers, and their daughters slaves like their mothers.
But there are men and women with noble, generous hearts, who will aid in this work, and by-and-by, through the force of its own power; it will mould the usages of society to its own convenience.
There are thousands and tens of thousands of young girls to-day whose honor is resting by a needle’s point, and hanging by a single thread, and year by year they are crushed down, until perchance the honor slips from the needle’s point, and the tiny thread, breaking strand by strand, gives way at last and drops these women into infamy and shame.
[Miss Dickinson referred to some of the prices paid now to sewing girls.]
These women meet this question of the death of the body and the death of the soul with starvation, destitution and despair, driving them on, and so, falling into the life, are perchance, driven into it, giving the body at the expense of the soul. Society sweeps on, no matter how hard these women strive to do better — no matter how they may long — no matter how they may pray — no mater how they may stretch up eager hands out of this gulf of degradation and despair, society, sweeping on, tears loose the clinging hands, and presses them down, down, down! eternally down! into this frightful, living, breathing, enduring death!
I do not ask you to be kind to these women; it is no more than justice of which the world stands in need. All that I ask you is, you, madam, you who perchance swept aside your spotless garments lest even in touching this poor woman they would be soiled and hurt — all that I ask of you madam, is that you do not turn away from this girl, may be with a heart torn and wrung and quivering; and so, turning away from her open wide your door and welcome into your parlor, place by the side of your young and innocent daughter, the man ho, perchance, has betrayed her, taking his hand and clasping it close, not seeing up it the stain of a murdered and lost soul, not seeing between you and him the ghost of a spirit driven down through untold depths through life, and all of the eternity yet to come. I ask you simply that the same law shall hold good for one as it does for the other.
But what I want to ask of you is, that you save other women from going into this life. Out of the cruel and terrible necessities of this war there are hundreds of thousands of women flung upon their own resources for their own support. It is absolutely necessary that these women have more work and better pay, if you would save your sidewalks from being crowded with young girls, who to-day are spotless and pure and innocent, mother, as the young girl sitting at your side.
Will you let me tell you a little story to illustrate the whole matter? Some time ago, I was going home one night, just as the shades were closing round; it commenced to rain, and I saw walking before me a beautifully dressed woman unsheltered. I went up to her and said: “Madam, will you have part of my umbrella, will you walk with me up the street?” She looked at me and shaking her head slowly, said, “I don’t think you know what you are saying.” “Oh, yes,” I responded, “I say will you walk up the street with me under my umbrella?” She said again, “I don’t think you know what you are saying. You don’t know who I am.” Still I said, “that makes no difference, I don’t care whether you know me or not; shall we go up the street together?” “NoN,” she said, “I don’t care to have any body who knows you meet you walking up the street with such a woman as me” and turning, I looked into her face as the gas-light struck across it, saw there the traces of a life that always leaves its traces, knowing that the young and beautiful woman standing beside me was one upon whom society had branded outcast and . . . “No matter, we will go on together.” And as we walked I said to her, “what could have brought you to such a life; you are young, you are very pretty, you look well; what could have brought you to such a life?” She told me there her story; and I questioning thereafter, found that she was the daughter of a clergyman in West Pennsylvania, who had died, leaving his widow and herself penniless and unprovided for. The girl tried to find something to do.
It was the common story repeated. She tried to stand behind the counter, but they preferred young men; she tried to keep school, but there was only one in the village, and that had a teacher; she tried to sew, but could not find the work there to support herself and mother by it; and so they found their way to the great, busy, bustling city, in pursuit of work.
She tried to keep school there, but could not obtain an appointment. she tried to get into a store, but was told that she must serve six months as an apprentice, without pay. She was not so completely learned in her accomplishments as to teach them. She was driven to the slop-shop, making her miserable pittance by sewing. One Saturday she took her work to her employer and asked for her pay. He looked at it, tearing it apart and clinging it back to her to do over again.
She carried it back, and the next week bringing it home received no pay, but was told to carry it back again; and so for five weeks she received no money. She had sold or pawned everything she had for bread that she could live and have a little fire, beside which she might work, and she stood before her employer with clasped hands and tears trickling over her face, betting for the money she had rightfully earned, and it was still withheld from her, and then this man said to her, “You are beautiful and young, and need not labor for such a price as this, you might get plenty of money if you would.”
She did, mother, what your daughter would have done, she left the store indignant and outraged, and wandered up and down that city, hour after hour, and went up one street and down another, into store after store, pleading for work and some kind-hearted people said to her, “We would give you work if we could, but we have five hundred such applicants every day;” or perchance they would ask form her a certificate form her last employer, and she had none to show; others turned carelessly, and others insulted and outraged her as her old employer had done, and so she said, at 10 o’clock that Saturday night, she found herself standing without work, without money, in front of her old store.
There she told in the night, and the storm, and the cold; there she stood, the gloom gathering about her, the wind driving the rain into her face, and t through her gown garments. Oh, she said, do not think I hesitated then. She looked up this long street, dark with the night and tempest, up narrow alleys and passage ways up winding flights of stairs, into a little garret room, all poor and empty, into the fire-place — no fire there — not a stick of wood — not a cent to buy any with; into the little corner cupboard, all bare and empty, not even a crust of bread, not a cent to buy any with. Ah, she said, don’t think that I hesitated then! Don’t think so meanly of me as that!
But looking into this little room, poor, starved, wretched, miserable; looking round it in one corner, there, she said, I saw my poor, for mother, dying of hunger and cold. Oh, what marvel, what marvel that she fell! And so she had gone on, lower and lower, step after step.
Said I: “You must stop this life you shall go with me maybe I can find you something to do — nay, I will find you something to do. You shall and an honored and respectable woman once more.”
“No, no,” she said; “don’t try it; you need not talk to me so; I have tired it again and again, and I am always discovered and driven back. You need not try to help me. There is no hope, there ei son help for such a woman as I.” Ad then turning and looking at me — Oh, men, oh, women, careless and indifferent — oh, that you could have seen the girl’s faces dn heard her say, “You are young and handsomely dressed; maybe you have wealth, maybe you have position, maybe influence; oh, I beg you, I pray you, to use them all to save other young girls. They are coming into life, living as I life it, suffering as I suffer it dying in it as I shall dome day die.”
And I promised her, and to keep that promise I come and put the matter before you to-night.
[The speaker said that the girl’s story had an ending.]
On Christmas eve, not long ago, in one of our most elegant streets, in front of a beautiful dwelling, blazing with light from garret to basement, stood this girl.
Houseless by night.”
and the officer that testified afterward said that, looking in at those beautiful windows into this rare and elegant room, there stood the young man who had bene her employer, with a young girl resting her hand in his, promising to love and honor him for life; ad it is said that up and won , up and down, up and down, in the night and cold, wandered this poor waif, this miserable outcast, still; and when the Christmas morning sun rose and streamed up the street, there she reset dead and at peace.
And the day thereafter this girl, daughter of a clergyman, gently and tenderly, reared with a mother who had loved her, this poor girl carried out and buried in the potters field, with four miserable abandoned women following her as her only mourners.
Oh, poor, tired, wronged, outraged soul; must thou have found the justice of God more infinitely tender than the mercies of men!
And so, I ask you — father and mother, with daughters at home; I ask you young man, with generous heart, loving a sister; I ask you, young girl, remembering the thousands of other young girls, whose innocence and purity and womanhood are as dear to them as yours to you; I ask you all, simply and only, to carry a lesson home with you to-night, to think of it as it deserves; not carelessly, not indifferently, but with the weight of these lost souls pressing upon me, I make this last plea.
I put this last query, I offer this last prayer in their behalf, putting it to you, and I ask you to decide, as it should be decided for them, for yourselves, for the world, with the dear Lord looking down and waiting for what answer you will give for these, His your lost little ones.
Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, March 2, 1856, p. 1.