On Marriage and Work
c. Oct 13-15, 1875 — Third Women’s Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Syracuse NY
At this third Congress of Women my heart turns yet once again to the home, as at both the former sessions; to the general work to be done by the wives and mothers of America. We have long conceded to exceptional women, to unmarried women, the right, if intellectually gifted, to engage in literature or, if practically inclined, to occupy themselves in works of active benevolence.
But married women have been taught to feel but little more responsibility for the engrossing active duties of the outside world than the queen bee has for the active endless work carried n by the busy little colony from which she is set apart by her absorbing maternal functions . . .
We still hear of the little use there is in giving a higher education to girls, since most of them will be married, and marriage is still held to be the grave of the feminine intellect in all its loftier forms of exercise. Our English sisters seem even to concede this point. At the recent Science Convention they brought forth the growing lateness of marriage as a valid reason for granting certain claims to women. But that involves a doubtful if not a most mischievous concession. It is our claim that maternity is not bar to the highest and broadest life-work which lies within the ability of any woman to achieve! Motherhood carries with it its own widening and strengthening of the feminine character; it is a natural barrier to mental overwork during the earlier years of comparative inexperience — that prolonged seed time of every human soul, male or female; when the years of harvest come, the children of a good mother should uphold her hands and her heart while she achieves the final consummation of her lifelong duties as an intelligent, an active, and a responsible citizen of the world.
What! does the husband exact more service than he gives in return? Is he strengthened and ennobled by family ties, and does he confer no compensating aid and encouragement in return? So surely as marriage is an institution grounded in human nature, no woman, worthily and happily married, is less fitted to aid the general progress of the world than she who stands alone with none to hinder; yes, with none to hinder, but with none to help her either, in the exercise of her best gifts. It is time that we utterly repudiate the pernicious dogma that marriage and a practical life-work are incompatible . . .
To-day, it is not simply exceptional women who feel impelled to put their woman’s shoulders to some of the lagging wheels of social revolution. There are multitudes who can no longer comfortably shake off the burden of direct responsibility. What was the temperance crusade in its initial stages? The spontaneous fire kindled in a few hearts, but spreading to a hundred thousand woman souls, some of the laden wit private sorrows, and all of them aroused to an agony of sympathetic protest against the brutalizing crime of intemperance. What is the same movement to-day, in its organizing efforts to effectually crush the dominion of alcohol? It is the irrepressible expression of a settled purpose to put down a gigantic evil. It is woman hood awakened to a sense of its most solemn responsibilities; reaching out after the most practical and effective methods of encompassing its ends, of checkmating the destroyer who is annually plucking and trampling in the dust thousands of the brightest and most generous young men in all the land. Women belong to humanity; they must work, then, for the human weal.
Why have the farmers’ granges, the out-growth of modern civilization, found a practical working position on all boards for women? They saw and comprehended the fundamental fact that women of the country, and more especially farmer’ wives and daughters, whose homes are comparatively isolated, needed and desired to be healthfully active and useful. They foresaw that this influence could be made effective. They have practically decided that it is no better for a great working organization to be conducted by wholly male methods of work than for me to live alone in the household.
What women did in the war, the whole country can remember. It was then that multitudes of them put on the spirit of real work for the Commonwealth, a spirit which never again can be suppressed. What have women done, and what are they doing, for the Centennial? Giving it effective aid and comfort at every stage of its progress. Their organization is another great co-operative manifestation of the growing imperative need in women to identify themselves with the honor and well-being of their country, and the men have recognized them as a practical force in the nation. Non-voting citizens, they are still citizens; the vote is waiting for them just ahead. It is a question of time, the time depending upon the rapidity of our growth as a people . . .
The harvest fields to-day are many. The same work is not for all. Personal ability is the limit f personal responsibility. The highest work for each is that to which she is most drawn in heart; that to which she is most nearly connected by the circumstances of her position and by the fitness of her special talents. The millions of local, benevolent, and church associations have long been an outlet for the quickened energies of many women. Now these are associating themselves more and more widely. Women’s benevolent enterprises are becoming national. Missionary boards have their auxiliary female societies reaching to the ends of the earth. Church associations every year admit their women to a wider and more active co-operation in almost every church enterprise. And the majority of all these eager workers are wives and mothers! Their homes are better kept, their children are more wisely guided, and their husbands are more honored among their townsmen, because this energy of the soul has found expression and toned the whole nature to a broader harmony. It is a general impulse, and one of those tidal waves in social life, which is impelling so many women into such a varied fields of activity. What influence is powerful enough to arrest it?
For many years, as class after class of girl graduates completed courses of study broad enough and solid enough to fit them for some of the higher work of the world, many of the oldest advocates for a wider field of occupation for women waited anxiously to see what would be the result. Year after year went by; the women thought and felt and waited. Ad then, as if impelled by a common impulse, ten thousand women at once quietly took up some broader work, each in her own line, associating together, and by an almost unconscious widening of methods, all these and many other growing organizations are the result . . .
The platform of our Congress here to-day is fairly representative of all the women’s organizations in the country in this respect. Probably three-fourths of all the members, as well as most of the active workers, are wives and mothers. Who thinks of asking whether a woman is married or unmarried when she is solicited or appointed to undertake any duty? The simple question is as to her fitness for the work to be done . . . .
Why, then, appeal particularly to married women to enter the lists as workers for the age in which they live? For three reasons: First, because of the lingering prejudice that wifehood and maternity are all-sufficient, life-long occupations for women. Not at all. Varied interests would give better health. They should enable one to be bright, active, steadily gaining in ability during the whole of middle life, and leave at least a quarter of a century of vigorous health beyond; when there are no little children and, too often, alas! No husband.
Sheer waste of human energy it is to persuade women that they ought to become superannuated before seventy-five or eighty, or indeed at any age when, by reason of strength, life and health still remain.
Second— The temptation to absorb all of one’s powers in home affairs is specially strong with mothers. It is they who most need warning against this influence. When they believe that duty calls them to this, they, their families, and the world will all suffer together in consequence. The best mothers are always something more than mothers. Women with their eager mercurial temperaments have no right to crystallize their whole versatile natures into any one set of functions, however central and important these may be. This would be destruction to men; it has been destruction and desolation to women.
The third reason for particularly calling on the matrons of this country, earnestly and in singleness of purpose to take upon themselves the world’s highest work, is that in their ranks we shall find the only existing, considerable American leisure class. Other countries have their men of leisure, the nobility who inherit wealth, position, and time for any pursuit to which they may be impelled by circumstances or by inclination.
But in our civilization it is the rich married women, the childless wives, and the “old wives” — classes in the earlier day despised and set aside as droning retailer of senseless fables — who, in the normal progress of human events, are ordained to become standard-bearers of a higher culture; disinterested pioneers in every needed enterprise; careful and conscientious investigators into many of the marvelous but open secrets of the universe.
Does this claim for our only considerable leisure class seem so arrogant? Let us see. Would a successful business man, whose time is too precious to allow him to take up any of the menial offices of life, even if he had the inclination otherwise, desire his wife to be either cook, housemaid, or seamstress? Certainly not. Yet the home has need of her. She must rule there as a steady presiding and guiding spirit; since the highest interest of the household can thus be better promoted than by any gain which might accrue from her engaging in outside business occupations. During her duty thus, there remains no respectable pretence that she is supported in any degrading sense of that often odious term. Yet any competent woman, not greatly stinted in means, and having health and few or no little children to cherish and educate, is, if she so wills it, an honorable member of the enviable leisure class. Thus, like the cloisters of old, the home sanctuary can be made to foster learning and to offer its own appropriate contributions toward the progress of the race . . .
Our leisure wives no doubt can utilize their time in making pretty, elaborate embroideries, or beautiful patch-work quilt; in brilliant and even good natured gossip; in fitting themselves to be the most graceful, the brightest of polite society; and they can easily give a whole life to ten thousand other amiable things. The world, and their friends in particular, would still be the better for their having lived. But we are not now in the dark ages . . .
And the women of today are full abreast of the century in which they live. Many of them now have the basis of a broad and sensible education. Will the matrons who have leisure, or can make leisure for themselves, consent to go on aimlessly frittering away their best energies? We have seen that they are not content. The busiest of them are taking up these many new co-operative enterprises; and they who have leisure are fast learning how to utilize it in line with the inquiring spirit of the times. Then, fi the sexes are intellectual peers, the time has come for women of leisure, for all they who need neither toil continuously for the bread they eat, nor spin a thread of raiment which they wear; it is time for these steadily and persistently to take up the highest intellectual work of which they are capable. It is time for all women to begin fairly to test themselves and their capacities. This has never yet been done . . .
A mother’s child is but an incident in her life. Love it as she will, it will grow up; and in a few years it is gone. But a life-work remains for a life-time!
Source: Papers Read at the 3rd Women’s Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Syracuse, New York, October 13-15, 1875, (Chicago: Fergus Printing Co.) 1875, pp. 27-35.
Also: Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women, ed. Nancy F. Cott (NY: E.P. Dutton & Co.) 1972, pp. 351-355.