Woman’s Rights in a New Aspect
June 26, 1858 — Under a Tent, Rutland Free Convention, Rutland VT
To my mind this resolution means nothing, or it is entirely incomprehensive, and I am aware that I have chosen almost a forbidden subject; forbidden from the fact that any one that can and dare look the marriage question in the face and openly denounce the marriage institution as the sole cause of woman’s degradation and misery, is an object of scorn, of suspicion and opprobrious epithets.
I ask of that now as I did formerly of the Church, Is it so sacred that it cannot be questioned?
LUCY STONE said to me at the recent Woman’s Rights Convention held in New-York, “The marriage question must and will some day be discussed.” I asked, “Why are you not willing that it should be discussed now and here?” She did not think it a proper place; their platform was not a free one; they wished the rights of woman in regard to voting settled then, and there, and that would settle all other rights.
I asked: How can she have the right to vote, when she had not even the right to her name in the marriage bonds?”
She said: “It is a mistaken idea that woman is obliged to give up her name and take that of her husband, by the ceremony. I have not given up mine, and no law can compel me to. I call myself LUCY STONE, and shall always.”
How would it have been with Mrs. BLACKWELL if she had kept the fact of the marriage ceremony a secret, and gone to a hotel with the intention of stopping a few days, with Mr. BLACKWELL, and signing her name LUCY STONE? Would they have been permitted to occupy one room? What do you suppose would have been the astonishment of the virtuous landlord at such a proceeding, and what would have been his answer? Mrs. LUCY STONE BLACKWELL and every one else knows the act would be sufficient to denounce her in the eyes of society, an infamous woman.
The marriage ceremony is necessary to keep woman virtuous and respectable, and all intercourse with man out of its holy rites, renders her an outcast and a thing to be despised. Is it because she is naturally vicious and wicked that bonds are placed upon her? Has she no nature that may not be proscribed and estimated by man law-makers? Has she no inborn right that belongs to herself? As she stands here before the world, she has none. She has not even that kind compliment that is paid to man in the Constitution of the United States, “that man is endowed with certain inalienable rights.” And to the marriage ceremony, I say she is indebted for her wrongs, for her aching heart, her chains, her slavery.
Woman must strike the blow if she would be free and become the equal of man.
You speak of her right to labor — her right to teach — her right to vote, and lastly though not least, her right to get married; but do you say anything about her right to love when she will, where she will and how she will?
Yes, here is a stipulation for her in this resolution.
“She is to have an isolated household with an exclusive conjugal love.” This is very pretty in sentiment and [Thomas] MOORE beautifully expresses it in his “Fire Worshippers:”
“Oft in my fancy’s wanderings
I’ve wished that little isle had wings,
And we within its fairy bowers
Were wafted off to seas unknown,
Where not a pulse would beat but ours,
And we might live, love, die alone,
Where the bright eyes of Angels only
Should come around us to behold
A paradise so pure and lonely.”
But this will not do for practical life where man and woman work from ten to eighteen hours out of the twenty four. The working class are by far the larger class, and the isolated household is the worst place in the world for them. The man comes home to his meals which are set on the table amid crying children and the sickly, despairing face of his wife — there is no social life. Even the exclusive conjugal love that bound them together in the marriage ceremony has long since settled into the mildest form of friendship. The enthusiasm and ardor, and poetry, and sacredness are forever destroyed by constant familiarity in the isolated household.
Just as woman is isolated and confined within the isolated and confined limits of a home, just so will her offspring be narrow-minded, bigoted and selfish; just as she is free in her thoughts, her affections, making her home wherever she chooses, just so will her children be broad and expansive in their ideas, noble, and great and honorable in virtuous deeds, benevolent in heart and tolerant in all things, however opposite to them, because they feel within that they have not only the perfections but the imperfections of humanity.
We have lived in the ideal life too long; we want something practical. We have planted rank weeds, and we are cultivating them with as much nicety as we would beautiful flowers. We have gone down into hidden lore and have lived in the eyes of the past as though the present was too weak to bear the weight of our thoughts. We crawl on our hands and knees in the childhood of knowledge, fearing to rise lest the weight of our brains should topple us over. We live in dead men’s graves, waiting for some angel to roll away the stone and give us life and liberty and individuality. Let me draw a picture of the isolated home, and one that came under my own observation.
See the woman with a care-worn face; long lines of grief have made deep furrows — her thin hand and shriveled figure — her dejected, weary air — her desponding tones tell of something that lies heavy at her heart. Surely, never Christ, bearing the great heavy cross up to crucifixion, could feel the deep woe that presses against her soul.
“Ah me,” comes with a sad sigh as we lay our hand upon her head; “tell us,” we say, and she throws open the inmost recesses of her soul, and tells the story of her life. How she aspired to be great from childhood — how noble thoughts took possession of her; how she loved, and married the object of her love; how dear the first-born of her heart grew to her; how it died, and she clothed herself in the habiliments of woe, and shut out the light of day to her heart, and sat down alone at home without friends or hope or consolation; how other children came to her, but they did not fill the void; the black veil was drawn down from between her and happiness, and pinned to the soul by the arrow of affliction. There was no sympathy in the world, and she longed to lie down in the grave and rest.
We brush away the tears and bid her hope; hope has died out; we speak of husbands and children; they have no sympathy.
“Are you willing,” we ventured to ask, “to look for one moment into your own soul?”
“I have always tried to do right, but circumstances were against me. My husband has long since ceased to love me, although he presses upon me the necessity of bearing children whenever he pleases. My children are perverse and wayward, and I don’t know what to do with them. Some people go right through the world always light hearted and happy;I never saw an unhappy day till I was married.”
“But of yourself, have you never thought of a plan whereby you might be relieved from these troubles?”
“Oh, yes, of many, but I have no right to think or speak my sentiments, for I am married; if I do, my husband says it is better for me to attend to the domestic affairs, and he will do the thinking. He deprives me of female friends because women love to gossip; of male friends, for the world might talk about it; besides, he says a mother ought always to be at home taking care of her house and children, and providing for her husband’s wants; and I have nothing but death; when that comes I shall go where everything will be bright and happy, and my soul’s longings will be satisfied.”
Now, I ask, what is that woman’s life? Is she what God intended she should be?
No! She was made fair and beautiful in childhood, given those noble aspirations to cultivate in the garden of her soul.
What did she do with them? Sold them with herself at sixteen, when she entered into the marriage contract, and thus bowed down her soul forever. In her isolated household, she threw away her life, and added to the too many already children thrust into the world half made up — children of chance, children of lust, abortions who feel that they have no right to existence — children of disease, whose tainted flesh and running sores are a disgrace and an everlasting reproach to the morals and purity of any community.
Byron cursed his mother for his deformed feet, and there are thousands and thousands of children cursing the sacred name of mother for their deformed bodies and moral conditions.
Mrs. [Matilda Joslyn] GAGE, Mrs. [Ernestine] ROSE, Mr. [Henry C.] WRIGHT, and others, go back to the mother’s influence, and go a step further back, and say it is the marriage institution that is at fault. It is the binding marriage ceremony that keeps woman degraded in mental and moral slavery. She must demand her freedom — her right to receive the equal wages of man for her labor — her right to bear children when she will, and by whom she will.
Woman is not totally depraved. She will never abuse one right that is given to her, and she will never step aside from her own nature. If she desires to go to the ballot-box, it is because there is a wrong somewhere, and she takes that way to right it. If she desires to become a lawyer, it is because there are laws to be redressed and made better. If she desires to preach, it is because she feels the woes and afflictions of humanity. If she desires rights, it is because she needs them.
I believe in the absolute freedom of the affections, and it is woman’s privilege, aye, her right, to accept or refuse any love that comes to her. She should be the ruling power in all matters of love, and when her love has died out for the man who has taken her to his heart, she is living a lie to herself, her own nature, and to him, if she continues to hold an intimate relation with him.
And so is man’s relative position to woman. When his love has died out, and he continues to live with his wife, on any consideration, he strikes a blow at the morality of his nature, and lives a life of deception, not only to her and society, but he is responsible for all the crimes that his children, borne under those circumstances, are liable to commit.
A gentleman said to me, a little time ago, “My wife is a woman’s rights woman. She talks about her rights, and I allow it, but she really has none. I am her husband; she is my property, and if I do not like a thing I say so; and I do not consider she has any right to dispute it. I do not hold any argument, for I consider my will law. And if I loved a woman, and was not bound to her by the marriage ceremony, I should not think of disputing her will or wishes, for fear she would show me the door, and I should have no alternative but to go out of it. Her will is absolute, for I have no claim upon her, and she is justified in all she does, so it is necessary to guard myself and movements in order to retain the love and respect of the woman I love.” What a pleasing prospect is this for the wife, who is rearing her children in her isolated household, and imagining the husband immaculate in thought as well as action, and respecting her in the sacred office of wife and mother.
Why should woman tame herself into calm submission, and be the slave and toy and play-thing of man? What is marriage? Is it the linking together of two loving hearts in holy, sacred union? No! this is seldom the case when compared to the many thousands upon thousands of marriages of convenience. Women are bought and paid for, as the negro slave is. She is estimated as a thing of barter, for a man counts the cost of his intended wife as deliberately as if he thought of keeping a cow, a dog, or a pig.
Now, what are the rights and privileges of woman in the marriage institution?
It gives us the privilege to become Mrs. Brown instead of Miss. Smith. That is an honor, no doubt, as it relieves woman from the stigma of old maid. It gives us the privilege of being supported and attending to domestic duties — the privilege to see that the dinner is served at proper hours for a hungry husband — the privilege, oftentimes, to sit up alone half the night to let the husband in from a delightful concert and oyster supper that he has enjoyed with Mr. Jones and his beautiful wife.
Then we have a right; and listen! women of the Nineteenth Century! The marriage institution gives you one right; one right that you have not, perhaps, hitherto valued — it gives you the right to bear children.
It is not a privilege; it is not an inheritance that your nature craves. But it is the law of wise men, who know very much better than you do when you want a child, and when you ought to become a mother.
Now, I say again, that resolution (referring to the one reported by the Committee) is incomprehensive. Love is not dependent on reason, or judgment, or education, or mental acquirements, or society, or control of any kind. It is an inspiration of the soul. It is a holy, sacred emanation from the most vital part of our natures, and to say when or where it shall be limited or restricted is a violation of our individual rights.
I may have taken an extreme side of the question, but only offer my views as my own, and wish that the resolution may be put in a more definite form, stating what conjugal love is, and to how few, or how many, an isolated household may be limited to. I will read a resolution that I think would bear more directly on the marriage question:
Resolved, That the slavery and degradation of woman proceeds from the institution of marriage; that by the marriage contract she loses the control of her name, her person, her property, her labor, her affections, her children and her freedom.
Source: The New York Times, June 29, 1858, p. 1.
Also: The Syracuse Standard, July 1858.
Also: Broadside at the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh VT.