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Freethought Convention

August 24, 1878 — Outdoor tent, Freethought Convention, Watkins Glen, NY


LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: You have seen a great deal of excitement here this afternoon, especially intensified by the fact that a woman was arrested and taken to a town jail because she dared to sell certain literature. Do you know that every woman here who chances to be a married woman has the same danger of arrest if she dare to claim her child for her own? It is a fact. But lately, in a Western State, a mother was imprisoned in the county jail because she dared to take her own child into her, possession. Now, if any one thing is more evident than another, it is that the mother has a natural right to her own child — the child to which she has given birth. It is a fact that God has given that child directly into the mother’s care; has made it dependent upon her after its birth for nourishment for months. Yet what is the condition of this State, and almost all the States in the Union? A mother has no right to her own children except under the direction of the father.

You have heard spoken here the wrongs men have felt by the trenching of the Church on their rights. Can one of you tell me what is the foundation doctrine of the Christian Church to-day? Does one of you know what is the foundation principle of the three great divisions of the Christian Church — Catholic, Protestant, and Greek? ‘The foundation is not upon Christ; not upon Paul; not upon the doctrine of immersion; it is not upon any of these, but the Christian Church is based upon the fact of woman servitude; upon the theory that woman brought sin and death into the world, and that therefore she was punished by being placed in a condition of inferiority to man — a condition of subjection, of subordination. This is the foundation to-day of the Christian Church. I shall confine myself mostly to the condition of women in England during the past ages, because from that all these have sprung, and especially because England’s system of common law has become part and parcel of our own in every State of the Union. The Christian religion was introduced into England at a very early period of time, but it was the ninth and tenth century of the Christian era before daughters acquired the right of declining a husband selected by their fathers. It was the tenth century before Christian wives acquired the right to eat at the table with their husbands. When the missionaries come from abroad they frequently refer to the fact of women not being allowed to sit at the table with their husbands in barbarian countries as an evidence of the degradation of the heathen. That very custom has, however, existed in England under the rule of Christianity. Christianity is a political religion. There are several religions in the world, some of which are political; others are not. The proselyting religions are political, and from a very early date Christianity began to show its political tendencies. The clergy in 1615 were, in France, granted peculiar rights. After the Norman conquests in England, we find that ecclesiastical courts had a great influence on the canons of the country. Canonical law gradually became mixed with common law, unfortunately for women. The Christian doctrine was that woman had brought sin and death into the world, therefore woman was taught to consider herself as a ward of hell, and to do continual penance from the fact of her existence.

The late common law of England compelled a man to secure to his wife one-third of the property — he could give more if he wished. As soon as the canonical law became incorporated with common law, it clutched all these relations of marriage, wills, legitimacy, and every question of that kind, and as soon as they began to touch the property relation, it forbade a man to give his wife more than one-third; it divided the property into thirds, one-third going to the Church, one-third to the wife, and the remaining one-third to the children. The civil law was pledged to interfere, and declared that before the Church received her portion the woman’s part should not be paid.

At an early day the Church made of marriage a sacrament, and thus introduced the word “obey.” It brought woman much lower in marriage relations than many Christian countries. During the Roman empire there were three kinds of marriage, the last one of which grew to be very general, giving the wife control of all property that she received from her father, and it is said by historians that in a short time a large proportion of the property of the Roman empire went into the hands of women. The late laws of India forbid the father to sell the child. It forbids a bride groom to pay anything for his wife. The laws of Ireland at an early date were of two kinds. One acknowledged the wife to have the same rights as the husband, but in no Christian country has there ever been a marriage of equal dignity, a marriage under which the law secured to woman the same equality of rights as man. The Church in early times allowed priestesses, but the rulings of Christianity have at times forbid her even to enter the door of a church.

A woman in England during the Middle Ages, and for many years after the Norman conquest, could be burned to death for the simple crime of larceny. If she committed the murder of her husband, it was held to be the same as if she killed a stranger; whereas if the husband killed the wife, it was held to be a petty affair; and it was the latter part of the eighteenth century when that law was done away with. You will perhaps say that these were the operations of Catholic influence in England and that they were done away with by the Protestant regime. You will find, however, that when Luther and his coadjutors worked it was for man’s enfranchisement — to secure for man the right of private interpretation of Scripture — the right that has not even yet been granted to woman.

In the early days Luther as approached by a man in regard to marrying a second wife, when the first wife was living. He called together a synod of reformers, and they decided that as monogamy was no where especially commanded in the Bible, and as polygamy had been the custom of the principal dignitaries of the Church, the right was accorded, and Phillip took to him a second wife while the first was living.

In the trial which took place not long ago — the Beecher-Tilton trial — we find Mr. Evarts presenting a case of woman’s condition now. He said: “There has been so much of advancement of woman in society and in the number of her privileges, so much courtesy granted her, that many of you are inclined to think that the old law is done away with. But the fact of woman’s subordination still remains.” He said that “woman is in the hollow of man’s hand; to be protected by him if he chooses.”

Now the laws which we have brought from England and incorporated as part of our own — the respective laws bearing upon woman — have all been church laws based on the original doctrine that woman was not created for herself alone. It is a well-known historical fact that priestcraft received its best impetus when canonical law was incorporated with the common law. It is the very great boast that we have descended from the Pilgrim Fathers; but they came to this country imbued with the same ideas of the subordination of woman. Craven said, “It was an offense in the sight of God for the Church to allow women in the pulpit,” in the trial of Dr. See, in New Jersey, for having committed such offense.



Source: The Proceedings and Addresses at the Freethinkers’ Convention Held at Watkins, N.Y., August 22d, 23d, 24th, and 25th, ’78, (New York: D.M. Bennett), 1878, pp. 212-217.