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What Shall We Do With Our Daughters?

It is more than fifty years since Margaret Fuller, standing, as she said, “in the sunny noon of life,” wrote a little book, which she launched on the current of thought and society. It was entitled “Women in the Nineteenth Century”; and as the truths it proclaimed and the reforms it advocated were far in advance of public acceptance, its appearance was the signal for an immediate widespread newspaper controversy, that raged with great violence. I was young then, and as I took the book from the hands of the bookseller, wondering what the contents of the thin little volume could be, to provoke so wordy a strife, I opened the first page. My attention was immediately arrested, and a train of thought started, by the two mottoes at the head of the opening chapter, — one underneath the other, one contradicting the other.

The first was an old-time adage, endorsed by Shakspeare, believed in by the world, and quoted in that day very generally. It is not yet entirely obsolete. “Frailty, thy name is Woman.” Underneath it, and unlike it, was the other, — “The Earth waits for her Queen.” The first described woman as she has been understood in the past; as she has masqueraded in history; as she has figured in literature; as she has, in a certain sense, existed. The other prophesied of that grander type of woman, towards which to-day the whole sex is moving, —consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, — because the current sets that way, and there is no escape from it.

No one who has studied history, even superficially, will for a moment dispute the statement, that, during the years of which we have had historic account, there has brooded very steadily over the female half of the human family an air of repression, of limitation, of hindrance, of disability, of gloom, of servitude. If there have been epochs during which women have been regarded equal to men, they have been brief and abnormal: Among the Hindoos, woman was the slave of man, forbidden to speak the language of her master, and compelled to use the patoisof slaves. The Hebrews pronounced her an after-thought of the Deity, and the other of all evil. The Greek law regarded her as a child, and held her in life-long tutelage. The Greek philosophers proclaimed her a  “monster,” “an accidental production.” Mediaeval councils declared her unfit for instruction. The early Christian fathers denounced her as a “noxious animal,” a “painted temptress,” a “necessary evil,” a “desirable calamity,” a “domestic peril.” From the English Heptarchy to the Reformation, the law proclaimed the wife to be “in all cases, and under all circumstances, her husband’s creature, servant, slave.” To Diderot, the French philosopher, even in the eighteenth century, she was only a “courtesan”’ to Montesquieu, an “attractive child”; to Rousseau, “an object of pleasure to man.” To Michelet, nearly a quarter century later, she was a “natural invalid.” Mme. De Stael wrote truly, “that, of all the faculties with which Nature has gifted woman, she had been able to exercise fully but one, — the faculty of suffering.

The contemptuous opinion entertained of woman in this past has found expression, not along in literature, but also in unjust laws and customs. “In marriage she has been a serf; as a mother she has been robbed of her children; in public instruction she has been ignored; in labor she has been a menial, and then inadequately compensated; civilly she has been a minor, and politically she has had no existence. She has been the equal of man only when punishment and the payment of taxes were in question.”

Born and bred for generations under such conditions of hindrance, it has not been possible for women to rise much above the arbitrary standards of inferiority persistently set before them. Here and there through the ages, some woman, endowed with phenomenal force of character, has towered above the mediocrity of her sex, hinting at the qualities imprisoned in the feminine nature. It is not strange that these instances have been rare; it is strange, indeed, that women have held their own during these ages of degradation. And as, by a general law of heredity, “the inheritance of traits of character is persistent in proportion to the length of time they have been inherited,” it is easy to account for the conservatism of women to-day, and for the indifference, not to say hostility, with which many regard the movements for their advancement.

For humanity has moved forward to an era where wrong and slavery are being displaced, and reason and justice are being recognized as the rule of life. Science is extending immeasurably the bounds of knowledge and power; art is refining life, giving to it beauty and grace; literature bears in her hands whole ages of comfort and sympathy, industry, aided by the hundred-handed elements of nature, is increasing the world’s wealth, and invention is economizing its labor. The ages looks steadily to the redressing of wrong, to the righting of every form of error and injustice; and the tireless and prying philanthropy, which is almost omniscient, is one of the most hopeful characteristics of the time.

It could not be possible in such an era, but that women should share in the justice and kindliness with which the time is fraught. A great wave is lifting them to higher levels. The leadership of the world is being taken from the hands of the brutal and low, and the race is making its way to a higher ideal than once it knew. It is the evolution of this tendency that is lifting women out of their subject condition; that is emancipating them from the seclusion of the past, and adding to the sum total of the world’s worth and wisdom, by giving to them the cultivation human beings need. The demand for their education — technical and industrial, as well as intellectual, — and for their civil and political rights, is being urged each year by and increasing host, and with more emphatic utterance.

The doors of colleges, professional schools, and universities, closed against them for ages, are opening to them. They are invited to pursue the same courses of study as their brothers, and are graduated with the same diplomas. Trades, businesses, remunerative vocations, and learned professions seek them; and even the laws, which are the last to feel the change in public opinion, — usually dragging a whole generation behind, — even these are being annually revised and amended, and then they fail to keep abreast of the advancing civilization.

All this is but prefatory and prophetic of the time when, for women, law will be synonymous with justice, and no opportunity for knowledge or effort will be denied them on the score of sex.

As I listen to the debates that attend their progress, and weigh the prophecies of evil always inspired by a growing reform, as I hear the clash of the scientific raid upon women by the small pseudo-scientists of the day, — who weight their brains and measure their bones to prove their inferiority to men, — my thoughts turn to the young women of the present time. “What shall we do with our daughters?” is really the sum and substance of what, I popular phase, is called “the woman question.” For if to-morrow all should be done that is demanded by the wisest reformer and the truest friend of woman, it would not materially affect the condition of the adult women of society. Their positions are taken, their futures are forecast, and they are harnessed into the places they occupy, not unfrequently by invisible, but omnipotent ties of love or duty. Obedience to the behests of duty gives peace, even when love is lacking; and peace is a diviner thing than happiness.

It is for our young women that the great changes of the time promise the most; it is for our daughter, — the fair, bright girls who are the charm of society and the delight of home; the sources of infinite comfort to fathers and mothers, and the sources of great anxiety also. What shall we do with them, — and what shall they do with and for themselves?

“New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth,” —

And the training of fifty years is not sufficient for the girls of to-day. The changed conditions of life which our young women confront compel greater care and thought on the part of those charged with their education, than has heretofore been deemed necessary. They are to be weighted with larger duties, and to assume heavier responsibilities; for the days of tutelage seem to be ended for civilized women, and they are to think and act for themselves.

Let no one, therefore, say this question of the training of our daughters is a small question. No question can be small that relates to half the human race. The training of boys is not more important than that of girls. The hope of many is so centered in the “coming man,” that the only questions of interest to them are such as those propounded by James Parton in “The Atlantic Monthly,” — “Will the Coming Man Smoke?” “Will He Drink Wine?” and so on to the end of the catechism. But let it not be forgotten that before this “coming man” will make his appearance, his mother will always precede him, and that he will be very largely what his mother will make him. Men are to-day confessing their need of the aid of women by appointing them on school committees, boards of charities, as prison commissioners, physicians to insane asylums, positions which they cannot worthily fill without preparation.

Therefore, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the human family, of which women make one-half, should we look carefully to the training of our daughters. Nature has so constituted us that the sexes act and react upon each other, making every “woman’s cause” a man’s cause, and every man’s cause a woman’s cause; so that we

“Rise or sink
Together, dwarfed or godlike, bond or free.”

And they are the foes of the race, albeit not always intentional, who set themselves against the removal of woman’s disabilities, shut in their faces the doors of education or opportunity, or deny them any but the smallest and most incomplete training. For it is true that “who educates a woman educates a race.”

Good health is a great prerequisite of successful or happy living. To live worthily or happily, to accomplish much for one’s self or others when suffering much from pain and disease, is attended with difficulty. Dr. Johnson used to say that “every man is a rascal when he is sick.” And very much of the peevishness, irritability, capriciousness, and impatience seen in men and women has its root in bodily illness. The very morals suffer from disease of the body. Therefore I would give to “our daughters” a good physical education.

We shall by-and-by come to recognize the right of every child to be well born, — sound in body, with inherited tendencies towards mental and moral health. We have learned that it is possible to direct the operations of nature so as to have finer breeds of horses, cattle, and fowls, to improve our fruits, flowers, and grains. Science searches for the pre-natal laws of being, and comes to the aid of all who wish to improve the lower creation. When shall an enlightened public sentiment demand that those who seek of God the gift of little children shall make themselves worthy the gift, by healthful and noble living, practical acquaintance with prenatal laws of being, and all that relates to the hereditary transmission of qualities.

If we would give to our daughters a good physiological training we must attend carefully to their dress. The dress of women at the present time is almost as unhygienic as it well can be. And many of our girls are made the victims of disease and weakness for life, through the evils of the dress they wear from birth. The causes of their invalidism are sought in hard study, co-education, too much exercise, or lack of rest and quiet in certain periods when nature demands it. All the while the medical attendant is silent concerning the “glove-fitting,” steel-clasped corset; the heavy, dragging skirts, the bands engirding the body, and the pinching, distorting boot. These will account for much of the feebleness of women and girls; for they exhaust energy, make freedom of movement a painful impossibility, and frequent shipwreck our young daughter before she gets out of the port.

While it is undoubted true that the practice of tight lacing is regarded with growing disfavor, it is also true that the corsets in vogue, at present, are more objectionable than those worn even half a century ago. For those were homemade, and, while they could be very tightly laced, did not fit the figure well, were free from the torture of whalebones and steel front pieces, all stitched in; while broad straps passing over the shoulders supported them, and the clothing hung upon them. But the modern corset is so ingeniously woven that it presses in upon the body, the muscular walls the floating ribs, the stomach, the hips, and the abdomen, compelling them to take the form the corset-maker has devised, in lieu of that God had given. Stiff whalebones behind, and finely “tempered steel-fronts” pressing into the stomach and curving over the abdomen, keep the figure of the girl erect and unbending, while Nature has made the spine supple with joints.

Physicians have persistently condemned the corset for half a century, even when it was not so harmful an article of dress as it is to-day. The educated women physicians, who are gaining in numbers, influence, and practice, denounce it unqualifiedly, lay to its charge no small amount of the dire diseases on which treatment gynaecologists fatten, and declare that it enhances the peril of maternity, and inflicts upon the world inferior children. Men condemn corsets in the abstract, and sometimes are brave enough to insist that the women of their households shall be emancipated from them; and yet their eyes have been so generally educated to the approval of the small waist, and the hourglass figure, that they often hinder women who seek a hygienic style of dress.

It is a mistake on the part of our daughters that the corset will give them beauty of figure. The young American girl is usually lithe and slender, and requires no artificial intensifying of her slightness. The corset will give her only stiffness of appearance, and interferes with that grace of motion, which is one of the charms of young girls. The basque under-waist, made as a substitute for the corset, and beginning to supersede it, fits the figure trimly, revealing its graceful contour, and is kept in place, — not by bones, or slips of steel, or thickly stitched-in stiff cords, — but by the weight of the skirts buttoned on the lower part. Over this under-waist the outer dress can be fitted; and its waist will be smooth and unwrinkled, — a desideratum to most women.

The stout woman, who wears a corset to diminish her proportions, only distorts her figure; for her pinched waist causes her broad shoulders and hips to look broader by contrast, while the pressure upon the heart and blood-vessels gives to her face that permanent blowzy flush, that suggests apoplexy.

John Burroughs, in his “Winter Sunshine,” expresses the fear that “the American is becoming disqualified for the manly art of walking, by a falling-off in the size of his foot.  . . . A small, trim foot,” he tells us, “well booted or gaitered, is the national vanity. How we stare at the big feet of foreigners, and wonder what may be the price of leather in those countries, and where all the aristocratic blood is, that these plebeian extremities so predominate!”

The prevailing French boots made for women, and exhibited in the shop-windows, are painfully suggestive. Pointed and elongated, they prophesy cramped and atrophied toes; while the high and narrow heel, that slides down under the instep, throws the whole body into an unnatural position in walking, creating diseases which are difficult of cure. “Show me her boots!” said a physician, called to a young lady suffering from unendurable pain in the back and knee-joints, which extended and engirt her, till, to use her own language, “she was solid pain downwards from the waist.” “There’s the trouble!” was his sententious comment, as he tossed the fashionable torturing boot from him after examination.

While the clothing of our daughters should not deform the figure nor injure the health, it needs be neither inelegant nor inartistic. No particular style of dress can be recommended, but each one should choose what is most becoming and appropriate in fashion and material. With sacred regard to the laws of health, and without too large expenditure of time and money, every woman should aim to present an attractive exterior to her friends and the world. So, indeed, should every man; for it is the duty of all human beings to be as beautiful as possible.

I have spoken at length of dress, because of the physical discomfort and hindrance caused by the prevailing dress of women, and because it is also a prolific source of disease, which becomes chronic and incurable. But food, sleep exercise, and other matters demand attention when one is intrusted with the education of girls. American children, unlike those which we see abroad, generally sit at table with their parents, eat the same food, keep the same late hours, and share with them the excitement of evening guests, evening meetings and lectures, and the dissipation of theatres, operas, balls, and receptions. This is unwise indulgence. Children require simple food, early hours for retiring, and abundance of sleep, as well as freedom from social and religious excitements.

Signs multiply about us that the women of the future will have healthy and strong physiques. Dress-reform associations are organized in the principal American cities, and agencies established to furnish under-garments, or patterns for them, demanded by common sense and vigorous health. For it is the under-garments that the dress-reform proposes to change. The outer garments may be safely left to the taste of the individual who has accepted the principles of the dress-reform in the construction of the under-garments.

Health is a means to an end. It is an investment for the future. That end is worthy work and noble living. And life has little to offer the young girl who has dropped into physical deterioration, which cuts her off from the activities of the time, and makes existence to her synonymous with endurance.

It is hardly necessary that anything should be said, in advocacy of the higher intellectual education of our daughters. For the question of woman’s collegiate education is practically settled; and it is almost as easy to-day for a woman to obtain the highest university education, as it is for a man.

But no phase of the great movement for the advancement of women has progressed so slowly, as that which demands their technical and industrial training. To be sure, the last fifty years, which have brought great changes to the women of America, have largely increased the number of remunerative employments they are permitted to enter. When Harriet Martineau visited America in 1849, she found but seven employments open to women. At the present time, according to Hon. Carroll D. Wright, Chief of the National Bureau of the Statistics of Labor, there are about three hundred and fifty industrial occupations open to women.

And yet it is true, however, that women have received very little special industrial training to fit them for the work they are doing, or for a higher kind of work which will give them better pay. Perhaps almost the same may be said concerning the technical training of men in this country.

I cannot leave this topic of women’s industrial training, without speaking of our culpability in neglecting to give our daughters some knowledge of business affairs. With utter indifference on our part, they are allowed to grow to woman hood unfamiliar with the most ordinary forms of business transactions, — how to make out bills and to give receipts; how to draw bank-checks; how to make notes, and what are the cautions to be observed concerning them; what is the best method of transmitting funds to a distance, whether by postal orders or bank drafts; what are safe rates of interest; how to purchase a life annuity, or effect an insurance on life or property, and so on.

If property is to pass into their possession, our daughters certainly need to know much more than this, that they may be able to manage it with wisdom, or even to retain it securely. They need to know what are the elements of financial security; what may be considered safe investments; how to rent, improve, or sell property; what margin of property above the amount of the loan should be required, when it is made on real estate; what constitutes a valid title to property; what cautions are to be observed concerning mortgages; what are the property-rights of married women in the states of their residence, with other like information.

We talk much of preparing our daughters to be good wives, mothers, and home-makers. Do we systematically attempt this? Do we conduct the education of girls with this object? Do we not trust almost entirely to naturel instinct and aptitude, which, in the woman, is incomparably strong in the direction of wifehood, motherhood, and the home? For the mighty reason that the majority of women will always while the world stands, be wives, mothers, and mistresses of homes, they should receive the largest, completest, and most thorough training. It is not possible to state this too strongly; for these positions are the most important that woman can occupy. Education, religion, human affection, and civil law, all should conspire to aid her in these departments, to do the best work of which she is capable.

The very highest function of woman is to raise and train the family; it is the very highest function of man also. Indeed, civilization has but this end in view — the perpetuation and improvement of the race. The establishment of homes, the rearing of families, the founding of schools and colleges, the planting of institutions, the maintaining of governments, all are but means to this end. As Humboldt said years ago, “Governments, religion, property, books, are but the scaffolding to build men. Earth holds up to her Master no fruit, but the finished man.”

The duties of the mother begin long before her child comes into life, — ay, and the duties of the father also. She needs to know all that science can teach of the pre-natal laws of being, and of the laws of heredity. Her acquaintance with physiology should not be the superficial knowledge, given in the ordinary school or college even. It should be a thorough exposition of the mysteries of her own physical being, with a clear statement of the hygienic laws she must obey, if she would grow into healthy, enduring, glorious womanhood. She should be taught the laws of ventilation and nutrition; what constitutes healthful food; the care of infancy; the nursing of the sick; and in what that vigilant and scrupulous cleanliness consists, which almost prohibits certain forms of disease from passing under one’s roof. Intelligence system, economy, industry, patience, god nature, firmness, good health, a fine moral sense, all these are called into action. So is a knowledge of cooking, laundry work, how to make and repair clothing, together with the other industries of domestic life, even when one has means to employ servants to perform this work; for a woman cannot tell when she is well served, unless she knows what good work is. It requires a very high order of woman to be a good wife, mother, and housekeeper; and she who makes a success in these departments possesses such a combination of admirable qualities, both mental and moral, that, with proper training, she might make a success in almost any department.

We should never forget that moral and religious training underlies and permeates all other training when it is wisely and judiciously given. The education of the will to the customs and habits of good society begins long before the child is old enough to reason on the subject. But its education to the law of right, its submission to the will of God, while it must be begun early, cannot be carried on to perfection until the child’s reason is develop and its moral nature evolved sufficiently to feel how paramount to all other demands are those of right and duty.

Let our sons and daughters be taught that they are children of God, so divine in ancestry, so royal of parentage, that they must carry themselves nobly, and not consent to meanness, low, selfish lives, and vice. Let them be taught that to love God is to love whatever is good and just and true; and that loving brothers, sisters, schoolmates, and humanity as a whole, is also loving God, since God is our common Father, and “we are all brethren.”

They should be trained to regard earthly life as the first school of the soul, where there are lessons to be learned, tasks to be mastered, hardships to be borne, and where God’s divinest agent of help is often hindrance; and that only as we learn well the lessons given us here, may we expect to go joyfully forward to that higher school to which we shall be promoted, where the tasks will be nobler, the lessons grander, the outlook broader, and where life will be on a loftier plane. While the coldness of skepticism seems to be creeping over the age, — mainly, I believe, because of its great immersion in materialism of life and activity, — it is possible to train children to such a far-reaching, telescopic religious visions that they will overlook all fogs and mists of doubt. The low fears and dismaying presages that weigh down so many soul, will be dispelled by the clear atmosphere in which they will dwell; and with hearts throbbing evenly with the heart of God, they will say confidently, “Because He lives, I shall live also.”



Source: Livermore, Mary Ashton Rice, The story of my life, or, The sunshine and shadow of seventy years … with hitherto unrecorded incidents and recollections of three years’ experience as an army nurse in the great Civil War, and reminiscences of twenty-five years’ experiences on the lecture platform … to which is added six of her most popular lectures … with portraits and one hundred and twenty engravings from designs by eminent artists … (Hartford: A.D. Worthington & Co.), 1897, pp. 615-629.