The Progress of Fifty Years
May 15, 1893 — Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
The commencement of the last fifty years is about the beginning of that great change and improvement in the condition of women which exceeds all the gains of hundreds of years before.
Four years in advance of the last fifty, in 1833, Oberlin College, in Ohio, was founded. Its charter declared its grand object, — “To give the most useful education at the least expense of health, time, and money, and to extend the benefits of such education to both sexes and to all classes; and the elevation of the female character by bringing within the reach of the misjudged and neglected sex all the instructive privileges which have hitherto unreasonably distinguished the leading sex from theirs.” These were the words of Father Shippen, which, if not heard in form, were heard in fact as widely as the world. The opening of Oberlin to women marked an epoch. In all outward circumstances this beginning was like the coming of the Babe of Bethlehem — in utter poverty. Its first hall was of rough slabs with the bark on still. Other departments corresponded. But a new Messiah had come.
Get but a truth once uttered, and ’tis like
A star new born that drops into its place;
And which, once circling in its placid round,
Not all the tumult of the earth can shake.
Henceforth the leaves of the tree of knowledge were for women, and for the healing of the nations. About this time Mary Lyon began a movement to establish Mt. Holyoke Seminary. Amherst College was near by. Its students were educated to be missionaries. They must have educated wives. It was tacitly understood and openly asserted that Mt. Holyoke Seminary was to meet this demand. But, whatever the reason, the idea was born that women could and should be educated. It lifted a mountain load from woman. It shattered the idea, everywhere pervasive as the atmosphere, that women were incapable of education, and would be less womanly, less desirable in every way, if they had it. However much it may have been resented, women accepted the idea of their intellectual inequality. I asked my brother: “Can girls learn Greek?”
The anti-slavery cause had come to break stronger fetters than those that held the slave. The idea of equal rights was in the air. The wail of the slave, his clanking fetters, his utter need, appealed to everybody. Women heard. Angelina and Sara Grimki and Abby Kelly went out to speak for the slaves. Such a thing had never been heard of. An earthquake shock could hardly have startled the community more. Some of the abolitionists forgot the slave in their efforts to silence the women. The Anti-Slavery Society rent itself in twain over the subject. The Church was moved to its very foundation in opposition. The Association of Congregational Churches issued a “Pastoral Letter” against the public speaking of women. The press, many-tongued, surpassed itself in reproaches upon these women who had so far departed from their sphere as to speak in public. But, with anointed lips and a consecration which put even life itself at stake, these peerless women pursued the even tenor of their way, saying to their opponents only: “Woe is me, if I preach not this gospel of freedom for the slave.” Over all came the melody of Whittier’s:
“When woman’s heart is breaking
Shall woman’s voice be hushed? ”
I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned. Abby Kelly once entered a church only to find herself the subject of the sermon, which was preached from the text: ” This Jezebel is come among us also.” They jeered at her as she went along the street. They threw stones at her. They pelted her with bad eggs as she stood on the platform. Some of the advocates of the very cause for which she endured all this were ready to drive her from the field. Mr. Garrison and Wendell Phillips stood by her. But so great was the opposition that one faction of the abolitionists left and formed a new organization, after a vain effort to put Abby Kelly off from the committee to which she had been nominated.
The right to education and to free speech having been gained for woman, in the long run every other good thing was sure to be obtained.
Half a century ago women were at an infinite disadvantage in regard to their occupations. The idea that their sphere was at home, and only at home, was like a band of steel on society. But the spinning-wheel and the loom, which had given employment to women, had been superseded by machinery, and something else had to take their places. The taking care of the house and children, and the family sewing, and teaching the little summer school at a dollar per week, could not supply the needs nor fill the aspirations of women. But every departure from these conceded things was met with the cry, “You want to get out of your sphere,” or, “To take women out of their sphere;” and that was to fly in the face of Providence, to unsex yourself in short, to be monstrous women, women who, while they orated in public, wanted men to rock the cradle and wash the dishes. We pleaded that whatever was fit to be done at all might with propriety be done by anybody who did it well; that the tools belonged to those who could use them; that the possession of a power presupposed a right to its use. This was urged from city to city, from state to state. Women were encouraged to try new occupations. We endeavored to create that wholesome discontent in women that would compel them to reach out after far better things. But every new step was a trial and a conflict. Men printers left when women took the type. They formed unions and pledged themselves not to work for men who employed women. But these tools belonged to women, and today a great army of women are printers unquestioned.
When Harriet Hosmer found within herself the artist soul, and sought by the study of anatomy to prepare herself for her work, she was repelled as out of her sphere, and indelicate, and not a medical college in all New England or in the Middle States would admit her. She persevered, aided by her father’s wealth and influence. Dr. McDowell, the dean of the medical college in St. Louis, admitted her. The field of art is now open to women, but as late as the time when models for the statue of Charles Sumner were made, although that of Annie Whitney, in the judgment of the committee, took precedence of all the rest, they refused to award her the contract for the statue when they knew that the model was the work of a woman. But her beautiful Samuel Adams and Lief Ericsson, and the fine handiwork of other artists, are argument and proof that the field of art belongs to women.
When Mrs. Tyndall, of Philadelphia, assumed her husband’s business after his death, importing chinaware, sending her ships to China, enlarging her warehouses and increasing her business, the fact was quoted as a wonder. When Mrs. Young, of Lowell, Mass., opened a shoe-store in Lowell, though she sold only shoes for women and children, people peered curiously in to see how she looked. Today the whole field of trade is open to woman.
When Elizabeth Blackwell studied medicine and put up her sign in New- York, she was regarded as fair game, and was called a “she doctor.” The college that had admitted her closed its doors afterward against other women; and supposed they were shut out forever. But Dr. Blackwell was a woman of fine intellect, of great personal worth and a level head. How good it was that such a woman was the first doctor! She was well equipped by study at home and abroad, and prepared to contend with prejudice and every opposing thing. Dr. Zakrzewska was with her, and Dr. Emily Blackwell soon joined them. At a price the younger women doctors do not know, the way was opened for women physicians.
The first woman minister, Antoinette Brown, had to meet ridicule and opposition that can hardly be conceived to-day. Now there are women ministers, east and west, all over the country.
In Massachusetts, where properly qualified “persons” were allowed to practice law, the Supreme Court decided that a woman was not a “person,” and a special act of the legislature had to be passed before Miss Lelia Robinson could be admitted to the bar. But today women are lawyers.
Fifty years ago the legal injustice imposed upon women was appalling. Wives, widows and mothers seemed to have been hunted out by the law on purpose to see in how many ways they could be wronged and made helpless. A wife by her marriage lost all right to any personal property she might have. The income of her land went to her husband, so that she was made absolutely penniless. If a woman earned a dollar by scrubbing, her husband had a right to take the dollar and go and get drunk with it and beat her afterwards. It was his dollar. If a woman wrote a book the copyright of the same belonged to her husband and not to her. The law counted out in many states how many cups and saucers, spoons and knives and chairs a widow might have when her husband died. I have seen many a widow who took the cups she had bought before she was married and bought them again after her husband died, so as to have them legally. The law gave no right to a married woman to any legal existence at all. Her legal existence was suspended during marriage. She could neither sue nor be sued. If she had a child born alive the law gave her husband the use of all her real estate as long as he should live, and called it by the pleasant name of “the estate by courtesy.” When the husband died the law gave the widow the use of one-third of the real estate belonging to him, and it was called the “widow’s encumbrance.” While the law dealt thus with her in regard to her property, it dealt still more hardly with her in regard to her children. No married mother could have any right to her child, and in most of the states of the Union that is the law to-day. But the law’s in regard to the personal and property rights of women have been greatly changed and improved, and we are very grateful to the men who have done it.
We have not only gained in the fact that the laws are modified. Women have acquired a certain amount of political power. We have now in twenty states school suffrage for women. Forty years ago there was but one. Kentucky allowed widows with children of school age to vote on school questions. We have also municipal suffrage for women in Kansas, and full suffrage in Wyoming, a state larger than all New England.
The last half century has gained for women the right to the highest education and entrance to all professions and occupations, or nearly all. As a result we have women’s clubs, the Woman’s Congress, women’s educational and industrial unions, the moral education societies, the Woman’s Relief Corps, police matrons, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, colleges for women, and co-educational colleges and the Harvard Annex, medical schools and medical societies open to men, women’s hospitals, women in the pulpit, women as a power in the press, authors, women artists, women’s beneficent societies and Helping Hand societies, women school supervisors, and factory inspectors and prison inspectors, women on state boards of charity, the International Council of Women, the Woman’s National Council, and last, but not, least, the Board of Lady Managers. And not one of these things was allowed women fifty years ago, except the opening at Oberlin. By what toil and fatigue and patience and strife and the beautiful law of growth has all this been wrought? These things have not come of themselves. They could not have occurred except as the great movement for women has brought them out and about. They are part of the eternal order, and they have come to stay. Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things.
Source: The Congress of Women, Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A, 1893 (Chicago: Monarch Book Company) 1894, pp. 58-61.