What Do Women Want of a Club?
April 20, 1868 — Second meeting of Sorosis, The Woman’s Club of New York, New York City
Ladies, — As it will not be expected of me to make speeches very often, hereafter, I think I may presume on your indulgence if I take advantage of this one opportunity. Permit me, then, in the first place, to thank you for the honor you have done me in assigning to me the President’s chair. Why I should have been chosen, when there are so many among you greatly more competent to fill the position, I am at a loss to understand; unless, indeed, it may be owing to the fact that I am to most of you a stranger, and your imaginations have clothed me with qualities not my due. This you would soon discover for yourselves; I mention it only to bespeak your forbearance, though in this regard, I ventured almost to anticipate your lenity, inasmuch as you all know how untrained to business habits, how ignorant of rules, and how unused to executive management most women are.
If I take my seat, therefore, without confidence, it is not without the hope of attaining, through your generous kindness and encouragement, to better things. “A Woman’s Club! Who ever heard of the like! What do women want of a Club? Have you any aims or objects? These are questions which have been propounded to me day after day, since this project was set afoot — by gentlemen, of course. And I have answered that, in our humble way, we were striving to imitate their example. You have your exclusive clubs, I have said, and why should not we have ours? What is so promotive of your interests cannot be detrimental to us; and that you find these reunions helpful yourselves, and beneficial to society, we cannot doubt.
You, gentlemen, profess to be our representatives, to represent us better than we could possibly represent ourselves; therefore, we argue, it cannot be that you are attracted by grand rooms, fine furniture, luxurious dinners and suppers, expensive wines and cigars, the bandying of poor jests, or the excitement of the gaming table. Such dishonoring suspicious as these are not to be entertained for a moment.
Of our own knowledge, I have said, we are not able to determine what special agencies you employ for your advantage and ours in your deliberative assemblies, for it has not been thought best for our interests that awe should even sit at your tables, much less to share your councils; and doubtless, therefore, in our blindness and ignorance, we have made some pitiful mistakes.
In the first place, we have “tipped the teapot.” This is a hard saying, the head and front of the charges brought against us, and we cannot but acknowledge its justice and its force; we are, in fact, weighted down with shame and humiliation, and impelled, while we are about it, to make full and free confession of all our wild and guilty fantasies. We have, then, to begin at the beginning, proposed the inculcation of deeper and broader idea among women, proposed to teach them to think for themselves, and get their opinions at first hand, no so much because it is their right as because it is their duty. We have also proposed to open out new avenues of employment to women, to make them less dependent and less burdensome, to lift them out of unwomanly self-distrust and disqualifying diffidence, into womanly self-respect and self-knowledge; to teach each one to make all work honorable by doing the share that falls to her, or that she may work out to herself agreeably to her own special aptitude, cheerfully and faithfully, not going down to it, but bringing it up to her. We have proposed to enter our protest against all idle gossip, against all demoralizing and wicked waste of time; also against the follies and tyrannies of fashion, against all external impositions and disabilities; in short, against each and every thing that opposes the full development and use of the faculties conferred upon us by our Creator.
We have proposed to lessen the antagonisms existing at present between men and women, by the use of every rightful means in our power; by standing upon our divine warranty, and saying and doing what we are able to say and to do, without asking leave, and without suffering hindrance: not for the exclusive good of our own sex, for we hold that there is no exclusive and no separate good; what injures my brother injures me, and what injures me injures him, if he could but be made to know it; it injures him, whether or not he is made to know it. Such, I have said, are some of our objects and aims. We do not present, as yet, to have carefully digested plans and clearly defined courses. We are as children feeling our way in the dark, for it must be remembered that it is not yet half a century since the free schools, even in the most enlightened portions of our country, were first opened to girls. How, then, should you expect of us the fullness of wisdom which you for whole centuries have been gathering from schools, colleges, and the exclusive knowledge and management of affairs?
We admit our short-comings, but we do feel, gentlemen, that in spite of them, and honest, earnest, and unostentatious effort toward broader culture and nobler life is entitled to a heartier and more sympathetic recognition that we have as yet received from you anywhere; even our representatives here at home, the leaders of the New York press, have failed in that magnanimity which we have been accustomed to attribute to them.
If we could have foreseen the sneers and sarcasms with which we have been met, they of themselves would have constituted all-sufficient reasons for the establishment of this Woman’s Club; as it is, they have established a strong impulse towards its continuance and final perpetuity. But, ladies, these sneers and sarcasms are, after all, but so many acknowledgments of our power and should and will stimulate us to braver assertion, to more persistent effort toward thorough and harmonious organization; and concert and harmony are all that we need to make this enterprise, ultimately, a great power for good. Indeed, with such women as have already enrolled their names on our list, I, for my part, cannot believe failure possible.
Some of us cannot hope to see great results, for our feet are already on the downhill side of life; the shadows are lengthening behind us and gathering before us, and ere long they will meet and close, and the places that have known us, know us no more. But if, when our poor work is done, any of those who come after us shall find in it some hint of usefulness toward nobler lives and better and more enduring work, we, for ourselves, rest content.
Source: Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, ed. Dorothy May Emerson, (Boston: Skinner House Books), 2000, pp 69-72.