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The Position of Woman

May 28-29, 1851 — Woman’s Rights Convention, Akron OH


That the condition of woman had frequently been compared with that of the slave, and she thought with considerable justice. She found a very striking analogy in many instances. The master exacts the labor of the slave, so the husband has the right to exact the labor of his wife. The master may chastise the slave, so may the husband chastise his wife. The master may restrain the liberty of the slave, so may the husband that of the wife, in cases of gross misdemeanor — while he may visit the house of shame, the gaming table, and the drunkard’s haunt, and over his conduct the law allows her to exercise no other than moral restraint.

But there is one species of restraint which she can exercise, and that is to insist upon accompanying him on these missions. If it be right for him to go, it is right for her to assist him in that righteousness.

The slave has no right under the law to his own earnings, neither has the wife to her’s. The husband may take the hard earnings of his wife which are necessary to buy bread for the children, and lavish them upon the harlot who has robbed her of his affections. The wife has no legal control over her children; the husband may bind them out without even consulting her. The husband, while the wife lives with him, is compelled to furnish her with the necessaries of life, but he is not obliged to do any thing more for her, and he has authority to compel her to live where and move when he directs. In one sense, the wife is considered the property of the husband. He is entitled to her services and earnings, can sue for an injury done her the same as though done to his horses, cattle, &c., and put the collected damages in his own pocket. But she has no claim on his property, while he lives, except for necessary support, and has no right of action for an injury done to him, though she lose his society, protection. and support by the means. Her reputation may be injured, and yet, without the consent of her husband she cannot appeal to the law, and with that consent be again pockets the damages.

Should he leave her for the space of three years without providing for her necessities, the law will grant her a divorce. And if, during that period of neglect, she obtain claims for services performed by her own hands, he may collect it at his pleasure and pocket the money.

And yet these laws, says Blackstone, are for the most part, intended for the protection and benefit of woman — so great a favorite is the female sex in the laws of England.

It is true that the wife is permitted to enjoy, during her life, one-third of the income of her husband’s estate after his death, and certain articles of household necessity are set off to the widow. Very lately, too, through the labors of the Land Reformers, the Homestead Exemption has begun to improve her condition in some States.

After the reading of the report on Education, Mrs. Coe rose to correct a slight mistake which she believed had been a mere oversight in her friend. After setting forth the liberal benefactions bestowed upon colleges and other institutions endowed for men, to the utter neglect of women, in the higher departments of learning, the writer goes on to say:

And all, or the most that women has to do with those institutions is to occasionally attend an exhibition of the senior class, or some grand display gotten up for the benefit of the students.

Now, I would respectfully ask — is this all that woman has to do in the matter? Is she not compelled to take a most active part when she least expects it? Is not woman taxed to support these institutions? Who furnishes these rich endowments? Woman pays her full share toward it. No matter whether raised by direct taxation, by grants from your Legislature, or by appeals to the patriotic benevolence of your citizens. Now, man is guilty a of two-fold act of injustice towards her, first crippling the energies of her mind dy depriving her of the benefits to be derived from these seminaries, and then sneering at the imbecility of character she afterwards exhibits. Is not this grinding with the heel, and then spurning with the hand the crushed being? What! first tax her for the endowments of those institutions, and then forbid her to enter their halls to gather the fruits of knowledge! Deprive her — the weak, as you will have it — of the very means deemed most necessary to the advancement and maturing of the strong! Is not the woe of the Scripture upon us for this and similar oppressions of woman in the form of the feeble, pusillanimous being you call wife and sister? I will not add daughter, for with them there is yet an opportunity to apply the remedy; but so sure as you fail to do this, and continue to cut off their advancement, either positively or negatively, so sure will the evil continue to react upon you in the form of weak, imbecile, puerile, inconstant, and inefficient women! — for there is no more certain way of producing and keeping up a stagnation in any department of life, than by cutting off the motives and spring of action by forbidding that human beings enter the legitimate channels of industry, enterprise, and activity. To this rule woman is no exception; to say that she is, would be to deny her humanity.

I know that there are female Seminaries springing up all over the land; but who are to be the teachers in these seminaries? From what class of females in these United States — nay, in the whole civilized world — are we to look for teachers that can compete in erudition with the Professors in your colleges? Woman is, perhaps, doing the very best she can do under the circumstances, but until she is herself prepared, how can she be expected to properly guide her sister’s mind through the winding labyrinths of science? We do not deem it the business of a Republic to establish an aristocracy of letters any more than an aristocracy of any other kind, but to diffuse education throughout the masses, and to place them as nearly on a footing of equality as is possible in reference to all the great interests of life. The presumed mental inferiority of women, therefore, furnishes one of the strongest arguments in favor of a superior instead of an inferior education; since she must depend on culture instead of native strength of mind, while man being born with superior wit and wisdom, as is argued, has less need of cultivation. Nor can I perceive how any person living under a Democratic form of Government, and professing to be imbued with Democratic principles, can arrive at any other conclusion than that the education of woman should be fully equal, if not a little superior to that of man.

Yet, while for him Colleges, Academies, Lyceums, and Universities are baring their gorgeous and palace-like heads throughout the civilized world. Woman is still circumscribed, still dwarfed.

Yet will the dastardly cry of inferiority come up from generous bosoms and noble hearts, whose wives, whose mothers, whose sisters and daughters, are languishing in spiritual neglect, deprived of even the common advantages of the free negro and the wild Indian, who are permitted to enter scholastic halls from which she is excluded, although she must have paid her full share of their endowment, while no compensating provision is made for her. If this is not caste of the strictest and most despotic kind I know not what it is.

Something has been said of the different spheres in which the sexes are to move, and I am glad for once to hear an attempt made in the resolutions of Mrs. S. to limit that of man. I have always heard that he had a sphere, but no one before, I believe, has ever thought of prescribing bounds to it. His sphere has hitherto been all over creation, and if by any Yankee invention he could contrive means to get out of it, it would be perfectly legitimate. He may not only engage in the most noble — but wherever there is a copper to be turned — may descend to the most common and ignoble pursuits, without encroaching the least on the boundaries of the sphere of any other being.

He may not only study and practice the professions, engage in extensive manufactories and mercantile enterprises, but it is considered perfectly legitimate for him to descend to the minutest details of a lady’s toilet. He may sell hair-pins, combs, brushes, thread, needles, breast-pins, ear and finger rings, doll-babies, with all the ct ceteras of a child’s play-house, gingerbread, beer by the glass, and even sugar candy by the penny’s worth, if there is any money to be made from it; [Laughter] and it has not been inaptly said of him, that if he were to have a life’s least of heaven, on condition of being perfectly contented with it, and should hear a sixpence drop on the floor of hell, he would feel an itching palm until he had contrived some means to slip down and pick it up. The creed written on his young heart from the moment he leaves his mother’s apron strings, is

“Go get you gold, so matter how,
No questions asked of the rich I trow;
Steal by night, and steal by day, 
Doing it all in a legal way.
He hypocrite, liar, knave or fool, 
But don’t be poor, (remember the rule:) 
Dimes and dollars, and dollars and dimes,
An empty pocket is the worst of crimes.”



Source: The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Akron, Ohio, May 28 and 29, 1851, (Cincinnati: Ben Franklin), 1851, pp. 28-31.