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Woman’s Sphere
from a Woman’s Standpoint

1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


One of the most noted features of the whole woman question is the zeal and persistence with which men of all classes and conditions have from time immemorial been defining and explaining woman’s natural sphere. Eloquent divines, grave jurists and profound statesmen have all added their quota to the ponderous literature that has accumulated for ages, in which woman’s place in nature has been set forth in extenso from a masculine standpoint. The fact that it has been found necessary in each generation for the past six thousand years, more or less, to repeat and reiterate this definition of woman’s sphere–her legitimate sphere in life — is proof that woman is a most rebellious subject, or that men have not yet reached a point where they can successfully locate all women. Those who are so much concerned about women remaining in a certain sphere which they have been at such pains to define, and so earnest in their appeals and demands that she should accept, ought to learn something from experience. It is becoming more and more evident that women — most of them — are not satisfied to remain in a state of innocuous desuetude, or to submissively follow indicated paths along life’s highways, for they are continually breaking over the lines drawn by masculine authorities, and are most unruly subjects. Today there are thousands of women everywhere in open organized rebellion against the social and political despotism which denies woman the right to choose her own vocation, or those who should rule over her. Woman is no longer content to remain a subject. The spirit of “divine unrest” which enwraps the century has her in its embrace.

This persistent effort by one-half the human race to mark out a line of thought, a rule of action, or sphere of life for the other half, and seek to compel adhesion thereto, is such a wanton disregard for the rights of man, so palpable a violation of the inherent principles of justice from which the love of liberty is born, that nature herself rebels against it, and everywhere we find evidences of her emphatic protests by the placing of masculine brains — if power and capacity of intellect is to be the criterion of sex — into feminine craniums.

The rational man evolved from savagery could not estimate worth save by use. This environment made war a necessity, and prowess in arms was his whole standard of merit or superiority. Hence woman, the mother of the race, the builder of the home, was the conservator of peace, and perforce, was relegated to the position of an inferior; but with the advance of civilization, the diffusion of enlightenment, there is no excuse for this relic of barbarism to exist. Starting in the iron age, with the assumption that woman was an inferior, man has found it hard to acknowledge the value of brain power, of intellectual capacity, of inventive genius and artistic skill, unless coupled with brute or physical force. Having assigned woman an inferior place in a lower civilization, all the training, instruction, discipline and education which have since been accorded her have been carefully shaped and permeated by a spirit of authority which would tend to keep her there.

All through the ages there has been a system of repression, suppression and oppression practiced toward women that is incomprehensible. Often the little girl, who dares to express an opinion in opposition to her brother’s view of some juvenile sport, is met with the exasperating and insulting reminder of her inferiority, imperiously expressed, “Well, you are a girl. What do you know about it?” Should a girl in the youthful buoyancy of health, and full of latent life and energy, give expression to her exuberant spirits by gymnastic exercises or athletic sports, she suffers a sort of social outlawry, and is stigmatized as a “tomboy,” a hoyden, a romp, etc. Even in the family circle, if the conversation is turned upon educational or political topics, in which the young maiden takes great delight, and she ventures a remark or asks a question, she is politely, but none the less insultingly, assured, “Little girls are to be seen and not heard.” Under such adverse conditions have women been reared for generations. The repression and suppression of all her natural aspirations toward a healthy, intellectual womanhood have gone on and on, and when the woman question is under discussion, we are gravely told that woman is by nature wholly unfitted for, and incapable of occupying, a broader or more intellectual field of thought or action. What an outrage to common sense.

Both law and gospel have combined against woman to render her position in life unnatural and subservient. From her first hour of consciousness she has been cautioned, repressed, and finally oppressed by invidious distinctions and unjust discriminations against her. Up to within a few years colleges and universities have been closed against her; society has sneered at learned women; and if one possessed of inventive genius fashioned a new and useful device, even her nearest male relatives and friends advised her to patent it in the name of some man, as it would not be compatible with womanly modesty to attain such notoriety as a patent to herself would bring.

Think of the opposition to women entering the ministry and the medical profession, two vocations that one would think the whole world would accord her the right to enter, and hail with delight her administrations in such Divine work. Instead, however, of encouragement, the pioneers in these fields of labor have had to struggle against fearful odds, meeting insult, derision and always the sneers and ridicule of tyrannical public opinion.

In my chosen profession of the law, the statutes of California, as in most states at that time (fifteen years ago), denied women the right of admission to the bar; and after a long and wearying contest with determined and able opponents, we secured an amendment removing the unjust discrimination. The Hastings College of Law, the Law Department of the State University, etc., closed their doors in our faces because we were women. Again, after a long and expensive legal contest, another victory was won for the women of California. But this experience only accentuates the fact that women everywhere have most unequal and disadvantageous opportunities in any given direction.

But some will say, “Those women who have distinguished themselves, who have evidenced great mental capacity, are exceptional cases.” We might reply: The number of men who have become noted for their brilliant intellectual attainments are but a fraction compared with the whole number of men in the world. But what a contrast between the educational facilities and other advantages accorded to men and those that are extended (permitted would better express it) to women. The boy is taught that all life can yield is his; that he must aim high; must aspire to greatness. He has the fond encouragement of his parents, friends and society, and the whole world approves his efforts and applauds his success. But the girl — alas! the case is far different.

I have only touched upon some of the innumerable discouragements that the ambitious girl, striving to cultivate and develop the mental or intellectual force with which God has endowed her, has always had to contend; but what chapters, aye, volumes, could be written of the wasted lives, disappointed hopes and blighted ambitions that have fallen to the lot of women through all time. Some may say, “Such has been the sad experience of men also.” Yes; but men have failed or fallen in spite of all the encouragement, all the privileges, all the superior advantages and all the aids to success which have been so cordially extended to him, while woman has faltered and failed because of discouragements. If she has succeeded at all in accomplishing anything outside the nursery, the kitchen or church work, it has been as a warrior battling for his rights against fearful odds. Constantly assured that she has not the natural ability or capacity to compete with man in the learned professions or in scholastic attainments; that she is by the designs of the Almighty wholly unfitted for any work or mission that requires more than the veriest modicum of common sense, and that even to aspire to anything more is to fly in the face of Divinity, as was once said of the invention of the lightning-rod.

The conservative, repressive training of the home has been supplemented and emphasized by the religious teachings of the church. In law she has always been a ward, first of her father, and second and always of her husband. Occupying an inferior place in her family, what wonder that her children have grown up with an idea of woman’s weakness. Theology has held her morally responsible for sin in the world, and its partner in authority, the law, has decreed that she should not be trusted to manage her own interests financially, and denied her the right to the custody of her own offspring. Such has been the condition of woman for thousands of years, in the sphere which law and gospel, state and church have assigned to her. But a new era has dawned. She has discovered for herself (what man did long ago) that she has a mind of her own, and that such mind, or brain through which it works, is just as capable of expansion, cultivation and development to the highest degree of intellectual power as if it were perched upon masculine shoulders. She has learned that maternity is something more than a mere physical function, and that motherhood implies responsibilities and duties that only the most intelligent can faithfully perform, and to have good mothers there must first be wise women. She begins to realize that men who have constituted themselves her protectors, and claim to have legislated in her behalf and the best interests of her children, are not to be unquestionably relied on, and that it is just as well to investigate such claims and look after the interest of her offspring herself. She entertains some doubts about this government deriving its power from the consent of the governed. The woman of today has become a discoverer! The great Christopher, whom we are all honoring above all men, discovered a new world in the fifteenth century, but behold, a greater than Columbus is here. The woman of the nineteenth century has discovered herself. She has discovered that she has a distinct objective existence. This magnificent building, planned by women, designed by a woman, filled to repletion with woman’s handiwork and brain work along all lines of human activity, from the primeval domestic wares of the stone age to that beautiful picture (in the exhibit of Spain) of the first woman lawyer admitted to practice that learned profession in her royal kingdom; all these, and the magnificent work done, and active participation of women in all the wondrous exhibits of this beautiful “White City,” demonstrate the fact that henceforth and forever “woman’s sphere” in life will be defined and determined by herself alone. Her place in nature, no longer fixed by masculine dogmatism, shall be as broad and multifarious in scope as God shall decree her capacity and ability to accomplish.



Source: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, (Chicago: Monarch Book Company) 1894, pp. 74-76.