The Mind and Powers of Woman
May 10, 1860 — Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention, Church of the Puritans, New York City
I am sorry to come before you with so impaired a voice, and with a face so scarred; but, I rejoice that as we who have long labored in the cause become less able to do the work, the younger ones, the Tiltons and the Harpers, come forward to fill our places. It is no loss, but the proper order of things, that the mothers should depart and give place to the children. It is now more than twenty years since this Woman’s Rights movement began in this country. We were allowed to read, if we could not understand much; and could read that Blackstone defined the law, “that the husband and wife were one person, and that person the husband;” and we labored therefore to change the law, so as to recognize the wife as a person with civil rights.
It has been said this morning that every appeal that has been made to the legislatures of the several States, has been favorably received, and answered by changing the laws for the benefit of woman. I can but hope, comparing such an audience as this with the handful who met with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in the first Convention, in a little Wesleyan church at Seneca Falls, and seeing Henry Ward Beecher for the first time on our platform, and speaking such noble words for woman, I can but hope that it will not be as our friend Frances D. Gage expressed her fear it would, that the degradation which centuries had created among us, would require centuries to remove; but that, as in the great anti-slavery movement, in regard to which the most ardent Abolitionists never anticipated that we should live to see the work accomplished, and yet a great work has been wrought, for which we all feel increased veneration for that power which not by might, but by His Eternal Spirit, will work the change in this equally important enterprise, to free woman from her enslavement; for it is an enslavement, although not equal to the degradation of the poor black slaves, and although I have never liked to use the word “slavery,” as applied to the oppression of woman, while we had a legalized slavery in our country. But the oppression of woman has been such, and continues to be such, by law, by custom, by a perverted Christianity, by church influence. This very church is an indication, from the darkness of its appearance as we entered it this morning, that they love darkness here rather than light, I will not say “because their deeds are evil,” but because they are ignorant and know not what they do. They profess to follow the apostle Paul; but they understand him not, they know not the Scriptures nor the power of the gospel, which is indeed glad tidings and good news to the human race: glad tidings of great joy unto all people.
We are beginning to realize this in regard to the millions who have been slaves in our land. And this is an earnest to us that the good time is not distant, that light and civilization have advanced. As our President said, we have in our army such minds as Spencer, and Mill, and I would add Buckle, and many others; and they are diffusing light, intelligence and civilization, and advocating the right. We have women also. We have Frances P. Cobbe; whose name I speak with pride and rejoicing; and in the literary world we have Charlotte Bronte, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many others, who are consecrating their talents to the great cause of womanhood, and freedom, and right. So we find women as artists, in all its branches, everywhere; and even in a Catholic country Rosa Bonheur receives the cross of Honor (or something of that sort, about which you know more than I do); for I am now only one of the fossil remains, asking you in my imperfect way, to sit here a little longer with your work. Remember that the apostles sat all night, in their beginning, and that the Abolitionists when we were crowded into an upper chamber, were glad to continue hour after hour preparing our resolutions.
Another thought was suggested to me this morning. If it were true, as we were told, as it was not true, that the slave was satisfied with his condition of slavery, it only proved the depth of his degradation, for liberty was no less a blessing to him because he was ignorant of it. So when woman asserts again and again that she has as many rights as she wants it only gives evidence of the depth of her degradation; and when the rights which we demand shall be conceded to her, they will prove no less a blessing than if her ignorance had never led her to deny or to dispute the propriety of asking for the redress of the grievances under which she labored.
When, in 1848, the women of France went to the Provisional government and asked that they might be represented under the new order of society the most intelligent and enlightened statesmen of that country came forward and said that the only reason why France did not succeed in the former Revolution of 1789 was that she represented then only half the republic; that woman was as necessary to form a complete republic as man; that although she differed from man, that very difference was essential to form a complete republic.
Woman has been laboring for years under the present condition of society which, like a great nightmare, crushes her down, so that she is unable to tell the cause of her suffering. When some of us in 1840 were sent forth as delegates to the World’s Convention at London, and were denied the right of acceptance because we were women, O’Connell and William Howitt came forth and plead our cause; and a short time after, Sir John Bowring said that the coming of those women to England would form an era in the history of philanthropic doings, and would create a deep if not a wide impression there. I like to allude to these things to show what progress we are making. Education has done much for us. We now have women as physicians, and in various departments of society. A little while ago when the daughters of Edgworth put out their volumes, they were afraid to publish them over their own names, and borrowed the name of their father. And when Lady Morgan wrote her history, in her introduction she mournfully says that “man tells woman that obscurity is her true glory, insignificance her distinction, ignorance her law, and passive obedience the perfection of her nature,” and proceeds to state the effect of this erroneous and vicious teaching on the mind and powers of woman.
Young women of America, I want you to make yourselves acquainted with the history of the Woman’s Rights movement, from the days of Mary Wollstoncraft. All honor to Mary Wollstoncraft. Her name was cast out as evil, even as that of Jesus was cast out as evil, and as those of the apostles were cast out as evil; but her name shall yet go forth and stand as the pioneer of this movement. I want you to note the progress of this cause, and know now that Woman’s redemption is a hand, yea, even at the doors.
[Mrs. Mott had a severe cold and hoarseness, and her face was bruised from a fall from a street car.]
Source: Proceedings of the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 10, 1866, by the National Woman’s Rights Convention (New York: Robert J. Johnston, Printer), 1866, pp. 49-52.