Liberty of Choice
October 15, 1851 — Women’s Rights Convention, Worcester MA
We assume the position that all human beings, in order to fulfill their highest destiny, should be usefully and agreeably employed. That the right to liberty of choice with regard to avocation, is equally inherent in male and female.
Therefore to restrict Woman to a few industrial pursuits, prescribing for her a certain sphere of action, is to infringe upon her natural rights, and is a direct injury to her physical and moral nature. We hold also, that Man and Woman should alike be encouraged by the Institutions and usages of society, to make themselves useful to the fullest extent of their ability. To this end, no inferiority tending to the depreciation of Woman’s labor, or recognizing impropriety in her engaging in any pursuit to which she may feel attracted, in subserviency of course to the moral law, should be tolerated.
Both sexes should stand as equal aspirants for excellence, in any department of intellectual and industrial life to which they may be capable of attaining. We believe, also, that only within a social super-structure, based upon these self-evident truths, can the sexes blend harmoniously and virtuously their different and peculiar characteristics. We find society constituted and acting in direct violation of this co-equality of human rights. Woman’s sphere is limited, and prescribed for her by public sentiment, and restricted to a few industrial avocations; these generally of an inferior grade, and affording so small a remuneration, that men pass by them with scorn. To make this clear, we will briefly glance at her present position.
We find Woman, in all heathen countries, a slave, a beast of burden, always treated by man as an inferior, and excluded from his companionship in the most cherished objects of his life, while she is compelled to endure the hardships of the severest toil. Although more delicate in her physical organization, she is made, by man’s greater power, subservient to his wishes, and obliged to do his bidding in the performance of the most menial drudgery. Her female infants are destroyed with impunity, and her existence allowed only as an appendage to man’s; while at his death she is frequently consumed upon his funeral pile. Her labors and endurance in such countries prove that she is equal to great hardships and exertions when thus early trained. As civilization advances, she has fewer burdens, perhaps, placed upon her, although her rights of labor, encouragements and remuneration are far from being equal. Wherever she is allowed to labor side by side with man in the same pursuits, for services equally well executed, she is paid not more than half as much. In no country, even the most civilized and enlightened, are industrial occupations opened to Woman with the same facilities for operations, the same encouragements for success, and the same stimuli to excellence and greatness. Woman is expected to be frail, delicate and dependent in order to be loved. She must be thus lovely to expect marriage, and she must be married to have a home and a subsistence. Hence she is limited to an inferior circle of industry, in which she can act only in helpless dependence upon Man’s wiser guidance, and preserve her feminine character, the beauty of which consists in graceful weakness, timidity, and submission to the conventionalisms of life. In this condition she must patiently continue until some favorable circumstance affords her an opportunity of yielding up her personal identity and becoming a ” Femme Covert ” for the sake of a sure living! Thus marriage for a home becomes frequent, necessarily so, from the proscriptions under which Woman suffers. Should she attempt to make herself independent and self-supporting, she would be pronounced “out of her sphere,” “masculine” and unlovely, and have less prospect of sustaining the beautiful relation of wife and mother. No one can doubt the demoralizing influence such a position must have over Woman’s higher nature, nor its disastrous effects upon human happiness and elevation.
Not so with Man. To him, Science and Industry, blending in beautiful harmony, open their thousand avenues, alluring him onward and upward, over their bright and pleasant pathway, to the very summit of human excellence. While they ask of Woman, if she would enter their higher precincts, only to accept of such of their gifts as will make her more agreeable to Man, for whom only she was made; and to whom, if she fails to get an honorable alliance, her womanhood is sacrificed, an offering more ignoble even than that laid upon the funeral pile of a deceased husband. Thus has Might triumphed over Right, and muscle and strength have taken for themselves the best.
Assuming this superiority, Man has claimed all excellence, all profit, all laurels, and the person, even, of his weaker companion. Woman’s labor has been underrated. The few avocations open to her have been crowded to excess by competition; work for Woman is consequently scarce and hard to be obtained, while the remuneration afforded for services well rendered, and valuable, is but a miserable pittance, compared to the same amount of labor performed by the male sex. The average earnings of seamstresses are not more than thirty cents per day, while those employed in paper mills and factories average but barely enough to sustain them from week to week. Very few of the best weavers are enabled to deposit some of the avails of their labor in savings banks, for the future; but this is so seldom, that wherever an exception occurs of this kind, and a factory girl, after years of toil, has saved to the amount of a thousand dollars, it becomes an item of newspaper interest, and is wondered at as most extraordinary! But very few, however, who throng the crowded paths frequented by Woman’s patient feet, are enabled to save anything for the contingencies of the future, so that, deplorable and chilling as the thought is, the unfortunate, the worn-out, or the discouraged, must resort to crime or starve. Well authenticated statistics have proved to the public, through the columns of both London and New-York papers, that two-thirds of the abandoned and dissolute women were driven to their life of infamy by sheer necessity, by actual want! One-third are those reared in helpless idleness, seduced, and abandoned; while a large part of the remainder are those who sought in vain for employment and the means of an honest subsistence. Of those who are successful in obtaining employment, the scanty pay obliges most to devote an unreasonable number of hours to their labor, thus dragging out a miserable existence and wearing out their lives for bread! Young women who would earn their living in any of the pursuits that the popular voice pronounces proper for women, must work not only from sun to sun, but from the sun till the “moon herself grows pale and cold and sinks in the western wave.” Yes, the chivalrous movers of human events, the governors of the race, in return for woman’s graceful submission to her prescribed sphere, impose upon her burdens the most oppressive, toil the most incessant, and a life the most barren and objectless; compelling her to neglect the noble culture of the soul, and to bend its angel-powers only to propel the needle. The highest incentives to action are withheld from her darkened sky, leaving no dreams of future greatness to arouse, no vision of wealth, coming with garnered treasures, to bless and elevate others; no hopes of political preferment, conferring its mighty influence for righteousness and truth, ever flash across her pathway. The only hope of her cheerless life must be marriage — upon which she must fix her thought, as upon a polar star, not in a calm and healthful attention to the relation as a matter of choice and principle, preparing herself nobly to sustain the relations of wife and mother, but with an intense sickly fear that she shall not have an offer, consequently no home and no worthy object in life. Thus is society demoralized and crime perpetuated, until shrieking womanhood, from the dark depths of despair, cries out, “Give us an equal chance, or your proscriptions and oppressions will poison the very fountains of all prosperity.” Woman has by this denial of her freedom been dwarfed in her ability to perform.
It is a law of both mind and muscle that disuse destroys power, and also that the human mind needs the stimuli of varied and comprehensive objects to arouse its complicated energies. The progress of development depends upon circumstances; although every gift bestowed by the Creator brings with it a right for its use, yet favorable circumstances are required to call forth and improve each natural endowment. Place an infant in a dungeon, shut entirely away from all the active scenes of life, and he comes out a Casper Hauser. So, to a great extent, is it with Woman.
A large part of her nature has had no development — no culture. Man has appropriated what he has coveted of her God-given faculties to his use; and the rest has been blighted by the frost of a scornful public sentiment, and the world has slighted and contemned an energy which would have elevated Man to the purest bliss of Eden. Giant Prejudice has palsied the hand that, long ere this, would have made sweet music on the discordant keys of human life, and the true woman now bleeds at the foot of a chained and helpless, yet petted idol! Had Woman been aroused by the same encouragement to great endeavor, had she been in circumstances to realize the same necessity for invention, construction and perfection, with her fine organization, she might have dazzled the world with the bright creations of her genius, — and she too have had a Raphael, a Fulton, and a Morse; but her position, crushed beneath the iron hand that has rested so heavily upon her, has allowed but here and there an uprising of Woman’s nature; but here and there a gleam of what she might be and do, were she allowed an even chance to sustain her claim to Man’s equal companionship.
We now see her weak, narrowed in her views and aspirations, cowered before public sentiment, reverent to excess of the “Powers that be,” reduced in physical energies, and overloaded and crushed by the burdens that Fashion and the Customs of Society place upon her. We see the poor starving for the want of well-paid employment, and rushing to crime for bread; we see the rich and affluent sickly and degenerate for the want of motive to induce vigorous action; we see young women giving to one idea the strongest purposes of their youth; we see the married over-taxed by the cares of too numerous families, and cowered before the acknowledged inferiority of the worth of their continual toil into a partial slavery, claiming no right to a full and equal partnership in the income of the family, but stooping to stealth and maneuver to gratify her individual wishes. We see all alike, because they are Women, denied the right of Franchise and Political Liberty, thus stripped of particular interest in the public weal which might have afforded change to life’s weary routine, and “change is rest.”
True, she may be educated; but what is knowledge without practice? It has no powers to satisfy the capabilities of the ever active mind, that were created for use, and which also are allied to muscles that demand exercise.
Now what is the remedy for all these evils? We believe that Woman needs not only Education, equal and thorough, but that all industrial avocations should be thrown open to her. Give her a chance to see what she may find herself capable of doing and being, without the danger of making herself an outcast or a ridiculous eccentric. If she be by nature unfitted for anything in which the other sex excel, her attractions will lead her aright; while only by a liberty of choice can she establish and sustain true womanly dignity and independence.
Your Committee believe that Woman should, if she chooses, become acquainted with the mechanical trades, and that many of the lighter branches of each trade she could, with or without machinery, execute. We believe that agricultural interests should also welcome woman to delightful partnerships; and that such as do not choose the care of families or domestic employment, should have the pleasure of exchanging their own golden harvests for the elegancies of art, and of bestowing Earth’s bountiful productions for themselves upon the weak and disabled poor.
The professions, also, should open to such as may choose. The study of Law, of Medicine, and of Theology, would, of course, well befit her character, if to them she were attracted. Her fine moral susceptibilities must render her more acute and sensible to the claims of Justice; and when her own sex were concerned, she could better judge, apprehending better their temptations and weakness, while her sympathy and affection would give pathos and eloquence to her voice in pleading for the condemned innocent.
The objection that the practice of the professions would interfere with the duties of maternity can apply, of course, only to mothers; while their free access might prevent many unfitted, and unqualified, from assuming that sacred relation, prompted by unworthy motives. Thus it becomes necessary that Woman should have pecuniary independence. and a fair chance for pleasant occupation, in order for her to become true to her own nature in the holiest relations of life. Man has little reason to confide in an alliance consented to under such circumstances as the present social relations present. Gratitude for an offer may deceive even herself, and both mistake some semblance of love for that true and holy affinity which alone can secure a happy union. Therefore she must have her choice in industrial and professional life, and be encouraged to become all she can become, even though she compete successfully with Man, and take the honor from his brow. If she show herself skillful in the trades, employ her, and pay her accordingly. If she exhibit business talent and supervisional address, share with her copartnerships and ownerships.
Open to her all posts of honor and responsibility. Give her, also, a fair share in governmental offices: such as require much writing, she might equally as well fill; then let such as are qualified of either sex be equally eligible. And after she has matured her reason, in the study of law, and is prepared to manage as judiciously its devious wisdom, give her the patronage and the praise. If she prove herself as humane and as scientific as a physician, employ and confide in her; and if she warn as faithfully against destroying sins and win as eloquently to the practice of love and holiness as a gospel minister, give her the care of your parishes and your churches. The services of each of these professions are received equally by male and female. Why then should not both assume responsibilities in their administration?
All of life’s higher aims that are calculated to arouse, and call forth the energies of her soul, must be placed before her. Thus will her capabilities be unfolded and her character be elevated. Increasing self-respect and consciousness of responsibility will give strength to her character and expanse to her nature. She will, with her warmer sympathies and intenser soul, become public-spirited and philanthropic. Her influence over man will cease to be the conservative, selfish influence that it is at present. She will transmit to her offspring a nobler nature. The race, through her, will improve, and man will no longer be the effeminate, dough-faced cringer before arrogance and assumption, but dignity and manliness will rest alike on man and woman.
The governing power, the restorative power, the industrial power, they will share together, and bear as equals the crown of an elevated humanity. Then will redeemed woman form her soul-alliances when she is attracted by affection alone, and inefficient wives and unhappy homes be seldom seen.
A great change is to be wrought in public sentiment ere this “better time arrives,” to the rapid progress of which there exist many obstacles.
1. Woman’s general contentedness in the position at present assigned her.
This is often brought forward by opposers as an argument against an extended sphere. So it is said the Southern slaves are contented in their condition, which, were it true, would only prove greater the evil of their enslavement. The Turkish female is quite willing to be veiled and secluded in harems with jealous care, and believes a woman who speaks to a male acquaintance, other than her husband, outrages the delicacy of her sex, and deserves public condemnation.
This fact proves either her gentle, confiding nature — thus rendering her oppressions the more ungenerous and unmanly — or it proves her weakness and slavish subjection, and thus shows how dangerous and degrading is the injustice done her.
2. Another obstacle is her physical weakness.
That the progress of civilization has tended to weaken Woman physically no one can doubt, who glances over the world as it is. The practical Physiologist, probably, could assign many reasons for this.
We will only state here that probably confinement to sedentary pursuits, devotion to fashion and dress, and the lesser call for vigorous muscular exertion, are the chief causes of the decline of female health. This obstacle can be removed gradually by attention to the causes, for weakness and disease are not necessarily attendant upon true refinement and true culture; and although the fact exists painfully apparent, it only proves the existence also of a wrong in connection with the increase of knowledge. Woman, with Man, must attend to the laws of their physical being, and make obedience paramount in importance, for no beauty of finish can ornament a temple built of diseased humanity.
3. Another obstacle in the way of Woman’s industrial redemption, is the inconvenient style of her attire.
That the present long-flowing skirt is a serious impediment to her efficiently engaging in many productive branches of useful industry, must be admitted. The experience of all who have made the trial has been, that the healthful and agreeable business of Agriculture and Horticulture cannot be prosecuted with pleasure and advantage with her shroud-like drapery about her feet and limbs. Mechanical labor, especially that requiring the use of machinery, would with greater difficulty be accomplished, and in many cases would be attended with great danger, from its preventing a free use of her limbs, and also its liability to be caught in the machinery. Consequently Woman is at present to a great extent unfitted by her dress for self-support and independence; she is almost necessarily restricted to sedentary pursuits by this attire, and although not the cause of this restriction, yet it is a style that she long ago would have discarded, had she had equal rights to employment according to choice, and as many and as noble objects placed before her for personal achievement.
These obstacles and many others present themselves in our way, all of which we can ourselves overcome and remove. The public mind is to be changed, and in this work Woman has much to do. Her redemption she must herself achieve, and to this end she must sacrifice and labor. No despotism was ever overthrown without heroism and suffering. Humanity has struggled bravely and long against tyranny, and thought no sacrifice too great to endure in republican revolutions. Civil and religious freedom have floated thus far over rivers of noble blood. and let us not expect that a tyranny so hoary and deep-seated as that which holds Woman in thrall, being the production of Man’s physical strength and nourished by his grosser affections, will give way without determined, and resolute, and heroic efforts. Woman, as she begins to see her wrongs, must begin also seriously and resolutely to overthrow them — not to overpower and dethrone Man, but to assume her true place and accomplish her own elevation and freedom. A fearful and momentous responsibility rests upon the few who now act as pioneers in a reform to accomplish so gigantic a work. Every inch of ground she may gain she must improve. Meeting in convention and complaining of grievances, or proving equality of rights, will not secure to her the desired good, unless she herself act promptly to take her rightful position, and assume her responsibility as fast as she may be able. Is her love of approbation in the way of this? Then this “right eye must be plucked out.” To do her duty may cost her much, at first, that she holds dear. Cherished habits are, perhaps, to be overcome, hardships to be endured by way of experiment, position in society to be sacrificed, taste, the growth of the most refined culture, laid upon the altar of a greater good. Fashion must receive no longer her best offerings; but firmly and steadily, yet with dignity and love, she must prepare herself for the greatest usefulness, which is her highest mission. Perhaps the item for her to begin to do may seem too small to notice. She may first be called on to omit homage to some household god for the acquirement of health and strength by out-door exercise. It may be her duty to lift up her voice in public for her more needy sisters. It may be her duty, although no necessity rest upon her of a pecuniary nature, to exercise some peculiar gift in new and what may be thought “mannish” business, thus opening doors for others less fortunate. It may be her duty to give individual example to some humble reform, although she herself need not its advantage. The encouragement to immediate and direct action is great. No personal self-sacrifice was ever made in vain when prompted by pure and holy motive. What Woman has already achieved for herself may be looked upon as an omen of future good. The noble efforts, the self-sacrificing life of one Woman in the Anti-Slavery cause, have almost alone won for Woman the right of free speech. Thanks, then, free and strong, to the glorious few who have acted! Let Woman’s deepest gratitude gush forth in pure and reverent affection to them; for victories won are never lost — and the triumph already attained for her higher nature in the change already wrought in the public mind is a prophecy of glory in the future, bright as an angel’s smile. The advance since the first Convention was held has been unparalleled. Let us, then, be brave and true to our highest ideal. We see the fields white and ready for the harvest. We see everything to be done. Now comes the necessity for the action. The few who see first the path must walk therein, leaving the multitude to follow. Woman has but just raised her voice, feebly saying, “Have we not the same inalienable rights?” and Justice, through her silver trumpet, has sounded over the world’s tumult, ” You have. ” The discordant elements caught the sound and listened. Now let her firm and united ranks appear, with a white banner given to the breeze — Freedom and Love, her attendant angels, and Truth, her only weapon. So shall the waters of usurpation and tyranny separate, and woman walk in peace and joy to the possession of her new inheritance.
Source: Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Worcester, October 15th and 16th , 1851 (New York: Fowler and Wells) 1852, pp. 3-56.