Why Hold These Conventions?—
Why not go to work?
May 10-11, 1860 — Tenth National Woman’s Rights Convention, Cooper Institute, New York City
Mrs. President and Friends, — It is a well known fact, that stagnant atmosphere and stagnant waters can only be purified by agitation. This is no more true in the physical world than in the social and moral world. What, then, is to purify the social and moral atmosphere regarding the wrongs and the rights of woman? Agitation! Public lectures, conventions, and writings on the subject. Thus, by making the public mind acquainted with the wrongs we suffer and the rights we claim, by enlightening the mind of woman as to the injustice that oppresses her, by enlightening the mind of man on the injustice he perpetrates against her, by convincing all parties that wrong always reacts upon its perpetrator, and punishes him as much as the victim, we create a public opinion in favor of the right, and right has commenced to be done. To speak of the progress we have made would take too much time, and I presume it will be done during this Convention; but, however much has been done, much more is left yet to be accomplished. But whatever remains to be acquired will be easily obtained, compared with that which has been already secured. The first step in every great movement is the most difficult. Frances Wright (nicknamed “Fanny Wright,” because the world has not yet grown up to the high standard on which she took her position here) — Frances Wright was the first woman in this country who spoke on the equality of the sexes. She had indeed a hard task before her. The elements were entirely unprepared. She had to break up the time-hardened soil of conservatism, and her reward was sure — the same reward that is always bestowed upon those who are in the vanguard of any great movement. She was subjected to public odium, slander, and persecution. But these were not the only things that she received. Oh, she had her reward! — that reward of which no enemies could deprive her, which no slanders could make less precious—-the eternal reward of knowing that she had done her duty; the reward springing from the consciousness of right, of endeavoring to benefit unborn generations. How delightful to see the moulding of the minds around you, the infusing of your thoughts and aspirations into others, until one by one they stand by your side, without knowing how they came there! That reward she had. It has been her glory, it is the glory of her memory; and the time will come when society will have outgrown its old prejudices, and stepped, with one foot, at least, upon the elevated platform on which she took her position. But owing to the fact that the elements were unprepared, she naturally could not succeed to any great extent. After her, in 1837, the subject of woman’s rights was again taken hold of — aye, taken hold of by woman; and, the soil having been already some-what prepared, she began to sow the seeds for the future growth, the fruits of which we now begin to enjoy. Petitions were circulated and sent to our Legislature, and who can tell the hardships that then met those who undertook that great work! I went from house to house with a petition for signatures simply asking our Legislature to allow married women to hold real estate in their own name. What did I meet with? Why, the very name exposed one to ridicule, if not to worse treatment. The women said, “We have rights enough; we want no more;” and the men, as a matter of course, echoed it, and said, “You have rights enough; nay, you have too many already.” But by perseverance — for we expected nothing better at that early day — by perseverance, and constantly sending petitions to the Legislature, and, at the same time, enlightening the public mind on the subject, we at last accomplished our purpose. We had to adopt the method which physicians sometimes use, when they are called to a patient who is so hopelessly sick that he is unconscious of his pain and suffering. We had to describe to women their own position, to explain to them the burdens that rested so heavily upon them, and through these means, as a wholesome irritant, we roused up public opinion on the subject, and through public opinion, we acted upon the Legislature, and in 1848-49, they gave us the great boon for which we asked, by enacting that a woman who possessed property previous to marriage, or obtained it after marriage, should be allowed to hold it in her own name.
Thus far, thus good; but it was only a beginning, and we went on. In 1850, we had the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, and then some of our papers thought that it was only a very small affair, called together by a few “strong-minded women,” and would pass away like a nine-days’ wonder. They little knew woman! They little knew that if woman takes any thing earnestly in her hands, she will not lay it aside unaccomplished. We have continued our Conventions ever since. A few years ago, when we sent a petition to our Legislature, we obtained, with but very little effort, upwards of thirteen thousand signatures. What a contrast between this number and the five signatures attached to the first petition, in 1837! Since then, we might have had hundreds of thousands of signatures, but it is no longer necessary. Public opinion is too well known to require that a long array of names should grace our petitions. All we have now to do is to send them in, and ask for our rights, and in process of time, we shall obtain them.
A word more. We have been often asked, “What is the use of Conventions? Why talk? Why not go to work?” Just as if the thought does not precede the act! Those who can act without previously thinking, their actions are not good for much. Thought is first required, then the expression of it, and that leads to action; and action based upon thought is action that never needs to be reversed; it is lasting and profitable, and produces the desired effect.
Mention has been made here this morning of the fact that the effects of this movement are to be seen springing up here and there, yes, all over the world. It would be impossible to point out, in a short discourse, the actual progress that has been made, not only here in this country, but also in Europe — not directly, but indirectly — through the movement here. Our movement is cosmopolitan. It claims the rights of woman wherever woman exists, and this claim makes itself felt wherever woman is wronged. In England, great efforts have been made of late years, and great accessions have been made to the rights and liberties of women. The same thing is taking place in France and Germany, and, in fact, every where. In England, almost all the operators in the magnetic telegraph offices are women. And why, pray, should not woman have that avocation, if she chooses, and has the capacity for it? It takes but five hours to acquire it. Is not woman as well fitted for it as man? Nay, better; for if she is unoccupied for half an hour, she can knit or do some kind of needle-work, and that is more than men can do. I have from the very commencement advised women to adopt all such occupations, on utilitarian grounds, because, in reality, they could perform the duties better than men. Look at our grand and magnificent building in Washington, called the Patent Office. Go in there and walk from hall to hall, and what will you see? Why, young men, stalwart, strong, hearty young men, capable of tilling the ground which is waiting for them, sitting there, with their arms folded, or with the eternal newspaper before their eyes, or, worse still, smoking a cigar. Now, if the Patent Office were filled with women, they could not only sit there and have an eye to the whole hall, and see that nothing was deranged— for certainly women are quite as regular in housekeeping as men are — but they could also perform some light work, either for their own use, for their children, or for the poor unhappy little ones who have no one to care for them. Would not that be preferable? I do not mean that woman should be forced to go there — far from it; but I think it would be of great advantage if she were there. Nor is that the only place. She could do it in Congress too. Go there and see how your representatives occupy their time, with their feet on the top of their desks, a paper before them, and a thing that ought to be exiled from civilized life (you know what I mean) at their side, but which must be there, if the floor is to be kept clean! Now, if woman were there, she could keep head and hand occupied, and the one would keep the other in equilibrium; the heads would not get too hot, but would keep the hands from fighting with each other. Here would be another advantage. But the advantages are infinite that would result from having woman in every place she is capable of filling, not only to herself, but to society at large; I cannot enumerate them here.
But the work is going on. We have had some important rights acceded to by the Legislature, of which mention has been made this morning. They have commenced the good work, and we will induce them to go on with it, for much more is to be obtained than has yet been granted. I said some years ago, when laying our claims before the Legislature, “I know you are not prepared to give us all we ask, but we claim all our rights. We ask for no more; we can be satisfied with no less. Yet we will take what you are prepared to give us, and then claim the rest.” That is the only position for a reformer to take. The Anti-Slavery Society, the Garrisonian Society, is consistent. It declares that principle does not admit of compromise. It asks all, or none. We ask all, but we differ from that Society in this, that we are ready to take as much as we can get, for we know that society is not prepared to give the whole at once. But we must enunciate the whole principle. The Abolitionists do it, and they are correct. They cover the whole ground, and ask that all shall be granted. There are always those who stand on intermediate ground; let them ask society to come half way, we ask that it shall come the whole distance.
I know that there are a great many who take advantage of this movement that we have worked out, and then say, “You are doing nothing; only talking.” Yes, doing nothing! We have only broken up the ground and sowed the seed; they are reaping the benefit, and yet they tell us we have done nothing! Mrs. Swisshelm, who has proclaimed herself to be “no woman’s rights woman,” has accepted a position as inspector of logs and lumber. Well, I have no objection to her having that avocation, if she have the taste and capacity for it — far from it. But she has accepted still more, and I doubt not with a great deal more zest and satisfaction — the five hundred dollars salary; and I hope she will enjoy it. Then, having accepted both the office and the salary, she folds her arms and says, “I am none of your strong-minded women; I don’t go for woman’s rights.” Well, she is still welcome to it. I have not the slightest objection that those who proclaim themselves not to be strong-minded, should still reap the benefit of a strong mind; it is for them we work. So there are some ladies who think a great deal can be done in the Legislature without petitions, without conventions, without lectures, without public claim, in fact, without any thing, but a little lobbying. Well, if they have a taste for it, they are welcome to engage in it; I have not the slightest objection. Yes, I have. I, as a woman, being conscious of the evil that is done by these lobby loafers in our Legislature and in the halls of Congress, object to it. I will wait five years longer to have a right given to me legitimately, from a sense of justice, rather than buy it in an underhand way by lobbying. I am one who acts above-board. Whatever my sentiments may be, good, bad or indifferent, I express them, and they are known. Nevertheless, if any desire it, let them do that work. But what has induced them, what has enabled them, to do that work? The Woman’s Rights movement, although they are afraid or ashamed even of the name “woman’s rights.”
You have been told, and much more might be said on the subject, that already the Woman’s Rights platform has upon it lawyers, ministers, and statesmen — men who are among the highest in the nation. I need not mention a WM. LLOYD GARRISON or a WENDELL PHILLIPS; but there are others, those even who are afraid of the name of reformer, who have stood upon our platform. BRADY! Who would ever have expected it? CHAPIN! BEECHER! Think of it for a moment! A minister advocating the rights of woman, even her right at the ballot-box! What has done it? Our agitation has thus much purified the atmosphere, and enabled them to see the injustice that is done to woman. Then there has been a great enlargement of the industrial sphere of woman. Hours might be spent in contrasting the present position of woman in this respect with what it has been. Many are now engaged in printing offices as type-setters, and they do the work to the satisfaction of their employers and with profit and credit to themselves. Dry goods stores, fancy stores, and others, are kept by women, and why not? If man is fitted for stronger labors, let him leave the lighter to woman, until, by proper exertions to develop her own being, she shall become physically stronger. Let man plough the ground, instead of standing behind a counter, measuring off a yard of calico or tape. The soil is waiting his plough. And so it is waiting for woman. Not only the physical, but the social soil is waiting the plough, wielded by woman’s heart and head. Even a woman who has been all over Europe and all over America, and who feels it her duty to instruct women how to retain the color in their cheeks, by sandwiching them between two pieces of meat, disclaims being a woman’s rights woman, and I am thankful for it. Of course she is not. Who would expect she would be? But I do not blame such women. I only speak of the fact, that when you hear others say, “Why hold these Conventions? — why not go to work?” you may tell them that these Conventions are not only working, but compelling all others to work for us. If we were not to break up the soil, it could not be ploughed; if we were not to sow the seed, the fruit would not grow. But I need not detain you longer upon that subject, or state the grounds of the opposition to woman’s claim from the beginning until now; but while we are giving their due to those now living, let us not forget those, no longer with us, who so nobly stood in the van, and commenced the hard labor of the reform called the Woman’s Rights movement.
Source: Proceedings of the Tenth National Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at the Cooper Institute, New York City, May 10th and 11th, 1860 (Boston: Yerrinton and Garrison) 1860, pp. 7-12.