I Say, We are Our Own Best Helpers
ca. October 15-16, 1851 — Woman’s Rights Convention, Brinley Hall, Worcester MA
I wish to say a word in relation to the remarks made this morning by Mr. List.
I think it is not without reason that men complain of the wives and mothers of to-day. But man takes woman for better or for worse, and perhaps it is a question where the fault mainly lies. But this question need not be considered here. Let us look the fact soberly and fairly in the face, and admit that there is occasion to complain of the wives and mothers of to-day. But while I say this, let me also say, that where you can show one woman who is what she ought to be as a wife and mother, you can show not more than one man who is what he should be as a husband and father. The blame is on both sides. Is there any one here who does not believe there is something wrong in home influence? Why, friends, you have but to open your eyes, and see the people of to-day as they are, to be convinced. Go where men exert their influence, and you will see that the deeds they do are such as never could have been done by sons who have had worthy mothers. Go to Washington, into the Capitol, and look at the deeds that are done there. See the oppression, and wickedness, and malice that are contained in the Fugitive Slave enactment, and tell me if the men who passed such a law are sons of worthy mothers! Oh, if the mothers of the men who enacted that law had been mothers indeed, if they had had wives who were wives indeed, I tell you, they never would have done it. We need no higher proof of the unfitness of mothers for their responsible duties, than comes to us in the deeds that are done by the sons and the daughters of to-day.
Wherever you find men tyrannical, you will find women triflers. Go through the streets in Worcester, and look in at the shop windows, and see the display of goods which the merchant knows will be called for most. See the silks, and the satins, and the velvets — the laces, and fringes, and edgings — as though we were walking show-cases, and loved only to decorate the outside, while the immortal part of us is left without care or cultivation. The true want of the United States is the influence of good wives and mothers, to make man the noble and high-minded creature fitted to live in this nineteenth century. The present state of things grows out of the idea that woman is to live solely as a companion for man. In interest, in object, in hope, there is, there can be no difference between them. But so long as woman retains the idea that she is only to be a companion for man, so long will she seek those things which will please him. And what have been those things? To please the taste of man, she has consented to crowd her body with whalebone and steel, until the capacity of her chest was confined to a space hardly big enough for a wasp. And to please him, with the spirit of a martyr, she has put on corsets, and drawn the strings until the soul was crowded out of her body. Miserable delusion! But it was to please the men. While woman is trained to believe that the chief end of her existence is to get married, she will continue to strive to make herself of such a character as will please the taste of those who seek for wives in the shape of wasps and hour-glasses. So long as women are kept dependent on man, is it to be wondered at that they sometimes marry from interest and not from affection — wed the purse and not the man? A true companionship must be prompted by an interest over which the parties have no control, to be interrupted only when that companionship is exchanged for a paradise. But aside from the idea of companionship, we read in the newspapers, we are taught at the fireside, and at the female seminary, that we must seek to obtain those graces and accomplishments which will make us better pleasing to the men. My soul loathes such meanness with perfect loathing! If there were no being in the world for her to influence, I would, for the sake of her own deathless nature, insist that, for herself alone, woman should receive the highest mental cultivation of which she is capable.
If it was not beneath Infinite Wisdom in the creation to construct the complex mechanism of woman’s body, if it was not beneath Him to furnish it with nerves, and lungs, and brain, and send through it the warm life-blood, and finally to breathe into that body the breath of life, and to impart to it a living soul, it assuredly cannot be beneath her to give to it that cultivation which shall make it grow up to the full stature of perfect womanhood, and fit it to understand its true relations with the human beings around it.
When we add to what woman ought to be for her own sake, this other fact, that woman, by reason of her function of maternity, must exert a most potent influence over the generations yet to be, there is no language that can speak the magnitude or importance of the subject, that has called us together. He is guilty of giving to the world a dwarfed humanity, who would seek to hinder this movement for the elevation of woman; for she is as yet a starved and dependent outcast before the law. In government, she is outlawed, having neither voice nor part in it. In the household, as was truly said by Mrs. Coe, she is either a ceaseless drudge or a blank. In the department of education, in industry, let woman’s sphere be bounded only by her own capacity. We desire that there should be no walls thrown about it. Let man read his own soul, and turn over the pages of his own Book of Life, and learn that in the human being there is always capability of expansion: and then let him trust woman to that power of growth, no matter what says nay. Laying her hand upon the helm, let woman steer straight onward to the fulfillment of her own destiny. Let her ever remember that in following out the high behests of her own soul will be found her exceeding great reward.
Be assured, my friends, that this movement is not to end when this meeting adjourns. When we go from this Convention, let us, as true-hearted women, relying upon our own energies, courageously and devotedly seek the attainment of all our rights, and make the world realize the fact that we are integral members in human society. ‘Tis not in our stars, friends, but in ourselves, that we are slaves.
I would not disclaim the help of those noble men who are around us to-day. Very grateful are we that they are willing to coöperate with us. But, after all, I say, we are our own best helpers. Men cannot fully feel the misery of our lot. They cannot speak what we have felt. It is not for the abolitionist, however deeply he may feel the iniquity of the Fugitive Slave Law, fully to portray its wickedness, but the fugitive slave, fleeing from the prison-house of bondage — it is for him to have a realizing sense of its terrors. Who does not feel, when listening to the eloquent and burning words of that heroic slave and noble man, FREDERICK DOUGLASS, that the bitter wrong of slavery has roused in his spirit the power to do the work he has done so bravely? A young man, when he goes forth over the threshold of his childhood’s home, to take his part in active life, looks abroad over the wide world’s arena, and sees no height to which he may not aspire; no place of honor which he may not fill. No matter how poor or lowly born, his opportunities are as large as his aspirations. But his sister, when she, too, goes forth to make her way in the world, finds the objects of her aspirations limited to two or three. There is the school-house, and there is household drudgery, and there is the chair of the seamstress; and when you have mentioned these, you have marked the limit of woman’s aspiration. Who can tell the sickening, paralyzing, deadening power of her sensations, who, when standing up in life’s spring, and looking abroad for some place of usefulness in the world, finds her scope narrowed to the petty details of domestic life, or to that wasting toil which works from early day to early day again, for a bare pittance wherewith to sustain life? Man can never know the deadening weight which falls on woman at the contemplation of such a prospect — for his field is bounded only by his powers.
It is not only women who find themselves, in the middle of their days, without adequate means of support, who come to our meeting. I could point you to a young woman in Beverly, whose taste runs naturally to sculpture. She has executed a bust of Robert Rantoul, Sen., which has been warmly praised as a likeness and a work of art. There is talent in that woman that might equal Powers. She might not, perhaps, give us a Greek slave woman, but (what would be more appropriate for this American nation) a Southern slave woman, that should speak to the justice and humanity of her countrymen. But this talent cannot be encouraged in her. The bust stands there in Beverly, a monument of her taste and skill; but she must go back to her upholstery. We want this woman to come here and speak to us of what the heart feels when the knell of dead hopes is rung. We want the widow to come here and tell us her feelings when the husband has gone to the spirit world, and the articles of the household must be appraised and sold, and the home itself left destitute.
Friends, we are our own helpers. I want every one of you to feel that this work rests upon us. Instead of asking, “Give us this, or give us that,” let us just get up and take it. If you have a thought that seeks expression, utter it boldly. If you remember the millions of slaves as you ought to remember them, and your heart prompts you to plead for these millions, speak out fearlessly. If your taste is to sculpture, work out your bust, and let it stand there to speak for itself until it shall speak for you. No matter what it be that you wish to do, if it be high and noble, go and do it. When we can do this, our acts will be living epistles, known and read of all men. We owe it to those noble men and women who, in this country, have made themselves living sacrifices on the altar of humanity, that we have before us and around us these soul-cheering indications, — earnest men and women, gathered to take this subject into consideration. Let us not fear the cross, but take it on our own shoulders, and walk up another Calvary, knowing that the world will be saved by it.
Source: The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Worcester, October 15th and 16th, 1851 (NY: Fowler and Wells), 1852, pp. 61-64.