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Rights of Women

1829 — South Place Chapel, Finsbury Square, London, England


In conceding to the solicitations of the managers of the Institution, to deliver a Lecture on the: “SOCIAL CONDITION OF WOMEN,” I have had to struggle against a two-fold obstacle, that of depressed health, and a mind robbed of much of its energy and elasticity by a deep domestic sorrow. And while I feel the difficulty of employing a moderate language, in speaking of the degraded position of my sex, I am on the other hand but too well aware, that the remarks I am about to make, will draw upon me the hate of most men, together with that of the greater portion of the very sex, whose rights (at the present state of my existence), I attempt to advocate, with a disinterestness which finds no rallying point in Self.

But what appears to me the most cheerless part of my task — I would almost say the “forlorn hope of my enterprise,” is that I am doubtful, whether any material good can be effected by this and similar lectures, seeing as I do, the rottenness of our institutions, and those especially which smell of rank injustice, in the disabilities set up against half the human race: WOMAN!

Nevertheless I shall attempt this task, stimulated by hope, which some friends entertain, that by so doing I contribute to the support of a truly liberal institution (as I understand this to be) besides, offering an example, which might produce the most beneficial results, if followed up, on similar principles, and acted upon by a competent number of Women.

Should I however fail to awaken attention, in that portion of my audience, most immediately interested in my remarks, (if indeed what concerns all can be said to relate particularly to some,) I shall at least have discharged a debt to society, which its own increasing liberality enables me to pay, by permitting this public appeal!

For myself I confess, that “To die and make no sign” expressive of my horror, indignation and bitter contempt, for that state of society called civilized, which in fact is nothing more than barbarism masked, playing off its brute absurdities under wisdom’s guise, (through which however the clove foot never fails to appear, and more particularly so in the destiny it has assigned to women,) would, I feel, complete the measure of my regret for having lived only to serve and suffer, in my capacity of slave and woman; but the opportunity afforded me now, to leave on parting admonition to Society, will greatly mitigate those regrets which I feel, in common with every good mind, when denied the power of being more actively useful.

After this introduction to a question, that may indeed be called a Pivot, on which all our social interests turn — it would manifest little respect for the intelligence of my hearers, were I to offer any apology for the remarks I am about to make — Men and Women, must be prepared, to find me laying aside that cheat courtesy, speaking to facts, and holding the mirror up — Not indeed to nature, (for man’s cruel social code has stultified, if not stifled nature in him,) but to some mockery of himself, some distorted image of a goodly nature, warped in all its fair proportions by the evil genius vanity, who condemns him to be his own tormentor, in being the enemy and oppressor of Woman!

Before I proceed further, it may be necessary to say, that I have no antipathy to men but only to institutions; no leaning to the interests of one sex above the other; my object is to deprecate that narrow, stupid policy which divides their interest, and in so doing, makes a pandemonium of our earth, by forcing its inhabitants to be in constant opposition to each other!

Whatever then may be the force of the terms I employ, to decry the monstrous, degraded condition of my sex, I beg to be understood, as speaking, more in sorrow than in anger; more with regret, for the loss of happiness to both sexes, than to either in particular. It is not in the nature of Woman (when she has the strength of character sufficient to preserve original feelings, and reject those which are forced upon her adoption) to wish to mete out undue proportions of good, for one sex above the other — her destiny is to be the mother of both, and nature, whose laws are general and not partial, makes no distinction in a mother’s love!

When I advocate the Rights of Women then, I do it under the most perfect conviction, that I am also pleading the cause of men by showing the mighty influence Women hold over the happiness or misery of men themselves, according as they are instructed or ignorant, as they are fettered or free, as they act on principles, not learned by rote, but acquired through the full development of their own faculties, not put into movement like machines, or led like beasts of burden, at the capricious will of a master, or in stupid routine, by that many headed despot custom! So true it is that, “though men make the law, it is women who mould the manners and morals of society; and according as they are enlightened or ignorant, do they spin the web of human destiny.

It may be difficult for those, who have not studied the complexity of social movement, to conceive how beings, apparently deprived of all power, can possess so much, particularly as all the ingenuity of short sighted cunning legislators, has been exhausted, not only to make, but keep the passive instruments of man’s will; well knowing, that the most effectual means of perpetuating the ignorance, and consequent slavery of men themselves, was to close the door effectually to all progressive improvement in woman, by assigning to her the lowest position in the scale of being, that which connects itself solely with man’s mere animal wants!

But how does nature avenge her wrongs, and those of eternal justice, in refusing to cultivate women’s intellectual faculties. Men are caught in their own snares; and the ignorance, that they would exclusively confine to women, soon becomes general, and works itself into a very solid chain of fallacies and errors, which ultimately leads opinion; and opinion, whatever may be the direction given to it, is always sure to be triumphant!

Woman it is, who by a stupid servile submission to man’s arbitrary will, gives stability to all his selfish propensities, and which encountering no judgment in their passage to her mind, leaves it the recipient of every foul and monstrous error; thus, like the fabled Pandora, she spreads the contents of the fatal box through all society.

Oh! how contagious is error! Prejudice becomes fixed principle omnipotent always, in proportion as its tendency is mischievous. Thus man, by his narrow views of mere personal interest, his jealous monopoly of rights and privileges, his absurd system of sexual morality (as if indeed this can be a virtue and that a vice, which is not distinctly vice or virtue in every body); his setting up individual as opposed to general interests has plunged him in perpetual warfare with his species! Hence the results we read of, and witness: vice, crime, and dissocial anarchy abound, misery, privation and suffering, in every degree that our nature is susceptible of; happiness is lost to all, because security is unknown to any. This alas! must ever be the case, whilst our social system is based on principles of discord, while unity of action is sacrificed, in all our arrangements, and the most striking lessons that experience can offer, are neither attended to nor understood!

But I must not lose time in vain declamations against the vicious tendency of our institutions which have been termed by hireling advocates, “the perfection of human reason.” What a satire this, on human reason! As well indeed might we discover perfection in the first rude attempts at sculpture, as in that mass of inconsistency and folly which our laws presents, and which is as much the caricature of reason, as the other is of the human face and form.

If reason means anything, it means a generalizing faculty of the human mind, which finds, ‘tis true, its source in instinct, but its limits only in experience. When left uncultivated we lose all the advantages which should distinguish the human from the brute animal, and thus, by screwing up human reason to the sticking point perfection, all clue has been lost to social happiness.

In the abstract we are willing to admit, that nothing can be good which produces permanently evil effects: the social history of man abundantly shows that nothing is perfectly imperfect and irrational, than laws and institutions which do not recognise the general interest of all mankind.

But let us examine the grounds of disabilities set up by men, to disfranchise half the human race, Women; the effects of this treatment on us and on themselves; and whether indeed there is any essential difference between the sexes, which can authorise the superiority men claim over women? What are the causes of, and who are accountable, for the seeming difference which makes the sum of their plea?

It will, I think appear, that man’s own tyranny has created the distinction which he ungenerously sets up as a just cause for its exercise.

FIRST: Deficiency of muscular strength has been deemed a sufficient for reducing them to vassalage, not to mention the grosser barbarities, which we know to be the daily practice of men towards beings whose happiness is so inseparably linked with their own, and which the law, the written law, that stupendous monument of man’s disgrace, not only sanctions but dictates to every known extent, save but the murderous blow, which ends the sufferings of the victim; and for this show of mercy, man’s own life is forfeited. All experience proves how little reason men have to triumph, in the base possession of an authority which unnatural violence and usurpation first put into their hands, and which has not, as is presumed, found its excuse in the physical or moral organization of Women. As to the first charge of bodily weakness, strange enough.

Monsieur de Chateaubriand, in his book of martyrs (an appropriate place to find a chapter on Women,) brings a host of evidence, from travellers and naturalists, to prove that this deficiency of strength in Woman, is nothing but a civilized disease imposed no doubt, on women, to shorten the duration of life, and to provide men with a rapid succession of youthful slaves; in short a civil or civilized way of getting rid of a superfluous number; less shocking though not less cruel, than that resorted to, by other nations which cannot boast the high degree of civilization of our own. So that this supposed organic weakness, which condemns women to be slaves, is by no means borne out by fact. Savage tribes acknowledge it not, and men every where choosing their occupation compel women to drudgery, while they themselves engage in the most pleasurable and profitable pursuits of life.

The SECOND ground for disabilities is The pretended moral incapacity of Women; but the long list of illustrious names, drawn from the records of every age, afford ample proof, that nature has been quite impartial to the sexes on the score of intellect! Yet were it otherwise, the more inexcusable and base is the imposition of fictitious restraints on women, in addition to those of nature. Difference of education alone, and the impression of objects, which surround us, under very different circumstances, produce the apparent difference in the phrenological development of men and women.

All the researches of anatomy, have not yet been able to prove a difference in the brain of either. Both receive the same impressions, arrange and preserve ideas, for memory and imagination; judge, compare, and analyze; nor can indeed any difference be pointed out, but, that the organs of women are generally smaller, but equally fitted to the purposes for which they are intended.

Man we find as much the creature of circumstances as woman; and, with some rare exceptions, there is little difference between man and man, but that which education or the want of it effects. Uneducated man is either a brute or a savage, stupid or ferocious, according to the dullness, or activity, of his particular temperament.

What then should be thought of the wisdom and humanity of laws, which throw half the human race, women, as a prey to appease the savage fury of men, denied the humanizing Rights of Education.

“If, (says a French naturalist, M. Bory de St. Vincent, in his “Table of the Human Species,”) we discover some men favoured by nature, with superior intelligence, we have a right to add also, that ninety nine our of every hundred, which compose the species, are not much superior to the Hottentot as to reason; “we have then no right” he adds, “to assign to any particular country, or sex, intellectual capacity above the other, the whole of our species is as capable of improvement as any part of it; and have we, Europeans, not cause to blush, when we read, that the Caffres, said to be the lowest in the intellectual scale, of any tribe of men, are not divested of generous feeling, and these savages rouse to all their frenzy of revenge against the whites, for their abuse of power, and fraudulent practices in traffic, with them, can always be treated with, when an appeal is made to their natural equity. The right of the strongest is not recognised with them, and no one is permitted to be his own judge.”

This is saying much for human nature itself, but very little for our beautiful system of civilization, in which I discover nothing but the perfection of vice, that is, the triumph of injustice throughout!

But to return to my subject: “one cannot,” says the Count de Ségur in his work on Women, “reflect upon the heroic courage, ability and perseverance, displayed by Women, in the days of terror, which marked the progress of the French revolution, without feelings of gratitude, respect, and admiration. There were no dangers they did not brave, no fatigue they did not overcome, no sacrifice they did not impose on themselves, to save and console, to share captivity and even death, with the objects of their affections; nor was the sympathy of these heroines confined to the narrow limits of family and friends, a vice hatefully prominent in our own country, where women are most dependent and depressed.

What man can read the memoirs (written by herself in prison) of the enlightened, the tender, the intrepid Madame Roland, wife of the Minister of France, without emotions of deep humiliation at being one of a sex, all of whom have conspired to chain down, the noble faculties of women! In recurring to times like these, one is forced into reflections, little favourable to the supposition of generous dispositions in men; we always find them least oppressive to women, at periods when the tide of their political liberties are at the lowest possible ebb. This however is no proof that man is naturally unamiable, but is evidence incontrovertible, that his system of education is highly vicious, tending always to suppress the generous, and give full development to the selfish passions; a further proof also, that he has never been instructed as to the true principle of rational liberty, which never can be held by any portion of the community to the exclusion of another. And the liberty I speak of, must always go hand in hand with knowledge, for without knowledge liberty becomes mischievous, either as it is partially or otherwise misapplied.

Our own, as well as most other countries do, furnishes a long list of illustrious women, alike distinguished for their genius, magnanimity and courage. Amongst these ornaments of humanity, time permits me to cite but one, the highly gifted but unfortunate Lady Russell, daughter of the wise and virtuous Earl of Southampton, and wife of Lord William Russell, beheaded for a supposed conspiracy against Charles the Second. The day previous to the fatal trial, Lord W. asked permission of the court, that notes of the evidence might be taken for his use; the attorney-general informed him that he might give one of his superiordomestics that employment.

When he appeared at the bar, he was only attended by his Lady, and being asked where the person was, whom he wished should take notes, he replied: “I require no assistance, but that which the lady can give me, who sits by my side.”

This anecdote I think should prove that in every individual instance, where we find women sharing equal advantages of education with man, there is little or no difference in mental energy; and I fear, to this well authenticated fact, may be ascribed the hateful and unjust policy of denying all useful education to them.

Knowledge is power,” says men, to keep women our salves, we must keep them ignorant.— Strange that men should calculate so badly! Who has not discovered even in the most ordinary actions of life, that ignorance makes a bad servant and a vexatious companion? — it must be so, for all things around us are productive of good or evil, according to the fitness or unfitness of their various and combined applications, so that the cultivation of women’s judgingfaculties, as a matter of selfish speculation with men, ought not to be omitted; and Solomon, who has lost nothing of his credit for wisdom, by lapse of time, assures us, he would much rather govern an enlightened, than an ignorant people.

The vices of Women, always those of the slave, no more belong to their nature, than the anguish they endure in becoming mothers, belongs to their organization; but those vices are the more mischievous because they undermine public virtue, and painful as it is to me, I must observe, that the enmity women entertain towards each other, their active malice or secret jealousy, their delight in the punishment, privations, and disgrace of their sex, individually and collectively; their value for a cap or ribbon, only in proportion as a less fortunate neighbor may be deprived of it; their apathy and indifference to general good, the sole engrossment of their minds, to keep and secure their masters’ favour, and through that their own personal comforts, are not only the causes of their degradation as a body, but the fruitful source also of the crimes and shocking matrimonial murders which disgrace our land.

Thus divided, women have no friends amongst themselves, and benevolence, stinted of its growth, dwindles to the size of a dwarf, which its natural stature is that of a giant! It is quite possible to make benevolence our household deity, and yet not confine its attributes to home.

All then that that is required and asked for women is the removal of disabilities: the rights of Women, are words of terrific importance to those, who, as Seneca observes, are enamoured of darkness, and therefore think that the moment they perceive a ray of light, it is the precursor of a storm! But for the wise and virtuous of mankind, the equal distribution of rights and privileges of both sexes, has not alarming sound.

We then fearlessly ask for education; equal right to acquire and possess property; equal morals; women themselves responsible for their conduct as members of society; equal civil and political rights. Then what a diminution of crimes we shall have!

Women now, as worthy magistrates have urged upon our attention, “make no part of the public;” and we know, deprived as they are of each other, they have not even the right to petition! They are denied all the benefits of the law, which provides only for their punishment, and offences too, that in nine times out of ten they commit, at the instigation of a master, whom the law makes the keeper of their conscience, the controller of their actions, the dispenser of the bread they eat, and the clothes they wear!

In truth, there is nothing they can call their own but death; not even “that small model of their servile clay which forms a paste and cover to their bones.”

The prejudice against giving to women political rights is, I know, deeply rooted, but without them, as men very well know, there is no guarantee for the other rights; for the great mass of ordinary men, jealous of their power, will ever be inclined to exercise it on those, whom oppression holds captive, and will wish to render those already weak, still weaker, by destroying the moral energy, which would resist oppression. It is time indeed that all men should consent to sacrifice their love of a debasing power for one which, while it exalts their nature, secures to them advantages as solid as they are durable.

Let a woman receive a rational education, and the only insuperable barrier is removed, to a state of social happiness, hitherto unknown to our wretched species, and incompatible with that system of egotism, which would browbeat nature and justice to obtain it. Wisdom dictates such a course, necessity requires it!

When ever the advocacy of general education shall be attempted, the name of Miss Frances Wright ought never to be omitted; may she find an echo in every instructed woman, and an active ally in every man! Grateful posterity will no doubt associate her name, with the illustrious men of the present age, who, having discovered the principles of real social science, gave them to the world under the name of CO-OPERATION.

I shall now conclude — fearing that I have already spun out this lecture to an unreasonable length.

To women I would say (if there be any here, who, like myself, feel their degraded social condition) continue not to leave the bitter inheritance of ignorance and slavery to your daughters; plead for their rights, and that most precious of all, a sound and liberal education. Obtain this for your children and you secure the liberties of mankind!

It is the duty as it is the interest of all, to aid in accelerating that justice of humanity!

To this end it will be necessary to spread the principles put forth in this school, not only in private circles, but by forming a society of enlightened advocates, for the rights of women; the ultimate object of which will be to obtain, by all legal means, the removal of the disabilities of women, and the introduction of a national system of equal education for the Infants of both sexes.



Source: The British Co-ooperator; or, Record and Review of Do-operative and Entertaining Knowledge, No. 2 — Vol. 1, (London: George Virtue, 1830), pp. 12-15, 33-36.