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Woman's rights and woman's duties (1866)

Address delivered in New York City, May 10, 1866.

Ladies and gentlemen: I am very glad that all that will be required of me this morning, is to answer to the roll-call,--to say “Yes” to my name. You know you cannot have more than the whole of a subject. That is not possible. I have only had the pleasure of listening to the last address, by our friend Henry Ward Beecher; and I think if he had left a suggestion unmade, or any part of the field unexplored, I would have made an effort to supply the omission. But as I watched him step by step, it seemed to me that General Grant could not have covered his camp and his lines more effectually, from centre to outpost. Oliver Wendell Holmes said once that there was always a representative man who went out of every lecture-room at a certain period, at all seasons of the year, and in all parts of the country. The lyceum lecturers held a consultation to learn the cause, and Holmes, being a surgeon, performed an autopsy, and found that the reason was that the man's brain was full; and when he came to that state, he went out. I think you must all have come to that state. There is no speech left for us who follow to make; but I hope you will allow me a single suggestion. [129]

I think our friend touched the very kernel of the whole subject when he reminded you that suffrage was not alone woman's right, but woman's duty. I believe that to confer the ballot will add but little to the influence of woman. I am interested in this question, because I wish to put recognized power where there already exists unrecognized influence. I think unrecognized influence is always dangerous. It acts under no adequate sense of responsibility. Society does not attempt to check it. It is unheeded and unwatched. Consequently it is always doubly liable to corruption.

I believe that to-day it may be said, more truly than of any other cause in our social philosophy, that woman rules the State. What made the Southern rebellion? Woman did not make it; but without the enthusiasm and the frenzy of women on its side, it never could have been made. What was the potent influence that almost tore the Republic asunder? Woman's. Yet that wide-spread, deep-anchored force had swayed the Southern mind for years,--under no sense of civil responsibility, neither watched nor educated, never in the eye of day, never feeling that it was doing anything which needed to be summoned before the tribunal of conscience.

Our friend said that if woman could vote, she would shut up the groggeries of this city. She could shut them up to-day. Albany is nothing compared with fashion. What is the legislature compared with the ton that permeates society,--the throne that woman first founded, and has ever since filled? More than college, stronger than church, weightier than trade, more controlling than all put together, woman is its recognized queen. If she issued her edict to-day, unfaltering, unmixed, undoubting, there could nought but submission follow. A vote is a great thing; legislation is a large power,--but money is a larger power. Why do not women make [130] money? They have the faculty. The brother comes into this city; no man knows his name; his purse is empty; his word would not be worth five dollars, and his opinion less; he lives here a dozen years, walks up and down Wall Street, and finally his name counts for millions. Why was it? He clutched at all the opportunities which society gave him; he made himself a force; he garnered around himself the influences of life and business connections. Why should not woman? Albany does not hinder her. There is nothing on the statute-book to forbid. One large, ugly, irreconcilable fact of a woman worth ten millions by her own toil, would be worth quartos of statute-books. Why does she not make it? Because you do not let her; because it is reputable for a boy to go and make money, and it is not reputable for his sister; because fashion says to the girl that earns her own bread, “You are tabooed;” while fashion says to the boy that does not earn his own bread, “You are a poppinjay.” The consequence is that one earns his own bread, and his place in the world's panorama besides; the other lacks it. Where is the remedy? You cannot be legislated into it. Nothing can help you up at Albany. No ballot-box will help you, except indirectly. Issue your edict.

The medical profession is full of prizes. The men that gain them occupy a large space before the world. Why does not woman obtain some of them? Why does she not clutch the largest culture and discipline, and gain the greatest prizes? If every woman said, “When I need, in extremest peril, the aid of science, I will take it only at a sister's hand,” do you suppose there is a college in the broad United States that would dare to shut the doors of its opportunities against a woman? Not for an hour.

I want to urge it upon your attention that large as is [131] the ballot, broad as legislation is, behind it are broader opportunities and a larger influence; and the only thing that blocks the door to those paths is your opinion,--an opinion that you can change. The edict of woman's decisive opinion will close the groggeries of New York City much quicker than the metropolitan police can close them.

The singularity of this cause is that it has to be argued against the wishes and purposes of its victims. The slave stood behind us, the irresistible pulsations of his heart agonizing for his rights. The unrepresented millions of England swell the voice of John Bright; and as our friend told us, Aristocracy trembles before their half-uttered wish. But when you come to the Woman Question, the first great abiding difficulty is that woman is herself the obstacle,--that she fills the chair most potent and irresistible in this discussion, that of popular opinion, and she utters her verdict against us. I would not belittle the ballot, nor fail to appreciate legislation; but I would remind woman that legislation is but a circumstance in the broad circle of the forces that make and mould civil power. Business, professional distinction in society, education,--these are as much the elemental creators of our civilization as the lawbook. Indeed, the law-book is nothing but the vane on the steeple, and these are the winds that set its direction. So when we find fault with the prejudices of this class or that, against conferring the ballot, it is to be remembered that after all, in the largest and most emphatic sense, it is woman herself who is against us. Sometimes they say, “That is very true; but do you expect us to initiate an opinion on this subject while man remains unconvinced?” That argument acknowledges your inferiority.

The course of the world's history is, first, the government [132] of force; first, brute strength. An old Hindoo dreamed that he saw the human race led out to its varied fortunes. And first, he saw men bitted and curbed; and the reins were of iron, and went back to an iron hand. And he dreamed on, the legend says, until he saw men led by invisible threads that came from the brain and went back to an unseen hand. The first was the government of force; the last was the government of ideas. In this government of ideas, in the struggle upward, we have something more noble than selfish interests or party averages to govern the country. Woman's brain, if our cause rests on a sound and enduring basis, is to be as prompt and influential in establishing the future as man's. There have been but five or six times in the history of France when fashion in the salons of Paris would not have unseated any king; yet woman never had a vote. When Napoleon banished Madame de Stail from France, he acknowledged the power of the throne she filled, and that his could not withstand her influence. If the genius of Madame de Stael is the representative to any extent of the force that woman can wield in modern society, then this cause rests upon you first, and almost last upon fashion. A sneer at woman's making her living, a lack of recognition because she earns her bread, just that flavor of unfashionableness which work stamps upon woman,--in that impalpable, almost invisible, indescribable power, is the magic that binds Albany in the chains of male legislation.

The legislator votes from the streets of New York. You may as well attempt to whisper back Niagara as to change this by legislation; yet there are forces that can change it. The very force that gave it food can give it poison. The sister comes to New York. The prizes of life are before her, and her brother wins [133] them,--large wages, ample opportunities, breadth for development, every career open,--he takes them. He smothers the first stimulus to vice, and cultivates ambition. If he fails once or twice he gets up again, and having driven out of the chamber the Devil, he fills it with honorable aspirations, with ambition to be worthy of his father, and to do something for the world into which God has sent him. The sister comes into the city, and she finds starvation wages,--wages at such a rate that they offer no rise even in the future to what her soul aspires to. Vice comes with gilded hand, clad in velvet, attended with luxury, in the chariot of ease, and says, “An hour, and all this is yours.”

Give men honest wages, and ninety-nine out of a hundred will disdain to steal. Give woman what the same labor gives to man, and ninety-nine out of one hundred will disdain to purchase it by vice. [Applause.] But you will never fill up that grave until you enable women to stand before the competition of the crowded streets of this city and make their choice as men do,--not crowded by your religious bigotry, born of a mistaken and ideal Saint Paul, or a fastidiousness which will not allow women to work into a few occupations, but with every door open to them. Let the fifty thousand women that must earn. a living have a choice of five hundred occupations, and dictate terms, instead of standing trembling at the doors, and taking work at one tenth the price of male labor. Then you cure vice because you withhold the food upon which it lives. Legislation cannot do that. You cannot legislate the tailor into high wages, when a thousand needle-girls stand at his door begging for the work of which he has only enough to fill the hands of a hundred. The Sermon on the Mount, put into the statute-book, would not change it a half-cent; but if fashion, respectability, and the public opinion of a kind sisterhood [134] will say to those thousands of girls: “It shall be as honorable to you, no matter where you earn your bread, as it is to your brother. We trample mistaken Judaism under one foot, and our absurdly ideal Saint Paul under the other; nothing to us is the old, false, so-called delicacy, which was the Moloch to which religious bigotry and mistaken opinion offered up the virtue of two thirds of the sisterhood. In spite of all, go out; earn your living in some two hundred or five hundred vocations.” Then, at his door, the tailor will find fifty women when he wants a hundred, and they will dictate terms from the outside, instead of he from within.

Albany cannot help you. Political economy cannot help you. Help never will come while shrinking woman tries to save respectability by clinging to the needle, and labors only in the secrecy of home. Gild her pathway with your approbation, no matter where she walks in honest business. [Applause.] Greet her with the most honorable recognition, no matter what she does, provided it be what her brother might do,--an honorable man under the same circumstances. That immedicable wound of a great city, that social vice before which modern civilization stands aghast, unable even to suggest a remedy, will lie helpless and conquered in the hands of a correct public opinion, that shall allow woman to make her way upward to ease, to honor, to wealth, to all that the human soul craves, unchecked by morbid fashion; and it is you that make public opinion.

The tempter to vice in the streets of New York is not the rout; it is the absurdly fastidious, the bigotedly religious sister that lives in a warm mansion within half a mile. [Applause.] She is the one that binds the limbs that God made alert, and the powers that God made strong, and hands the victim over to the utmost control of the tempter. Go home and reform [135] yourself; go home and let there emanate from each one of you that influence in society which is the cradle of the realm,--at once the creature and the creator of public opinion, the spur and the reward which gathers into its broad circle all the influences of modern civilization of which Greece and Rome knew nothing, which even the New Testament, with its manhood and equality, could not produce, which took its birth in Paris, born of a woman's edict, living solely by the inspiration of the sex,--more potent in shaping the literature, the religion, and the policy of the last two centuries than any other force.

We have adequate illustration of the effect that I am prophesying. Take literature, for instance, to which. allusion has been made. Woman is an equal in the literary republic; genius knows no sex. Men count women as readers,--even more of women than of busy men. What is the result? The literature of the Middle Ages, that was not readable, that had to be expurgated, is lifted to a higher level; its tone is broader, and its perception finer; it is the diapason of the instrument before which the classicism of Greece and Rome was heavy and dull. Woman's influence is felt in literature, and what is the result? As much as the average level of the race will permit, literature is the proof that there are some dark lines to be added.

Potent and equal in this, as woman has been, there is much yet to be cured. Give woman the ballot, and I do not count on the millennium the next day. No; it will come very gradually. In the Church, woman has had a recognition, but not an equality. Christianity has given her much more than the law did. She has a large representation there, and to some extent a vote; but her authority is anchored two hundred years behind the nineteenth century in spite of it. It did not save the [136] Church; it will not save the State. The Church cut short her power, and limited her influence much more than literature has done; and her marvellous effect is better seen in the literary republic than in the religious. Both show the almost immeasurable and inexpressible potency of the presence of this element of public opinion mingling with ours. But the largest symbol of what woman can do, is her own exclusive sphere, and that is fashion,--in society, omnipotent.

I do not blame men when I meet them full of prejudice against this movement. I do not feel by any means that keen agony of interest in this question that I did in the Slavery Question. I do not feel even that intense interest that I did in the Temperance cause, because the drunkard asked us to help him in the effort to rise upon his feet; but here is woman, educated, influential, walking up and down the highways of society, wielding enormous influence, corrupting the channels of politics to-day. The keenest observer of French politics and French society, Tocqueville, says in one of the most suggestive and most remarkable of all his letters, that he ascribes the treachery of some of the first leaders in the reform movements in France, to the influence of wives and daughters upon husbands and brothers, inducing them to use the positions which the men would have used for principle for their own private advancement or the comfort of the family. “Yes,” said he, concluding his letter, “it is the mothers and daughters of France that have wrecked some of our noblest movements to help the millions.”

Unrecognized influence which ought to be turned into acknowledged power, exercised in the light of day, educated, held to a strict responsibility, rebuked, criticised, held up to scorn, caricatured, visited with well-deserved sarcasm, made to feel that the vice and corruption of party [137] and society are not by any means exclusively man's fault, -rests upon no serious or earnest difference of opinion, but upon shades of fashion, delicacy of taste, fastidious sensibility, and other absurdities, and to that we offer up, day by day, the virtue of society. Lucretia Mott, at the very first Woman's Rights Convention assembled in this country some eighteen years ago, bade us remember that it would not be men that would be our greatest obstacles; that it would not be the law-book; but that we were launching a cause which would find in the besotted opposition of its own victims its deadliest foe. [Applause.] That has not ceased to be true to-day.

Remember also that the moment you issue your command every medical college will be open. The moment you take off your ban every avenue of trade will be trodden by women. The moment you make known your purpose the statute-book will record your verdict. Wives and daughters, you are able in these matters to dictate the policy of your fathers and husbands.

In Massachusetts, we owe one of the first steps toward the recognition of woman's right to property to the selfishness of fathers, about to leave their daughters dowered with large wealth, and unwilling to trust it to the chances of their husbands' character. They were always anxious to put it into the hands of trustees, and they found that men were very much averse, even when bidden by the strongest friendship, to undertake a long trust on account of its dangers and responsibility. The fathers themselves selected the most conservative lawyer at the Suffolk bar to draw the statute, than which we could not have imagined a better, which secured to wealthy women the control of their inherited property, even if they were married.

Again, it was the bank interest of the savings-bank [138] of the Commonwealth, that secured to laboring women their wages. These causes co-operated before the public opinion of women themselves demanded the changes. Laggard, and lacking her promptings, the cause that we advocate came up behind the selfish elements of society. But if, instead of this, the working women or heiresses had dictated their wants, the changes could have been made; and so they can to-day.

I do not ignore the power of woman; it is too great. I want it lessened. I am not going to give the sex any more influence; I am going to diminish it. Her influence is hidden and all but omnipotent. Uneducated and irresponsible, it is terrible. I want it dragged to the light of day; I want it measured and labelled; I want it counted and criticised; I want it educated and put on record; I want to be able to find it and indict it, which I cannot do to-day. In order to do that, let us trace home the evil to its very source. Let woman know that nobody stops her but herself. She ties her own limbs; she corrupts her own sisters; she demoralizes civilization,--and then folds her arms, and calls it “religion” [applause], or steps back, and christens it “taste.” Do you suppose that the tenants of a thousand pulpits could avail to shut woman out from making her own opportunity, if the women of the Empire State determined that it should be. Find me the motive, and I will guarantee the ministers to make it commensurate with the Scriptures. Find me the popular habit, and I will find you the clergy to give it anchorage in the New Testament.

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