previous next

IV. the woman of influence.

Mr.Worth, the eminent Paris dress-maker, telegraphs to the Boston Sunday Herald that the great and pressing need of the age is a Woman of Influence, somewhere or other, to set the fashions. In default of this, he has, after exhausting his genius upon a new dress, to use various indirect devices to bring it into vogue. If one thinks what a beautiful work of art a lady's dress may be, when wealth and Worth have done their best for it, and what an appalling product mere wealth without taste can develop under that name, one may well give a sigh of sympathy to this man of genius who can find no woman quite worthy of his scissors. Yet the truth is that the Woman of Influence is demanded not alone to wear clothes, but to modify and control all the habits of society. A person of power, of individuality, of resources, of charm, is needed in every place where a woman stands, and is not to be had in answer to an advertisement. “What we want,” said a certain school committee-man, after a long debate in our committee about the best way to secure [18] a competent female assistant in the high-school-“what we want, gentlemen, is a splendid woman.” This was at once accepted by all as a complete formula for the situation; it was the later task of actually hunting up this priceless creature, and securing her for eight hundred dollars a year, that proved formidable.

In these days one is certainly impressed with the prominence of literature as a sphere for the Woman of Influence. When we think of the thousands of high-schools and academies throughout the land in which, next graduation-day, some maiden in white will read an essay on “The genius of George Eliot,” we may well say with Rufus Choate, “After all, a book is the only immortality.” And surely the reader is impressed with the way in which a woman's genius, even if not of the very highest order, may retain its hold after her death, on seeing the late statements of Mr. Routledge, the great publisher of cheap books in England, as to the continued demand for Mrs. Hemans's poetry. In the last generation the pure and melodious muse of this lady had great reputation; her American editor was Professor Andrews Norton, father of the present Professor Charles Eliot Norton, and one of the most cultivated critics of his day; and it appears from the late memoirs of Garrison that her verses were long the favorite food of that strong and heroic [19] mind. Yet it has been the custom to speak of her popularity as a thing of the past. Now arrives Mr. Routledge, and gives the figures as to his sales of the different poets in a single calendar year. First comes Longfellow, with the extraordinary sale of 6000 copies; then we drop to Scott, with 3170: Shakespeare, 2700; Byron, 2380; Moore, 2276; Burns, 2250. To these succeeds Mrs. Hemans, with a sale of 1900 copies, Milton falling short of her by 50, and no one else showing much more than half that demand. Hood had 980 purchasers,Cowper, 800, and all others less; Shelley had 500 and Keats but 40. Of course this is hardly even an approximate estimate of the comparative popularity of these poets, since much would depend, for instance, on the multiplicity or value of rival editions; but it proves in a general way that Mrs. Hemans holds her own, in point of readers, fifty years after her death. What other form of influence for man or woman equals this?

Yet there are many other modes of action. That of Florence Nightingale, for instance, modestly vindicating a woman's foresight against the dulness and red tape of a whole War Department, and returning from the most superb career of public service that ever woman had, with ruined health, but with such universal love and reverence from the Crimean army that a statue would have been erected [20] to her by a penny subscription had she not refused it. That of Clara Barton, or Dorothea Dix, or Mary Livermore, or Jean Lander, or Mother Bickerdyke, in our own civil war. That of many a worker in the Associated Charities of our large cities, or of those special organizations which were almost always carried on, thirty years ago, under the official leadership and treasurership of men, but which have been steadily falling, more and more, during that period, into the hands of women. That of many a woman of society, so called, who recognizes in “society” itself a sphere for conscientious duty — so that the tone of a whole town or city may sometimes be said to be kept up or let down according as the leading “society woman” is a person of character or a doll. That of many a woman in some log-cabin on the frontier, whose society consists in a dozen children of her own and perhaps two or three more taken in from charity; the woman who, nameless and noteless, maintains that average quality among our American people which can always be relied upon to send from obscurity a Lincoln or a Grant in time of imminent need. Beyond all these, perhaps, in total influence ranks the great army of women teachers, spreading their unseen and daily labors through every school district from Cape Cod to the Golden Gate; smoothing the waste places, equalizing all our civilization, doing the most for the [21] poorest; and again, in the upper regions of education, rising into the work of such missionaries of the highest training as Mary Lyon in the past, or Alice Freeman in the present. Compared with these lives, how petty seem the little struggles for position and etiquette? In what lingering childishness does the most exalted womanhood of Europe seem still to be involved when we read in the telegraphic headings, “Great indignation of Queen Victoria,” and find that this excitement relates, not to the tremendous Irish problem and the threatened dismemberment of her empire, but to the hesitation of certain courts of Europe to accord to Prince Henry Something-or-other, her latest son-in-law, the title of “His royal Highness!”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Cape Cod (Massachusetts, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1900 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: