"Men's Rights"
February 1869
Putnam's Magazine

Dublin Core


"Men's Rights"
February 1869
Putnam's Magazine


Men’s Rights.


I have always had a perverse inclination to the other side of the question, especially if there was little to be said for it. One hates to be smothered even under truth. What if all the world, as well as our senses, say that the shield is silver? One wants the more to creep round to that solitary, dark corner yonder, and look out of the eyes of the one poor ghost who says that it is gold.

For instance: this question of Woman’s Wrongs, or Woman’s Needs, as I prefer to call it. It is a truth so self-evident, so weighty, that it is too late for argument about it. It finds tacit, terrible words of its own in the envious, hungry eyes of the lean women crowding in the evenings into the doors of slop-shops and arsenals; in that other mob of women, born pure as you or I, who, later in the night, stand at the street-corners, waiting – waiting; in every fresh sweet girl who carries her soul and body into the market for a husband. It is a tragedy more real to me than any other in life.

But its reality oppresses us sometimes: takes away our breath like the péle-m[é]le bloodiness of Hamlet. Is there no wholesome comedy left in the world? One’s heart is so sore looking at women, that it is a relief to turn to the tyrants men, who are accused with all this misery, to find if they have not a word to plead on their side. I have a friend, a sensible young fellow, with homely practical ideas to suit his life, who fancies that men are in danger, in their turn, of losing some of their rights. His fancy has the more weight, because I think he represents the moderate and cool men, who leave the talking about this matter to those who flatter and sneer at us, or drive the women-leaders of the Rights movement into most unmanly rages by petting, and offered pap, supposing them to be refractory babies.

My neighbor, John, has neither gifts nor graces by which he will probably influence his age. He has no mania for leaving footprints on the sands of any time. He is like the majority of young men in the Middle States, mediocre in intellect, but well-meaning and industrious, hoping to make a moderate fortune, become a good citizen, husband, and father, and go through life creditably and honestly. Next week he is going into business for himself, in a small way, down on the wharf.

“So far, good.” he says. “Where men are concerned, life is plain walking enough. If a man is my enemy, I knock him down, or he knocks me; if he is my friend, I give him a helping shoulder when I can, lend him money when he is hard-up, am civil to his women-folks, and, without any tears or effusion, I feel a hard tug within me when he dies. But it is the women: they have made the old landmarks marsh under our feet. I suppose it is unreasonable and the old masculine tyranny in me, but I would like to know in what relation I am to stand to them? What is my wife to be to me, or I to my wife?”

It is a state of transition with women, I tell him.

“Transition? Yes, truly! Since I began to listen to the story of their wrongs, the world is turned topsy-turvy. I’m morally sea-sick. But how long is this transition to last? Whose fault is it that it lasts so long?”

As John is one of those who come in with the mob at the end of a reform, I advise him to shut his ears to the tumult, and attend only to his business down on the wharf. But how can he shut his ears? The very air is filled with the protests of women, from France, England, and every city and village about us. Battle-cries from the stronger, groans from the weak; "outraged souls," as they style themselves, "cheated, manacled, with divine and stifled powers." No wonder that John, who is easily convinced by noise, feels, he says, like Dante looking down the ruined sweep, and believes, conscience­ stricken, that these multitudinous souls are really pursued only by the cruelty of man's will.

“On this side, and on that, above, below,

It drives them; hope of rest to solace them

Is none, nor e’en of milder pang.”[1]

What is it they want? What is it they do not want? There is a savage reality in some of their needs. Suffrage, they cry; emancipation from a bondage as old as the world; equal wages and property-rights; work to save them from prostitution; and—God help us!—food for them and their children. When I hear these cries, and the wild, contradictory remedies with which they vainly rush to each other, it brings back a passage from an old book of mine.

“And the name of the Slough was Despond:
here, therefore, they wallowed for a while.
“Then said Helpful: ‘Why did you not look for the steps?’
“‘I fled the other way,’ said Christian.”[2]

For there never was a slough in which there were not stepping-stones, if we looked for them with common sense and a little faith in God. That is my experience.

Our grandmothers seem to have had firm ground under their feet. There is an old lady, on the other side of the fire, a keen-eyed, stiff little body, with broad, pure satin ribbon about her high cap, and a thick ring of Guinea gold on her finger—her troth-ring—when she was seventeen. Girls were betrothed but once then, she tells me. When she talks of her formal courtship, of the miracles of chenille-work done between the half­ yearly solemn tasks of storing away pork and preserves, of the old-fashioned reverence for old age, of the mild mental intoxication provided for women in “Faber on the ‘Prophecies,’”[3] or “The Children of the Abbey,” [4]—I have glimpses of a life which, though narrow, was contented, clean, and decent.

What workwomen saw belonged to them then, they did without reluctance, without slighting, and without braggadocio. Is it so with us now?

But Eliza tells me, we have liberalized all that. The enfranchisement of her sex is at hand. Eliza is John's sister. I see a great many girls like her nowadays. She has pale, striking features, a skin like dough, gray, thoughtful eyes; her chest is flat; her movements and whole bearing are full of unrest, and hint subtly at suppressed power. Women are not intimate with her, though she is generous and large-natured as a lion or a fine dog, and men do not understand her. Perhaps only one ever will, and him she should marry.

The girls of her clique belong to the class who have more culture than money; but they struggle less than their mothers did to keep up appearances; even make jokes about their poverty, and parade it. They are musical or literary; some of them make specialities of bugs or German philosophy; most of them have written rejected poems for the magazines; and, although they may have just left school, I hear them, in the evenings, discussing with the men Bismarck's policy[5], or Herbert Spencer[6], or Renan[7], with light, authoritative touches of comprehension, that leave the old lady and me behind them breathless. Whether they condemn a philosophy, or dismiss a lover, or arrange their paniers and chignons, it is done alike with the same careless air of aplomb and superiority. They would have me think that woman's brain, after its so long imprisonment, is like the vapory genie who escaped from the fisherman's iron box[8], in the story; there is nothing on earth or sea which it cannot cover and conquer. They are girls who do not marry early, as a rule.

John has another sister, Nelly, whom her sister deems far below the true status of women— a rosy, dimpled little dot, who is just yawning through her last year of school, with her hands full of books, and both eyes on “the beaux.”

Since she was born, Nell bas been brimming over with inviting little coquetries; and for my life I can see no harm in them; they are just as pure as the cooing of the birds in Spring wait­ing to be chosen by their mates, or the perfume of the flowers by which they silently woo one another.

The girls grow satirical when they talk of their grandmother and the lot of woman in her days. They look back upon the chenille, and pork, and preserving-work, as the butterfly on the grub from which it has escaped. They were examining some old ivory miniatures last night, and were annoyed, I saw, to find the features of these last­century women as refined as their own, and the vehicles of as subtle and strong minds. “Strange,” said Eliza, as she put them away, “that they could have been contented with a life of serfdom—mere wives and mothers and house­ keepers! The mental hunger of women of this age, is the trait that separates them from all others.”

That last sentence seemed to me to touch the germ of the whole matter. Suffrage, or work, any of the popular cries among us, are but so many expressions of this same mental hunger or unused power.

Unused, and therefore unwholesome power. And, following, comes directly into view one marked trait about the women of the present time, as men see them, particularly those who live in large cities—a trait of which they hear but seldom. Men who flatter them, laugh coarsely at it among themselves; and men like John, to whom there is nothing on earth so worthy of reverence as a good, pure woman, look on it astonished and incredulous. He thinks secretly a great deal about the woman whom he will marry, and wonders where and how he will find her. He is awkward and shy when with them, fearing to hurt them by contact with his rough nature, believing them all to be pure and good and tender. This matter of which I speak concerns him deeply, and the men like him. But it is fitter that I, being a woman, should speak of it than he.

The most salient and apparent change in women, in the last few years (I do not say the deepest), is not advance in intelligence, marked as that may be; it is the growth in impurity. It is simply a transient effect of this roused and ungratified brain-power. The ordinary London or New York woman is too for advanced in the “progress of the age” to find employment for her awakened imagination or reason in housekeeping or in gossip; too little to turn to art or science or even downright hard business. In self-defence, then, she listens to lascivious music, or looks at the living pictures of the ballet, where her passions at least are daintily played upon. She rends, or writes, as the case may be, novels in which few of the men are honest, and none of the women virtuous, or, advancing a step farther, she finds that but a mean and ignoble life for a woman which is sacrificed to the children whom God has given her; and on æsthetic principles, quietly does her share in building up the temples to murder, that openly face us in our most crowded streets.

I begin with an extreme case? Perhaps so. Yet hunger is not choice in its food, and there is reason to doubt whether the ordinary aliment of all women in literature or art, now, is a whit more pure and wholesome than that of men, coarse as we declare their appetites to be.

There is a class of subjects, the name of which would bring the red to the old lady's check yonder, but with which it is the fashion of the day to make young girls thoroughly conversant. There is no need to send Nelly out of the room now, no matter what topic the matrons may discuss. The terra incognita of our grandmothers is well-trodden ground to her at sixteen.

How can it be otherwise?

She finds not only men, but women, whose names are tainted, among the leaders of fashionable society; she sits beside her mother, and sees her smiling at the bald indecency of the opera bouffe without a blush; she bears the “social evil” coolly discussed as a social necessity. It is no wonder, then, that, night after night, Nelly herself may be seen, with back and bosom half-bared, whirling and perspiring in Dick French's[9] arms, while her mother looks placidly on. If I hint my disgust, I am told severely, that to the pure all things are pure, and that the obscene play and the waltz that sets Dick French's blood on fire, if looked on æsthetically, are, to women, refined and innocent pleasures.

I doubt if any man believes this. If, for lack of pure occupation for their brains and senses, women of society bring this offal to pollute their daily lives, they need not suppose that any affected ignorance or æsthetic sunlight will hide the real nature of the substance from the men about them. Dick French, worn roué that he is, has joined the school of the critic of the Saturday Review. He asserts that all women are represented by these. He hints that he understands the lures that these décolleté belles put forth.

“It's cursed hard on a fellow,” he says. “The extravagance of these women won't allow a man to marry; yet they tempt him to do it with all the arts of the worst of the demi-monde.” Then he and his compeers adjust their eye-glasses, and lean against doorways, criticising the paces of the delicate young girls who are whirled past, as a trader might the slaves in the market.

French goes too far. My little Nelly is not in the market; she has her secret innocent dream of true-love and marriage some day, hid away in her heart. There is not one of French's crew whom she would marry. When she unclothes herself immodestly and surrenders her person to their touch, she has no ulterior purpose beyond the intoxicating pleasure of the moment. Custom has made her eyes familiar with indecency—worn away the defensive instinct of purity with which every woman is born; but that is the worst that can be said of her. Yet, if her own blood be such ice, that the exposure of her person has no power to bring a blush to her cheek, does it matter nothing to her that pleased, unclean eyes rest on her, that half of the men who look on her mistake her motives and pity the degradation she undergoes in her effort to please them?

I use coarse language. The times are coarse. The state of society which can make a Swinburne[10] possible, can bear a few plain words without detriment to its modesty. It is true that the evil is as yet confined to our large cities. God forbid that the fashionable fast girl of New York or Chicago should be received as the typical woman of America. She bears the same proportion to the women of the States that the feverish outbreak on the face does to the whole healthy, sweet-blooded body. But this society assumes to stand foremost in refinement and culture, and cannot object to have its claims tested. Besides, the feverish taint will spread.

Men, I think, have some claim to be heard in this matter. The most debased among them will hold one thing sacred—the honor of his wife. He has a right to demand that it come to him untainted. Dull and plain fellow as is John, he has a right to claim from the woman whom he marries, and from the mother who rears her, that she shall not have been put in the market to parade her shape like an animal; that she shall not have had her person handled by every roué who frequents the ball-room; that be shall not receive her hackneyed and brazen from flirtations; and that her mind shall be clean as her body.

This is a return to old-fashioned prudery. Yes. If the æsthetic culture of today demands the exploration of such foul fields by our young girls; and if, on the other hand, the necessity for wider careers for woman is to render motherhood the rare luxury which it has become in New England, let us, in the name of the good, pure God, go humbly back to the stagnation of our grandmothers!

I know quite well the answer ready for me. It is not women who have first tainted society and literature; it is not weak, starving, ill-paid women who are to blame for this Gehenna of prostitution that underlies our social fabric.

I do not think that the guilt of man has anything to do with the responsibility of women. To our own master we stand or fall. We have always claimed to be the moral element in humanity. The claim was never made so loudly as it is now by our spokeswomen. “Her right,” says one of the most earnest, “is to be ministered unto in carnal things; her province is to minister in spiritual things.” Another portrays venality disappearing from the courts, bribery from the halls of legislation, trickery from trade, so soon as her pure foot shall be admitted over the threshold. “Evil shrinks away abashed before the steps of the ideal woman.”

But the real? Men have a right, when claims like these are made, to demand their proof. We who boast of white garments, must show them white. How can we ask for the ten talents[11] to be given to us, when we grow less and less able to hold that one talent of purity committed to our keeping? Here is a reform more urgent than any which will follow suffrage; yet women shut their eyes to the bare facts, and hurry by.

There are other rights of men, which it would be worth our while to consider for our own sake. They are unfortunate in their manner of presenting them, it may be. It is too late for John, either to ignore his sister Eliza altogether, or to call her “a fair one,” and try to tie up these very keen eyes of hers by any flimsy web of sentiment. It would suit the present posture of affairs better, perhaps, if he clapped her on the shoulder, and begged her, like a good fellow, to be done with complaining and haranguing, and look at the matter rationally, as one man with another. She has begun her argument with the peroration.

The beginning of every reform has been this outcry, unrest, groping, passionate demand; but that is only the trumpet call, the real struggle comes afterward. It is time the struggle began. So long as we cite our wrongs, and plead for standing-room in the world, we gain that tender, valueless sympathy, so readily given, because we are women; but as soon as we attempt to put our feet on the man's preempted ground, we must prove our right to every inch by the hard logic of work well done. Our stakes must be driven as deep as his before we can take his long-held territory from him. That is but fair.

To begin at the beginning: I would ask Eliza, Is it just to lay upon man the whole blame of what she calls the serfdom of woman? With but rare exceptions, she declares, they have been, in every nation, domestic slaves or petted playthings; debarred from a share in the legislation of governments, which they were taxed to support; debarred from a share in the world's work, which would have made them as independent, in mind and body, as was man. Hence both mind and body are enfeebled, and marriage has become the sole approved means of earning subsistence.

I suppose it is right that all reformers must be purblind in a measure; if they only see the bend of the nail they're driving, they strike the harder blows. Those words—domestic slaves and petted toys—have a ring about them which Eliza likes. She has repeated them so often that they seem to her to cover the whole ground of argument, from Sarah in Abraham’s[12] tent to the days of Mary Wollstonecraft[13]. They seem to me as blatant as most popular cries. The condition of women in savage nations does not touch the matter with us. The larger brute makes his weaker mate grind his corn, and carry his load, in obedience to the only law he knows—that of physical force. It has been a different instinct which has hitherto assigned woman her place by the fireside in civilized countries.

Eliza calls it an unjust instinct and fraught with evil. “Man is and has always been the enemy of women,” cries one of these female reformers, in a sort of unintelligible rage, which the mention of a man always rouses in her. I do not want to argue that point. It is not of importance as concerns the justice now due to women who is to blame for her past position. Only, if we were told the history of any race—who, for three thousand years, had lived in daily intercourse with another, with a chance for the same culture, with the same language, seated side by side in perfect social equality, and yet who had remained in a state of subjection, debarred from rights which they held to be theirs, we would be apt to decide, sharply enough, either that the rights were not fitted for them by nature, or that their cowardice and hesitation to grasp them deserved the serfdom. There have been women-judges, soldiers, merchants, in every country and in every time; women who were leaders in the state or in war or in trade; and the readiness with which their ground was ceded to them, the applause with which their slightest merit was welcomed, prove how easily climbed was the path they trod, and how accessible to every woman, if she had chosen to climb it.

It was not altogether the fault of the obdurate rock that it hid for so many years the gifts of manhood from the boy Theseus[14], but his own flaccid muscles and uncertain will, which failed to overturn it. When the time to use them had come, the rock was put aside, and the golden sandals and magic sword lay beneath which were to make his path easy and clear for him. My word for it, being a real hero, and needing them for real work, he did not vent his disgust at his own weakness in rage, and kicks against the stubborn stone.

Again. Eliza, as the woman of the nineteenth century, naturally magnifies her office. It is so easy to include in one fell swoop of pity and condemnation all women who have gone before, to satirize them as pretty, half-souled lumps of matter; unable, blind to the God-given rights of which they were deprived; subject to the flatteries and wrongs of all Euphuistic tyrants[15], from licentious Solomon[16] to unfortunate Doctor Todd.[17]

But—to go to the gist and marrow of the matter—what is the real difference between Eliza and her despised great grandmother? The women of no age have lagged far behind the men in the mental culture belonging to that age. Yet there was a space between the foremost man and woman in the days of “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother[18],” and there is a like space now.

It is hardly fair for Eliza to flaunt in the mild faces of these ghostly ancestresses of hers, the strength which she owes to the advance of her time—an advance in which men have assuredly been the pioneers.

Putting aside this advantage, then, as irrelative, the difference between the women of the two eras is in the work which offers itself to them, not in their ability or faithfulness to their work.

The wife of the farmer in Cheshire, in County Cork, or in our own dark and bloody Kentucky ground, found as much exercise for practical knowledge, for governing power, for skilful hands and ready brain among her cows, linen looms, or mules, as the shrewd New York girl of to-day, setting types or measuring yards of muslin. If Eliza had ever chanced to meet one of those old Frenchwomen of the salons, at whom and at whose feeble imitations she rails, as at painted, useless butterflies, she would have found a new revelation in human nature to her—a something for which, beside the apparent outward graces, there had been required a variety of acquirement, a severity of mental training, an insight into human nature, and an infinite tact in the use of all her capital, which would have made up a dozen of the crude, half-taught young women who rush before the American public as its voluntary guides and instructors—women who were true artists in their vocation, and, though they never, perhaps, lifted a pen save to write the idlest and charmingest of notes, left broad, deep traces in the world's history, became a fifth estate, with an influence as powerful and more subtle than any other.

There is a great class of women who do not belong to any rank or age, upon whom the seventh and flaming vial of Eliza's wrath is poured—women of whom my coquettish dumpling Nell is the embryo type. They look at us from every phase of art or literature, their loving, lovable faces surrounded by every halo which the hand of genius can lighten and color: Miranda[19], Juliet[20], Rose Bradwardine[21], Thackeray's Amelia[22], all of Dickens'[23] heroines, the whole mob of perfect and silly Madonnas, are but so many exponents of the man's ideal woman,—the woman who, with accidentally more or less brain (it matters little whether less or more), lives solely in and for man; whose eyes may look outside of her home, and her hands there be moderately helpful; but who in that home lives and moves and has her being. When she comes to die, if her husband and children alone rise up and call her blessed, that is enough. She has well done a great work, and had an exceeding great reward.

Eliza, that terrible iconoclast, is sick of this stupid idol; she means to tear the pink-and-white doll down from her throne in the hearts of men, and set up the woman whom the times demand; clear-eyed, large-brained, large-hearted, fitted by nature and training to be either seeress, orator, sea-captain, or clerk in a cooperative grocery.[24]

But men, Eliza, are mulish. They will treat you precisely as the Chinese would if you were a missionary: receive your new spiritual Deity with all politeness, with uplifted hands and gaping eyes of admiration, and then go home, and plump down on their knees before their own private little god behind the kitchen-door. The Domestic Woman has been on the throne so long, you understand? It is sheer regard for her that has made royalty itself respectable in England for half a life-time.

She is a great stumbling-block in your way, I know. She promulgates the idea that you, who talk of Woman’s Rights, belong to a class of long-haired men and Bloomer-trousered women, who have lost all faith in God or George Washington, and are bent on forcing her into a cold-water pack, and marrying her daughter to the first convenient mulatto. She knows a woman who writes a book by as inevitable marks as Satan by his betraying hoof and tail; the uncombed hair, slippers down at the heel, slovenly house, and children going to perdition. There is no deceiving her on that point. During the war she was loyal, or a rebel, according to her geographical locality or the faith of her husband, though far more bitter than he. When he was killed, she and her daughters (whom she had failed to launch in the one respectable career, that of marriage), joined the great army of sewing-women, and are measurably comfortable in the mean-time, as starving with the needle in one's hand is a thoroughly womanly and anti­“strong-minded” exit.

The gods themselves cannot fight against stupidity, says Eliza, and prays with all her soul that the Domestic Woman may die out, and leave no successors. But she won't die out; she won't be weeded out; she will spring up, generation after generation, like the many-headed, sweet, toothsome clover; and there are men who, till time shall be no more, will go on preferring the clover to the stateliest tree that shades the ground—obstinate fellows, of whom my friend John is one. He is a radical; he urges that every career shall be opened to Eliza, with unlimited freedom of choice—the way to the polls also; yet when he marries, it will doubtless be one of the old-fashioned, dependent, dull women.

When Eliza has reformed a little farther, she may be clearer-sighted, and see the uses in this familiar dear type or woman and the world-old relations she holds. But Eliza and her class are like workmen cutting a tunnel; just now they see nothing but the hill before them which they attack with such sounding blows: this road they make for human progress is a necessity, they know; all civilization stands still for them to finish it. When it is done, and they have gone farther up the heights, they will find perhaps how wide this world is, and that there is place and need and welcome in it, not only for this great path of progress, but for the quiet ground that is fruitful, and for the still, well-ordered homes, whose memory lies deeper in a man's heart through life, and works greater changes there, than visions of any shadowy mansions in a heaven which he has never seen.

To speak plainly; I believe that the old type of the woman, whose real life comes to her through the love of home, husband, and children, is irrevocably fixed by nature, in the hearts of all men and the majority of women, as the highest and best, and that the chief obstacle in the way of obtaining new work and wider careers for us now, is the mistake of our spokeswomen in ridiculing that old figure, and in declaring such work and careers incompatible with it. The quiet, retiring home-wife and home mother, with her strength or her sillinesses, all men have tried and tested; but this new creature, who has no blush, whether her words are heard by one or a thousand, vociferously claiming to be man's equal, politically and in mental stature, and his superior spiritually, is, justly or not, a something utterly distasteful to the masculine mind. It forgets that the women who have been most efficient in help to the last century, have been personally unknown to the crowd. It reasons the matter out briefly enough. “If this is to be the result of making my daughter a clerk or engraver or physician, let her, in God's name, stay at home, and take the only chance for women—get a husband, if she can.”

And the daughter, in whose heart, after all, the strongest cord throbs at that thought of husband and child, is afraid, for that reason, to render herself distasteful to men, hesitates to throw away her chance, and stays at home, a heavy burden perhaps, both brain and body diseased from idleness, and work waiting for her without. If the husband does not come soon, the innocent dream of true love and marriage begins to fade out; she feels herself the one too many, at home and abroad, a mistake in life—the solitary one of God's creatures who has neither use nor tie, and is in the world on sufferance. So she marries, if she can, any body that she can. She has a vague feeling that she is guilty of legal prostitution. But it would be so sweet to have a place as other women, a home and a baby of one's own! So the bargain and sale goes on.

There is a fatal flaw in the working of the social machine; here are the workers, and there the work. Yet the prejudice of men keeps them apart. A woman who chooses to work believes that she must lose caste, the chance of marriage, be ridiculed and underpaid. And for this prejudice against the new position for women, the noisy vehemence and unwise boasts of the leading reformers, is, I fear, responsible.

Yet mistaken though they may be in minor points, no woman ought to have for them one word that is not grateful. They are pioneers in the hardest and noblest work of the age in this country, next to the abolition of slavery. If they suppose that it is a new path that is needed for woman, rather than a widening of the old one, it is an error which time and nature will set right.

The facts of the case are so plain that the weakest girl can understand them. The number and the helplessness of our sex have become a drag in the country. There is a large surplus, in every State, of women who have no man on whom to lean for support. The old prescribed methods, of sowing and teaching, will not provide one eighth of them with food; and they must live. That is the urgent and immediate necessity. More work, and more wages.

Suffrage and property-laws are of secondary importance.

Whether the necessity for new occupations for woman is an outgrowth of these circumstances solely, or also a demand of her enlarged mental power, matters very little; the problem to be solved is whether the old idea of woman is to be displaced by them. Sneer as the reformer will at the “fireside angel” or the “sanctity of home,” these catch­words are hints of an almost universal and vital reality of reeling, whose opposition is the great intangible difficulty in her way to-day. Look closely for a moment or two, and see how this acts.

Eliza is almost past the age for marriage. There is a strong inbred truth in the girl that has hindered her from marrying for a settlement. There are two or three servants employed in the house, so that she has no work to do beyond making her own dresses and hats. Her father is an old, gray-headed man, who has reached that age when he should have time to take breath, after his long life's work, before he goes hence and is seen no more. But he has not time; he works harder than ever. There are two girls besides Eliza and Nelly, and they must be dressed and maintained in a certain style, to make suitable marriages. He goes early to work and comes back late, feeble and anxious, while they are stitching at the old dresses and hats, to make them look like new ones (for they help him all they can), and then go out to dance the German, or make that husband-market in any other customary way. But they do no more than this, for fear of losing caste, though there is not one of them who has not a stronger brain and sounder body than either father or brother. Some day the old man will die, on whom they have been content to rest this heavy weight till the last. There is an insurance on his life of a few thousand dollars; and on that, I suppose, they will eke out an anxious, scanty living, half-starving indoors to keep up the miserable show of gentility, cherishing every lingering, poor remnant of beauty, in the hope of making even yet that approved disposition of themselves, balked at every turn by the want of a few dollars, their natural tastes stifled and ungratified, their natural power left unused to gnaw and torture them within to the end.

But with Eliza’s progressive ideas, she cannot be cowed by the fear of losing caste? Not altogether; her difficulty is of another kind. She is what is called a capable woman—shrewd, quick-sighted, cool and prompt in action, thoroughly fitted for trade; if she had been born a boy, she would, by this time, have made for herself a steady­growing business, and been known in the stock-market as a live man. But she has the mania of all intelligent girls for becoming a teacher of the public. She writes poems, sapped out of Emerson[25] and Walt Whitman[26]; argues for suffrage in season and out, giving weak dilutions of Mrs. Dall's[27] powerful, downright logic. She is in doubt whether to begin lecturing, or to go on the stage and restore the legitimate drama. But to open a bookstore, or to learn the fur­business as a clerk!

As an almost invariable rule, the young woman, nowadays, who feels within herself a hunger for some other work than that of her hands, believes herself qualified, by right of that hunger, for the very highest work. She must leap into the pulpit or the rostrum, or not leap at all—forgetting the innumerable trades, head-and-hand crafts that lie beneath, in which the majority of men find ample fields for all their observation, skill, and ingenuity. She forgets that the spirit of God filled Bezaleel[28] to enable him to devise cunning works in gold and silver and brass, as much as it did Aaron, who spoke well for Him. She is dazzled by the stately journey of such a life as Lucretia Mott's[29], and the great triumph that came to close that work to which she was called, and does not understand that they only labor worthily who confine themselves to the labor for which they are qualified, whether it be that of freeing a people or of blacking boots.

I feel how unfitted I am to give an opinion on a subject to which such women as Caroline Dall have nobly devoted years of research and labor; yet I cannot but fear that, in their struggle to lift their sex up to higher ground, they will place us where we are not yet ready to stand. Why should women, for example, be urged to press into the pulpit as into the other learned professions? The humblest among us is called of God to preach His gospel in action; but preaching it in words is another thing. It is taking a portion of the water of life and passing it through the conduit of our own individual thought and character. It is not a mere pious intention to do good, or a few years' drudgery over Hebrew and Greek or Articles and Confessions, that can justify a man in elevating himself as on exponent of divine truth. One needs only to listen to the dull platitudes that fall so far wide of the wants of the age, to the differing acrid dogmatisms, to the truisms, old and sapless and dry, which are dealt out to us Sunday after Sunday, from too many pulpits, to feel the truth of this. If the most cultured and enlightened class of men in the cities are, as a rule, not members of the Christian church, if the highest successes in the cause of universal brotherhood of late years have been achieved under the name of Humanity instead of Jesus, it is because there is too much of this kind of preaching; because earnest and thoughtful men have been turned away from that Helper whose teaching solves the problem of this time as of every other, by the shallow verbiage in the pulpit of many of the men who, in their home-lives, are not unfitted to be His ministers.

I confess that I, for one, will be sorry when women are admitted into the paid ministry. Not that to some of them, as to some men, the message may not come which will burn in the soul until it be delivered, or life teach some individual lesson which may be fit for the healing of other souls. When that is the case, they will speak. God's true messengers, in all ages, have found utterance. But the salary, and the respectable position attached to the professional salvation of souls, would, under present circumstances, be more of a temptation to ordinary women than it has even proved to men; and a woman would be less likely to forget herself in the pulpit, be more apt to be swayed by a love of approbation than her brother, and so lower the standard of the Christian religion even more than he has done.

I may be wrong in this. But as man has been so ready to rush with hasty steps into this sacred office, only to show so often his own weakness and to bring it into disrepute, let us not be in haste to follow him.

I would be less eager than Eliza, too, to claim what she vehemently terms her natural and inalienable right of suffrage. It galls her beyond endurance, on election-day, to watch ignorant, drunken boors—Dutch Jake and Irish Jim—crowding to the polls, while she is forced to sit at home, passive and useless. It seems to me that if Eliza's motive is the good of her country, she might be contented to stay away from the ballot-box, if she must take with her the wives of Jake and Jim, invariably more ignorant than their husbands of politics. It does not anger me so much that “women, negroes, and idiots” are together debarred the use of the ballot, so long as neither women, negroes, nor idiots are, as a mass, fitted to use it intelligently.

Of what avail would it be to throw heavier weights of ignorance headlong into the political scale, only for a few skilful hands to arrange and manipulate, precisely as they are doing now? When the right of suffrage is restricted to all by a certain amount of education, and thus the intelligent mind of the country made its dominant power instead of the gross matter-weight of sex and color, women and negroes may contentedly take their share in the government, both to its benefit and their own. My sympathies, I confess, are in no case so much with the prominent women of the country who aim at higher work, and whose every step wins prompter notice because they are women, so much as with the great mass of ordinary dull wives and young girls who are stumbling about in the slough because they cannot see the steps; the fifty thousand sewing hands in New York; the seventy thousand intelligent women in New England, for whom there are literally no husbands, for whom Mrs. Stowe[30] urges domestic service; but more than all, the countless young, educated girls in struggling families, through the whole country, whose brothers are healthily and happily at work; while they are indoors, their brains idle, morbid, discontented, shut into this narrow cell by the rules of respectable gentility, waiting for the husband, who may never come.

If I had as many daughters as those with whom the Lord rewarded Job, and twice his wealth, they should each one have some head-or-hand craft by which, if need were, they could earn their own living. So far at least, like him, I would give them inheritance among their brethren.

Here, in one house, is a brother who has quietly set aside all thought of marriage for himself, for the sake of two sisters, who are dependent upon him—a generous, noble act, though common enough. The girls accept it from “Charley” with selfish indifference, as a matter of course; and Charley’s generosity does not hinder him from gradually sliding into loose old-bachelor ways, and seeking in haunts of which they have never heard even the names, amusement and excitement, of which, if he had a wife and children, he would never have felt the need.

Take Mrs. A—, for instance, a bookkeeper’s wife, a woman with a better head for business than her husband. He has a salary of $800, out of which a family of five are to be fed, clothed, and educated. Two of the boys are scholarly, clear-brained fellows, whom it was poor [A—‘s] one dream of ambition to educate thoroughly and give a fair chance in life. They have both begun to learn a trade, as, being boys, they must do something to help keep the wolf from the door. The mother has made a slave of herself; is a lean, haggard woman in middle age; has done her own work of cooking, sewing, nursing, to save the scanty eight hundred dollars. Was that the best she could have done?

“Is there no advice you can give me?” writes a young girl. “I have enough money on which to live. I never yet have seen the man whom I wished to marry. I am as intelligent and well-taught as my brothers. Would they be content to occupy their lives with a round of visiting, in a small country-town, with purposeless, unused study or fancy-work? I cannot write essays or tales; I have nothing especial to say in them. I don’t succeed in teaching; I am not naturally benevolent or fond of children. Yet I think there is some strength in me. Did God make me for nothing? Surely, somewhere in the world, there is work for me to do!”

The work for her and for all of us to do is under our feet, in our hands. There are the steps out of the slough, which we will not see. Women all stand waiting for some grand movement to be made, which is to give them relief: suffrage to be granted, medical schools to be opened, Vassar Colleges established in every State, cooperative housekeeping to be inaugurated, and the myriad of house-worries taken off their hands. The only help for each woman who wants work lies in herself. She lives, perhaps, in some small inland town. There is no opening for a teacher, if she even is thorough enough for one; sewing pays poorly; she has sent articles to the Atlantic and Harper,[31], and never heard of them again. Very likely. How many men are fitted for teachers, or tailors, or authors?

What can she do? or rather, what does some turn of mind or expertness of hands hint that she could best learn to do? What would she turn to if she were a man? To trade or farming, engraving, printing, stenography, dealing in drugs or cutlery, making chairs or photographs, raising bees or hanging paper? Whatever it be, let her begin it now, as quietly as she can, and in as humble a fashion as is necessary, learning the trade as a man would do. Miss Penny, in a book published this year, gives five hundred suitable employments for women. I would reduce the number to three hundred and sixty, as those easily practicable, and in which women in England and this country have actually been engaged.[32]

“But what would people say?"

I do not think the question a weak one. I understand the shrinking soreness of heart with which a woman cowers before the tumult of wonder and sarcasm and jeers which she supposes will hail her appearance before the public.

It will depend entirely upon yourself what they will say. If you are quiet, straightforward, and in earnest, most probably they will say very little about you. The world is quick to recognize a true motive or a sensible act, and receive it as a matter of course. The higher the order of people to whom you belong, the less likely they are to be prejudiced by your action. The higher you stand, therefore, the easier and the more incumbent upon you is the duty that lies before you.

There is no use in railing against a prejudice; it must be lived down. Every woman who pursues an unusual work, steadily and faithfully, and shows that she can remain as modest, gentle, and tender as when she plied the needle or cooked the home-dinner, is doing a real service for her sex, very different from vague, frenzied citations of the Bible and Constitution to prove woman the equal of man.

It is just in this step of your course that Man's Right opposes you. There is one hard fact which we women are apt to shirk, but which we must face, after all, and that is, that in the pitiless economics of nations the question is not the worker but the value of the work. Wages are given for the wages’ worth, not for sentiment. If the wheat you bring into market is poor, your pay will be poor; and it is sheer folly for you to point to your pale face, or to boast of first-rate grain raised in another century by one of your family. How can that make yours worth another penny in the pound?

Before you take man's work from him, you must prove that you can do it as well as he. In that proof lies your great obstacle. Offer yourself as a clerk or apprentice to any business in your own town; if you have capital, embark in any business, and the chances are that you will have a fair field to try your chance. But after that, you will be measured strictly by the same rules that determine the value of men as laborers; and it is but just to them that you should be. If you accept work as a makeshift, a means to an end, giving it as little service as may be, it is right you should be pushed aside by those whose heart is in it. Art may be as truly worshipped in a carpenter's shop or laundry-room as in the sculptor's atelier, and however humble the offering may be, she is as jealous of service in one place as the other.

“Young girls,” says a New York editor, “who take up the business of printing hoping to be freed from it by marriage, or widows who mean to make it serve only until their sons are able to support them, cannot be expected to turn out as thorough work as men, whose business it is to be for life.” That they do not, is proved by the re­employment of men by some of the largest printing establishments, in spite of their desire to free themselves from the trammels of the printers’ union by the service of females.

It is enough to dishearten any advocate for woman's claim to wider work, to see the listlessness and impatience with which such work is too often done when found. Look at the incivility and indifference of the female-clerk, compared to the man who stands behind the counter with her!

“But that is to be his business; some day he hopes to be a partner; he is making capital for himself out of your good-will.”

Precisely. Why should it not be her business? Why should she not become an active as well as passive helpmeet for her husband? Suppose Mrs. A— puts her skill in drawing to account as a designer or watch-engraver; or that good housekeeper, Mrs. B—, employed fifty women, instead of one, in canning fruit; or Mrs. 0—, in place of her bit of kitchen-garden, hired an acre in addition, and cleared one or two thousand a-year in raising herbs for the drug-market—all employing competent servants to do their cooking and sowing: would they not benefit both husband and children, as much as by remaining, as they are now, maids of all work?

“But we are always underpaid,” urges the trembling coward on the brink, afraid to make the plunge. This is but measurably true. As a rule, when the work is proved to be equal to a man's, there is no difference in the wages. When Rosa Bonheur[33], or Jean Ingelow[34], or Fanny Kemble[35], bring their wares into market, the question of sex does not suggest itself with that of payment. In cases where it does suggest itself, the remedy is in your own hands. Make your work equal to a man's, and then exact his rate of payment. Take not a penny less—because you are a woman. However weak you may be, you owe this much service to all other women. It is another right of the man that we should not underbid him in the market, and one which we will willingly cede to him.

After all, this reform, like any other, will not be builded like Solomon's temple[36] of old, with silence and devout aspirations; there is squabbling and dirt and mortar flying enough to make us think that the foundations of the world are broken up. But when the work is done and the rubbish cleared away, the world will be just as it was; there will only be a more comfortable dwelling in it, a house with higher roof and wider windows than served our grandmothers. The sky above it and the human beings who found the larger dwelling in their improved circumstances necessary and pleasant, will be substantially the same.

My friend John may possess his anxious soul in patience. There are women, as well as men, who will remain unmarried, or who, married, seem to be sent with a general rather than especial mission—[a?] “Thus saith the Lord” to deliver to all the people rather than to one or two of His little children. Why should they not fulfil their errand? Why should not the way be made clear for them? But, taking us altogether, we are shaped very much as were all the generations of women who have gone before us; and in this very fashioning of both our bodies and minds show that our best and highest duties in life are those of wife and mother. We are not moving, as yet, en masse upon the polls or the retail-trade; nor are we demolishing our little kitchen-stoves which we bought when we were married, to plunge into the vast conglomerated cooking partnership. A good thing, no doubt, when it is a necessity; but these universal schemes, wherein every dish of potatoes and turnips is to be dipped out of a general pot instead of being cooked to suit Will’s or Tom’s particular taste; wherein every woman finds herself a mother, not to her own especial baby, but spiritually to the whole of the rest of mankind, are chill—very chilly to the weaker among us.

John may choose his wife, and be very sure that she will find her little home as dear, will spoil her husband, and overrate her baby as much as any woman from Eve down.

And if he gives her all the work for which her brain and hands are fitted, he will find her a less morbid, sickly wife, less likely to gloat over Offenbach[37], and brood over possible new elective affinities for herself; he will find her, in every sense, more helpful, and more certain to place him and her baby where they ought to be, next in her duty to her God.


1. See Dante’s Inferno, Canto V.

2. See Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

3. George Stanley Faber (1773-1854), typologist and theologian.

4. Regina Maria Roche, Gothic novelist, (1764-1845). Selected works: The Children of the Abbey and Clermont.

5. See Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), diplomacy of realpolitik.

6. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), “survival of the fittest.”

7. Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-1892), works on nationalism and national identity.

8. See One Thousand and One Nights (“Arabian Nights”) a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales – English language edition 1706.

9. Possible reference to “Opposed to Compulsory Morality?” Supplement to the [Hartford] Courant (1 Mar. 1856), 37.

10. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), known for writing about a variety of taboo subjects, i.e. cannibalism and lesbianism.

11. Matthew 25:14-30, parable.

12. Genesis 18:6.

13. English writer and philosopher (1759-1797), perhaps best known for her proto-feminist essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.”

14. Mythical king and founder of Athens.

15. See euphuism.

16. See Old Testament, Song of Songs.

17. Margaret Todd, Scottish doctor (1859-1918)

18. Mary Sidney, or Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621).

19. See Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

20. See Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

21. See Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (series of novels published from 1814-1831).

22. See William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (published 1847).

23. See Victorian writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Selected works: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations.

24. “Sea captain” specifically refers to Margaret Fuller’s Women in the 19th Century – “Let them be sea captains if they will.” Ostensibly, the other references to professions carry the same political insistence.

25. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), 19th century American writer – notable for his contributions to the transcendental movement in literature. Selected works: “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” “The Poet,” and “The American Scholar.”

26. 19th century American poet (1819-1892), largely known for his poetics of democracy and break from poetic convention via “free verse” in such works as Leaves of Grass.

27. Caroline Dall (1822-1912), American feminist writer and transcendentalist.

28. Genesis 31:1-6 and chapters 36-39, see also Bezalel, craftsman who oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

29. American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and social reformer (1793-1880).

30. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), American author and abolitionist, widely known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which a woman’s role in the domestic sphere is treated with reverence and an elevated, almost saintly status – also critical of women who fail in this context.

31. Literary and cultural magazine founded in Boston in 1857, The Atlantic Monthly is known today as The Atlantic. Harper’s Weekly, A Journal of Civilization, was an American political magazine, based in New York from 1857-1916.

32. [RHD’s note:] Miss Penny’s book would be more useful if the scale of prices given in it for work, were those of the present time. It would be worth her while to correct this in another edition. The book would then be a more efficient aid to woman than a dozen treatises on her rights.

33. French realist painter (1822-1899).

34. English poet and novelist (1820-1897).

35. Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble (1809-1893), English actress and writer.

36. A holy temple in ancient Jerusalem believed to have enshrined the Ark of the Covenant before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

37. Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), German-born French composer.


Capron Mitchell Hedgepath
Middle Tennessee State University



Capron Mitchell Hedgepath Middle Tennessee State University, “"Men's Rights"February 1869Putnam's Magazine,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed August 14, 2020, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/134.

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