Document 22A: "Woman's Rights," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 8 (November 1853), pp. 838-41.


   "Woman's Rights" (Document 22A) opens with a declaration of the editor's abhorrence of "all the radical and infidel movements of the day." "A strange affinity," he continued, "seems to bind them all together." But, woman's rights presented "a peculiar enormity of its own." It defied nature and revelation both. Both objections to woman's rights were common and both rested upon important pillars of American notions of respectability. The nature argument assumed that the sexes had distinct and complementary qualities and, therefore, should occupy separate spheres of activity. Women were supposedly nurturing, pious, and submissive. Men, in contrast, were supposedly bold, worldly, and commanding. Scripture, especially the Epistles of St. Paul, revealed the same differences. Or so orthodox Protestants believed.

   "Rights and Wrongs of Women" (Document 22B) further elaborates the notion that men and women do, and should, remain in their separate spheres. It does, however, concede that women have legitimate complaints that should be addressed. Since less than a year separates the two editorials, the historian can learn much from both the continuities and the discontinuities they disclose. The admission that women do have some rights and that society must recognize the justice of some of their calls for reform indicates the overall success of the strategy woman's rights advocates adopted in fusing their cause with temperance. That a pillar of respectable opinion such as Harper's New Monthly abandoned its position of blanket opposition so quickly suggests that the earth had begun to move. The continuing hostility to the woman's rights movement, on the other hand, suggests that the movement was more a tremor than an earthquake.

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Editor's Table

    WOMAN'S RIGHTS--or the movement that goes under that name, may seem to some too trifling in itself, and too much connected with ludicrous associations to be made the subject of serious argument: If nothing else, however, should give it consequence, it would demand our earnest attention from its intimate connection with all the radical and infidel movements of the day. A strange affinity seems to bind them all together. They all present the same attractions for the same class of minds. They are all so grounded on the same essential fallacy of individual right, in distinction from the organic good, or social propriety, that the careful observer could have no great difficulty in predicting the whole course of the man or woman who once sets out on the track of any one of them.

    But not to dwell on this remarkable connection--the claim of "woman's rights" presents not only the common radical notion which underlies the whole class, but also a peculiar enormity of its own; in some respects more boldly infidel, or defiant both of nature and revelation, than that which characterizes any kindred measure. It is avowedly opposed to the most time-honored proprieties of social life; it is opposed to nature; it is opposed to revelation. The first charge it might perhaps meet by the plea of reform; the second it would deny; the third, it would confess, not only, but even glory in the confession. Almost every other radical movement claims the Scriptures, in some sense, as its ally, and will stand upon the platform they offer, or seem to offer, until relentless progress causes it to lose its hold. Here, however, the "woman's rights" doctrine is peculiar. We never yet heard a passage of Scripture quoted, either fairly or perversely, in its support. Abolitionists have their pet texts. Fourierism will sometimes employ the dialect of the Bible. But this unblushing female Socialism defies alike apostles and prophets. In this respect no kindred movement is so decidedly infidel, so rancorously and avowedly anti-biblical.

    It is equally opposed to nature, and the established order of society founded upon it. We do not intend to go into any physiological argument. There is one broad striking fact in the constitution of the human species which ought to set the question at rest forever. This is the fact of maternity. There is claimed for woman an equal participation in all the outward life of man. Nothing short of this will carry out the "great idea." Any argument, therefore, that halts in coming fully up to it, must affect the whole consistency of the cause it is brought to support. Every such flinching must admit somewhere some physical, and hence, some social or political difference which is fatal to the abstract claim, and shuts us up again to the same distinctions in kind, if not in degree, which have long grown up in society.

    Now there is such a physical difference, involving, as a necessary consequence, the most striking differences of social and political position. It is not simply the sexual distinction in itself--but what we have called the fact of maternity. It is the design of God, expressed and carried out in nature, that a moiety of the human race should have a charge--a precious charge, a most honorable charge--but one which must, in the very nature of things, unfit them for the right and regular performance of those duties which the usages of all civilized and all Christian nations have ever assigned to the opposite sex. From this there arise, in the first place, physical impediments, which, during the best part of the female life, are absolutely insurmountable, except at a sacrifice of almost every thing that distinguishes the civilized human from the animal, or beastly, and savage state. As a secondary, yet inevitably resulting consequence, there come domestic and social hindrances which still more completely draw the line between the male and female duties. Any one may carry out this argument. Its greatest force is in its bare presentment. Around the nursing mother God and nature have thrown a hallowed seclusion. Society has framed her laws and usages in obedience to the Divine and physical ordinance. Every attempt to break through them, therefore, must be pronounced as unnatural as it is irreligious and profane.

    But it is not in maternity alone that we see the Divine design. The whole dual constitution of humanity, with all the affections and duties that grow out of it, reveals the same great intent. This is not simply the perpetuation of the species, but the highest perfection of the earthly human state in the harmony of the domestic and the outer existence. There is an inner and an outer sphere. The first is as honorable as the second; it is even more intimately connected with the essential life, while the latter stands to it more in the position of a means to a higher ultimate good. Woman was meant to be the main influence in the one; man in the other. To this all civilization tends. Its recognition and establishment is ever in proportion to the advance of a pure Christianity. Destroy this dual life, and the merely physical or sexual distinction becomes a source of immeasurable mischief. Preserve the former, and the latter, instead of a hot-bed of sensualism, is converted into a fountain of the purest and most sacred affections of which our earthly nature is capable.

    To denote this inner life of which woman is the guardian angel, no term could be better adapted than the one in most common use, and which must be etymologically the same in every cultivated language. It is the domestic life--the res domi in distinction from the res foras. The latter is the out-door life, the life abroad, the forensic life, or life of the forum, including in that term all political as well as judicial employment. Now we know that to a superficial thinker, the former may present the idea of the narrower sphere; and hence those logomachies about personal rights, and rank, and "equality and subjugation" which such a one would present as the real issues. If, however, there be any question of rank at all, the domestic is certainly the higher sphere; because, as we have said, it is more closely connected with the essential life, or the end for which humanity exists, and to which all that is outward or forensic, with all its imagined importance, is but a subordinate means. Men may act abroad, but they live, if they live at all, at home. The State is for the Family, the forum for the domus. The former would have but little value except as it is found in the protection, the refinement, and the elevation of the latter. And so we may say of the reciprocal influence. The best service that woman can confer upon the State, (and thus, through it, obtain the best security for her own personal rights and dignity) is by making the home what it ought to be. In the right education of her children, she exerts a far purer and more effectual political power, than she could ever wield

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through the freest admission to the ballot-box or the caucus.

    But we can only briefly present this aspect of the question, and pass on. The most serious importance of this modern "woman's rights" doctrine is derived from its direct bearing upon the marriage institution. The blindest must see that such a change as is proposed in the relations and life of the sexes, can not leave either marriage or the family in their present state. It must vitally affect, and in time wholly sever, that oneness which has ever been at the foundation of the marriage idea, from the primitive declaration in Genesis to the latest decision of the common law. This idea gone--and it is totally at war with the modern theory of "woman's rights"--marriage is reduced to the nature of a contract simply. Where the wife and the mother are equally engaged with the husband and the father in all the employments of the same forensic life, they may be styled joint partners in business, but are no longer "members one of another." And then follows the inevitable consequence. That which has no higher sanction than the will of the contracting parties must, of course, be at any time revocable by the same authority that first created it. That which makes no change in the personal relations, the personal rights, the personal duties, is not the holy marriage union, but the unholy alliance of concubinage.

    Already have we gone far in this direction, and unless our legislatures retrace their steps, there is danger of the mischief becoming past all remedy. We refer not now so much to direct facilities for divorce, as to another and more plausible mode of proceeding. It is one which imposes even on the most conservative mind by its plea for the defenseless. On the one hand, it presses into its service the rank individualism of the day, and on the other, appeals to that very feeling of chivalrous regard and tender respect for woman which its perverted notion of political equality, or rather political sameness, would ultimately destroy. It is very hard that the earnings of the long-suffering wife should be in the uncontrolled power of the brutal and intemperate husband. It is very hard that her association with him should make her, in any way, the suffering victim of his cruelty and crimes. Such cases do, doubtless, often exist, although jurisprudence in its ordinary and natural channels has done much, and may yet do more, for their relief. There is, however, at the present day, a danger in the opposite quarter, and one that threatens a far sorer evil. There is danger that laws giving the right of separate property, and of course the management of separate property, to the wife may in time vitally affect that oneness which is so essential in the marriage idea. There is danger here that the reforming knife may cut into the very quick, and actually kill what it pretends to cure. In other words, let this kind of legislation, which is now so great a favorite, only proceed a little farther, until the personal and property interests of husband and wife become as distinct as those of any outward parties, and marriage is at an end. We may call it by what name we please; it is no longer the marriage recognized by the Church; it is no longer the marriage known to that common law of England and America which, with all its alleged barbarisms and feudalisms, was more distinctly built upon the authority of Christianity, and the Christian Scriptures, than any other system of jurisprudence the world ever knew. Let families be brought up with the clear knowledge that this belongs to the father, and that to the mother--that each party has its separate rights, its separate interests, its separate dealings with the world without--let this become the predominant feeling, we say, and the family itself, with all its sacred associations, will soon be numbered among the "things that have waxed old, and are ready to vanish away."

    But the most grievous hardship, as urged by some, is the denial of what they are pleased to style political rights, or, in other words, the right of voting and holding office. This is connected with a wholly false idea of the political relation; and we might meet it, therefore, with a denial of suffrage being a natural right, and prove our denial by showing the inevitable absurdities which must result from the unrestricted proposition. But it is enough in the present case, and for our present purpose, to take issue on the question of fact. Women are the subjects of law, it is said, and should therefore be represented in its enactment. Political action should be coextensive with political allegiance. Now, without at present formally refuting this egregious fallacy, which is continually contradicted, and must be contradicted, in every government, even the most ultra radical and individualizing that exists on earth, we may say that in this country, and in every other in which there is a representative system based on popular suffrage, married women do vote--they are represented--they have a part in the political action, and just the part which is most conservative of their true interests, while it is least subversive of those ideas on which the family, and through it the whole social structure, must ultimately rest. The wife does exercise the right of suffrage. Through the husband, as the family representative, she casts a vote, and the only vote which is consistent with the oneness of that elementary political organism we may call the family State.

    Some might style this a cavil, and therefore, in answer, we would beg our readers to extend to us the same indulgence they have often done before--in other words, permit a slight abstraction in the argument, as conducive to an eminently practical conclusion. Let us say, then, that every organic whole is such in the highest sense, by being composed of organic parts--that is, parts which are themselves severally each an organic unity, or membership, presenting more or less resemblance to the greater whole. Some of these may be entirely artificial; and of such our own General and State Governments present a beautiful illustration. Beside these, there are the lesser corporations of counties, towns, cities, and villages, forming organic parts of organic parts, each having its own diversity of the inner life, and yet each acting as a unit to all without and all above. Many of these municipal unities have given way, and are giving way, to an absorbing centralization, but ever to the injury of the general body politic, as well as the individual welfare. Now these may be called artificial organisms. There is, however, one of nature's construction to which we can not attach too high a value, and that is the family. We might, in a certain sense, maintain that the individual man himself is such a natural organic existence--a community of interests--sensual, material, spiritual animal, and rational, with outward relations and inward coherences, all under a sovereign will and a judicial reason, and thus presenting, what has struck the philosophic mind in all ages, a striking resemblance to the political state. But even thus viewed, the individual does not stand next to the larger civil organization. The family is the natural unit in the State. In any other sense it is a mere accident for secondary interests--an artificial existence, created

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and dissolved like a railroad company or a bank charter, instead of being an essential and indispensable component of the general political life.

    If this view be correct, it is the family, the household, which should be immediately represented in the State, rather than the individual. It is the family that votes, and not the individual. Whoever deposits that vote, deposits it as the agent of the whole domestic community, just as the Member of Assembly represents the town from which he is sent, and the Senator the State by which he is delegated. Since, then, such voting can only be done by one member, the husband and the father is certainly the most proper person for that purpose. In fact, if we are to preserve at all the idea of the domestic and forensic spheres, this is a matter of absolute necessity. He represents this outward life, and is, therefore, the natural [a]mbassador of the little organism in its outward relations to other and similar communities.

    But the husband may cast a ballot different from that which would be acceptable to the wife. What then? Shall there be separate voting? If so, the family is at an end. The domestic community is sundered, and the organic life expires. No evils arising from separate property would be so terrible, or so completely subversive of the marriage idea, as the separate voting of the husband and wife, the father and the mother, the outward and inner representatives of the family unity.

    This, in fact, is the idea of the common law. The household is the true unit in the State. Certain other considerations of property may have modified its action and applications, but have not destroyed the principle itself. We are tempted to dwell upon this idea of household or family suffrage. It would certainly be better than any tests of property merely, since it would have a natural basis, and, in its representative idea, possess that universality which our democratic age demands for suffrage, while it would be in a great measure free from the evils and inconsistencies and inequalities that meet us in every other view.

    There are two antagonists whom the modern advocates of "woman's rights" find especially in their way. These are, the common law and the Apostle Paul. A lingering regard for things once deemed sacred presents some check in respect to the latter, but even the Apostle not unfrequently comes in for his share of platform vituperation from the free tongues of the emancipated. Even he, it is more than intimated, did not understand the question. As regards the law, however, there is no such restraint upon their abuse. And yet it is a position that may be most triumphantly maintained, that in real respect for woman and her real rights, no system of jurisprudence ever went beyond the gallant old common law of England. This is especially seen in the laws respecting dower. The surviving husband is entitled to an interest in the real estate of the deceased wife, but only in case of there having been offspring of the marriage, and then only on the ground of guardianship to the wife's legal heir. The widow, on the death of the husband, takes one-third of all the real estate, without any conditions whatever. This embraces not only that of which he dies possessed, but also that of which he may have been seized at any time during the coverture. From the moment of the marriage, no act of the husband without her consent, no alienation, no debt, can ever bar her favored claim. So also she is entitled to one-half of the personal effects, whatever may be the number or nearness of the husband's collateral heirs. There are other special provisions of a similar kind, fully justifying the remark of Coke, that the widow is the favorite of the English courts, and that in these respects the common law is far beyond the civil.

    It is true it styles her, in her married relation, a femme covert; and much attempted ridicule, as well as much reproach, has been cast upon the term. But he who reads the true spirit of the common law, must discover in it the same gallant and knightly idea. She is termed a femme covert, not as denoting the little value in which the law holds her, but as significant of security and protection. She is a femme covert, shielded not only from all legal claims that might assail her in the single state, but also--and which is of far more importance--from the forensic, out-door storm of political turbulence and corruption. Instead of exposing her to such scenes as have been witnessed in our elections, and mass meetings, and political conventions, it regards her as in the sacred inclosure of the inner or domestic life. The term is significant of peace, security, retirement. It is expressive, not of ignominy, not of forgetfulness, but of the most cherished respect, the most sacred honor. The law meant that such coverture should be to her a shield from more harm than ever came, or could come, from marital cruelty or neglect. No creditors can assail, no legal strife can interrupt her hallowed domestic duties. Away from mobs, and caucuses, and Syracuse and Baltimore Conventions, she is in a great measure safe from the moral malaria that must ever gather around such assemblies, and to which her own presence--degraded and unfeminine as she must inevitably become by such contact--would only add a deeper and more deadly taint. It is her higher office to keep watch over the ever-burning fire of the domestic altar; and while she faithfully performs this duty, no forensic "pestilence can invade her," no political "plague come nigh her dwelling."

    The Apostle, too, if we keep out of sight his claim to an inspired guidance, might seem, in some things, personally harsh and unkind to women. At least, so some might regard his frequent injunction of domestic subordination, and his express prohibition of their taking upon themselves the office of a public preacher, although they were joyfully hailed as co-laborers in other services in the Church. There is here, however, another and higher aspect of the same idea on which we have dwelt before. The Church as well as the State, is composed of families, or may be regarded as having the family for its unit. It is the "Church in the house" with its altar, its service, its sacred instruction. Here, as in the other case, the interior religious life is especially intrusted to woman. The outward or ambassadorial relations involved in the preaching and episcopal office belong to the other sphere. Any confusion here would destroy, not only that essential idea of harmony involved in the construction of the Christian Ecclesia, but also that sacred similitude through which the Apostle traces the bridal relation of the Church herself to her Spiritual Lord and Head. But what care these platform brawlers for sacred similitudes and spiritual analogies? It is not at all, as they would make it, a question of "equality and subjugation." A true spiritual equality, as we have seen, is best promoted by the Apostle's notion of keeping each sex within its allotted sphere. It is the only way of avoiding that unnatural mixture of habits, of office, of employments, of dress, which would soon bring on a moral degradation, and, through this, as abject a slavery of one to the other as has ever been witnessed in savage life. No fallacy could be greater than that which confounds subordination with inequality.

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The first exists in the co-equal and coessential tri-unity of the Divine Persons, and there could be, strictly, no oneness without it. So also may we say of the demand for perfect uniformity, or identity of pursuit. No mathematical proposition is more certain than the seeming paradox, that sameness here is separation, incoherence, dissolution--diversity is union, attraction, strength. The doctrine we condemn is essentially inorganic. Instead of that exquisitely harmonised instrument which comes from the right temperament of the sexual relations, it would make human life, at the best, a tuneless monochord, if not, in the end, a chaos of all harsh and savage dissonance.

    "I suffer not a woman to teach," says the Apostle, with a clear reference to public preaching. And yet no man was ever farther from being a misogynist, or woman-contemner, than Paul. His writings, on the contrary, every where manifest the most tender feeling of regard for women, and especially Christian women, "his sisters in the Lord." How large a space do their names occupy in the closing salutations of his fervent epistles! "I commend unto you Phœbe our sister--Receive her in the Lord as becometh saints; for she has been a succorer of many and of myself also." "Greet Mary who bestowed much labor on us." "Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa--salute the beloved Perais--salute Julia and the sister of Nereus." How admirably, too, does this feeling of Christian tenderness and respect manifest itself in his directions to Timothy? "Entreat the elder women as mothers, the younger women as sisters, in all purity." It is felt at once that this style is not in harmony with the coarse spirit which is predominant on the reforming platform. There is about it all a gentle savor of refinement, of delicacy, and Christian tenderness which we instinctively decide would be out of place in any of these hybrid conventions. How kind and manly, too, his regard for the "widows who were widows indeed"--holy and heavenly women--not scolding for "female rights" like some in our day, who, under a Quaker bonnet; can show more fight than many a brigadier-general, but "well reported of" for a very different kind of "good works"--"for having brought up children, for having lodged strangers, for having washed the saints' feet, for having relieved the afflicted, for having continued in prayer and supplications night and day."

    Paul was doubtless well aware, that, as far as mere oratorical powers were concerned, some women might be able to preach better than some men. The beloved Phœbe to whom he intrusted his Epistle to the Romans, or those women of "unfeigned faith," the mother Eunice, or the grandmother Lois, who taught Timothy the Holy Scriptures, might have been more intelligent as well as more fluent evangelists than many of the male Corinthians. But had the Apostle, on this account, made them an exceptional violation of his great idea of the Church's constitution, he would have only put forth that same contemptible reasoning to which tho public has been lately so abundantly treated from the platform of "woman's rights."

    But with Paul there was more than the mere exercise of an ordinary sound intelligence. He possessed a power which enabled him to look down the stream of time, or, at all events, to see the operation of human nature as it would exist in all ages. Hence his graphic pictures which would almost seem to have been drawn from scenes that have been presented to our own eyes. How to the life he limns them? "Proud, knowing nothing, doting (or diseased) about questions and strifes of words--perverse disputings of corrupt minds, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings--from such withdraw thyself." Here him again in another strain: "I will, therefore, that women adorn themselves with shamefacedness" --did ever any one hear that text read or quoted in a woman's rights convention?--"with sobriety, with good works." "Let them learn in silence; for Adam was first formed, then Eve." Will any man infer from this that Paul had not as much true esteem for woman, and as high a sense of her true value in the family, the church, and the state, as Mr. Channing, or Mr. Burleigh, or Mr. Wendell Phillips--such a one has yet to learn the first rudiments of a question second to none in importance, if we may judge from its intimate connection with some of the worst forms of radicalism that infest our age?

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