[Editorial Note: Caroline Wells (Healey) Dall (1822-1912), author of this letter, was beginning her long and productive literary career in 1850. Her Essays and Sketches (Boston, 1849) had just appeared. Much of her writing dealt with issues of working women, such as Woman's Right to Labor: or Low Wages and Hard Work (Boston, 1860), A Practical Illustration of "Women's Right to Labor" (Boston, 1860), and woman's rights more broadly, such as Woman's Rights Under the Law (Boston, 1861). She also wrote on health issues, Sunshine: A New Name for a Popular Lecture on Health (Boston, 1864), and Transcendentalism in New England: A Lecture (Boston, 1895). Paulina Wright Davis was the president of the Worcester Convention. In 1855 Dall joined with Davis in editing the Una, the first periodical to agitate for woman's "elevation."
It is not surprising that Dall's letter focuses upon prostitution; it was a major topic of the 1850 Convention. Even before it began, John Milton Earle editorialized in the Massachusetts Spy that the existence of widespread prostitution in American cities was the strongest possible argument for woman's rights. Abby Price's address took a view of the subject very close to the one argued in Dall's letter. William H. Channing, the Convention's vice president, also spoke about it at length. And Lucretia Mott's tribute to her friend Sarah Tyndale's work among the prostitutes of Philadelphia was one of the most emotional moments of the entire two days.1 This attention to a topic about which well-bred women were supposedly completely ignorant was one of the most controversial aspects of the Convention.
Dall's position, and Price's, on the causes of prostitution was quite radical for the time. For an illustration of the more conventional approach, see Pity, an unsigned poem about prostitution and the "gentler sex" that appeared in The Liberator two weeks after this letter.]
The Liberator, Nov. 8, 1850
'Every thing is dangerous that has efficacy and vigor for its characteristics; nothing is safe but mediocrity.' -- Sydney Smith
I do not know, my dear Mrs. Davis, whether you will thank me for addressing to you the words of encouragement which I find it necessary to give to the movement lately commenced at Worcester. But it is because I feel grateful to you, whom I do not personally know, that I find it necessary to do so. I thank you for the able, prudent and graceful address with which you opened the Convention. It is of immense importance that an effort of this kind should be made in a spirit of gentleness, which shall give the immediate lie to the slanders most probable concerning it. The popular idea of such a movement is, that woman expects to be reinstated in her rights by trampling upon man's -- that nothing can be claimed for her but what is stolen from him. The truth is, that woman desires merely to be left free to act according to the demands of her nature, as man is; and she desires this, not for her sake, merely, but for his. She desires it for no individual and selfish gratification, but because well convinced that the great work of civilization cannot, otherwise, go on; that the world will suffer, and its spirit grow blustering and 'mannish' for lack of the feminine elements. What she wants is not woman's rights, but human rights; not power for herself, but for her race. The popular idea is, that the women immediately engaged in this reform expect to reap personal advantages from it. The truth is, that a more thankless task was never undertaken than theirs. Women are shocked at those of their own sex, who speak freely of the social evils which grow out of the present condition of affairs, and husbands, brothers and lovers talk to those who love them best, as if no better motive than the love of notoriety could ever lead to such a result. No -- it is our stern duty to insist upon the privilege of an education for women yet to be born, which we can never share; to claim that control over our own earning which we are, few of us, in a condition to profit by; to bear witness to an influence which the world needs, without ever hoping for a wide opportunity to exert it. And I am well aware that, in spite of the womanly tone that I desire we should preserve in doing this, there will be moments when, for the sake of our down-trodden and suffering sisters, we must needs speak stern and bitter truth. I am especially anxious that those who feel as if bound to speak in this matter should show themselves womanly and delicate, and capable of fulfilling, as they should be fulfilled, the duties of mother, wife and sister. Let no slattern seek the public gaze, claiming for a wider sphere of duty, when it may be easily seen that she is not faithful to the narrow field lying just about her. Let no scolding wife, nor impatient mother, bring her neglected home and moaning little ones before our view, by crying out for a license that she has already taken.
It does not seem to be generally understood that a woman's duty is determined by what are popularly called her rights. Men are little aware how much woman would help them bear the burden of life, if they had not themselves prescribed for her so low an ideal. It is the low ideal of woman's nature which prevails in society, that lies at the bottom of the most serious evils in it. I do not mean at this moment, snatched from hours of suffering which unfit me for any thorough discussion of the subject, to speak at length of woman's possibilities; to assert that her intellect may climb like Lucifer, yet never fall; that her voice may quell a political storm, yet never grow harsh or noisy; for I hold such questions to be of small importance. When we have given to women all the advantages of education, and the same freedom of action which are given to men, it will be time enough to discuss what they may naturally become. We cannot contravene the laws of God. Let us leave woman free; and if, in her first efforts to go alone, she trip like the nursling just out of her arms, there is no fear that she will perserveringly attempt a work for which she is too weak, or desire a field of action unsuited to her natural powers. Those who are contented with the present condition of the sex, need not dread any thing that may come after. Many women who have no desire for political influence, might be driven to exert it, if they found they could defeat a Fugitive Slave Bill, but no harm can come of investing them with open and sacred responsibility in regard to matters over which they now have a secret and dangerous power.
First of all, I am desirous that the women of this country should claim fitting provision for their own education. It is a stale truth now, that the safety of a republic depends upon the intelligence of its citizens; for the time is coming when the means of education, being wholly inefficient, the welfare of this republic, and the character of its citizens, will depend chiefly upon its mothers. Few persons know how difficult it is for a woman to procure an education. What is barely possible to wealth, is wholly impossible to poverty. Even men who teach mathematics and the languages to both sexes, teach them superficially to women, and take no pains to lay a solid foundation for such superstructures as they may afterward wish to rear. I speak from experience, for no money was spent on my own education, and I am, to this hour, daily mortified by its insufficiency, and the bad modes of investigation into which I was allowed to fall. If the poorer class of females in a community could receive a good education, they would be able to earn a living more successfully than they are now, and many of them would be spared lives of ignominy and sin. Now that the laws of Massachusetts have been somewhat altered with regard to property, I think that the subject next in importance is that of the rates of remuneration paid to women. It seems to me that the men and women in this country should imperatively demand, that when women do the same work as men, and are even acknowledged to do it better, they should be paid at the same rate. Why I feel particularly interested in this matter, will partly appear from the following remarks.
In every large city, there is a class of women, whose existence is a terror and reproach to the land in which they are born; whose name no modest woman is supposed to know; whose very breath is thought to poison the air of the sanctuary. I pass over the fact, so generally ignored, that there is a class of men corresponding to these women, and far viler in the sight of God, I doubt not. I avoid dwelling on the social death which is the lot of these miserable creatures, and which is often the reward of their first efforts for a better life. I know that many whom I love will blame me bitterly for speaking on this subject at all, but that blame I must bear as God permits, for I feel bound to draw your attention to a few facts. Whatever elevates woman will diminish this class; but proper remuneration for her labor would draw many from it at once, almost all, in fact, who had not reached the lowest deep. Most women, -- if they dare to think about them at all, -- suppose that these miserable creatures are always the victims of their own bad natures, or want of principle; that they find their life a life of pleasure, and that they would not forsake it if they could, unless under the influence of religious conviction. If such thinkers would study their own unpolluted natures more closely, they would understand the position of the despised class far better than they do; and the more intelligent and religious they themselves become, the more distinctly will they perceive, that to undertake the regeneration of such, is imperatively the duty of the women rather than the men of the community.
The facts of the matter, for which I refer you to Duchatelet in Paris, and James Talbot and Dr. Ryan in London, are these: -- Nine-tenths of the women of this class in any community will be found to consist of two sub-divisions. First, those who are born to this life as naturally and inevitably as the robin is born to cleave the air. Of such are foundlings, orphans, and the children of the extremely poor, whose habits of lodging are fatal to modesty, in most instances. Second, those who began life honestly, but were compelled to sell themselves for bread. Of such are young exposed persons afraid to die, widows with large families dependent upon them, and single women burdened with the care of the infirm or aged. Many of this class have been known to leave this wretched life for months together, when it became possible for them to earn what is called an honest livelihood. Again, instead of leading a life of pleasure, such women suffer intensely, and twelve out of every fifteen examined testify, that they could not sustain its physical horrors without their daily dram. It is stated on good authority, that the strongest constitutions sink under this life in less than three years, and the cases are numerous in which, after a much shorter period,the victim commits suicide.
I have stated these facts to show that no woman will remain in this life who can quit it, that there is hope for those who will hold out hope to them, and to show that inadequate remuneration for honest labor is one great reason why their number is so large. In making this statement, I depend not merely on the statistics published at Paris and London, but on my own observation in New England. Many persons imagine that the horrors detailed of foreign cities find no parallel here. This is not true. The public sense of decorum in Boston drives vice into close corners, but terrible indeed would be the revelation that a Duchatelet of our own must make. Passing the other evening through a street at the North end of the city, I saw three children, under ten years of age, cuddled close together for warmth, and sound asleep on the brick pavement, at the base of building erected to store flour. Returning, at a late hour, I found, not far from them, three of the most wretched of the women alluded to. They were scantily clothed and starving. Their breaths bore witness that, even in this extremity, they had preferred their daily dram to their daily bread; yet such was their eagerness for food and rest, that they almost clutched the garments of passers by. These children slept and these women walked within the compass of the Swedish singer's voice [Jenny Lind], and many times that night, as the latter trod their dreary round, her clear notes swelled full upon their ears, the waves of her spiritual song floated round their dishonored heads, like dreams of their far-gone childhood, and the wonderful echo of the Herdsman's Song thrilled through the soul of more than one, I doubt not, like the cattle-call of her early companions, or the twittering of the swallows under the eaves of her home. These women had no roof to call their own, and the children who slept under God's unwinking eye on that cold stone, inherit their homelessness and their sin. Such women are redeemable, and better wages or a better education would save thousands from their fate. Need I say any more to induce women to strain every nerve to secure these two ends, at least?
It has been no small satisfaction to see that the presses which had least sympathy with the late movement, have reported respectfully the proceedings of the Convention. It has pained me not a little to find that a paper like the Christian Inquirer should take a different tone in this matter, and refuse to believe that any lofty motive could have brought the pioneers in this work together. The Inquirer says that woman has 'long possessed' an equality with man. I commend that sentence to the serious consideration of the editor whose superscription it bears. It seems to me that he never could have written it, if he had seen as much of human misery as I have, if he had known what are the rights and duties of the women of the lower classes. I can understand how a woman, delicately reared and carefully protected from the rough blasts of this world, may feel, in her selfish life, but little sympathy with me in this matter; but how a minister of the gospel, or any Christian man, conversant with the bitter realities of New York and Boston, can speak harshly of any honest effort for a change, I know not. Least of all do I understand how one, who has heard the voice of Lucretia Mott or Elizabeth Fry,2 can believe that every woman who speaks in public weakens the position and influences of her sex. Why can he not understand the injustice of one sex prescribing the sphere and duties of the other? What would be thought of the woman, I wonder, who should so prescribe for man? Nay, God made Elizabeth Barrett to write poetry; Jenny Lind He marvelously gifted to sing it; but Lucretia Mott He just as much gifted to urge on an erring race the doctrines of personal holiness, the duty of personal philanthropy.
Forgive me if I intrude upon your time, and continue to help all who are interested in this matter to be at once true to themselves and generous to others; acting calmly and quietly, yet nevertheless energetically, according to their highest convictions.
CAROLINE W.H. DALL
Boston, Nov. 2, 1850.