[Editor's Note: The following attempted to answer Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Woman and Her Wishes (1853). The fact that such a task seemed necessary and/or desirable is evidence of how the argument over the rights and "proper sphere" of women had moved into the center of American cultural discourse. The essay is notable in several other respects. One is for its remarkably full description of the ideal or "true woman." A second is its abandonment of Harper's previous opposition to property rights for women. As Paulina Wright Davis remarked in the Una, a monthly devoted to "elevating the cause of woman," for Harper's even to admit that women had wrongs was progress of a sort.]
P. 78: No one denies the fact that women have wrongs; we wrangle only over the alphabet of amelioration. Some advocate her being unsexed as the best means of doing her justice; others propose her intellectual annihilation, and the further suppression of her individuality, on the homeopathic principle of giving as a cure the cause of the illness.
How few open the golden gates which lead to the middle Sacred Way, . . . the middle path of a noble, unpretending, redeeming, domestic, usefulness: stretching out from Home, like the rays of a beautiful star, all over the world! . . . .
A word with ye, O Public Functionists--ye damagers of a good cause by loading it with ridicule--ye assassins of truth by burying it beneath exaggeration! A woman such as ye would make her--teaching, preaching, voting, judging, commanding a man-of-war, and charging at the head of a battalion--would be simply an amorphorous monster, not worth the little finger of the wife we would all secure if we could, the tacens and placens uxor, the gentle helpmeet of our burdens, the soother of our sorrows, and the enhancer of our joys! Imagine a follower of a certain Miss Betsy Millar, who for twelve years commanded the Scotch brig, Cloetus--imagine such an one at the head of one's table, with horny hands covered with fiery red scars and blackened with tar, her voice hoarse and cracked, her language seasoned with nautical allusions and quarter-deck imagery, and her gait and stop the rollicking roll of a bluff Jack-tar. She might be very estimable as a human being, honorable, brave, and generous, but she would not be a woman: she would not fulfill one condition of womanhood, and therefore she would be unfit and imperfect, unsuited to her place and unequal to her functions. What man (moderately sane) would prefer a woman who had been a sea captain ten or twelve years, to the most ordinary of piano-playing and flower-painting young ladies? Mindless as the one might be, the rough practicality of the other would be worse; and helpless as fashionable education makes young ladies, Heaven defend us from the virile energy of a race of Betsy Millars! . . .We wish Mr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the heroic champion of Betsy Millar, no worse fate than to marry one of his favorite sea captainesses.
In the Utopia that is to come, women are to be voters, barristers, members of congress, and judges. They are to rush to the polling-booth, and mount the hustlings, defiant of brickbats and careless of eggs and cabbages. They are to mingle with the passions and violences of men by way of asserting their equality, and to take part in their vices by way of gaining their rights. . . .Of doctresses we will say nothing. The care and cure of the sick belong to women, as do all things gentle and loving. And though we can scarce reconcile it with our present notions of the fitness of things, that a gentlewoman of refinement and delicacy should frequent dissecting-rooms among the crowd of young students, and cut up dead bodies and living ones as her mother cut out baby clothes, yet the care of the sick is so holy a duty, that if these terrible means are necessary, they are sanctified by the end, and God prosper those who undertake them! But they are not necessary. Women are better as medical assistants than as independent practitioners; their services are more valuable when obeying than when originating orders; and as nurses they do more good than as doctors. Besides, it would be rather an inconvenient profession at times. A handsome woman, under forty--or over it--would be a dangerous doctor for most men. . . . And we may imagine various circumstances in which a young doctress would be somewhat embarrassing, if not embarassed. . . . And if women are to [P. 77] be our doctors, will they be only old women, and ugly ones--will there never be bright eyes or dimpled cheeks among them? It might be very delightful to be cured by a beautiful young woman, instead of a crabbed old man, yet for prudence sake we would recommend most wives and mothers send for the crabbed old man when their sons and husbands are ill, and to be particularly cautious of feminine M.D.'s in general.
One or two points of human nature the Public Functionists and emancipated women either sink or pervert. The instincts above all. The instinct of protection in man and the instinct of dependence in woman they decline to know any thing about; they see nothing sacred in the fact of maternity, no fulfillment of natural destiny in marriage, and they find no sanctifying power in self-sacrifice. . . .Homes deserted, children--the most solemn responsibility of all--given to a stranger's hand, modesty, unselfishness, patience, obedience, endurance, all that has made angels of humanity must be trampled under foot, while the Emancipated Woman walks proudly forward to the goal of the glittering honors of public life, her true honors lying crushed beneath her, unnoticed. This these noisy gentry think will elevate woman.
Women have grave legal and social wrongs, but will this absurd advocacy of exaggeration remedy them? The laws with deny the individuality of a wife, under the shallow pretense of a legal lie; which award different punishments for the same vice [adultery]; the laws which class women with infants and idiots, and which recognize principles they neither extend nor act on; these are the real and substantial Wrongs of Women, which will not, however, be amended by making them commanders in the navy or judges on the bench.
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But the true Woman, for whose ambition a husband's love and her children's adoration are sufficient, who applies her military instincts to the discipline of her household, and whose legislative faculties exercise themselves in making laws for her nursery; whose intellect has field enough in communion with her husband, and whose heart asks no other honors than his love and admiration; a woman who does not think it a weakness to attend to her toilette, and who does not distain to be beautiful; who believes in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns, and who eschews rents [tears] and raveled edges, slipshod shoes, and audacious make-ups; a woman who speaks low and who does not speak much; who is patient and gentle and intellectual and industrious; who loves more than she reasons, and yet does not love blindly; who never scolds, and rarely argues, but who rebukes with a caress, and adjusts with a smile: a woman who is the wife we all have dreamt of once in our lives, and who is the mother we still worship in the backward distance of the past: such a woman as this does more for human nature, and more for woman's cause, than all the sea-captains, judges, barristers, and members of parliament put together--God-given and God-blessed as she is!